“I am the King” is a Joseon Dynasty set Korean comedy which takes a light hearted look at the mysteriously undocumented period before Sejong the Great took the throne, supposing what might have happened if the future King had changed places for a while with a common slave. Taking the twin lead roles is popular actor Ju Ji Hoon (“Antique”), his first film since returning from military service, backed by a mightily impressive support cast that includes top comedians Lim Won Hee (“Dachimawa Lee”) and Kim Su Ro (“Ghost Sweepers”), actress Honey Lee (“Deranged”) and veteran stars Baek Yoon Shik (“The Taste of Money”), Park Young Gyu (“Happiness for Sale”) and Byun Hee Bong (The Host”).
The film starts with King Taejong (Park Young Gyu) deciding that his elder two sons are unsuitable for the throne, selecting Chungnyeong (Ju Ji Hoon) instead as Crown Prince. Unfortunately, Chungnyeong is somewhat of a weak-willed bookworm type, terrified by the thought of ruling, and not long before his coronation he flees the palace, where he literally bangs into a rebellious slave called slave Deok Chil (also Ju Ji Hoon), knocking him out as he jumps from the walls. Seeing that they are almost exact doubles, Chungnyeong seizes his chance and swaps their clothes, running off to live amongst the people while Deok Chil is taken back to the palace as the prince. Needless to say, things don’t go too smoothly for either of them, and while Chungnyeong learns the hard truth about the lives of his subjects, Deok Chil finds himself caught up in a plot to usurp the crown, with the threat of Japanese invasion looming increasingly large.
Clearly, we’re in “Prince and the Pauper” territory here yet again, the age of story of a rich prince swapping places with a commoner, each learning life lessons as a result – conventional stuff indeed, and a time honoured tale which has been told countless times in cinemas in every country in the world. So, the first question here is naturally whether or not “I am the King” brings anything new to the table, the answer being really not much. Certainly, the plot itself is extremely predictable and plays out exactly as expected, from Chungnyeong’s desire to break free from the burdens of prince-hood through to his eventual emergence as a wise and just ruler who is all the better for his experiences. Basically, though director Jang Gyu Seong (“Small Town Rivals”) adds a few touches here and there, such as the conspiracy subplot and a couple of vague romances, it’s not a film that anyone should approach anticipating originality.
Thankfully, the film is very well-executed, and it’s a case of familiarity not breeding contempt, with plenty to like and enjoy. Jang directs with a light touch and an amiable feel, and though the film does get into more serious territory occasionally, it’s neither melodramatic nor heavy-handed, doing a great job of balancing light entertainment with themes of morality and responsibility. The comedy is surprisingly effective, and without resorting to too much slapstick, there are some genuine laughs scattered throughout, with the deceptions, misunderstandings and fish out of water shtick of Chungnyeong and Deol Suk resulting in some amusing situations and gags.
The cast definitely help in this regard, with Ju Ji Hoon doing a decent job in the twin roles, and though his two characters aren’t terribly different from each other, both are likeable and sympathetic enough to keep the viewer caring about what happens. The film’s main strength though is its superb supporting cast, with its many veterans all impressing and adding a touch of class. It’s a great pleasure to see the likes of Baek Yoon Shik, Park Young Gyu and Byun Hee Bong playing off against each other, and Lim Won Hee and Kim Su Ro are similarly fun as loyal warriors trying to protect the prince and his double while keeping the situation a secret from the court.
All of this is enough to distract from the lack of anything new, and “I am the King” is a well-made and very watchable version of the same old story. Benefitting greatly from a top drawer cast and a nicely-judged line in humour, it’s one of the more agreeable Korean period comedies of late and a cheerful rumination on history that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Kyu-sung Jang (director) / Seong-gu Hwang (screenplay)
CAST: Ji-hun Ju … Sejong the Great / Deok-cheol
Yun-shik Baek … Hwang Hui
Hie-bong Byeon … Shin Ik
Yeong-gyu Park … King Taejo
Won-hie Lim … Hae-goo
Ha-nui Lee … Soo-yeon
Do-bin Baek … Yang-nyeong
Su-ro Kim … Hwang-goo