In a nutshell: It takes an interesting look at North-South relations by positing that South Korea still has a monarchy and then putting the king’s little brother, the crown prince, into a romantic tangle with a North Korean officer. And it takes an interesting look at Korea’s relations with the world by making the villain an international arms-dealer, just a chicken shy of total crazy, who’d really prefer the tension between the two Korea’s stay at near-boiling. So we had political-thriller meet romance meet good vs. evil and it was almost an epic win. It got a bit long though, doing some repetitive things (the army games in particular) then racing through a storyline I wished they’d spent more time on (the undercover bit). And then there were the foreign “actors”… In the end I was glad I watched it and I’d recommend it, but with the caution that there were some holes.
What was epic: I loved how matter-of-fact they were in creating a modern monarchy. It was handled with such realism I could easily see a new viewer of k-dramas having a moment where they think Korea still has a monarchy. Which meant we could forget the bells and whistles of that being a made-up thing and concentrate on the weight the king carries worrying about the constant threat his country faces.
In fact, the emotional relationships between the various characters were incredibly awesome. The king and his brother, Lee Jae-ha; Lee Jae-ha and the North Korean officer, Kim Hang-ah; her relationship with her men; Jae-ha’s with his body-guard; the body-guard with the princess… Frankly I could go on and on. Which means this was really an actor’s drama. And it’s the actors that I adored.
I came for Ha Ji-won of Secret Garden fame and expected to be mildly amused by Lee Seung-ki doing his “boyishly-arrogant becomes boyishly-charming” thing. But he kind of blew me away here. I remember reading a Kaenu Reeves interview where he spoke of the director for A Walk in the Clouds (excellent movie) saying that before he’d played boys, but for this film he would play a man. It’s easy to imagine Lee Seung-ki being told the same thing. He started as a man using boyish charm as a mask and, as the drama progressed and he needed to put that mask aside, he became the man his country needed.
Of course, I have to mention Jo Jung-suk. Again. I’d spotted him in What’s Up?, but this was the (completely and totally different) role that shot him into household-buzz status. (And probably caused a lot of people to go back and check out What’s Up?) I could write paragraphs and paragraphs about what he brought to his character and in turn what that character brought to the characters around him… but that would be long and I’m lazy. I can say it was a disappointingly shortened storyline for his character that became part of…
What was epic-fail: The plot danced so close to perfect it killed me. The villain, the heroes, the sacrifices, the chess games — it was all stuff I eat up with a spoon. But it got a little sloppy and some motifs were given unnecessary repeats (the war-games: one game would have done and then have the rest be actual, “we need to work together or doooom!” stuff) while others felt more hurried (undercover agent: there was so much psychological meat there but it felt so rushed that surprises were over before I’d fully realized they’d sprung). There was a feeling the writers were making stuff up on the fly and this drama deserved better.
And then there were the foreign “actors”. They are always, always, always bad. So bad it becomes a lesson in how much effort actual acting takes. It’s almost something I’d handwave away as impossible to fix, like special effects in ’80’s scifi, but there were so many non-actors and they effectively handcuffed the villain, otherwise epically played by Yoon Je-moon. (Which was another reason the undercover story should have been longer. It’d have given Yoon Je-moon more time with fellow actors.) I know they were trying to show just how international their international villain was, but I wish they’d found another way.
But! With all that said, this merely kept King 2 Hearts from being as epic as it could have been. In the end, it was still a good watch.