A prince from the 18th century and his three bodyguards fall onto a roof in 2012—nope, I need to go back further.
A princess is found dead in a lake.
So begins Rooftop Prince, a Korean drama that combines elements of time-travel, murder mystery, and romantic comedy into a single series. Though it came highly recommended, I still wasn’t sure what to think when I started watching the first episode.
Seventeen of twenty episodes in, and I may have a problem.
The titular prince Lee Gak, played by Park Yoochun, is a lot like Derek from The Swan Princess: smart and brave, but a little oblivious and focused on physical beauty. As a child, his preference for “a beautiful princess” starts a kingdom-wide search for the prettiest little girl to become his future wife.
Tiny Hong Bu-yong, the younger sister, is chosen by her father for the honour of applying to be the crown princess, to the resentment of her older sister Hwa-yong. But Bu-yong is badly burned the night before her presentation and, now deemed unacceptable for marriage, has to watch as her sister takes her place. It’s more than frustrating to watch Hwa-yong settle into the role of crown princess, taking credit for Bu-yong’s embroidered handkerchiefs and fooling the prince so easily.
When the princess is found floating in the lake, however, that’s when the series really starts picking up. Lee Gak is genuinely broken by the death of his wife, and in the pursuit of a lead regarding her murderer, he and his bodyguards fall off a cliff and end up in 2012 Seoul. They find themselves in a rooftop apartment belonging to Hong Park-ha, the modern version of Bu-yong, and oh, do hinjinks ever ensue.
The most charming thing about Rooftop Prince is how much it believes in the story it’s telling. Murder and court intrigue are placed side-by-side with a present-day romance, and you can’t help but go along with the characters as they muddle through. The three guards play up the comic relief with aplomb, their facial expressions heightening the humour just enough to balance the melodrama. Their hunt for the princess’s killer is hamstrung by their immediate need to figure out the new world they’ve landed in, leading to some of the most entertaining scenes I’ve watched in a Korean drama.
Ha Ji-Min is perfectly cast as Bu-yong/Park-ha, and she inhabits the role with ease. Yoochun’s performance is layered quite interestingly, as he plays not only the crown prince, but his own modern incarnation, Yong Tae Yong, the subject of another murder investigation. It takes skill to create unique mannerisms for such similar characters, and he pulls it off well. Perhaps more gratifyingly, “evil” sister Hong Se-na as played by Jeong Yu-mi is not just an evil sister, but a girl who doesn’t realize just how far in she’s gotten over her head.
I won’t deny that the usual Asian drama tropes are present sometimes coming in packs in a single episode. I would also question the need to stretch the story to 20 episodes when some of the plot points could be solved in 16 or less. But the actors breathe fresh air into what could have been the same old romantic scenes and confrontations, and it’s just so easy to watch them and let yourself be drawn into their stories.