It was a chance encounter…a strange meeting that began by chance at a gap in time.
– Queen In Hyun’s Man
There is an undeniable fascination with the Joseon era in dramas, and as it was the last dynasty in Korea, it’s not surprising. Twenty-seven kings reigned during this period, with lots of court intrigue making their history ripe for creative adaptation. As much as I love a good period drama, however, it’s the inevitable remixes of these stories that hook me best.
Rooftop Prince and Queen In Hyun’s Man both premiered in 2012, right in the middle of a time travel renaissance in Korean dramaland. Several series used the trope to varying degrees of success, with the aforementioned two dramas emerging as excellent examples of reconciling a popular historical period with the present day.
It’s a murder that serves as the catalyst for romantic comedy Rooftop Prince: Crown Prince Lee Gak discovers his wife floating face-down in a lake, and in pursuit of justice, he and three companions jump off a cliff and find themselves in 2012 Seoul, on a apartment roof. I’ll admit to being confused during the first two episodes of the show, since there wasn’t a clear explanation given for how the Prince managed to jump 300 years into the future.
His only hope is sweet and stubborn Park Ha, the beleaguered resident of the rooftop on which they land. Naturally, Park Ha and Lee Gak come to proverbial blows over the situation, as the latter is adamant that he be treated like the crown prince he is, and Park Ha just wants to get these ridiculous, costumed men off her rooftop so she can get some sleep. To her dismay, she ends up chauffeuring and guiding Lee Gak and his team through the perils (to them, at least) of present-day South Korea, including corporate and family intrigue.
Where Rooftop Prince focuses on the challenges of adjusting to a different time period, Queen In Hyun’s Man favours the intricacies of time travel itself. Scholar Kim Boong Do’s loyalty to deposed Queen In Hyun leads him to defend her from assassins who serve new queen Lady Jang. A friend provides him with a talisman to keep him safe, and it does its job, allowing him to vanish before a sword can pierce his heart. He too ends up in Seoul, circa 2012, right in the middle of a drama set. The subject of the show? Queen In Hyun, as played by bubbly actress Choi Hee Jin.
Boong Do is extremely intelligent, and picks up on present-day behavior and nuances with ease. The viewer doesn’t have to worry about him being afraid of cars or not understanding the need to modify his antiquated (at least to us) language to be understood. He views everything as a puzzle for which there will always be a solution—he has only to search for and apply that solution.
As far as the romance goes, the audience can rest easy knowing that Boong Do and Hee Jin will fall in love. Whether or not the relationship will literally stand the test of time, however, is another matter entirely. It’s the talisman he carries that is the most complicated puzzle of all, and one that the series explores with perfect pacing. The couple can fall in love and be adorable and make all the promises they want, but the talisman doesn’t care. The magic imbued in it removes Boong Do from situations of “mortal peril,” and as the series goes on, it begins to behave more erratically. Its unpredictable nature keeps Boong Do from getting too comfortable in the present day, even when the audience might assume he can have a happy ending.
And it might be easy to assume happy endings for Korean dramas, despite the time period-induced separation. After all, why waste time developing relationships if they’re not going to last past a few episodes? In Rooftop Prince, Park Ha is clearly a better match for Lee Gak than the reincarnation of the crown princess, and the show emphasizes the second chance Lee Gak has been given to find love. Their relationship, and the connections between the characters and their past selves, are given the most development time, with even the mystery of the crown princess’ murder left on the sidelines in favour of budding romance. After all, whatever he does in 2012 won’t change the fact that his wife is dead, and it is the only event he would want to remove from history.
In fact, as the series goes on, Lee Gak finds that he can actually do more good in the present day than he could in his own time period. He doesn’t know when exactly he will be sent back to the past, and so, he moves forward and pursues the things he believes in with single-minded focus. The modern crown princess doesn’t know him? Court her. His own reincarnated self is murdered? Find the murderer and bring them to justice. Park Ha needs help? Do anything and everything possible to ensure her safety and happiness.
While the point of time travel for Rooftop Prince seems to be allowing reincarnation a new stage with very few repercussions, Queen Inhyun’s Man is less indulgent. It tests the limits of Boong Do’s ability to jump between time periods and the consequences of his actions in the present day. When Boong Do prevents several key events from happening, his actions are reflected in modern history books, and changes what the world knows of the Joseon era. His cleverness can’t prevent the natural alteration of history, and in fact, brings about more dire changes, ones that he couldn’t have foreseen. The title itself is a play on one of those developments: it is an affirmation of Boong Do’s loyalty to his queen, but also becomes a mocking phrase, insinuating a physical relationship between them as history shifts.
The inevitability of it all drew me more deeply into the story than anything else—on a basic level, it’s a challenge for the characters to overcome, and it connects the story to the larger stage at hand, the history of an entire country. Can Boong Do justify his choices after he knows the kind of effect they can have on the future? Is having someone to love in the present worth rearranging the lives of his people in the past? Philosophical questions, to be sure, but they are given weight when the viewer sees the losses Boong Do suffers for some of the choices he makes in 2012, and the loyalties that he chooses to value.
Both of our time traveling heroes find themselves struggling with loyalty, as wrought by the connection they feel to a woman in the present time, though their fates are quite different. And while the satisfaction of those endings can still be up for debate, I do think that they were reflections of the characters themselves.
Lee Gak is a prince, and his responsibilities are to his people. His eventual return to the Joseon era is bittersweet, as it comes during a high point in the series, right when you think that maybe that second chance might actually pan out for both him and Park Ha. He may not have had to wrestle with the full gravity of those royal responsibilities in 2012, but they never disappeared. They shaped him, and they are part of who he is. But his connection to Park Ha remains, and even time travel can’t change that, leading to a polarizing ending that still makes my heart ache months after watching it. I can’t decide how I feel about it, because I can’t settle on what really happens. It is the kind of ending that lets you take what you want from it, and remains reflective of the characters involved and their attitudes towards life and love.
Our favorite scholar, on the other hand, is not so tied down to his life in the past. But how much can the past be changed before it ruins whatever future Hee Jin knows? If Boong Do continues on the path he’s created for himself, will he still be the person Hee Jin knows (and perhaps loves)? He is not a nobleman, and history isn’t likely to be kind to him. But as the series moves towards an ending, it’s hard to say that he belongs in the past more. Without spoiling it completely, I will say that it was the right ending for Boong Do, despite being an extremely unlikely option. It felt earned, logic and science nonwithstanding, and it felt fair to both characters.
I loved both series, but much like their heroes, I think that each drama speaks to different versions of me. To the hopeful young girl, Rooftop Prince is a fantastic romance in which one can live vicariously (well, to a point at least). The woman who recognizes all the ways life and love can go wrong? Queen Inhyun’s Man has her covered. Both are strong dramas that take different paths to the same conclusion: we remain fascinated with time travel because it opens the possibility to seeing all of our possibilities, and the choices that we could have made, and the people we could have been in another time.