King’s Face: Episode 1
What a solid and stylish premiere for King’s Face, KBS’s latest addition to the sparse Wednesday-Thursday lineup. With solid directing and an intriguing setup based on the idea that you can judge a book by its cover, there’s no shortage of conflict to mine here and plenty of promise for the future. After all, what matters most isn’t what’s on the inside, but what’s on the outside, right? (“Waitaminute,” said mothers everywhere.)
Future recaps are still up in the air, but as far as numbers went, King’s Face pulled in last with a premiere of 7.1%. Mr. Back has been in first place since its premiere but dropped to 11.2%, while Pinocchio took second place with 9.4%, threatening to give Back a run for its money.
SONG OF THE DAY
Taeyang – “Eyes, Nose, Lips” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We open on a chaotic scene as ministers of Joseon gather in protest outside the quarters of KING SEONJO (Lee Sung-jae), asking him to rescind his order to have the crown prince dethroned.
While the crown princess’ son is torn from her arms and attendants of the court are cut down in cold blood, PRINCE GWANGHAE (Seo In-gook) stands in front all the portraits of the kings who came before.
He focuses specifically on King Sejong’s portrait as he takes note of how his features were harmonious, signifying the peaceful era that would come about during his rule. “His is truly the face of a king,” Gwanghae thinks.
It’s 1608, the forty-first—and final—year of King Seonjo’s reign. Gwanghae is wanted for treason, and though the ministers outside question the king’s command, Seonjo coldly quells the protest by killing one of the more outspoken ministers.
Moments before royal guards would come to surround him with their swords drawn, Gwanghae looks up at the wall of kings and asks, “Do I truly have the face of someone not meant to be king?”
Gwanghae’s voice narrates a shot of a book hidden beneath the statue of a dragon. In it is written, “If a ruler without the ideal facial features becomes king, the people will starve. The royal servants will listen only to their own voices. The whole country will fall into chaos and face a great calamity. The one with the face of a king must become the king of Joseon.”
Rewind to the year 1589, the twenty-second year of King Seonjo’s reign. He wakes from a nightmare/memory of his childhood, where the court’s face reader had foretold that he would bring disaster to the nation if he were to become king, citing his unsuitable features and the Yongahn Biseo, the secret book of physiognomy that’s been handed down since Joseon was founded.
But when the ailing king suddenly died—leaving Seonjo was next in line for the throne—the face reader wielded a sword on the then-prince Seonjo, prepared to kill him for the good of the country.
In the present, King Seonjo is taken to a village suffering from an outbreak of the plague. Those who aren’t burning in mass graves are vomiting blood, but Seonjo surprises his attendants when he takes the hand of a man who collapses at his feet.
“Do not worry,” Seonjo tells the sick man. “I will save you. I will not leave my people in despair.” One of the villagers calls him out for lying—how is he supposed to save them when he can’t even feed them?
Their starvation comes as news to Seonjo, who sets to rectify it by opening the palace’s food storage to the people. Okay, there’s got to be a gimmick here.
And there is, since we see Seonjo’s true face once he’s not having to put on a show in front of his citizens. He asks that those villagers who stood up to him be taught a lesson. In secret.
He made the face reader who tried to kill him pay for his crime all those years ago as well, since we see Seonjo Lite presiding over the would-be assassin’s torture.
Even with his eyes gouged out, the face reader had prophesied that Seonjo’s pointed chin would stab the hearts and minds of the people. Even then, his words were less of a condemnation and more of a warning, which Seonjo still remembers vividly.
We meet a younger and less burdened Prince Gwanghae as he punks his eunuch IM YOUNG-SHIN during his acupuncture session, being performed not by a doctor, but by one of the court face readers.
Gwanghae has full faith in his abilities even if Eunuch Im doesn’t, since a face reader would know the pressure points of the face better than a plain ole doctor. Nice to see someone with a sense of humor up in here.
The face reader named GO SAN performing the acupuncture is called to meet with Seonjo, who claims he only hired Reader Go due to his claim that a woman existed capable of changing the dark fate Seonjo’s face is doomed to bring about.
Seonjo gives Reader Go one month to find that woman so he can make her his consort, or else. It’s on his orders that Gwanghae has been getting his face poked and prodded every day, because Seonjo is convinced that the only way he can coexist with his son, whom he sees as competition.
That night, Gwanghae sneaks into the royal library to read a book on physiognomy, all while checking what the text says against the features he sees in the mirror.
Everything about his face points to good fortune, which only makes him more upset—he knows that his father is trying to use acupuncture to change his face. He just doesn’t know why.
After killing the royal guards posted outside the library, their assassins use their uniforms as a disguise to enter. When Gwanghae confronts the two intruders, they draw their swords against him.
Gwanghae drops to his knees to plead for his life, and uses the moment the assassins are temporarily caught off guard to engage them in a fight. He’s no stranger to martial arts, that’s for sure, and uses his skills as well as his environment to fend off his attackers.
Whether he’s employing books as blade blockers or his own fists, Gwanghae darts and dives between the two, knowing when to strike and when to dodge in a pretty nifty action sequence.
But he gets no answers from the assassins even after downing one with a solid kick, since they turn tail and run.
Gwanghae pursues them through the palace, overtaking one with a flying leap that sends them both rolling to the ground. He doesn’t blink twice when the assassin pulls a Joseon switchblade on him, and subdues him by twisting his arm.
Only then does he see a tattoo of five dots on the man’s arm, right before the royal army arrives. The assassin uses the distraction to gain the upper hand, and swings behind Gwanghae so he can hold a knife to his throat and use him as a human shield against all the soldiers with arrows at the ready.
King Seonjo arrives, and orders the soldiers to shoot regardless of the fact that his son could get hurt. The soldiers still can’t, so Seonjo takes a bow and arrow and aims it right at Gwanghae, who looks heartbroken and scared.
Then Seonjo lets the arrow fly… right past Gwanghae’s head and into the assassin’s hand, just moments before he could plunge his blade into the prince’s neck.
Gwanghae manages to stand and have an oddly small-talk conversation with his stern father afterward, only to collapse again the second Seonjo turns his back.
After he recovers, he finds his father heading the torture of the captured assassin. The assassin finally confesses that he broke into the library to steal the Yongahn Biseo in order to prove that Seonjo’s face is not that of a king.
He claims to have been sent by the future king of Joseon, the one who’ll save their country from the plague and starvation caused by a king who should never have taken the throne.
Seonjo doesn’t like the sound of that, so he uses his guard’s sword to cut the man down. From his unseen vantage point, Gwanghae is able to witness this as well as the murder of every guard present for the torture. All done under his father’s order.
Just when it seems like Gwanghae escaped unnoticed, he comes face to face with his father. They retire to the royal steam room (I know!) to have a chat about what Gwanghae did or didn’t see—Seonjo seems to know his son was in the room and that he’s lying, but Gwanghae sticks to his story regardless.
Seonjo brings up Gwanghae’s departed mother, who may have been only a concubine, but one he claims to have truly favored. He knows his son is just saying things he wants to hear as he thinks to himself that the only way Gwanghae can go on to find his destiny is if he lives as unassumingly as a stone.
If only he could read Gwanghae’s unthreatening, non-confrontational thoughts: “Father, please do not worry. I will live only as your vassal.”
Gwanghae wants to catch the remaining thief because the one who died mentioned that they were looking for the Yongahn Biseo, the secret book he was searching the library for as well.
In the hopes that he’ll have the answers Gwanghae seeks, he copies the tattoo pattern he saw on the man’s arm so that he and Eunuch Im (both in disguise) can ask around to see if anyone recognizes it.
It’s on that hunt that Gwanghae becomes distracted and momentarily entranced by a beautiful young scholar. He can’t take his eyes away, probably because it’s KIM GA-HEE (Jo Yoon-hee) disguised as a man.
Gwanghae draws a huge crowd in the square by setting himself up to be a renowned face reader, getting them hook, line, and sinker when he uses Eunuch Im as a plant to convince them of his authenticity.
Soon everyone is scrambling for a reading, but Gwanghae doesn’t want their money. He brandishes the copied tattoo and claims that he’ll only give a reading to whoever knows what it means. (Bystander: “Five dots!”)
Ga-hee, who’s been watching the entire exchange with interest, finally speaks up to say she knows the answer. But she won’t give it away for free—she’ll tell him after he gives her a reading.
Gwanghae finds himself unsettled when she comes near, but reads her features all the same. The only problem is that he sucks at face reading, so in an effort to point out something accurate, he resorts to pointing out totally obvious details anyone could see.
She presses him to tell her about her nose or lips, but looking there has Gwanghae all aflutter. Luckily (or unluckily), he doesn’t have the time to prove he’s a hack when the assembly is broken up by a band of club-wielding men.
Gwanghae does the smart thing and runs for it, leading his pursuers on a merry chase through the bustling streets of the capital. He narrowly avoids being caught when Ga-hee yanks him into a storehouse.
She tells him that he was targeted by the gang that runs the marketplace because he didn’t pay them to set up shop there, which makes sense, even if Gwanghae thought he could skirt their notice because he wasn’t charging for his services.
Ga-hee scoffs. “So you pretended to be a face reader and used the constellation as bait?” Gwanghae fires back that she shouldn’t have humiliated him in front of everyone if she knew—… wait, what did she say about a constellation?
She huffs that at least she (well, technically he right now) wasn’t lying when she said she knew the mark. It’s the King’s Constellation, she claims. The four outward dots represent the four guardians who protect the king in the center.
Gwanghae is so happy he grabs her hand, causing Ga-hee to uncomfortably wriggle herself away from his grasp and his quick-fire questions about what else she knows.
Now that his deadline has been shortened to a month, Reader Go uses a gibang to find young, virginal women for him to read—which I realize sounds sinister, but the inspections simply involve him inspecting each girl’s face.
He’ll know who’s meant to be the king’s consort when he sees her, but after a year of searching, he hasn’t been able to find a girl “like the moon shining through the clouds on a dark night.” That’s when a figure in the crowd catches his rapt attention—it’s Ga-hee.
He scrambles to follow her, but stops in confusion when he realizes that he just saw the face he’s been searching for all this time… on a boy.
At the next court assembly, Ministers LEE SAN-HAE (Ahn Suk-hwan) and YOO SEUNG manage to rub Seonjo the wrong way when their only concern about last night’s library break-in is the possibility that Gwanghae could’ve gotten hurt.
Seonjo doesn’t like that they’re so concerned for his son, which he interprets to be their preference for Gwanghae as a royal replacement. If they like him so much, they can just
marry make Gwanghae the crown prince, and Seonjo will step down so they can have the king they really want.
Instead, all the ministers grovel until Seonjo’s anger is soothed. But what he orders next causes a few uncomfortable glances: He wants to hold a ritual to pray for rain to ease the droughts causing starvation amongst his people, and needs young sons from every minister for the production.
Word of the king’s “offer” to give the throne to the crown prince makes its rounds through the palace, particularly to LADY KIM (Kim Gyu-ri), the highest-ranking consort of the king’s, second only to the queen.
She finds the story amusing when Minister Lee tells it to her, and knows instantly that the king said what he did only to test their loyalty. He didn’t think about stepping down even for a moment.
QUEEN UIIN (Im Ji-eun) believes the same, though she has a harder time convincing Gwanghae’s elder brother PRINCE IMHAE of that fact. All he heard was that the king wants to pass on the throne to whoever’s installed as crown prince, and feels that it’s his birthright to have that position.
The way he’s acting is exactly the way Lady Kim predicted he’d act, knowing Prince Imhae’s penchant for being impatient and dim. She lets Minister Lee wonder aloud about why thieves would’ve broken into the library of all places, before adding that she finds it curious that Gwanghae just so happened to be in the library at the same time.
Meanwhile, Ga-hee is in for an unwelcome surprise when Gwanghae and Eunuch Im show up at the soup kitchen where she volunteers(?). He thinks she has an astronomical chart for her to have known about the King’s Constellation, even though she’s told him before that she doesn’t have one.
Their zippy interlude is interrupted when the patrons back away from a man convulsing on the ground, fearful that it’s the plague. Gwanghae is the only one unafraid to help the man, convinced that it can’t be the plague because the symptoms don’t match.
He makes sure the man sees a doctor, and is proven right when Ga-hee reports that his body went into shock when he ate after an extended period of starvation.
Which means Gwanghae helped save the man’s life, as much as she’s reluctant to admit it. Gwanghae all but preens before he asks her for a reward—how about that astronomical chart?
Turns out that Ga-hee had the chart on her the whole time, though she only lets him see it after he tells her that he saw the constellation tattoo on the arm of a thief who broke into his house.
She’s evasive and uncomfortable when he asks her about who drew such a detailed map of the stars, and only says yes to him borrowing it in order to get him out of her yard when she’s warned that her father’s coming.
Unfortunately for her, her father catches her trying to sneak Gwanghae out. Though they only see each other briefly, they recognize each other for being the prince and a minister of the court, respectively.
It comes as a surprise when her father takes her to task not because she’s dressed as a man, but because she was acting too much like a woman around Gwanghae.
Any femininity on her part is strictly forbidden because of her “destiny,” but Ga-hee corrects her father from thinking that she’s disguising herself because she’s afraid of whatever dark fate lies in store for her—she’s doing it out of guilt for her late brother, who died because of her.
“So please don’t worry,” she tells her father resolutely. “The time will come when I will completely forget I am a woman and live as a man down to my very bones.” This appeases her father, but doesn’t mean she can lower her guard when she has to go to the palace for the king’s rain ritual.
Her father then reveals that the man she was playing shovin’ buddies with is none other than Prince Gwanghae, and warns her not to let him recognize her. And, above all, to not get exposed as a woman.
The stern warning not to be recognized gains a little more context when Ga-hee sighs over a jade pendant she’s kept with her. “It’s a relief that the prince completely forgot about me. But, I… cannot forget him. Even though I’m living as a man…”
Cue a flashback to Ga-hee as a grief-stricken young girl reeling in the wake of her brother’s death—a death she felt directly responsible for since he caught the plague from her while tending to her sickbed.
She’d gone to the temple to beg the Buddha to let her meet with her departed brother just so she could tell him something she didn’t in life, crying that she’s not at all grateful to be the one who lived.
Unbeknownst to her, Gwanghae was in the same temple, and was so moved by her heartfelt pleas that he hid behind the statue and pretended to speak to her as the Buddha. “Your brother says for you not to cry,” he said. “Since he can hear all the things you say, now you may tell him what you wish to say.”
Poor Ga-hee wanted so badly to believe it was the Buddha speaking to her that she relayed her message: “Tell my brother that I’m sorry. That I won’t forget him… that I am truly thankful.” Aw.
Gwanghae, still using his official voice, answered, “Your brother wants me to tell you that he is thankful you are alive.” Awwwww.
Afterward, Gwanghae met her face-to-face to give her the jade pendant. “When I am not beside you, this star will protect you,” he says, referencing the simple etching in the stone. “I will make sure to come back and meet you again. So, make sure to wait for me.”
Ga-hee holds the pendant in the present and sighs that Gwanghae is still the same as he was all those years ago, because he’s still a liar. Then she thinks back to when a temple monk warned her of her fate if she were to continue living as a woman, which is why she now has to live as a man.
Cue an almost uncomfortably long bath-and-breast-binding scene in preparation for the rain ritual, where Ga-hee is lucky to be one of many identically-dressed boys enacting the elaborate ceremony.
They’re soon joined by King Seonjo and the princes, all decked out in their finest ceremonial robes, there to lead the formal prayers. To complete the ritual, all the boys have to empty their pitchers of water into a giant ceramic bowl, which inevitably takes place right in front of the princes.
Ga-hee grows flustered when Gwanghae recognizes her from the market and sends her an enormous grin—but in her effort to just hurry up and empty her pitcher to escape his gaze, Ga-hee bumps into another boy, who bumps into the bowl…
…Which goes crashing to the ground. Ohhhh noooo. There is literally nothing worse she could have done at this ceremony aside from setting the king’s robes on fire.
All eyes inevitably fall on her, including Reader Go’s. Hers is the face he saw on the street, the one that’s oh-so-perfectly detailed in every way King Seonjo’s is lacking. Hers is the face that will change Seonjo’s unfortunate features into those of a king.
Solid stuff. I wasn’t quite sure what we’d get out of a production that had an injunction filed against it before it even aired, but the end result was actually pretty good. Though I admit the whole plagiarism debacle concerning KBS and The Face Reader movie still baffles me, because it’s either pure, coincidental happenstance that King’s Face bears resemblance to that movie, OR that the people behind the show are frauds and could not be bothered to give a shit even if they had free shits to give.
The second scenario is what I’d guess to be the more likely one, though that doesn’t quite gel with the overall polish of this episode, which clearly took a lot of time, money, and effort from everyone involved. Whether or not this specific story is authentic to the storyteller or vaguely inspired by a recent blockbuster hit is up for grabs (it really isn’t), and regardless of what it is, I’m impressed by the tenacity of this production to make sure that this story—the one we’ve just seen an hour of—gets told.
So, that’s where I’ll leave the behind the scenes drama unless it comes up later to haunt the actual drama. And since I haven’t even seen the movie that did or didn’t inspire this show, I was able to view this first outing on its own merits as an introduction to the core world and characters it’s asking us to invest in (or not, no pressure) for another twenty-three hours. When it comes to sageuks of this length too, it’s usually fair to give them the first four episodes just to set the table, which all goes to say that this hour did exactly what it needed to do and then some.
But the directing is so far where the show really excels, which I’m happy to see from the director of two completely different shows I had completely different opinions on—Bridal Mask and You’re The Best, Lee Soon-shin—because he clearly did not lose his knack for shooting intense movement. That seems like a superfluous thing to focus on in an episode with so much to offer, but you’ll either already know this or will have to trust me when I say that it is NOT easy to find good action scenes in sageuk. I probably wouldn’t have even mentioned them had they been just baseline competent, but they were awesome. So awesome, in fact, that I’m going to hold off on wondering whether Gwanghae’s freakishly good skill in martial arts is something that’ll be incorporated properly into his character or whether it’ll just be something he does sometimes because he can.
The face reading mythology—while seemingly being an idea on which the whole show is predicated upon—I can honestly take or leave at this point. Maybe it’s just fatigue from trying to figure out why everyone in a universe where face reading is a thing can’t think of literally anything else to talk about. Which I know is also very important and as impossible to remove from the scope of the show as the metaphor in The Moon That Embraces The Sun. It’s kind of one of those things that we just have to buy because it’s built into the title, and hopefully also one of those things that’ll fade into the greater fabric of the story as time goes on rather than being a gimmicky patch glued to the outside.
In that vein, I think there’s a lot of good places to go with the historical context, since I’ve always found Gwanghae somewhat of a tragic figure—an image likely cultivated from the multiple dramas and movies depicting him as such. (Okay, and maybe also history, but who needs that?) Since we already got a taste of the conflict to come in the beginning, it’s clear that the father-son drama isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, nor will it be getting any better for the two of them. At the very least I hope for some nuance when it comes to Seonjo’s somewhat despicable nature, even though we can point to him saving his son’s life as proof that there’s a father in there. Somewhere.
As for the romance, it’ll have to prove why it needed to incorporate a childhood romance into a relationship that was well on its way to developing organically, even if the flashback scene in the temple was diabetes-inducing levels of sweet. Even though childhood backstories will never find a friend in me, what Gwanghae did was not only really, really adorable, but also a good indicator of character. Then again, in a world where one is born with their face and the accompanying personality traits arbitrarily assigned to them, does Gwanghae even need to try, or can he just keep coasting by with only his dashing good looks?
- The stars of King’s Face at production press conference
- Oh snap! A king’s face
- Spotlighting the faces of King’s Face
- Seo In-gook as incognito prince in King’s Face
- King’s Face: Shin Sung-rok in, Seo Joon-young out?
- Seo Joon-young joins King’s Face as face-reading fortuneteller
- Seo In-gook and Jo Yoon-hee confirm King’s Face
- KBS full steam ahead with King’s Face, casts Jo Yoon-hee to star
- Face Reader producers file injunction against KBS for King’s Face
- Seo In-gook courted to headline King’s Face
- The Face Reader heads to the small screen for drama adaptation