Farewell Joseon Exorcist, we hardly knew thee
I thought 2021 would be the Year of the Sageuk, but the year is not shaping up the way I thought it would. In what may be a new record, the recently premiered Joseon Exorcist has officially been cancelled after airing just two episodes.
From the first episode, viewer reactions in Korea were negative regarding two issues: the depictions of important historical figures, and the use of Chinese-style props, costuming, and food in several scenes. In reaction to the domestic backlash, every single one of the show’s sponsors and advertisers pulled their funding (a total of roughly twenty companies). SBS had released an official apology yesterday and promised to edit out problematic scenes in future episodes but that wasn’t enough to bring back any funding. PD Shin Kyung-soo was said to have notified the cast members individually about the cancellation a few hours before the news was officially announced.
At first this might seem like a tempest in a teapot, as this is a fictionalized drama we’re talking about, with a script and actors playing a role. It’s not necessarily that Korean viewers are unaccepting of fictional portrayals of former kings and queens (after all, countless movies and dramas from way back have been huge hits). Though there’s always some viewer criticism around portrayals are seen as inaccurate or derogatory (Mr. Queen is one example), Joseon Exorcist’s decision to use foundational figures of Korean history as antagonists was always going to be a tough sell.
Showing King Taejong as someone who’s bewitched by evil spirits and slaughters civilians by the swordful didn’t go over well. Showing Sejong the Great, the king behind hangul and Confucianism becoming the country’s social norm, as someone who is enthralled by a Western priest went down even more poorly. (Trivia time: the Western priest was played by Darcey Pacquet who translated the English subtitles for Parasite.)
The zombie sageuk Kingdom went a different direction and opted to create characters that were not based on real people. They also stayed very vague about which century the story was set in, and it worked beautifully, with no upset about any favorite historical kings being evil. And if you go the fictional route, you don’t have to worry about descendants of said kings releasing a negative statement about your show. Exhibit A: The head of the Jeonju Yi clan, whose members are descended from the kings depicted in the drama, released a statement demanding Joseon Exorcist be taken off air.
Another major complication is the rising tension between Korea and China, which has led to heightened sensitivities around Chinese influences. It’s part of the reason why viewers in Korea sometimes chafe at the presence of Chinese PPL in dramas (as seen in True Beauty and Vincenzo).
The ongoing Kimchi Wars certainly don’t help. There’s a distinct and growing wariness against potential cultural appropriation or hegemony, hence the strong reaction to Chinese-style props and costuming in a sageuk.
All of this is much bigger than any one drama, and the current situation makes it unfeasible for Joseon Exorcist to secure any new sponsors. Sadly for us, that means we won’t see the story unfold or any scenes of Jang Dong-yoon and Park Sung-hoon together as brothers (fingers crossed they reunite in the future). I’m about to bust out some talismans for the other 2021 sageuks—no more bad news, please!
Tags: Joseon Exorcist