Mr Queen cooks up a storm

A ladies’ man chef wakes up in a Joseon queen’s body. Wait, what?


More than anything, it is perhaps this exasperated yell—often coming from the long-suffering Court Lady Choi (Cha Chung-hwa)—that is the true soundtrack to the 2020 k drama Mr Queen

I first watched Mr Queen in 2021 and have thought of it as one of my favourites since. It’s an adaptation of the Chinese web series Go Princess Go, which I haven’t seen because, honestly, it looks very low-budget and cringe. (But maybe I should give it a try?) I started watching Mr Queen again while in Scotland, as part of a (not so) lowkey project to introduce my in-laws to more Korean dramas.

It’s a loud (sometimes very loud), boisterous show that deepens into a more serious arc. We start with the handsome, arrogant ladies’ man, Jang Bong-hwan (Choi Jin-hyuk). He’s not just any celebrity chef—he’s the head chef at the Blue House, Korea’s presidential residence (until 2022, when President Yoon Suk-yeol shifted the presidential office to three Ministry of National Defence building, although of course this has zilch to do with this 2020 drama). His job requires him to not just be a whiz in the kitchen, but also have a keen sense of political messaging and how the state dinners he’s in charge of play into that. But things go wrong at the height of Bong-hwan’s glory, and he loses his job. To add insult to injury, cops are knocking on his door about a corruption investigation. Realising he’s been set up, Bong-hwan tries to evade the police via a very impulsive and silly escape plan that ends with him falling from his balcony into his condo pool and hitting his head really hard at the bottom.

When Bong-hwan wakes up, he isn’t surrounded by the sleek furnishings of his expensive flat, or even the sterile environs of a hospital. Instead, it’s all wood and embroidery and painted screens. The dude is back in the Joseon dynasty. Also, he’s in a woman’s body. Also, that woman, Kim So-young, is about to be married to King Cheoljong and become queen. (The Korean title of Mr Queen is 《철인왕후》, which directly translates to “Queen Cheorin”—the name of Cheoljong’s actual wife.)

Oh shit.

Cheoljong is a real historical figure, and Bong-hwan, conveniently, had parents who took Korean history, culture and etiquette lessons super seriously. So Bong-hwan knows that Cheoljong has been remembered as an ineffectual monarch, and that the real power lies with the noble families, particularly the Andong Kim clan that Kim So-young belongs to. Bong-hwan tries to find ways to get himself back to his modern-day body and life, but ends up getting drawn further and further into the machinations of the Joseon court… while also discovering that there is much, much more to Cheoljong than the history books say. 

Very exciting. But also very funny. It’s a ride from beginning to end. 

Kim So-young (Shin Hye-sun)—or the So-young who is really Bong-hwan, or an amalgamation of both (let’s call her Jang So-young)—is a riot. No one in the palace knows what to do with her, because someone like her has never existed before: a noble Korean woman, born and raised in a deeply patriarchal society, who suddenly has the straight-talking swagger of a twenty-first century man. She looks like she’s supposed to just smile and simper, and her family sees her as little more than a political pawn, but Jang So-young won’t take shit from anyone. She won’t act soft-spoken or demure, and has little time for stiff court protocol, which is why the prim and proper Court Lady Choi is always desperately (and futilely) calling on the 중전 마마 (jungjeon mama, or Her Royal Highness the Queen) to behave. “MAMAAAAAAAA…! 😫😫😫”

Jang So-young with Court Lady Choi and Hong Yeon.

No one is more confused and intrigued by Jang So-young than Cheoljong (Kim Jong-hyun) himself. Initially sceptical and distant from his designated queen, who he—not without basis—saw as yet another tool deployed by the Andong Kim clan to keep him in check, Cheoljong finds himself drawn in by this unpredictable, loud woman. Bong-hwan doesn’t have the same filter and guardedness that the original So-young would have been brought up with, nor has he been as sheltered in life. Jang So-young is not as naive as she used to be, and has no qualms throwing tantrums and spitting facts. More than once, her outbursts provide Cheoljong with a wake-up call before his focus on court politics leads him down the same cold-blooded path as his rivals. He comes to appreciate her odd manner and her inner strength—to the point of affectionately compiling a “Queen’s Dictionary”, full of Jang So-young’s English loan words and modern-day Korean slang—much to the frustration of his first sweetheart and royal concubine Jo Hwa-jin (Seol In-ah). 

With Jang Bong-hwan in the driver’s seat—utilising Kim So-young’s memories and skills as and when needed—Jang So-young moves through life with the cynicism of someone used to operating in the dog-eat-dog rat race of modern society. She doesn’t believe anything is going to change in this world, and that the only thing anyone can do is look out for their own interests. She nurtures relationships in the palace as if it were all a game of high-stakes office politics, sucking up to whoever seems strongest in the hopes that it will bring safety and success. 

Cheoljong, on the other hand, is an idealist who wants to bring big, systemic change to Joseon. He is repulsed by the entrenched corruption in court, where influential nobles embezzle funds and jostle for power at the expense of ordinary folk, and is willing to take big risks to create a better world. For all her declarations about ‘I’ve got mine’ pragmatism and survival, when faced with the possibility of actual change, Jang So-young finds that she isn’t really as apathetic or disinterested as she claims. Surrounding the royal couple is a varied cast of characters: Court Lady Choi and the handmaiden Hong Yeon (Chae Seo-eun) are Jang So-young’s most loyal sidekicks, while Cheoljong has his half-brother Prince Yongpyeong (Yoo Min-kyu) and best friend Hong Byeol-gam (Lee Jae-won). Opposing them are the power hungry Grand Royal Queen Dowager Kim (Bae Jong-ok), her dastardly brother Kim Jwa-geun (Kim Tae-woo) and his adopted son Kim Byeong-in (Na In-woo). The latter, in particular, is a complicated character who’s devoted to Kim So-young, but has clearly been shaped by an upbringing steeped in amoral court politics.

I have to say here that Na In-woo is very good as Kim Byeong-in. He’ll stick in your mind.

I really enjoyed how Mr Queen balances a serious and dramatic plot about corruption, court intrigue and political change with many moments of humour and levity. What I found most fun about this show, though, is the way the writers make use of Jang Bong-hwan’s language, transplanted into a Joseon context, for comedic effect. I don’t speak or understand Korean, but I first watched this drama on Viki, where dedicated fan translators added notes explaining the puns. Also, because the show often highlights Jang So-young’s wordplay by superimposing hanja on screen—recasting slang and English terms as invented four-character idioms—I could read the Chinese characters and get the gist. It made for super satisfying viewing. Unfortunately, I think a lot of this might be lost on audiences who aren’t familiar with the use of four-character idioms in Chinese and Korean, and the Netflix subtitles often fail to convey that there’s any wordplay at all. It’s a real pity, because this is what makes Mr Queen stand out for me.

Jang So-young and Cheoljong, a well-matched pair.

One aspect the drama refrains from diving into is the question of sexuality. Jang So-young and Cheoljong overcome misunderstandings and prejudices and fall in love like many other k drama couples do, with one very notable distinction: inside the female body of Kim So-young is Jang Bong-hwan, a grown man who had previously taken pride in his virility and success with the opposite sex. Jang So-young still feels the lingering emotions of Kim So-young—who’d been brought up to be queen, and as a consequence pretty much gaslit herself into loving the king even before meeting him—but the chemistry between her and Cheoljong cannot simply be explained by the vestiges of Kim So-young. It’s clear that Bong-hwan genuinely loves Cheoljong, and is sexually attracted to the king. (And the feeling is mutual.) We never see an interaction between Cheoljong and Bong-hwan without the latter being in Kim So-young’s body, so we never find out if the physical pull will remain once Bong-hwan is in a male body—I suppose the drama wants us to think that the sexual attraction comes from Kim So-young’s bodily urges that, like her memories, have remained with Bong-hwan? It would have been interesting for the show to examine this more, even if only to arrive at the conclusion that it might not really matter, love is love, and it’s no one’s damn business.

Ultimately, this bizarre premise flowers into a beautiful story about the struggle for a better world, which is something I would really love to believe in times like these. Hopefully, we can reach this better world without any of us having to first be transported back in time.