Escape from bleak reality


Escape from bleak reality

PIETER VAN DER LUGT wanted to get away from the world news for a bit and ended up in a Korean fantasy.


ESCAPISM has an undeserved reputation. It does not make you a coward or a philistine. It can also be a break, a little breather before you have to face reality's bloodshot eyes once more.

I have always wanted to believe that humanity, by definition (or by evolution), is slowly but surely becoming a better species. However, the world news these days shows much that is slow and little that is sure.

But even a former journalist finds it difficult not to look at the clickbait on news sites two or three times a day.

When headlines and gloom and doom stories give me that sinking feeling and the hole becomes too dark, it's time for escape.

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‘Mr Queen’

For a while now, I have been keeping an eye on the series Mr Queen on Netflix, with its comical trailer pictures. It's Korean and was released in 2020. It landed worldwide with subtitles and dubbing this year and reached the top 10 of non-English series within a day. Last month it was number four.

It's a drama-comedy set about 200 years ago at the end of Korea's Joseon period. But it's completely devoid of historical facts or real characters. Good.

The story begins with Jang Bong Hwan, a conceited Seoul chef who is cheated by a competitor and (long story) falls several storeys into a swimming pool. Under the water, his vain soul enters the body of a Joseon queen.

When Hwan comes to, he is the bride-to-be of the boring King Cheoljong, who adheres strictly to every rule in the book because he knows he is a puppet and the people who pull his strings can easily get rid of him.

Hwan has to get used to his new body and life quickly, because this king is in a hurry to get married. Not only is Hwan far too macho for such an ambivalent wedding night, the king is also, according to him, frustratingly submissive to the palace's two manipulative matriarchs and a swarm of corrupt officials.

Of course, Hwan also wants to go home, even if it is to what he calls “hellish modern Korea".

Shin Hye-sun plays the queen with the modern chef in her head. She performs all the mannerisms perfectly, and even where the series sometimes becomes a bit drawn out over its 20 hour-long episodes, she continues to enchant you.

She speaks with such a crystal clear voice and pronunciation that she is nicknamed “Korea's diction fairy". It also seems as if she is making a niche market out of time travel, because in her next series, See You in My 19th Life, she plays a woman who repeatedly reincarnates and remembers all her previous lives.

In interviews, Shin and some of her co-stars say they only want to make audiences laugh, but Mr Queen offers more.

It also has violence, tragedy and bucketfuls of tears: everyone from sigma males to children regularly have wet cheeks. Shin's grief seems so real it's almost upsetting; her king and his bitter arch-enemy also get emotional in their own way.

Light in the darkness

Between the whirling emotions there are signs that the writers want to generate messages about abuse of power, corruption, class consciousness, gender and inequality. And personal freedom: even in his opulent nest, the king is as trapped as his poor subjects.

Strangely enough, these are all things that are in the news, just lightly touched upon.

Italo Calvino says in Six Memos for the Next Millennium that a writer can be a bit like Perseus. With his winged sandals, he supports himself on the lightest of things, the wind and clouds, and only looks at the reflection of Medusa's face, since she turns everything to stone.  

His lightness does not deny the heaviness, but is not diminished by it.

Korean screenwriters are masterful at this — they dare to tackle serious topics so subtly that the lightest story makes you feel there is always room for hope and good endings, even in the world you see around you and in sombre headlines.

♦ VWB ♦

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