The buzzed-about sageuk Ruler: Master of the Mask recently finished airing its first week of episodes – four in total, with the new placement of ads on SBS and MBC. Scheduled for a total of 40 episodes, 30 minutes in length, this drama tells the story of a masked prince trying to uncover the secrets behind his birth while rising to become a worthy king. It’s not quite as serious as that last sentence makes it out to be, but it does seem to have all the ingredients for a hit sageuk, with the love story and cast to match.
Yoo Seung Ho as Crown Prince Lee Sun
Kim So Hyun as Han Ga Eun
Kim Myungsoo (Infinite’s L) as peasant Lee Sun
Yoon Sohee as Kim Hwa Gun
Ruler: Master of the Mask begins as most sageuks do — giving the backstory or birthstory of the main character. In this case, that is Yoo Seung Ho’s character, Lee Seon, who is the Crown Prince of Joseon. Shortly after being born, Lee Seon is poisoned in his naming ceremony by the Pyunsoohwe, an organization that holds significant sway in the government but seeks greater power. Using the antidote to save the prince’s life as a bargaining chip, the Pyunsoohwe secretly strikes a deal with the king of Joseon to grant them permission to set up a new government department in charge of Joseon’s water supply. Lee Seon is saved, and miraculously immune to all poisons after his near death experience, and the water is tasked to the Pyunsoohwe.
One time skip later, the Crown Prince has grown into a young man but lived his life wearing a mask at the command of his father. Any person that sees his face must immediately be killed, by royal order. However one day he is seen by Kim Hwa Gun (Yoon Sohee), grandaughter of the leader of the Pyunsoohwe, after she sneaks into his private greenhouse. He helps her escape without being killed, but not before Hwa Gun becomes completely infatuated with Lee Seon after seeing his face. She resolves to become the princess and marry him, despite her grandfather’s disapproval.
While the people of Joseon believe the Crown Prince wears as mask because he was disfigured from illnesss as a baby, only a select few know that it is to hide his identity from the Pyunsoohwe. Even Lee Seon himself doesn’t know the true cause of it, and is finally driven to finding answers to this nagging question. He sneaks of out the palace to seek the aid of Woo Bo, a scholar who he learns was involved with his sickness as a child. After the initial awe over the bustling market life wears away, the Crown Prince sees just how badly his people are in crisis. Water is being held at private wells and sold to the common people at abnormally high prices, which he realizes after a mishap with one of the water sellers, coincidentally also named Lee Seon (Kim Myungsoo). The Crown Prince flees from a fight that breaks out at the well over his well-meaning protests, only to be aided in his escape by a young lady named Han Ga Eun.
Following the recent trends of having a very young actress as the female lead of the sageuk (a la Kim Saereon and Kim Yoojung) is Kim So Hyun playing Han Ga Eun. Ga Eun, a student of Woo Bo, who is skilled in medicine and leads the Crown Prince to her teacher after finding that they were coincidentally headed to the same place. Soon the pair come across the commoner Lee Seon who recognizes the Crown Prince as the upstart who caused him trouble at the well earlier that day. After some initial bickering, the boys come to terms with each other and begin a tentative friendship, aided in part by the moderating powers of Ga Eun.
However, the Pyunsoohwe have caught wind that the Crown Prince is no longer in the palace after Hwa Gun drops some unsubtle hints after recognizing him in the city. While the Crown Prince’s closest friend is out searching the city for him at the command of the king, so are the Pyunsoohwe with Hwa Gun at the helm. However, Hwa Gun has her own motivations and agenda separate from her grandfather. And thus begins to the race to reach Lee Seon first, with the Crown Prince himself doing his very best to not get caught from either side before he gets his answers.
I mean… I like it. I wasn’t blown away by it, but then again I’m a bit finicky with my sageuks. It usually takes some Korean mysticism or a fair amount of fluff for me to stick out a sageuk till the end, and I don’t really see Ruler: Master of the Mask serving either of these. I do predict some cute moments with the Crown Prince and Ga Eun, as the story is marketed in part as a romance. But there’s the underlying darkness of court intrigue and corrupted secret societies at the core of this drama.
Which isn’t bad per se; it’s just very typical of a sageuk. Fortunately, this means it’s probably going to be a commercial success, if the initial double-digit ratings are any indication. Ruler: Master of the Mask has all the makings of blockbuster Korean drama, from the cast to the villainous government officials, plus an obvious budget to see it all through. So unless Ruler pulls a Moon Lovers, I predict at least moderately high ratings for most of its run.
So far, I really like the dynamic between three of the leads: the two Lee Seons and Ga Eun. There’s some resentment between the prince and the commoner Lee Seon, but it’s obviously not mean-spirited. I think their relationship is going to be one of the more interesting developments in the story, especially after Lee Seon takes the place of the Crown Prince, as illustrated by the numerous teasers preluding the drama. Ga Eun and the Crown Prince make a cute, if somewhat vanilla, couple. I particularly liked the moment where the Crown Prince asks her, as he’s still hiding in a palanquin, if he’s handsome with no pretext. It’s a more lighthearted portrayal of what someone who spent their entire life wearing a mask might do when they see someone they are attracted to. And I’m sure we’ll get into some of the darker stuff that goes along with this kind of trauma, and it is certainly warranted, but in the meantime I’ll enjoy the quirkiness.
I have to say though, I actually find Ga Eun and the commoner Lee Seon’s relationship to be much more engaging. Ga Eun as a character is dangerously close to a Mary Sue at this point, what with her good looks, status, and intelligence. But Lee Seon’s puppy-dog crush on her is so cute, it makes me not care. While they’re both students of Woo Bo, it’s obvious their friendship doesn’t hinge on this, and the two genuinely care about each other. The fact that Lee Seon immediately comes to Ga Eun’s house when his father is taken away for stealing water also demonstrates a long-standing trust between the two. I usually don’t experience second-lead syndrome but a few more episodes of watching Lee Seon stare at Ga Eun, only to awkwardly look away when she turns to him is definitely going to sting a bit.
And speaking of unrequited love… as for Hwa Gun, I would like to see if her character evolves into something other than evil bitch. Because in the first four episodes, the only thing she showcased is that she’s standoffish, belligerent, and shallow since it took her one look at the Crown Prince’s face to convince her she wanted to marry him. She also seems rather conniving, not unlike her grandfather, and I hope that show will rectify that through its progression. I love a smart, driven female lead. I just wish that Hwa Gun had more motivation than, “Wow this Crown Prince guy is actually pretty hot, oh he already likes someone, that won’t stop me.” I am holding out hope for her though. She still has 36 episodes to change after all.
I think that the cast is absolutely fantastic, and I’ve never had complaints about Yoo Seung Ho or Kim So Hyun’s performances, despite their young ages. Knets were being a bit prickly about Yoon Sohee, but I thought she did well in an unlikable character. Kim Myungsoo, or L of Infinite, was also well-suited to his character, and he’s grown a lot since his first few stints in acting. This is probably the most serious role I’ve seen him in, and he certainly rose to the challenge. He’s also unbelievably good-looking and manages to pull off a ratty ponytail, so that’s a bonus. The boy can’t even manage to look ugly when he ugly cries.
I suppose overall I was expecting something a little more, given how much I love the cast. But that wasn’t to say that what I did see was wholly disappointing by any means. I will definitely be checking out next week’s episodes, even if I think I can guess where the cliffhanger was going. So from my first look, Ruler: Master of the Mask left me with some unresolved expectations, but a redeemable amount of interest that I’ll carry into the following episodes.