Drama Drama Review: Cinderella Meets Her Prince (But There’s a Catch)

This review was written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly.

In “Rooftop Prince,” the SBS network entered another drama into the 2012 time-travel sweepstakes* and came up with two-thirds of a cracking good story.

Our first introduction to the drama’s protagonist takes place one traumatic evening in 18th-century Joseon; Crown Prince Yi Gak, played by Micky Yoochun (who also goes by Yoo-chun Park), awakens to find himself alone in his bed, no sign of his princess. The alarm is raised and soon grim news is brought, news that sends him racing through the palace. Shockingly, a body is floating in the pond and it is that of his princess.

The first episode of the drama deftly introduces the rest of the characters, past and present, and circumstances that have and will conspire to propel the tale forward (in both eras). Going back to Yi Gak’s childhood, his father is making plans for his son’s future bride. Two sisters are excited by this news because, as daughters of a high-ranking minister, they are potential contenders for the position. Older sister Hwa-yong (played by So-hyun Kim) is shocked and angry to learn that it is not she who her father will propose for consideration, but her younger sister, Bu-yong (Min-seo Jun).

Skipping ahead, but not to present-day Seoul, but the childhood days of the heroine of “Rooftop Prince,” Park Ha. The same young actresses who play Hwa-young and Bu-yong take on the roles of the older stepsister, Hong Se-na, and young Park Ha respectively. Not blood relations but stepsisters as a result of their parents’ marriage; Se-na feels nothing but bitterness and jealousy towards the sunny-natured younger girl. One day, when an opportunity presents itself, the Se-na seizes upon an unexpected opportunity and abandons Park Ha.

A different, but no less powerful jealousy and feeling of resentment builds inside Hwa-yong, as the story shifts back to the Joseon setting. Is what happens next an accident, or planned? During a mishap with an iron, young Bu-yong is burned on her face; the disfiguring scar removing her from consideration. It is Hwa-yong who takes her place and is chosen as the princess. And it appears that it is a happy marriage; Yi Gak is charmed by his princess (played by the beautiful Yoo-mi Jung), even though she is not an intellectually stimulating companion.  Her scar masked by a veil, Bu-yong attends to her sister at court and often engages the Crown Prince in intelligent conversation. In fact, many of her actions are undertaken to ensure his happiness; even if that means that her sister takes the credit for those gestures.

Hwa-young, the Crown Princess

In shifting ahead to contemporary New York, Yong Tae-yong (Yoochun), the grandson and heir to a home shopping network, is transfixed by a young woman running a fruit stall. It’s the grown up Park Ha (played by Ji-min Han) they are on the point of “meeting cute” when Tae-yong’s cousin, Yong Tae-mu (played by Tae-sung Lee) appears on the scene.

Sketch of Park Ha

Tae-mu has come to New York on orders from Grandmother to bring Tae-yong home. Tae-mu is much like Se-na; he has nothing but resentment for the cousin with everything (his father is illegitimate, therefore not blood-connected to the business). An argument springs up between the two young men, resulting in another tragic accident – it appears that Tae-yong drowns. Tae-mu makes a hasty retreat back to Korea and claims that Tae-yong is missing.

Circumstances also bring Park Ha back to Korea; she’s finally tracked down her father. But once again Fate is not kind to this Cinderella; she makes it back in time for his funeral. However, this reconnects her to her stepmother (Ok-sook Song) and her “overjoyed” stepsister Se-na. In a lucky break for Se-na, though, Park Ha does not recall how she came to be lost and cannot incriminate Se-na.

The rest of the Joseon crew is introduced. The grieving Yi Gak will not accept the explanation proffered by the official channels; he is convinced that the princess was murdered. This sets in motion the actions that drive him to assemble his own investigation team. He recruits the brilliant but illegitimate playboy Song Man-bo (played by Min-ho Lee), swordsman Woo Yong-sool (Seok-won Jung), and a troublemaker eunuch, Do Chi-san (Woo-shik Choi) and his task force is complete. Their investigation, however, is making somebody nervous, and the men are set upon one evening. The furious chase on horseback leads them to the edge of the cliff and in a desperate leap, they urge their chargers across the abyss – only to find themselves transported not to the other side, but to a very humble rooftop apartment in modern-day Seoul!

The rooftop home belongs to Park Ha and she comes home to find four crazy men in Joseon garb not-so quietly freaking out. And here the fun part of the story beings as she has to figure out A) who are these men and what are they doing in her home; B) are they just plain crazy, delusional, or even dangerous; and C) what is she going to do with them?

The Crown Prince buckles up

Without a doubt, the most entertaining part of “Rooftop Prince” revolves around the various scenes in which an 18th-century Crown Prince and his posse are introduced to the mysterious delights of the modern era in all its complexity. Rice cookers! Televisions! Elevators! Automobiles! With the pitch perfect and in character reactions of Micky Yoochun as a prince who finds himself confronted by a bossy, spunky young woman who demands things of him that he’d never dreamed possible setting up one laugh after another, this portion of the drama is hilarious. The reactions of the rest of the gang – Man-bo, demonstrating that he is the smart one of the bunch, using his brains to begin to figure things out; Yong-sool resorting to brawn (even if it’s not called for); and flashy Chi-san finding delight in the tasty things that today has to offer (sequins!) – will also have you laughing with regularity. These certainly must be the most unusual flatmates any girl could have.

The ones who aren’t doing much laughing though are Tae-mu and Se-na who, it turns out, are in a relationship, in a case of “like finding like.” And, just as Se-na received a nasty shock to have Park Ha return from the “dead” and back into her life, it is Tae-mu’s turn to feel equally green around the gills when he comes face-to-face with Yi Gak, Tae-yong personified.

Bitter rival Tae-mu

Yi Gak does not, of course, have any idea who Tae-mu is, nor who Tae-yong is, but he does sense the enmity radiating from the young man. When he discovers that Se-na is a doppelganger for his dead princess, he’s found his mission. Can it be that Tae-yong was Yi Gak reincarnated? Is each of these people reincarnations of the people he knows in his own era? Has he been called to this future time and place by Tae-yong to solve his possible murder? Or is this his opportunity to woo, win, and win his beloved princess once again? Little does he know how important Park Ha is to the mysteries that confront Yi Gak. He has not yet recognized in her the counterpart to the veiled Bu-yong, the sister-in-law who was such a charming companion. What he does know is that to get to the bottom of things he must become Tae-yong, and so he steps into the role and, with the help of his gang and Park Ha, sets about to uncover the truth.

Where “Rooftop Prince” falters is in the portions of the story that take place away from the rooftop apartment and its inhabitants, and the Joseon-era scenes. The struggle to usurp the “throne” of the CEO of the home shopping network led by Tae-mu and his father (played by the usually reliable character actor Suk-hwan Ahn), and abetted by Se-na, is occasionally overplayed, especially by Tae-sung Lee. When Yi Gak’s posse joins him (as Tae-yong) working at the network, they interject some appropriate levity, but not with the same success as their earlier scenes. Fortunately, the drama comes to a very satisfying close, recapturing much of the charm of the drama’s first five episodes.

The Prince and his "courtiers"

Micky Yoochun not only makes the transition from Joseon Crown Prince to modern-day chaebol heir look effortless, but also the transition from idol singer to actor. Whether it is the very nature of this role that suits him, or that he has been a diligent student of acting, is open to opinions. What is clear is that he is delightful in playing the stiff-necked prince, quirky and adorable when he is tasked with more comedic bits, and brings a powerful intensity to those quiet, heartfelt romantic moments.

Playful Park Ha

As for Ji-min Han, her petite frame and open expression make her a charmer as a leading lady. With a six year advantage on her leading man, however, there are moments when their interactions are less convincing. It seemed as if she was working a little too hard to play the ingénue; her 30 years to Yoochun’s 24 is sometimes very apparent. Fortunately, she’s a skilled actress, so just as one moment you’re thinking that she is too old for the role of 24-year-old Park Ha, her expression will soften and you’ll take back those thoughts. In particular, as the veiled Bu-yong she is especially lovely.

Playful Prince and Park Ha

What “Rooftop Prince” does well, it does very well. The presentation of the murder mystery and the discovery story of two souls meant to be together and their journey to discovery make this a very light-hearted and satisfying drama. The very gratifying added bonus of laughter provided by the 320(ish)-year-old men grappling with contemporary Seoul and all that entails makes “Rooftop Prince” your home for entertainment.

*SBS also screened “Faith” in 2012 (with the other Min Ho Lee), and other networks rolled out “Queen Inhyun’s Man,” “Time Slip Dr. Jin,” and “Operation Proposal.”

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