Historical K-dramas or sageuks are domestically popular, but with international fans, they are a hit or miss. International fans tend to lack the historical context, while the tropes of power struggles and revenge plots also get repetitive. K-dramaland has been trying to spice up sageuks by fusing them with other, typically modern, genres. My Sassy Girl (2017) and Live Up to Your Name (2017) show that historical fusion dramas aren’t exactly new. However, the success of Netflix’s zombie historical Kingdom (2019) and body swap historical Mr. Queen (2020–2021) seems to have revived interest in this genre.
Personally, I have enjoyed historical fusion dramas a lot more than traditional sageuks. This year’s Mr. Queen is already a standout drama for me, barely three months into the year. Hot on its heels is Joseon Exorcist by Mr. Queen’s exceptional writer Park Gye-ok. The vibe is, however, a total 180-degree change. Unlike Mr. Queen’s equal parts comedy, romance, and mystery, Joseon Exorcist screams danger from the get-go. In this show, royal secrets make way for the danger that is right outside its gates, where a plague is spreading.
The cast for Joseon Exorcist could have done with a few more women, but I am not complaining. In just the premiere episode, the trifecta of Jang Dong-yoon (Search), Kam Woo-sung (The Wind Blows), and Park Sung-hoon (Memorials) has proven that we can look forward to some solid acting performances. The show premiered to an exciting 5.7%, despite the first episode being rated 19+. With this, the SBS drama has become the newest competitor in the Monday evening drama slot, where River Where the Moon Rises has maintained lead.
While comparisons to Kingdom have already begun, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing if the show seems inspired by it. I, for one, would love to see more historical horror dramas that come with tons of political intrigue, highlighting both gore and psychological horror. To be fair to the makers of Joseon Exorcist, however, there are a fair amount of differences between the two shows. For example, history and religion form a massive component of the story’s foundation. Never in my life did I think that I would see Korean shamanic exorcism and Catholic-style exorcisms happen side by side. This is one of the most fascinating themes of the drama.
Kam Woo-sung as the illustrious King Taejong is incredibly charismatic, even more so than the two talented young actors that form the main cast. This works for the story, as King Taejong is presented as a rigid head of the kingdom with many secrets. Park Sung-hoon surprised me as the rage-filled Crown Prince Yangnyeong, who frequently clashes with his father and acts up. This is already a character I have my reservations about. Jang Dong-yoon, on the other hand, is right in his element as the slightly clumsy but very intelligent Third Prince Chungnyung. The next main characters are, obviously, the monsters—who seem like a mix between zombies and vampires, but because they respond to exorcisms, a possession angle can’t be ruled out either.
The first episode doesn’t make viewers wait for the mystery to unfold. Instead, we are already thrown in the middle of a plague that is spreading, with bloodsucking monsters feeding on and turning everyone in their vicinity. I always like it when a show dives right into the thick of the action. The power dynamics in the royal family are already sketchy, and with how close King Taejong seems to be playing his cards, it remains to be seen how this nationwide pandemic will be tackled. I had no idea I’d be into shows with pandemic symbolism after a year of COVID-19, but here we are. Art imitates life, and life imitates art, at least as far as K-dramas are concerned.
In Joseon Exorcist, there are sibling rivalries, Korean vs. Western dichotomy, exorcisms, zombies, curses from the past, and heavy religious influences. This is all supplemented by a good budget, passable special effects, and powerful performers. The first episode gave me much to think about, while also making me curious about where these mysteries will take King Taejong and his two sons. All said and done, for now it looks like I will be joining them in this journey. Let’s hope Joseon Exorcist manage to sustain the creepiness and intrigue!