A groundbreaking sageuk combining history, religion, and horror, Joseon Exorcist has been canceled within four days of premiere after it sparked massive uproar among Koreans. Reasons? Historical distortion and use of Chinese props. However, dramas with similar controversies like Mr. Sunshine and Mr. Queen had been allowed to finish airing. So, what was so different about Joseon Exorcist that led to its immediate cancellation, after airing only two out of sixteen episodes and completing 80% of filming?
The premise was simple—a royal family, specifically the third King of Joseon, Taejong (Kam Woo-sung), and his two sons, Crown Prince Yangnyeong (Park Sung-hoon) and Prince Chungnyung (Jang Dong-yoon) fight against undead evil spirits to save their kingdom. Immediately after the first episode aired, criticisms erupted among viewers about the depiction of King Taejong and Prince Chungnyung, and the use of several Chinese props in the show—ranging from food to fashion and armor. The show took a risk with several settings, which ultimately proved to be a gamble.
Portrayal of King Taejong and King Sejong
The two central figures of the drama—Yi Bang-won or King Taejong, and his son Prince Chungnyung—are among the most revered Kings in Korean history. King Taejong was the third monarch of the Joseon dynasty. In the first episode of Joseon Exorcist, Taejong is shown hallucinating his late father. He attempts to get rid of the hallucination by running it through with his sword but ends up killing ordinary people. In the end, a heap of dead bodies lays around him. Later, it is also implied that Taejong and his father used demonic spirits to establish their rule and save Joseon.
Prince Chungnyung, on the other hand, is none other than Korea’s most well-known King Sejong the Great, who invented the Korean alphabet Hangul. Jang Dong-yoon as Prince Chungnyung is depicted as degrading himself because he is the third-born prince, and at one point, Seo Dong-won’s character Marco is shown speaking down to him. Needless to say, these are not exactly positive representations of such highly-respected kings. It is to avoid this kind of backlash that similar historical productions like Netflix’s Kingdom (2019) and Hyunbin-starrer Rampant (2018) chose to stick to fictional kings.
Joseon Exorcist writer Park Gye-ok is no stranger to accusations of historical inaccuracies—his last drama Mr. Queen also received backlash for historical misrepresentation of valuable South Korean artifacts. The fact that Park Gye-ok recently signed a contract with Chinese production company Jiaping Pictures did not help his case, with netizens accusing him of purposely distorting history. However, Korean viewers opine that the case of King Taejong is different from Mr. Queen’s Cheoljong, who writer Park humanized.
Rising intolerance for Chinese content
Several instances of Chinese props being used in the show have also offended Korean viewers. First among them is the scene where Prince Chungnyung meets the exorcist Father John (Darcy Pacquet) and interpreter Marco (Seo Dong-won), who have traveled from the West to Korea to deal with the evil spirits. The two westerners are taken to a gisaengjib (gisaeng house) and fed Chinese dishes like mooncakes and pidan (Chinese preserved eggs) along with Chinese liquor. Additionally, the swords used in the drama look more like Chinese-style words, and actress Jung Hye-sung, who plays a Korean shaman, had styling straight out of a C-drama. (Screenshots of the food and sword are found here)
Korean intolerance for Chinese props is not unexpected. For months now South Korea and China have been engaged in a cultural war over China claiming that iconic Korean cultural symbols like kimchi and hanbok are of Chinese origins. Due to this strife, Koreans are currently extremely sensitive over the portrayal of Chinese content in Korean media, with concerns over inaccurate portrayals of Korean history being exported to foreign countries. Shows like Vincenzo and True Beauty have also been facing heat over excessive Chinese product advertisements.
Initially, SBS attempted to stem the controversy by explaining that the Chinese-style props were there to reflect the fact that the characters had traveled to a city that shared borders with Ming-dynasty China. On March 24, they decided to put the show off air for a week to make necessary modifications. It seemed that with the changes in place, the show would be able to proceed without issues. Then, all hell broke loose.
If the initial backlash by viewers and netizens was not enough, things skyrocketed to another level when a Blue House petition surfaced to demand Joseon Exorcist’s cancellation. As of writing this article, the petition has over 200,000 signatures. Sungshin Women’s University professor Seo Kyoung-duk, known for campaigning on historical issues, also spoke up against Joseon Exorcist in an Instagram post. He posted screenshots to call out the production team for showcasing distorted history to foreign audiences.
Loss of sponsorships and calls for boycott
Needless to say, the corporate sponsors of the show immediately pulled out following the controversy. First among them were the massage chair brand Cozyma and the healthcare brand Hoguanwon, who released statements that they were unaware of the show’s content and terminated their sponsorships. Next followed brands that had bought commercial sports during the airing of the show—KT Telecom, Samsung, LG Lifestyle and Health, and Ace Bed—canceling their ads. According to Korea Economic Daily or Hankyung, Joseon Exorcist holds the distinction of being the first sponsor-free drama of South Korea.
The Jeonju Lee Royal Family Association, composed of the descendants of Joseon dynasty monarchs, issued a statement asking SBS to cancel the show. The final nail in the coffin was the show’s creators losing access to filming locations. Mungyeong’s Foundation for Culture and Tourism, which controls the Mungyeong filming locations the show was filmed at and also provided 20% production expenses, pulled out when the controversy was at its peak. Even if the drama wanted to continue after re-editing and re-shooting the problematic scenes, the loss of sponsors and filming locations ensured that they could not.
Also important to note here is the fact that unlike cable TV channels tvN and JTBC, SBS is an FTA (free-to-air) channel, whose shows have generally widespread viewership and fall under higher scrutiny by the public. SBS and other FTA channels like KBS2 and MBC are also known for their conservative, public-friendly content. Looking at the scale of public outcry, it is ultimately unsurprising that SBS took the extreme step of cancellation, despite the show’s massive budget.
What lies ahead after Joseon Exorcist’s cancellation
Fans of Joseon Exorcist‘s actors are lamenting the loss of hard work put in by the cast and crew, especially Jang Dong-yoon and Lee Yu-bi, who sustained injuries while shooting. The controversy has now snowballed to include the ongoing drama Sisyphus and several upcoming ones. One of the sponsors of Jung Hae-in and Blackpink Ji Soo-starrer Snowdrop, set in the backdrop of the 1987 pro-democracy movement, has already pulled out. Industry insiders note that Joseon Exorcist’s cancellation is bound to affect other sageuks in the pipeline, with broadcasters intensifying the review and monitoring of screenplays. Producers are likely to be cautious while signing deals with Chinese investors.
In the end, the cancellation of Joseon Exorcist is shocking and will remain so. In all my years of watching K-dramas, I have not seen a show with such a massive budget and cast of A-list actors get canceled so quickly. And while I really enjoyed the premiere (you can also read my episode 1 review) and am sad about the cancellation, I’m also cautious of dismissing the backlash against the drama as something frivolous the netizens have caused. All in all, it seems that aside from the poor choice of protagonists as revered historical figures, the drama aired at a really bad time—when the Korea-China feud over history is at its peak.