By Chang Dong-woo
SEOUL, May 8 (Yonhap) — Fairness, justice and leadership seem to be the buzzwords these days in South Korea, where a new presidency is about to dawn. And MBC TV’s “Ruler: Master of The Mask,” a show about a crown prince who fights greed and corruption, couldn’t have arrived at a more peculiar time.
The show is about a crown prince named Lee Seon of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) — played by rising star actor Yoo Seung-ho — who wages a war against a technocratic guild known as “Pyeonsoohoe,” which seeks to privatize the public water supply for personal gain.
A huge lure of the show is that the prince, due to mysterious circumstances, has been raised since childhood to wear a mask whenever he’s in the company of others. Lee finds out that the mask has something to do with the founding of the Pyeonsoohoe.
“This is a fantasy period show based on two historical facts from the past. One is the fact that there are cases when noblemen during the Joseon Period privatized wells during droughts,” said Noh Do-cheol, director of “Ruler” at a media event held at MBC’s headquarters in western Seoul.
“Another is the fact that engineers, architects and other technocrats of the Pyeonsoohoe actually exerted a huge amount of influence in policy behind the king.”
The mask serves as a key plot device in the show; since no one but a handful of people know what the crown prince looks like, he’s free to roam among the people with his mask off.
This is where the character identity-swap aspect, a la “The Prince and The Pauper,” kicks in: when the prince is either indulging in freedom outside the palace walls or fighting bad guys, a body double — the prince’s peasant confidant played by boy band INFINITE member L — dons the mask to assume Lee’s official identity.
“Playing the crown prince’s emotions was difficult,” said Yoo, since his character himself isn’t aware of why he wears the mask in the beginning.
“But when he learns of the truth, and the huge amount of sacrifices made in his name, I had to express the mental collapse, rage and other complex emotions of the prince.”
Former child actress Kim So-hyun plays the crown prince’s peasant love interest Han Ga-eun and veteran actor Huh Joon-ho stars as the main antagonist Daemok, who heads the Pyeonsoohoe.
“Before filming, I thought Yoo was a shy person. But I later learned that he’s a funny and charming actor. Our chemistry was good and we are having fun filming the show,” Kim said.
Noh told reporters that he tried to depict the Pyeonsoohoe as a massive behind-the-scenes conspiratorial organization, similar to the Freemasons, and that he also referenced the American TV series “Game of Thrones” a lot in terms of tone and vibe.
The director, however, drew the line when asked whether he was trying to send a political message to viewers.
“I’m not sure if I’m qualified to throw that kind of message. I think I could end up as a laughingstock when proposing a half-baked vision of statesmanship when viewers’ political insights have become profound and expectations in the quality of TV shows are high.”
“Ruler” premiers Wednesday on MBC TV.