Anyone watching the k-drama “The King: Eternal Monarch” knows that Lee Rim is the antagonist in this story, Lee Gon’s uncle who conspired against his own brother, the king, in order to possess a mysterious flute.
Striking is that this k-drama starts right away with the introduction of the villain and not with the protagonists. This unusual move has a rather simple explanation. It exposes the true personality of the antagonist and his motivation behind the “coup d’Etat” which happens later.
However, there is more to it because in the first scene of the first episode, the viewers don’t see the villain immediately but only hear his voice. He is actually telling a story. What caught my attention in this first scene is that the story told by Lee Rim doesn’t initially match the taking. While the beholder sees a forest of bamboo, Lee Rim mentions an event recorded in the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms:
“In spring 682, King Sinmun received a bamboo flute from the Dragon King of the East Sea”.
Right after quoting this sentence from the historical Chronicles, the scene changes and viewers witness how the king takes the flute from a shrine. So with this move, the director wants to confirm the veracity of Lee Rim’s words. The flute does exit and it is possessed by the descendants from Silla Dynasty. Then Lee Rim adds:
“When the flute is played, enemies would retreat, diseases would be cured, rain would fall during droughts, the rainy season would end, the wind would stop and strong waves would subside. Seeing its powers, King Sinmun named the flute Manpasikjeok” and designed it as a “national treasure”.
Only after quoting this from the Memorabilia, Lee Rim appears, his face is covered in blood,
which is kind of surprising as he told the story about Manpasikjeok in a very calm manner. The head quotes from the Memorabilia outline that Lee Rim is a strong believer of the powerful flute. For him, the Memorabilia from the Three Kingdoms is similar to the bible. In other words, Lee Rim is an extremely religious man.
I would even add that he treats the Manpasikjeok as an idol. An idol is actually an image or a representation of a god used as an object of worship. So for Lee Rim, the flute has become a new religion and the owner of Manpasikjeok is a god. Interesting is his attitude towards disbelievers. He criticizes them indirectly as the non-believers call this story a myth. As you can observe, Lee Rim appears to be a radical believer, a fundamentalist. Fundamentalism is a form of religion that upholds belief in the strict literal interpretation of scripture. So the quotations from Memorabilia are taken literally by the antagonist. Like I mentioned it above, for him Memorabilia is like a Holy scripture. He believes in the true power of this mysterious flute. But his complain doesn’t stop there. He explains why he took it from his brother. Notice the words he used to legitimate his murder and coup d’Etat.
“I took it from my brother who had it but didn’t believe in it”
So for the antagonist, the king is categorized as non-believer. Nonetheless, if we look at the first picture above, the king is treating the powerful flute very carefully and it is put in a shrine. Only once every 20 years, the Manpasikjeok is revealed to wish peace to the world. This means that it is kept hidden the whole time, while in Lee Rim’s eyes, this flute should be shown to every one. For him, the cult around the Manpasikjeok should be practiced more openly and differently. We can feel his religios fervor, while his brother acts as if it was a hidden cult. I have the impression that while Lee Rim considers the flute as an idol, the king treats it as a relic. The latter is something associated with a saint, which some people regard as holy. A saint is a virtuous person, someone who does good for others. Now, you can better understand the huge gap between the two royals. While Lee Rim considers the flute as a divine object giving godly powers, the king connects it more to the human world and humbleness. This flute has to be used by a virtuous and honest man which elucidates why the flute is not revealed to the public eye.
We can feel his resent and jealousy towards his brother, when he yells to JTE that the king was able to see the Manpasikjeok each day. He didn’t cherish the flute properly. Furthermore, he reproached the king’s ignorance and passivity as he could have grasped the world with the flute. And with these words, it becomes clear that Lee Rim believes that this precious and divine flute can turn the owner into a god as the owner has the possibility to access to another world.
As conclusion, for Lee Rim, becoming the owner of the flute means becoming a god, yet simultaneously it means that Lee Rim will introduce a new religion with new rituals: sovereign’s cult. Since he is a fundamentalist, it also implies that Lee Rim expects a strict obedience to him, the new god, from his followers.
However, we can observe a huge contrast between Lee Rim and his brother. The latter keeps the Four Tiger Sword close to him and his son. Besides, when Lee Rim mentions that Lee Gon will be confronted with the legend and realize its authenticity, the camera zooms to the Four Tiger Sword. For Lee Gon and his father, the sword is far more important than the flute, whereas it is the opposite for Lee Rim. This lack of respect for the sword is actually outlined, when Lee Rim kills the king with the sword. Actually, the villain is soiling the sword. Furthermore, after using it, the uncle let the sword fall onto the ground, where Lee Gon can use it later in order to stop Lee Rim. So here is the question: why isn’t the sword as important as the flute for Lee Rim? Because it is not mentioned in the Memorabilia. Remember that Lee Rim considers it as a Holy scripture. Since Lee Rim is not a legitimate son, he has not been initiated to the secrets linked to the sword and the real story about the Manpasikjeok. He only knows the story through the Chronicles in reality. And he took these words for a reality. And we get another clue that the Four Tiger Sword is actually the real divine item with the following scene:
But now, let’s go back to our villain. While fighting with the king, Lee Rim denies the existence of gods (“God never created humans”) which contradicts his own words and belief. This actually underlines his real intention. His true goal is to become a god himself and for that, he needs the powerful flute. The flute will give him divine powers and simultaneously it serves as regalia, just like the sword. And we can clearly see that he uses the cult around the Manpasikjeok to justify his coup d’Etat. Religion in History has always been used as a justification for monarchs, see e. g. the French King Louis XIV called the Sun King. But what differs him from Louis XIV, an absolute monarch, is that Lee Rim intends to install a theocratic monarchy and not just an absolute monarchy. Now, you are wondering: what is the difference between these two? An absolute king is considered as a representative of God on Earth, whereas in a theocratic monarchy the king is considered as a god himself and has connections to gods. Since he denies the existence of god, he needs supporters in order to become a god, just like in a theocratic monarchy therefore he declares to his brother:
“it was the weak who created god”
But he fails so that he is forced to hide. Because he got the half of the magical flute, he is able to escape from Monarchy of Corea (MOF) and appears in Republic of Korea, where he discovers the existence of a parallel word. So this miracle proves him that the Manpasikjeok has godly powers and as such the owner of the flute is powerful. Then he meets by chance his half-brother who is poor and rude in this world. That’s when he realizes what he could do here. If you pay attention to his different actions from that moment, you will realize that Lee Rim as fundamentalist starts considering himself as a god.
- Before killing his own self, he claims that he is different and far nobler indicating that he doesn’t consider himself as a human being any longer.
- He shows up in front of his right-hand-man after so many years and he hasn’t aged at all. He reinforces the idea that he is an immortal.
- When Ji Hun’s mother returns from the morgue, she laughs as she is happy about her husband’s death. Her bruises on her face indicates that she has been abused by her husband. While laughing, she declares: “I guess, there is a god […] I prayed every day that he would die”. And here notice Lee Rim’s reaction: he waited on the wheelchair all this time listening to her laugh and her words. Then she starts mentioning her son Ji Hun which shows that her resent is only directed at her husband. She clearly loves her child. In that moment, Lee Rim stands up from the wheelchair. His behavior somehow reminded me of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the doppelganger of Lee Rim looked like he was dead (he couldn’t move and didn’t even speak). Then he confronts the mother by telling her that she has sinned with her laugh. He acts like a god who judges people for their behavior. Ironically, her sin (laughing about her husband’s death) is nothing compared to the crimes Lee Rim committed before. He had already killed three people in ROK: his brother, his other self and Ji Hun, the doppelganger of Lee Gon. He acts as if he has answered her prayer but for her sin, she should repent and confirm her son’s death as an accident.
- In another scene, he acts as if he would answer a mother’s prayer. Her son is paralyzed and has been mocked by children on his birthday. HE tells her that her son can never walk but she should change her prayer so that her wish would come true. He even tells her what her prayer should be: the rude children should be punished and get paralyzed just like her son. In this scene, the beholder observes the limitation of Lee Rim’s powers. He is not a god, he can only play tricks.
- Then we see him at a temple painting the walls. It was as if he was creating his own temple where people would come to worship him.
- Finally, when he meets the pregnant woman who is poor like the other people he met in ROK. He tells her that she can live a great life but for that, she needs to pay a price: kill the doppelganger in MOC. So Lee Rim asks for a bloody sacrifice. It was as if he had become a bloodthirsty god. In order to have your prayer answered by the god, a human sacrifice is required.
All these scenes illustrate Lee Rim’s belief: only weak people create a god. He acts as if he was a powerful god, yet in fact his powers are limited. He can go from one world to the other, he doesn’t age as well, nonetheless he can not turn a sick person into a healthy one. All the prayers are linked to death and punishment. He is not someone who wants happiness and peace for people, he only uses weak humans to achieve his goal. He wants them to see him as a god that’s why he acts like that.
Finally, I would like the readers to remember the story told by Lee Rim in the beginning. He mentioned the Dragon King of the East Sea. Who is this Dragon King? A real dragon or is it the king from Japan as the island is situated in the East sea? Remember that the dragon is seen on Lee Gon’s robe. Striking is that so far Lee Rim has never explained the identity of this Dragon King. For Western countries, dragons are associated to destruction and death, whereas in Asia dragons are linked to positive aspects: great power and fortune hence the dragon is seen on the robe of the king. And here I’ve got the feeling that Lee Rim is influenced by Asian mentality. He considers the Dragon King as someone positive. Yet we heard from Lee Gon that his ancestor Prince Sohyeon became the king Yeongjong and stopped the Qing invasion. While doing some research, I read that prince Sohyeon was influenced by Western ideas and was for a modernization of Joseon. So Lee Rim represents the conservative type (fundamentalism, theocratic monarchy), while Lee Gon and his father are more modern and under the influence of occidental mentality. Therefore I think that this explains why Lee Rim criticized his brother as he saw the Dragon King as someone positive, while Lee Gon and his father have been raised to see the evil nature of the Dragon King from the East Sea.
As conclusion, because of his travel to the parallel world, Lee Rim has come to see that his belief was correct and that he has become a god who could rule over two worlds. However, if we pay attention to his actions, we can conclude that in reality, he is just an “idol”, a false god. He reminds me of the golden calf from the bible symbolizing the false faith.