‘The King’s Letters’: Tragedy and Controversy

The recently released South Korean film, The King’s Letters has become a subject of controversy as critics and historians accused the filmmakers of distorting historical facts.

Song Kang Ho as Sejong the Great in a scene from “The King’s Letters”.

Fury was unleashed towards the director of this film, who was accused of downplaying the role of King Sejong the Great, while instead placing the spotlight on Shinmi the Buddhist monk, as the key figure behind the creation of their native phonetic writing system.

Park Hae Il as Shinmi the Buddhist monk. The film depicts him as being the one who struggled to create the Korean alphabet, Hangul.

Sources state that trouble brewed even before the movie was released. While mourning over the late actress Jeon Mi Sun, a publishing company sued the film’s production and distribution team for plagiarism, as they had failed to obtain the consent of the original author of the book that the film was based on (“The Road to Huminjungeum: Reviewing Ven. Shinmi”). They had even requested that the court ban the film’s screening. Despite the tragedy and controversy, the film still premiered on July 24th, 2019.

Veteran producer of historical dramas, Director Jo Cheol Hyeon, had always been fascinated by the connection between the Tripitaka Koreana, and the Hunmin Jeongeum, and denied claims of distorting historical facts by stating:

“We never attempted or tried to belittle or downplay King Sejong regarding his role in the creation of the Korean alphabet. Rather, our film has put an emphasis on the process of how the Korean alphabet was created.  We tried to dramatize King Sejong’s toil, pain and determination to invent Hangeul which came at the expense of his health, particularly later on in his life. We focused on portraying him as a pioneering monarch who explored an unprecedented thing and dramatized the way he rose to become a great leader.  To dramatize what was inside King Sejong’s mind during the invention of the local alphabet, we needed a character who could personify the King’s complex feelings. We learned that there was a Buddhist monk who existed, and met all the conditions. His character was chosen against this backdrop.” 

(L to R) The Tripiṭaka Koreana (lit. 80,000 Buddhist Scriptures) in storage at Haeinsa, South Korea. A page from the Hunmin Jeongeum (lit. The Correct/Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People).

As negative sentiments continue to emerge, The King’s Letters will be screened at 10 locations across the U.S.  

Let us know what you think of this controversy in the comments below. 

Is it overblown? Is it a big deal?

King Sejong the Great Depicted in Film and TV

Year of Release Title Played by Actor
500 Years of Sejong: Tree with Deep Roots
Han In Soo

(한인수 )
1998 -2000 King & Queen Song Jae Ho

2008 The Great King, Sejong Adult:
Kim Sang Kyung

Lee Hyun Woo

2008 The Divine Weapon Ahn Sung Ki
2011 Tree With Deep Roots Adult:
Han Seok Kyu

Young Adult:
Song Joong Ki

2011 Queen In Soo Jeon Moo Song
2012 I Am A King Joo Ji Hoon
2015 Splash Splash LOVE Yoon Doo Joon
Jang Young Shil
Kim Sang Kyung

Hong Hyun Taek

sejong the great
song kang ho
jeon mi sun
the king’s letters
park hae il

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