I have a love and hate relationship with this epic tale that is both entertaining, and inconsistent.
Genre: Sageuk, romance, politics, revenge
Synopsis: A tale of Seung Nyang (Ha Ji Won), a woman from Koryo (Korea), who is forcefully taken to Yuan (China) as a tribute, and ends up being the empress of Yuan. In her struggle to the top, she swears to avenge the wrongful deaths of her family and countrymen, fends off political enemies in the Yuan palace, and gets caught up in a love triangle between the king of Koryo (Joo Jin Mo) and the emperor of Yuan (Ji Chang Wook).
Despite this being a whopping 51-episode drama, it was an entertaining one on the whole. I was never a fan of long dramas; this is my first time live-watching one, and I’m glad I did! But there were also several flaws in the show that made this a torturous watch at times.
Story wise, the basic premise is a very interesting one. A strong woman goes from lowly palace maid to the most powerful woman in China…sounds like “Dong Yi” right? Except that “Empress Ki” is much darker. This drama clearly shows that there exists a fine line between good and evil — a “good” person today could very well become a “villain” the next day; today’s allies can turn on one another and become foes the next day. Actions are driven by circumstances and differing motivations, and whether one is good or evil depends on a matter of perspective. In actual history, Empress Ki is known as an evil woman who sent an army to invade her own motherland. While this drama seems to portray the titular character in a better light, she is no saint, and in her quest for power and revenge, she seems to be as ruthless and cruel as her enemies at times. The Yuan emperor, Ta Hwan, is no better. Typically, the male lead of a show would be the hero, but that is not the case here. Ta Hwan is certainly no hero. He started off as weak and immature, then showed promise of being a better emperor, but towards the last quarter of the series, he seemed to have become the show’s main villain as he constantly goes against the wishes of Seung Nyang and makes misguided decisions that push the empire to the brink of collapse. As for the more obvious villains in the show, almost all of them did not admit their wrongdoings even at the point of death, because they did not even see themselves as evil in the first place. Despite their actions, many of these villains started out with noble intentions, be it to preserve the bloodline of the imperial family, to restore the country to its glory days, or simply for the sake of survival like in the case of Yeom Byung Soo. This blurring of lines between good and evil was also evident in “Incarnation of Money”, a previous work by the same scriptwriters, and this is what I like about them.
“Empress Ki” is also surprisingly fast-paced despite its length. Although the plot did seem to go in circles at times and there was a lull in the middle where the bad-ass Seung Nyang seemed to take a back seat to babysit the immature Ta Hwan, the many sub-plots, coupled with a compelling romance story, serve to keep the show exciting and entertaining enough. What’s more, beautiful set pieces, costumes, nice camera work, and *ehem* good-looking actors who can really ACT, make the show quite pretty to look at.
And now, I’d like to rant.
Character development in this show can be very frustrating. Firstly, Seung Nyang is written as a rather cryptic character whose inner thoughts are not made known to the audience very often. Especially when she became relatively more passive in her emotional expressions after witnessing the deaths of her Koryo friends and a loved one in the middle of the series, it became increasingly harder for the viewer to interpret and understand her actions. Secondly, the Koryo king Wang Yoo, turned out to be a rather uninteresting male lead. His stoic and heroic character meant that there was little room for the actor to emote, so we often see him looking stony or resolute, plus some intense crying occasionally. Wang Yoo was also a righteous and smart character right from the start, such that there is little character growth to anticipate from him. It does not help that a large part of the story happens in Yuan, so the inclusion of the Koryo king throughout the story seems like a forced attempt by the writers to make him relevant so as to sustain the love triangle. His amount of screen-time was then dramatically reduced towards the end of the series, and I both pity and salute Joo Jin Mo for carrying on his job like the professional actor he is. Thirdly, I was very disappointed by the way Ta Hwan was written. He started off as a vulnerable immature prince, and with the help of Seung Nyang, he began to fight back against his enemies to become a stronger emperor. However, this upward trend in his character development then took a sudden nosedive, as he descended into insanity after an abrupt time-jump. His character would then switch between irrationality and violence to normalcy, followed by a sudden spark of brilliance and heroism at the last episode. Perhaps his character’s decline was necessary to explain the collapse of the Yuan dynasty and to allow Seung Nyang to rule the country in his place, but this could’ve been executed more smoothly and logically with better writing.
The many illogical plot points are also hard to stomach. Certain characters seem to miraculously survive despite being stabbed multiple times or falling from a great height. In an attempt to prolong the conflict between the protagonists and the El Temur clan (possibly because the villains were proving to be very popular and effective in upping the excitement of the drama), the villains seemed to get away too easily with each crime they made, while the “good” people were constantly defeated. This results in exciting conflicts each episode, but the story hardly moves forward if you take a step back to see the big picture. Eventually, the writers were only left with around 10 episodes to introduce a new batch of villains and wrap up the story, and this is where the show floundered. Flaws in the story become more obvious as previously “good” characters are suddenly turned into villains, certain content from the earlier episodes are recycled again (e.g. another shadow play, another treasure hunt), more abrupt time-jumps, and the behaviour of certain characters do not match with what they did in earlier episodes (case in point: Golta!). Twice in this drama, the characters embark on a massive search for a seemingly important item, but after the item is found, its purpose in the story is downplayed by the writers. In the final few episodes, the death toll increases exponentially as characters are killed off hurriedly, such that the viewer is not given ample time to grief or experience the sadness that one ought to feel when a character dies in a show.
This show was accused of distorting history by the media throughout its run, but I’m not too particular about it since this isn’t meant to be a documentary. However, I didn’t like that the show focused on Seung Nyang’s journey to become empress instead of her BEING the empress. Also, for those who aren’t aware, this show had two different endings broadcasted on different days. The last episode that was originally broadcasted was edited in such a way that suggested that the whole show was about the love triangle instead of the life of Empress Ki, which made me really peeved, because that’s not the point of the show! The ending that was aired in the repeat telecast, however, did more justice to her. I would still have preferred them to place more importance on her life after being crowned empress though. Are the things she did as empress so insignificant that they should only be mentioned in passing? Surely not. My conclusion for the show turning out this way is that the writers didn’t want to touch on the controversial issue of her ordering the invasion of Koryo.
The music direction in this show can be rather strange at times too. This drama has really nice instrumental songs, and these are played in all the right moments to great effect in the show, but the same can’t be said for the vocal tracks, which seem to be inserted randomly without much thought about how the lyrics relate to the scene. One particular song that was used erroneously throughout the show was “Wind Breeze” by Park Wan Kyu, a slow ballad that would often play whenever Wang Yoo was fighting. Seriously, a ballad during an action scene?! It would make more sense if a ballad was played when a character kills a loved one, but not when he is fighting with random bandits or soldiers. Ji Chang Wook’s song “To The Butterfly” was also played during sweet and sad moments between Seung Nyang and Ta Hwan. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Though marred by inconsistencies in storytelling, the show is thankfully saved by the splendid performance put on by all the actors. From the leads to the side characters, and even the child actors and extras, none can be fault for poor acting, which is amazing! No matter how illogical the story was, their earnest and realistic acting more than compensated for that, such that one would think that there’s nothing really wrong with the story. Baek Jin Hee, whom I last saw in Jeon Woo Chi as the lead’s cute little sister, did surprisingly well as the villain despite her small frame. Jo Jae Hyun (who played Golta) showed he could pull off both comedic and sinister roles, while Kim Young Ho (Baek Ahn) was very convincing as a reckless, masculine, valiant Mongolian warrior. Ji Chang Wook in particular, impressively pulled off every kind of challenge (and nonsense) that the writers threw at him. I must admit that I was initially surprised at the news of his casting, and was worried if he could hold his own against all the senior actors. He was endearing (or possibly “annoying”, to some people) as an immature prince that invoked sympathy among viewers; he was menacing as a two-faced emperor out to take down his enemies; he showed the tenderness and desperation of a man who pines for the love of Seung Nyang, and his convincing portrayal of a violent and insane emperor was enough to make me feel uncomfortable and gave me goosebumps. Another breakout star of the show would be Jin Yi Han, who won the hearts of many with his deep charismatic voice and wits as Tal Tal.
Although I seem to have more complaints than praise for this show, I would say that it is overall a good show that is worth a watch. After spending more than 6 months watching this, I realised that I’ve grown attached to the characters, making it hard to bid goodbye to this show. Was watching this a waste of my time? No. Would I rewatch this again? Yes! It was after all a long, epic and memorable journey.