Review – Empress Ki (Sageuks, Not Sanity!)
I feel like the most important thing everyone should know before committing 51 hours of your life to a historical drama is this… you will never get so torn up over whether or not two people will be in the same room together as you will in these slow burn historical romances. Just intensely looking at each other in silence turns into the most erotic of experiences. Holding hands? Gasp! Someone bring the fire extinguisher because you’re gonna be BURNING UP!
I know it sounds ridiculous. It really defies reason, in this day and age, that we can revert back to grade school romance so quickly, no matter how old we are… but such is the power of the historical drama. Such is the power of Empress Ki. There is literally a scene where two grown men are fighting over who is going to covertly hold a woman’s hand in a dark room and the stakes have never been higher! Who will win? Which hand will she hold?! I imagine a bookie is literally taking bets from an excited audience at this point (“$15 on the Emperor!” – “Put me down for $100 on Wang Yu!”) – cause it’s like… what… episode 17 and it’s hard to explain but by then you’re just INTO IT and you’re ready to scream “Chuna!” and “Kill Me!” and the spell has been cast. You are committed to these characters and their stories and this love triangle is EVERYTHING – it’s not just about two men and a woman, it’s about two countries fighting for power and you know this woman is going to be key… but it’s also about love and you kinda want her to lean left, no right, no left, no right! Curses! They’re both so awesome! And deep down you know you’ll probably sit through 51 hours of this show and never even get any tongue, cause if Queen Seondeok taught us anything, it’s that you’re going to have to take those chapters to the fan fiction forums. Does that stop you from chewing your nails off as the intensity between these people increases? Hell no! Cause… we’ve got mega intense hand holding happening here! And who knows what might be next… there could be a dramatic rescue scene or some heartbreaking sacrifice or… a hug… oh my god, they might hug! THERE COULD BE HUGGING!!! And that might as well be uncensored porn, because that’s how rewired your brain has become watching these shows. I say this without irony. This really happens.
And while watching something this long… you may be tempted to start skimming. DO NOT DO THIS. You can skim all you want the second time you watch it, but the first time it is vital that you watch it – every scene – just as it is. The pacing is important. The details are important. The people are important. And yeah… it’s freakin’ crazy long. So take a break if you need to – watch another drama and come back to it. You do not have to binge Empress Ki. I watched about 32 episodes of this before I had to stop – and then I didn’t return for a while. When I did return, the last chunk of eps flew by with babies, deaths, madness and intrigue. I’m glad I took a break, though – cause even with the break, that’s still a heck of a lot of time to spend with one show. After a while, you kinda start to get wonky. But hey… I don’t need sanity, I need Sageuks!
Empress Ki is bound to live on for some time as one of the great historical dramas… and it is well deserved. The character development alone is worth the price of admission. The amazing acting, the incredible sets, the drool inducing costumes… it was a work of art.
Empress Ki is divided into two sections – PRE CONCUBINE Eps 1-24 and POST CONCUBINE eps 25-51. Both sections are cool. There are also “two houses” in this play… and two men, both the heads of each, vying for the same women.
I felt like my grandmother was in the room lecturing on me on the importance of finding a man who “needs me” over a man who “wants me.” According to grandmother, a woman who is needed is never taken for granted and will always live a happier life. I’m not sure if that’s true – but this show was definitely the perfect example of a man who Needs You and a man who Wants You. The Emperor needed her. And the King wanted her. Let’s face it, though… it feels nice to have either type of love… and to have both, well… that’s kinda the plot.
Overall Rating – 9/10. To Be Needed Is To Be Loved.
More musings… and SPOILERS
…. so… long sigh… it’s over. I cried.
In all my television watching experience, I have never experienced brainwashing quite like a good Sageuk can provide. Empress Ki was pretty epic, especially the first half, and it’s now one of my favorites, but not the best… the best is still Queen Seondeok. Queen Seondeok took me out of my life, out of my world, out of my TIME… and transported me to this unfamiliar place and by the end of that show I was openly weeping in front of my television, so much a part of that story that I felt a little piece of me die with the characters. Empress Ki is Queen Seondeok’s cousin. Maybe her niece. They’re related but not quite in the same family. But they’re close. Queen Seonduk is better, in my opinion, via political intrigue and action. But Empress Ki allows itself to have more heart. More openly revealed heart, that is… whereas Queen Seondeok’s peeps were so repressed they tore down empires for their loved ones rather than break the rules of decorum. Plus… you know… Queen Seondeok had Bidam…. and as much as I enjoyed everyone in Empress Ki, there wasn’t anyone as memorable as Bidam (full spoilery, fan-explosion Bidam review of Queen Seondeok here).
Some of the side characters were extremely memorable in Empress Ki.
Tal Tal & Bayan were two of my favorites. Bayan, with his fierceness and his singlemindedness. The dedicated warrior, the simplicity of his nature. And Tal Tal, always a step behind him, yet right beside him, and yet… always a step ahead. Tal Tal, the tactician. The brains of the operation. The ruthless one. The cunning one. I thought they were both spectacular and fascinating characters. I enjoyed their shifting loyalties and their various plots and schemes. Tal Tal really grew on me as the series wore on… that voice of his… watching him groom Ki to be a concubine, and later… when he delivered the bomb to the King that his girlfriend was another man’s wife now with that strange cool reserve of his… damn, that was a scene… but I think it was when he mercilessly cut that dudes throat after taunting him around the bonfire – and was about to kill our pretty cross dressing Turk before the King stopped him – that was when I thought, “This guy is so fascinating.” He looks like an anime character come to life, does he not? Just walked right off the page of a manga somewhere…
I really enjoyed the Empress Danashri. I couldn’t help but pity her the entire show. She was the loneliest, sorriest girl in the whole series and even though she was also a malicious viper… I felt bad for her. I just felt rotten for the rotten little minx. She was spoiled and vain… but she was also unloved and cast aside. She had no friends. Her only support was her family – which were all men and all scheming and largely unavailable to her. Honestly, I felt sorry for a lot of the women in this show but no one was more pitiful than Danshri in my eyes. Even in the bitter end.
The other stand out performance, in my humble opinion, was the subtle smirks and watchful eyes of the Emperor’s eunuch Golta. He was soooo awesome – and it really hurt when he turned coat at the end. I mean… like a punch in the gut. When our Emperor found out, in the last episode… it actually did feel like the end. I couldn’t watch any more after that. I was grateful that was the finale… ouch… too much… I’d loved him the entire show! Just… adored him! I felt as betrayed as our sad, sorry Emperor.
(on a side note, why would he covet gold? When would he even have time to spend it? The man NEVER has a day off! He lived night and day at the Emperor’s side in the same outfit… I just didn’t get it… I was so floored.)
He was such a good actor. I just loved this character… oh, the pain of betrayal…
But EVERYONE WAS A GOOD ACTOR in this show. When you spend this long with a cast… you better believe you are going to remember them all. And you do. They are burned into your mind. And their performances were fantastic. I just have my personal favorites.
Batolu, the Turk leader… was also a personal favorite. Not because her character was extremely interesting… but mainly because HOT DAMN, WOMAN. Never has a crimping iron been put to better use.
There seemed to be THREE MAJOR THEMES in Empress Ki. And they were all introduced rather quickly. In fact, they were all introduced in the first episode… but I found quotes I liked better in latter episodes, which I will use to illustrate..
Theme 1 – Everything SUCKS for Women in the 14th Century
“The world is so cruel to women…” – Empress Ki’s mom… as she’s dying, ep 1. She could not have summed up the series any better than this. Nothing good happens for women back in the day. Think about it carefully. NOTHING. If I had a time machine, I would never go back in time. Ever. Even if I had Dr. Who keeping me company.
Theme 2 – Politics is a Death Sport
“Half of Politics is Suspicion, the Other Half is Confirmation.” – Yeon Chul, ep 6. Everyone’s life sucked, apparently, in the 14th Century. But you definitely didn’t get many days of enjoying your riches in the palace, even if you’re at the top of the food chain. Apparently no one had coined the phrase “Can’t we all just get along?” yet.
Theme 3 – Patriotism is Everything, also known as Without GroupThink Rulers Have No Power.
“Follow me if you want to escape this hell.” – ep 9. Despite all the political intrigue in the palace, the kingdoms are held down on the backs of the people. And more often than not, by the blood of the people. Now… how in the world do they manage to get these ordinary folks who can survive off a small garden and a few choice animals to eagerly lay down all control over their own lives for someone else’s gain? Uh, duh. The basis of civilization. Patriotism. Draw lines and say “Here is a border around our town. We live within it. They live outside. US and THEM. We take care of us, not them.” Make them feel proud to do it. Nothing like a rousing speech and a group hug to have men willing to throw down their independence and match as ants into battle!
Remember when our deposed King is at the new army base and everyone bails because they hate him? And they basically round up a bunch of random dudes off the street who come in for the free meal? And feed them a few times before saying, “Surprise! You’re military now! If you try to leave, we’ll kill you.” I like how they down played that little tid bit and instead focused on how they all started to work together in their misery to march up and down a mountain. Why did they work together? Because if they didn’t, they were ALL PUNISHED. Welcome to the group. Your individuality has been stripped away. We’ll make men of ya, yet, boys! But the secret to this is you have to make them LIKE IT. Hell, you have to make them LOVE IT.
You gotta throw in big IDEAS like the homeland and freedom and beauty and truth and a lot of abstractions. And you need a leader, of course, who seems to be on your side but at the same time will always have a bigger tent than you and a bigger entourage than you and more food than you… but every so often he’ll stand amongst you say “We’re in this together, boys!” and you’ll get teary eyed and scream “Chuna!” and fall to your knees in happy exaltation. It’s wild.
It may seem like I’m complaining about it – but I actually love it. I love it when they pan the crowd and you see these hardened dudes getting all misty eyed and blubbery! Hell, I feel like waving the Korean flag (or whatever flag) when these boys get going into their hero monologues. That’s good drama, right there.
Let’s finish with our principal actors – our Love Triangle.
Ha Ji-Won played Nyang, or the Empress Ki. She’s a wonderful actress but I didn’t really love her in this. Ironically. She was good and I didn’t get tired of her… but I am not sure this was ideal casting. I would have picked someone else for this role. She’s great as a tomboy and felt more natural in the beginning of this drama – when darting around as a boy. But the second she got to the palace, she just felt off. And never quite felt right again.
I believed that both the men in this show fell in love with her while she was wearing pants. She had so much freedom, so much expression, so much life in her! It was so short lived, too. Only two or three episodes and bam! Tossed her in the palace – as a maid, as a concubine, as an empress. Gone were the fun days of smiling. So blah. So repressed and sad. The same thing happened in Queen Seondeok but at least we had 20 or so eps of her running around with a personality before she went stone cold bitch queen on us. And that actress is much better at playing a stone cold bitch, too. Han Ji-Won has a different vibe. She’s strong. Interesting. But ruler? Eh….
The one thing that Han Ji-Won did have was chemistry with BOTH her costars. Which you really have to have if you’re gonna drag out a love triangle story over 51 hours.
Joo Jin-Mu played the King, Wang Yoo. The serious, serious Wang Yoo. He was kinda fun for exactly two episodes. Then… not so much. I thought this was good casting though. He was supposed to be somber and broody and this dude could definitely play somber and broody. As far as acting goes – he did an admirable job looking introverted and guarded. Almost all of his dialogue that was important was unspoken. By that I mean that what was UNSAID with this actor was the most vital information. His passion. His ambition. His strength. His insecurity. His resolve. He had to embody so much within – and Joo Jin-Mu was able to do this.
Other than this smoldering stares at our Empress, though, I wasn’t terribly interested in him or his storyline. I liked his entourage a great deal though.
And last but certainly not least… the only reason I stuck with this show for so long. The Emperor. Played by Ji Chang-Wook.
This was a surprising role. I knew the dude could play sensitive, because I’d seen lights shining out of him in other dramas. I’d seen him cry. Seen him be sentimental. Seen him be vulnerable. But I did not know he could act this well. I mean, I knew he was awesome. He was already one of my favorites. Baek Dong Su. Healer. The K2. And now this… The Emperor. This character required sooooo much. The range of emotions Ji Chang-Wook had to juggle were mesmerizing.
Ta Hwan, or the Emperor Huizong of Yuan, was an innocent. He was sweet. He was protective. He was so vulnerable it almost hurt sometimes just to watch him. The slightest thing could damage him – because he’d been so over protected his entire life. He could not handle the truth – or criticism – or critical thinking. Because he’d never had to before. So it was alien to him. And frustrating. And scary. The real world was terrifying to Ta Hwan. And Nyang was his flashlight in the dark.
This was a character who didn’t know how to protect himself. He wore his emotions on his face, openly. He wore his heart on his sleeve. He was playful and carefree and oblivious. Until Nyang inspired him to be a man. And rule an empire.
I don’t think anyone else could have pulled this off. This man-child dynamic. To be so ridiculous and yet so earnest, to be so silly and yet so lovable. The development of this character over the course of the show was really were the plot had its greatest strength. Watching a scared young man become a competent and powerful Emperor… it’s what we all wanted to see most. We wanted to see him sit on that throne with authority. To figure out what authority was. To earn it! And he did.
But at a horrible cost. Gah, the suffering in this show. I felt sorriest for the Emperor and the Empress Danashri, though. Because they’d never been “outside.” The Emperor got to go outside long enough to enjoy running from assassins nonstop until he got back home. These two characters were so pitiful. Petulant and pitiful. And when they did finally grow up, there was so much sadness in their eyes. Just look at this… the power in that gaze… the infinite sadness…
It’s heartbreaking, really. It WAS heartbreaking. It was a heartbreaking show.
But I quite enjoyed it. I confess, I secretly wished that The Emperor was going to get martial arts training at some point and become a huge fighting bad ass, even though that would have totally gone against his character… but I can’t help it. I love Super Wook. I just had to settle for Super Sweet Wook this round. I’m okay with that too.