Somehow I’ve made it through about 30 or so episodes of Empress Ki, mostly due to being sick and unable to do anything else. Thankfully, I am better now and enjoying the sunshine flooding Minnesota this week.
Empress Ki, like most of the Korean historical dramas, is decidedly epic in scale. A lot of the time it has me remembering the Lord of the Rings movies and that’s mainly due to the wonderful costumes and sets. The clothing alone makes the series worth watching. Empress Ki is a fast watch, despite so many episodes, because there’s really not much filler. Every episode has something major happen and the plot continually moves forward. The lead actors, Ha Ji-Won (Empress Ki/Seung Nyang), Joo Jin-Mo (Wang Yoo, the Korean king), and Ji Chang Wook (Ta Hwan/Emperor of Yuan), are all outstanding and do a good job with what they are given. I stress, what they are given, to work with.
Now to the story and writing. I’m in favor of keeping the plot moving most of the time and Empress Ki’s writing certainly fulfills that, however, in this case it comes at a cost, namely character and emotional development. Because the characters are constantly besieged by taxing or exciting moment after moment, they never really have time to process what’s happened to them, and neither does the audience. Seung Nyang and Wang Yoo, because they are strong characters, both physically and emotionally, deal with everything stoically–too stoically. We rarely get to see their vulnerabilities or them acting, for lack of a better expression, like humans! In contrast to them the Emperor of Yuan is so weak as to strain credulity. True, he’s much used and abused by the villain Yeon Chul (the subtitles I’m watching label him as El Tamur), and he’s young, but he has no interests or vices or focus in his life except for Seung Nyang and his out-of-control emotions often seem out of place. He would be more interesting, for example, if he actually was a drunk or a womanizer or even an actual basket case. The other leads, too, have no interests except the future direction of Korea and/or revenge. With a shorter series, these flaws would be fine, but at 51 episodes it’s not so excusable that most of the emotional impact comes from minor characters, especially the eunuchs. Hopefully this gets addressed in the last 20 episodes, but it’s making me question whether I want to continue watching.
The love triangle is also irritating me, because the scenes depicting it are scarce and short. This wouldn’t be so bad if it was made up for by, say, amazing actions scenes, but, sadly it’s not. The Yuan Emperor has the most scenes dealing with romance, mostly his unrequited love for Seung Nyang. She is stoic, shows him no tenderness, has next-to-no feminine attributes and wiles that I’m often scratching my head at how he’s so infatuated. Because the plot calls for it, I guess. Also, the epic love for all time between Seung Nyang and Wang Yoo is scarcely represented adequately as such. She gets a ton more screen time with the man for whom she feels nothing. On top of that, both men seem incapable of having their own lives apart from Seung Nyang. She is amazing as their buddy and helping them get out of scrapes, but again, it’s baffling that she has cast such a spell over them in a (supposedly) romantic way, and she ironically seemed more feminine when everyone still thought she was a man. I don’t think in writing strong female characters we need to balance it by making the male characters weaker, but it’s often done, though not quite believable.
All that aside, there are a lot of great scenes in Empress Ki, and many solid emotional scenes. We relish Seung Nyang triumphing over both villain Yeon Chul and his daughter, the Yuan Empress (played perfectly by Baek Jin-Hee of Missing Nine – Baek is a power house actress and her character’s story is a pathetic one.) We feel for Seung Nyang at certain losses and admire her smarts and resourcefulness. We feel the heartbreak of Wang Yoo and the Emperor, even if it’s not explained well.
I’ve decided to try and finish Empress Ki and I hope that it ends as well or better than it started, because the first fifteen to twenty episodes were pretty good. Middles are always hard to write and I do admire the writers for keeping the series jam packed with happenings, and for the production team and director having such attention to detail in the clothing, sets, and camerawork. I’ll have a full review up once I finish the series.