Tag Archive | Ji Chang Wook

Empress Ki – a half-review

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.

 

The K2: Kdrama review

The K2The K2 lost me as a viewer the first time around. I watched the first episode with the sound off, as I sometimes do, and focused on the amazing visuals, which were as good as any feature film. It was the story and writing that gave me pause and I was not surprised to find that the same writer also wrote Yong-Pal, another drama that lost me half-way through.

This isn’t to say The K2 isn’t worth watching. It is an incredible action-packed drama, but like Yong-Pal, it would have been better served either by half-hour episodes or ten or even less hour-long episodes. Jang Hyeok Rin is an awesome writer, but these kinds of stories don’t exactly fit into the time frames usually allotted for Korean dramas. These stories are better suited to what in America we would call a “miniseries.” Jang essentially writes morality play fairy tales set in the modern world. Morality plays and fairy tales are are older, simpler stories that get at common truths. This means that the characters are archetypes – i.e., the princess locked in the tower, the lone warrior, the evil step-mother/witch – and plot devices, not the complicated character confections (say that five times fast) with a high degree of moral confusion that we’ve become so accustomed to today. This also means that the stories, being necessarily more simplistic, will not stretch as well without either adding a lot of superfluous material or slowing the plot down to an unsustainable degree. Cutting episodes or the time length of episodes would instantly solve this problem, but it would take a very confident, savvy production company to decide to do that.

What The K2 has going for it is a great story at its heart, awesome visuals (you could watch the whole thing without either sound or translation and not be lost much at all), solid writing, commendable acting, and music that will both irritate and haunt. The soundtrack choices were fairly brave, being operatic and even church music, not even in Korean, but in, I think, Latin and German. As a viewer you really only get the full impact if you watch it on a site like viki.com that takes the time to translate at least some of the lyrics. The songs are the “chorus” of Greek theatre, an essential part of the story and part and parcel of the morality play angle.

Episode one is exhaustingly full of action, and although the action is fairly steady through the first few episodes, there’s no way a production would be able to sustain that level through the entire thing. The biggest drawback to episode one, though, isn’t the action, but that they risk losing viewers by ending the same way they began, with Anna, our “princess captive,” running away from–whatever horrors a woman in white runs from. As a viewer, one wonders just how many times we are going to have to watch this girl run away, epic as it is. By the end of the hour, we also don’t really know what the plot is. We have a vague idea of who the characters are, but little else. This problem is fixed as the plot is more developed in the following episodes, but it’s the reason why I didn’t continue watching and also why I gave it a second chance, as it didn’t seem like all that production effort could possibly be put into a crummy story.

Crummy story The K2, is not, though I found – like with Yong-Pal, my interest waning in the last few episodes that had to stretch the story in order to finish it in the time allotted. For both dramas, it’s a shame because the first halves of each were awesome. Ok, enough harping on the time issue, let’s get to some meat and bones.

If we’re really honest, the characters in fairy tales, at least the prince and princess, typically don’t have a lot of personality. They are there to be rescued or to rescue or to serve some purpose of the plot. It is the villains that tend to be more–though not always–interesting. The K2 doesn’t vary from this and I think that’s a credit to it. They cast a stellar actress, Song Yoon A, to play the baddy step-mom, and it was her character that kept me watching throughout. Cho Seung Ha, who plays serial adulterer and politician Jang Se Joon, was no slouch either, and it was the pair of them that seemed the drivers of the plot.

The two main characters, Anna, the “princess in the tower” and, Kim Je-Ha, the “lone wolf” were more people that things happened to than made things happen. When they did make things happen, it wasn’t so much character-driven as plot-driven. That aside, because the characters were archetypes, and simple yet well-written, Ji Chang Wook and Yoona really showed off some talent in playing them. Playing a damaged, yet sweet girl and a mercenary with little-to-no past and making either interesting can be a challenge. Add on top of that, that I at least have found both actors to be rather stone-faced and wooden at times and I’m not sure if that’s merely my perception or if they just don’t have a good grasp of how to make an engaging face onscreen even if one’s character isn’t showing strong emotion at the time. That probably sounds more like an insult than intended, but I thought they did well will the simple characters and better than I have seen them do with more complex characters and plots. I wish all actors could be more like Seo In Guk (Shopping King Louie) who somehow manages to actually be a completely different character every time he’s onscreen, but I realize that ability is extremely rare and that most actors simply play whatever type of person their character is. All of the acting in The K2 is top notch, if necessarily simple, and suits the tenor and mechanics of the plot.

Speaking of the the plot, Choi Yoo Jin, the step-mother is the main character. What we are seeing onscreen is possibly what her life would have been like if she’d married a good man of action who loves her instead of a fearful and manipulative adulterer who doesn’t. Several times she mentions how innocent she once was, and how (at least in her head) she would have been a good person had only her husband loved her. Since we really don’t know what young girl Yoo Jin was like, we don’t have much to go by, but it becomes clear early on that the successes the couple has had politically are almost entirely due to Yoo Jin’s brains and tenacity, not her husband’s, and that she feels upon meeting the “wolf” that had she been with someone like him, those skills would have been put to far better use. Is this just wishful thinking on her part? As her character is quite skillful at manipulation, I’m not sure, neither, I think is Ji Chang Wook’s “wolf” who would certainly save her from herself were it possible. The moral in this play is pretty straightforward, loving someone means actually loving them and only pretending to love creates monsters out of people, anxiety, distrust, the list could go on and on. At the end of the series we really don’t know who either the wolf or Anna really are, and that’s alright, because who they are isn’t the point, the fact that they really love each other and other people is the point. They don’t pretend to love, they actually love, and they earn their  happy ending due to it. Such a simple thing, but humans fail at this simple thing every single day.

A couple of more things to add, “Cloud 9” was an intriguing idea, but completely mishandled as was the location and threat at the end, both of which hampered the story and the pacing in a negative way. It was likely one of those choices made in which the ere simply isn’t time to go back and correct it, and that’s a shame, but happens a lot in television. That all said, I really liked The K2, and would watch it again. The atmosphere, the action, and the music all stayed with me long after watching the last episode.