Review – Empress Ki (Sageuks, Not Sanity!)

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).  ***Update:  After viewing Six Flying Dragons, it has now risen to my all time favorite Sageuk, replacing Queen Seondeok… I never thought it would happen… but it did.  Review of Six Flying Dragons 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 march 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 downplayed that little tidbit 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.

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.

20 thoughts on “Review – Empress Ki (Sageuks, Not Sanity!)

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  2. For me Ha Ji Won plays seungnyang really really well though :)) and I especially love the second part when she enters the palace to become concubine. I can’t think of anyone else to be nyang. She just exude with the charisma and strength needed to survive in the palace. I guess people really see things differently ^^

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  4. That was cool :3 But, as a yaoi shipper, can I ask one thing: Guys, I ship BaekTal… I know, that’s okay. But. I also love the idea of Dankishi bottoming for that guy (don’t know how to write his name, you know the one that was a bit fat and had some beard in the second half of the series) !! So, he x Dankishi. Cool? I can’t help myself. Am I only one? 😀

  5. Dear Fangirl,

    I am watching Empress K2.

    Reading your review I found support for the emotions it’s churning up.
    Like you.. The only reason I am watching this show upto episode 30 now is how JCW is developing. Wang Yoo role (character) is just drop dead snooze boring!!!
    I mean cummon!!! All the tropes of man loved by his bros and skilled at battle and pure at heart and devoutly in love.. BORING!!
    The man – Child.. The complexity of the Emperor..the imperfect love and how it’s changes him…yeah!!
    JCW…my heart dissolved in pain and tears when he wept and was alone and suffering.
    It was painful to watch Nyang tread all over him and use him..

    Thank God I found that our take on the Emperor was so similar.

    I am reading this spoiler felt review because I can’t watch the rest of the 22 episodes if Ki ditches and breaks Togon’s heart completely and ends up with Boring Wang Yoo..
    Too much investment of emotions in Togon ans Ki without payoff?! NOPE!
    Didn’t want to be left feeling cheated

  6. Dear Lady Divine,

    You took the words out of my head – scary that for me – in fact your thoughts on it were a mirror reflection of what was on my mind.

    JCW – ooooof!!!

    E.K. My second JCW show after Healer.

    I gave it a 10/10 ;-p

    I was trawling YouTube for JCW interviews and stage shows etc and there is this Video labeled:

    Tal Tal and Seung Nyang (TalNyang) – Say Something ver.2

    with 1.4 million views :-O

    I wanted to share my comment on that with you. Would love to hear your thoughts on it too.


    SPOLER ALERT:: those who don’t want their Ki-watch experience ruined should avoid reading this until they’ve watched the show.

    Firstly, it’s amazing that SOOOOO many people were thinking and feeling along the same lines about Taltal – Nyang as I was.

    YUP. IMO, Taltal-Nangi was definite a solid presence in the show.
    Though honestly I didn’t pick up on the Taltal heartbeats until the Master-Student section of the show.

    Taltal’s “admiration” and “flutters’ for Nyang is strongly in the foreground by the time the Concubine section begins..

    For him the “feelz” (the word fangirlverdict blog uses so aptly) don’t happen instantly .. but grows underneath the main plot lines unobserved during the first segment of the show.

    A rewatch with special focus on his story thread and screen appearance brings the development arc of Taltal character into clearer view.

    His Admiration of Ki : he was THE one person who saw and correctly inferred that Ki’s sharp, clearheaded, strategic actions were always guided by the goal of “greater good” of “setting the wrongs right ” of “justice” – goals he himself believed in – if not instantly but always after the fact .. Sometimes he’d connect the dots of her actions even as she was planning it.

    becomingperson of influence. In a leadership position she worked with a strong moral compass.

    (IMO .. his final act of betrayal of his uncle reached an organic culmination that because of his character movement).

    His “Flutters”? Well it’s clearly visible in the way the scenes with them were shot ;-P
    Very very careful strokes by the director and camera work.
    The way the actor could play it out so so subtly (worthy of best supporting actor award – along with Tanashiri)

    His expressions while watching her when she was unaware .. undercurrent of feeling for Ki was like deep water currents not visible.
    Hats off to the stellar direction of the E.K. team and Ji Yin Hwan’s acting chops that this unspoken Tai-Nyang pairing stirred the audience.

    An overt writing of them as a “pairing” into the script (with explicit dialogue delivery in the script) would have taken away from the rich layering of the different kinds of love that were flowing towards Ki and how she to received – reacted to them.

    Quick Point: notice how his costume changes from innocent (vulnerable almost) in that first episode where the Exile retinue is crossing through Goriyo lands with Te Hwan in his mobile tent .. to the final episodes when he’s in full gear ..

    His hairstyle 😀

    Many have wished here .. someone should write a script with him as a lead 🙂

  7. Dear L.D.

    Here’s a copy paste of some lines that were an exact copy of what I would have loved to say if I had the facility to write as well as you do 🙂
    My wee comment in brackets after each quote.

    – “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.”

    (I laughed out so loud when I read this .. seriously I am the SO brainwired by KDrama style of physical intimacy)

     – “The character development alone is worth the price of admission.” 
    (YUP!!! Cant nod harder with this view)

    – “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.”

    (I am so surprised that we thought so alike on this because ALMOST ALL other reviews of Empress Ki was primarily focused on Wangoo-Nyangi pairing AND pretty much saw it more as a WangYoo-Nyangi love story with the Te Hwan as a second lead. SHEEESH!!! I was so feeling removed from that view and disappointed that hardly anyone saw the that Te Hwan and Ki were the backbone of the tale around which all other sub-tales .. strong (Wang Woo / Tanashiri / Taltal) and weak (the pro-Ki entourage) were hung.)

    – “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 felt that the casting was weak .. Yes it required a brooding yet romantic warrior king type but such a role CAN be played to blood thumping gush with the right fit actor; one who can deliver the magnetism it asks for.
    Maybe it was intentional, dialling down the magnetism factor to reduce the throb in that love storyline so that the Ta Hwan- Nyang stays strong.)

    – “And last but certainly not least… the only reason I stuck with this show for so long.  The Emperor.  Played by Ji Chang-Wook.- 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.”

    (ha ha ha ha .. I am guilty of this too.
    Why I sat glued to my seat – my couch the minute the Persimmon loving crown prince crawled out of his tent and was mauled to down in the stable with dung in his face by Nyangi .. I knew this was going to be the GRAND ARC of the show .. how these two will draw a trajectory towards the Empress Ki grand ceremony .. the scene that plays out as the first scene of Episode 1. What a smart hook!!
    The fact that it was Healer-rya Ji Chang Wook .. ooooh YUMMM!!

    Covid times allowed me the luxury of being home and bingewatching, almost non-stop, through the entire 51 episodes – 3 full days with just loo breaks .. meal breaks.)

    – “It’s heartbreaking, really.  It WAS heartbreaking.  It was a heartbreaking show.”

    (Oh my GAWD how many times my ribs pushed out and throat tickled and eyes swoll (sic) up when Ta Hwan was feeling crushed and lonely and rejected and misunderstood and trampled on .. the silly child-like sweetness of his character – so well played by Wook.

    The last several minutes had me bawling aloud – lucky hubby wasn’t around .. nor the kid so I had a full on tears flood of cry out .. toilet role in hand .. sniffling .. That OST .. the mention of the Mongol grasslands .. that flash back shot of the two hair flowing laughing on horse back on the beach ..
    My heart will twist for the rest of my life for these two roles – actors)

    • Just wait until Six Flying Dragons is available streaming again! You will cry like you have never cried before. That show wrecked my soul! But Empress Ki was an extravagant historical drama that deserves its accolades, too.

  8. Lastly but not least ..

    I am so surprised that this blog so little comment traffic :-((
    I mean seriously this is such high quality writing and observations .. WOW.

    I am going to divert my friends the few I managed to sway into the K Drama trap to read here 😛

  9. Bipolar Emperor who kills without thinking.. crazy emperor with no brain.. now i hate the emperor..never to watch his drama.. not good in acting.. hate him so much.. i will never tolerate the bad person like the emperor… dont deserve to be loved by the empress..

    • WOH!!

      (looks like you sat through it?)

      You can drop out of the show 😀

      51 hours of self-annihilation???
      That’s some superhuman level of commitment to Kdrama I’ve not heard of .. A feat indeed!

      Must have felt awful :-C
      But deep relief and pat on the back for sticking it out??

      • Historical dramas are generally long, exhausting affairs… but I love them. They’re not for everyone, admittedly. 🙂

  10. It was so unfortunate that we started watching it, there is one only one good thing about
    Setting the place features quality fantastic
    This would have to go as the most ridiculous
    Stupidity rubbish movie ever made
    It’s frustrating stupidity that goes in forever
    If this is example of Koreans how they are in leadership 3 idiots who get away with murdering people and no can say a thing a king rule and another 1000 people ruled by 3 dummies best you Learn from the mafia movies
    3 idiots. Would have lasted 10 min not ten years
    I’m sorry I started watching this load of bullshit
    Sorry the Ho est truth this will turn me off to any other Korean movies I’ll watch the Chinese
    Movies lace less bullshit and stupidity

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