A man who does not like power will suffer from its cruelty!

He doesn’t need to tend her, because she hunts her own prey

He doesn’t need to shield her, because she kills her own enemies

He doesn’t need to look for her, because she’s always at his side

Kate Quinn, Lady of the Eternal City

Empress Ki (2013)
Also known as
Gi Hwanghu & Battle of Flowers
Historical, Romance, Sageuk 
Written by
 Jang Young-chul & Jung Kyung-soon
Directed by
 Han Hee & Lee Sung-joon 
Country of Origin
South Korea 

oh! … background

Empress Qi (Chinese) or Öljei Khutuk (Mongolian) was a primary empress of Toghon Temür of the Yuan Dynasty and mother to Biligtü Khan . She was originally from Goryeo (present-day Korea) and born into a lower-ranked aristocratic family of bureaucrats. She had an elder brother named Gi Cheol. She became a concubine of Toghon Temür and the mother of Biligtü Khan Ayushiridara.

Until the late 19th century, vast numbers of Goryeo boy and girls were sent as eunuchs and concubines to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, alongside other tributes of falcons, ginseng, grain, cloth, silver, and gold. As a teenager in 1333, Lady Gi (otherwise referred to as Lady Qi) was sent to Yuan as part of the human tribute the Goryeo kings had to provide once every three years.

After she arrived in Yuan, Lady Gi chose to make the best of her situation – she was beautiful and skilled at dancing, conversation, singing, poetry, and calligraphy so she quickly becomes Toghon Temür’s favourite concubine. Toghon Temür fell in love with Lady Gi and spent more time in her company than first Empress Danashiri. When Danashiri was executed in 1335, Toghon Temür tried to promote Lady Gi but opposition from Bayan and the Empress Dowager (Budashiri) prevented the move.

When in 1339 Lady Gi gave birth to a son, Toghon Temür decided that this boy Biligtü Khan would ascend the throne and so in 1340 he named Lady Gi as his second wife. Soon after naming Lady Gi as his second wife Bayan was purged and Lady Gi was elevated to secondary empress status, with Empress Bayan Khutugh of the Khongirad holding primary empress status.

Toghon Temür lost interest in governing and power was exercised politically and economically by Lady Gi, it was one of the most peaceful and prosperous periods of time for the Yuan. In 1353 her son was designated, Crown Prince. After Bayan Khutugh died, Lady Gi was elevated to the primary empress. The collapse of the Mongol rule of China in 1368 forced her to flee to Yingchang. In 1370, Toghon Temür died and his son ascended to the throne. Empress Gi became the Grand Empress, but soon after that, she went missing.

oh! … brief

This story follows the life of Gi Seungnyang, a woman born in Goryeo during the Yuan Dynasty. After escaping being sent as a human tribute to the Mongol Yuan under instruction by El Temür and witnessing her mother’s murder at the hands of El Temur’s son, Tang Ki-se, she lives as a boy. She becomes skilled with a bow and arrow and forms a group of ruffians whose sole purpose is to make money to buy back their mother’s, sisters, wives, girlfriends who were sent as human tribute.

Unknowingly, she crosses paths with the King of Goryeo, Wang Yu. They become comrades in arms and she fights loyally by his side. Wang Yu falls in love with her, however, their paths are not fated and the two are separated.

Gi Seungnyang ends up in the court of Ta Hwan (Toghon Temür), Emperor of the Mongols. She swiftly ascends to a level of power within the court. Overcoming the restrictions of the era’s class system, she marries Ta Hwan and eventually becomes a Yuan Dynasty empress.

oh! … talks drama

I was very reluctant to begin this kdrama simply because of the number of episodes for the production and the time invested in each hour-long episode, all fifty-one of them.

But I am so glad I did invest the time because I treasure this kdrama!

Those of you who are regular readers have a great understanding of my appreciation for historical or period dramas (sageuk-styled) where historical fact and figures are included in a realistic manner as possible. Empress Ki weaves a wonderful story around Lady Gi but, for the most part, writers Jang Young-chul and Jung Kyung-soon have taken poetic license with this amazingly strong female historical figure. Their script does not accurately reflect the historical facts or the lives of the characters, instead, it’s almost a fantastical sageuk, except for the fact that prominent historical figures are at the heart of the narrative.

Basically, this kdrama is a tragically romantic study of a woman from Goryeo who fights her way, tooth and nail, to gain the throne of the Yuan Empire. The fact that she bears the name and background of a historical figure is important — this is a historical sageuk after all! But, this recounting of Empress Ki’s life is imaginary and is not intended to insult or besmirch the real-life story of the real Empress Qi.

There was a certain amount of controversy around the script written by Jang Young-chul and Jung Kyung-soon, most critics upset with the poetic license and fabrication. Personally, I wasn’t offended and as always, I watched the production before I read any of the controversy and background or historical aspects. Once I had watched the series and read online about the controversy, it only encouraged me to investigate and research the real-life story of Empress Qi.

What I did learn was a surprise to me as I had no clue that Korean women were sent as human tribute to China during the Yuan Dynasty, let alone that these ‘slaves’ could end up in the court as concubines or even wife to an Emperor. It’s very interesting to learn these smaller details that might have been left out of a history lesson. Certainly, they were left out of all the Korean history lessons I received as a young girl.

Needless to say, I was hooked by the production within the first five episodes and while I’m reluctant to watch lengthy kdramas, I knew that I would see this one through to the end simply because the writing and the ‘fabrication’ was immensely entertaining and interesting and Jang Young-chul and Jung Kyung-soon kept their script tight, fast-paced without excessive amounts of melodrama, and the surprising fact that Empress Ki was actively involved in the politics of the Yuan Dynasty and helped lead or direct the power of the Ta Hwan (Emperor Toghon Temür). Take that all you Empress Ki critics!

I was impressed with the very first scene – the coronation of Empress Ki and then the subsequent flashback to Gi Seungnyang’s early life. It really sets the scene for what is to follow, an intense and involving, fast-paced storyline that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, anticipating the next twist.

I’m no fan of revenge-themed dramas either, but this one doesn’t only focus on revenge, although it’s a huge aspect of the story and the impetus for Gi Seungnyang’s rise in the Yuan court. Her quest is spurred on by her personal pursuit of justice for her mother, but as the story progresses it becomes more about a quest for power so that she can help her King and Goryeo at large. Even further into the story, the reasoning behind the quest for power broadens to include aiding her husband, Emperor Ta Hwan (Toghon Temür), in the defeat his enemies. Lastly, the Empress Dowager Hwang (Budashiri), in this production, works with Ta Hwan’s eunuch, Golta, to poison her own son and remove him from the throne.

The enemies for this production are initially Regent El Temür and his family including Tang Ki-se, Ta La-Hae and psychotic first Empress Tanashiri (Danashiri). Following El Temür’s defeat, warlord Baek-Ahn (Bayan of Merkid) and his niece Bayan Hudu (Bayan Qudu/Bayan Khutugh), who in this tale is the even more psychotic second wife of Emperor Toghon Temür become the next set of villains. A number of other mostly minor villainous characters or supporting characters of the main villains, also work against Emperor Ta Hwan and Empress Ki has to work against them all which in hindsight, changes her personality and she becomes colder, more determined and dangerous. She is certainly not the naïve ‘young pup’ by the time the drama draws to its conclusion that she was at the start.

Because of all the characters involved in this story, one can say that the scripted story is very character driven and Gi Seungnyang’s goals alter continually along the way based on the circumstances and arrival of new characters. The script also includes a fair number of life lessons, which I always find interesting because, for the most part, they are like hidden gems. Many of them are of course common sense, but it never hurts to share:

  • If you feel a certain way about a person in your life, tell them! Especially if you love them. Don’t leave words unspoken because time and life can sometimes take that person away from you and you’ll never know if you will see them again or if they knew the way you felt about them.
  • If you truly love someone, you’ll do anything and willingly sacrifice everything to help them or be with them or support them and you won’t consider or contemplate the consequences to yourself – it’s the unconditional love that so many humans long for.
  • Revenge is bad! It doesn’t matter which party you are in any plot for revenge (the guilty or the victim), everyone gets hurt, but typically the person who is most hurt is the one seeking revenge because revenge is a dual-edged sword.
  • Reaping what you sow – if you show kindness, tolerance, love and happiness, it will be what you reap, but, if you sow hatred, prejudice, misery, and despair you will reap the same. Karma has a funny way of returning your favours!
  • The desire for power and position, not to mention money causes havoc and can break even the most moral or ethical individual.
  • More often than not, the people closest to us are the ones most likely to hurt and betray us.
  • Life is a strategy game — the player’s decisions have an impact on the outcome.
  • Anyone can learn any country’s or people’s history, international relations, negotiations, statecraft and/or the collective customs and achievements of a people.
  • There is no stronger love than the love a mother has for their child and the love a child has for their mother.

If I were to offer some constructive criticism to the writers, I’d say that they spent far too much time and produced too many episodes focused on the battle for power between the Regent and the Emperor. It was increasingly interesting with all the plot twists and all the melodrama, but it seemed to go on forever and I wanted Ta Hwan to grow a spine. For me, this was perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the entire production, but it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment. It was my hope that the script would further develop the relationship between Ta Hwan and Gi Seungnyang. Sadly, this aspect was missing.

In fact, regarding the relationships with the three main leads (Wang Yu, Gi Seungnyang, and Ta Hwan) the writers, Jang Young-chul and Jung Kyung-soon, aired on the side of caution I guess. Perhaps it was controversial enough to have the ‘life story’ of a real Yuan Dynasty Empress dreamt up, without adding too many details of an additional concocted love triangle? But it was a failing I believe.

In my opinion, Gi Seungnyang’s attraction to Wang Yu was not romantic, but loyalty to her King and the people of Goryeo. Why I say this is due to a scene where Wang Yu in a round-about fashion ‘proposes’ to her when he gives her a beautiful hairpin, asking her to wear it if she agrees. Her gut reaction is to not wear it and he is miserably disappointed. But later she dons the hairpin almost as if she has resigned herself to that fate. On the other hand, Wang Yu was initially emotionally attracted to what he believed was a young man which then grew into a physical attraction once he realized the boy was actually a woman. As hard as he tries, once they have separated and gone their own way, which was mutually agreed upon, he cannot seem to stop himself from involving himself in her affairs and often rescuing her. All the way through the production, the writing and suggestion are that Wang Yu and Gi Seungnyang shared this resolute love and allegiance to one another, but the script doesn’t lay that foundation. At least, not in my opinion! I wish there’d been more attention to developing the romantic aspects of their relationship to drive a stronger contrast between this relationship and the one Gi Seungnyang shares with Emperor Ta Hwan.

In my opinion, Gi Seungnyang’s initial reaction to Ta Hwan is one of general annoyance and frustration. She seems irritated by his immaturity and paralyzing fear, which is perfectly understandable given everything she has witnessed and been subjected to. She then appears resigned to her fate as a maid in his court, but when she is elevated to serve him as a Lady of the court she sees an opportunity to enact her revenge and accumulated hatred of the Yuan Dynasty. Fortunately, she learns first-hand who the true villain is and her feelings toward Emperor Ta Hwan soften. Ta Hwan is initially oblivious to Gi Seungnyang, except for his understanding that the ‘young man’ is a loyal and faithful servant of King Wang Yu, who he views as an enemy of the Yuan court. It is because of this that he actively pursues to seek favour with Gi Seungnyang while snubbing King Wang Yu. However, once he realizes that Gi Seungnyang is a female he becomes increasingly physically and emotionally attached to her. Basically, he falls head over heels in love with her and even when she irritates him or makes careless mistakes that endanger their lives or the lives of those around them, he still cherishes her. I believe that Gi Seungnyang, while resigned to her fate and eager to remove El Temür from power, reaches a point in her relationship with Emperor Ta Hwan where she loves him completely and takes action to protect him and his kingdom. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be a perfect love, whereas the script paints Wang Yu’s love as the perfect love, but I feel that the story was beautifully written to portray how some love stories are just meant to be and others are ill-fated.

Without the audience knowing or understanding, writers Jang Young-chul and Jung Kyung-soon used symbolism during the Ta Hwan rescue scenes early on in the drama and then flashed back to them in the final scenes. What was symbolic?

At the rescue scene, King Wang Yu and Ta Hwan are seated on horses and each makes an offer to Gi Seungnyang to ride with him. She is positioned firmly between the two. She carefully considers each offer and then accepts Ta Hwan’s hand.

The audience’s initial instinct might be to consider that she did not want to inconvenience her King to whom she feels an undying loyalty and respect for rescuing her as a child. This is not to be confused with love, which is what she does eventually feel toward King Wang Yu, the father of her first child. I, however, believe that her spirit was more in tune with her destiny than her conscious mind and so the decision to ride with Ta Hwan was one that was made at a subconscious level.

Throughout the drama, Gi Seungnyang is caught in the middle of these two men. Her destiny belongs to one man, the one she subconsciously chose, the other relationship was ill-fated and simply not meant to be. I believe that when she made the conscious choice to be in the competition to become the Emperor’s concubine, she set aside all feelings, affection and love for King Wang Yu. Not simply because she believed him to be dead, or because she believed she had lost their love-child, but because she has steeled herself to taking out El Temür. In the process, she grows closer to Emperor Ta Hwan, recognizes his unconditional love for her and steps into her predestined position by his side, as a faithful, loving and supportive wife. This symbolically mirrors her behaviour immediately following her decision to ride with Ta Hwan. She clings to Ta Hwan tightly, periodically looking over her shoulder as King Wang Yu’s horse trails behind, just as he clings to her tightly every opportunity he is given later in the story. Their destinies were intertwined before they even understood or could appreciate the feelings they have for each other.

Perhaps being stuck between the two men was symbolic of the fact that she was stuck between Yuan, her adopted kingdom and Goryeo, her homeland? There is more than one way to interpret the supposed symbolism. I say supposed because it is unclear whether Jang Young-chul and Jung Kyung-soon intended the symbolism to be part of the overall story or not, or whether the directors, Han Hee and Lee Sung-joon determined to use the visual symbolism to aid the story. Perhaps neither the writers nor the directors understood that the scene and flashback had any symbolism to it?

Ultimately, the drama ended with Gi Seungnyang triumphantly coming out on top as Empress, but the human toll paid to achieve that position was indescribable. She lost the two men she loved and cherished, she lost her oldest son, she lost her ally, but she annihilated every single one of her and her husband’s enemies and helped straighten the path for the kingdom of Goryeo. The final episode was emotionally challenging, not only for the audience but also for the actors and actresses. The final episode was a release for the cast and crew after working together for upwards of nine months.

Fortunately, this was a fictional presentation, but as the true history of Empress Qi teaches us, her succession to the throne was also tumultuous and not an easy road. Alongside Empress Qi, a fair number of other prominent and historical figures are featured in the production.

The character Empress Ki was very loosely based on Empress Gi, otherwise known as Empress Qi or Empress Dowager Qixi. The character of this production is well-written and well-developed. Much like a butterfly, Gi Seungnyang goes through a metamorphosis, from a young, naïve cross-dressing woman through a cold, calculating vengeful femme fatale to end up as a strikingly intelligent, politically savvy and ardent ruler.  The character’s journey to her predestined life allows for a lot of personal growth, learning, and self-awareness. It is very insightful and well-mapped out by the writers and captured visually by the directors and team behind the cinematography.

The character King Wang Yu was supposedly based on Chunghye of Goryeo (or Botapsili). The historical figure was the son of King Chungsuk and Queen Gongwon and had a terrible reputation for abducting, raping and murdering women. By contrast, the writers portrayed King Wang Yu as an honourable man, both morally and ethically. Out of all the characters, King Wang Yu stays true to form from beginning to end. The character endures emotional highs and lows, but never sways from his purpose and loyalties, even though tempted to from time to time.

The character Emperor Ta Hwan (Toghon Temür) was loosely based on Emperor Huizong (Toghon Temür), the last Khagan of the Mongol Empire and son of Khutughtu Khan Kusala and Malaita. True to the historical facts, Emperor Huizong was banished to Goryeo and then later to Guangxi in South China. This is where the facts and the fictional aspects of the production depart. According to factual records, it was only after El Temür’s death in 1333 that Emperor Huizong met Lady Gi and that was 13 years after she was sent as human tribute. He did fall in love with Lady Gi and she was his favourite concubine. Of all the characters Ta Hwan undergoes the most transformation and it is with thanks to Gi Seungnyang. She helps him find his courage and fights on his behalf. He is transformed from a whiny, cowardly self-centred spoilt brat (his fear was genuine and founded) into an honourable and thoughtful ruler who learns to use the little power he does have under whichever Regent to his advantage. The character’s transformation was painfully slow, but it allowed the audience to personally invest in their own romance with his personality, humour and ardent love of Gi Seungnyang. The writers depicted this young man in a likeable fashion and I fell in love with the character – who doesn’t want a man who will love you unconditionally and overlook your flaws or faults?

Interestingly and portrayed to some extent in the production, Emperor Huizong disliked Bayan’s style of rule, so he aligned himself with Bayan’s nephew Toqto’a and banished Bayan in a coup. He then removed Empress Budashiri from the court and El Tegüs. Allied with Toqto’a he was able to purge political officials who had dominated the administration of his court. These facts were mostly portrayed in a faithful manner in the production.

The character Tal Tal who is depicted as Bayan’s relative and ally to Empress Ki in the production was loosely based on Toqto’a. Historical records show that Toqto’a was Bayan Khutugh’s brother and Bayan’s nephew and was also called “The Great Historian Tuotuo”. He allied himself with Emperor Huizong to take down his uncle Bayan because he believed his uncle’s ambition and power-hungry plots would harm the family name and honour. In a masterful plot, Bayan was exiled. After many successful years under Emperor Huizong’s rule, his former protégé Biligtü Khan Ayushiridara, the eldest son of the Emperor and Lady Gi falsely accused him of corruption and forced the Emperor to strip him of his dignities (Regent title etc.) and banish him by imperial decree.  While in exile he was poisoned by assassins.

Unlike the historical facts, the character Tal Tal was an avid supporter of Gi Seungnyang. This character helped groom her for her role as Empress and supported her once she had achieved favour in Ta Hwan’s court. He was perhaps the only character in the production that completely understood Empress Ki’s motivations and worked tirelessly to help whenever he could. His character is depicted as being a true strategist and influencer.

The character Tanashiri, the first wife of Emperor Ta Hwan was loosely based on Danashiri who was historically the daughter of El Temür and did bear her husband one child named Maha but he passed as an infant due to measles. She did work against her husband’s reign likely because of his infatuation with Lady Qi. She was implicated in a failed coup along with her brother and was sent into exile. She was poisoned in 1335.

Much like the historical figure, Tanashiri was depicted as a calculating woman who came to hate both her husband and the love of his life, Empress Ki. There was little development of her character throughout the short time she appears, mostly because she was nasty to start with and was nasty to the end.

The character Empress Dowager Wang was loosely based on Budashiri, who was the wife of the Jayaaty Khan, Tugh Temür. She was responsible for exiling Toghon Temür to Goryeo and subsequently Henan, but in 1333 she brought Toghon Temür back to Yuan and installed him as emperor, three years later she was elevated to the rank of Grand Empress Dowager. Toghon Temür eventually ordered Budashiri stripped of her title and exiled to Dong’an, where she was put to death for all her wrong-doings to his family members and retaliation for his exile.

Empress Dowager Wang was brilliant in this production and the perfect example of a woman with power who needs to cling to it and will remove any obstacles to her path. Her character develops from a seemingly amenable woman on the surface to the most conniving, calculating and evil woman of all the female characters.

The character El Temür was loosely based on El Temür, a Kipchak officer who organized a coup to install Tugh Temür as the Yuan Emperor. This historical figure was also believed to be behind the poisoning of Kusala (Tugh Temür’s brother). He married his daughter to Toghon Temür but would not live to see his grandson installed as Emperor because he died in 1333 from an unknown illness. His children were murdered by his former co-conspirator a few years later.

Of all the characters depicted in the production, El Temür was the vilest, evil and self-centred individual. His character was so well written it was scary to imagine that this kind of person clawed his way to power and relentlessly held onto it.  The character was well presented and as the production progressed he became more insane with his hunger for power and position and the plots became more insane.

The character Baek Ahn was loosely based on historical figure Bayan of Merkid, a General from the Merkid clan and a Yuan official. He was described as a traditionalist who wanted to preserve Mongolian culture but was also viewed as a violent aristocrat. He did support Toghon Temür and he did kill El Temür’s sons. His crazed ideas (including purges of Chinese carry names Zhang, Wang, Lui, Li and Zhao) eventually led to his downfall at the hands of his nephew Toqto’a.

The character Bayan Khutugh was very loosely based on Bayan Khutugh (otherwise known as Bayan Qudu) who was Toghon Temür’s second wife, a plain, simple woman uninterested in politics and the political ongoing of the Yuan court. She was married to Toghon Temür at 13 years old. She bore the emperor a son who did not reach two years of age.

Unlike the historical figure, the production’s Bayan Khutugh was depicted as being unbalanced and mentally unstable. Of all the women, this character was perhaps the second most dangerous. The development of this character, contrary to the historical figure, was nicely accomplished and kept the audience guessing what her next move would be.

The two directors, Han Hee and Lee Sung-joon created a stunning visual story with lavish sets and costumes all enhanced with the occasional CGI backdrop for this production. The visual story was beautifully captured and of film quality instead of cheaper budget drama quality.  The locations both in China and Korea lent themselves as an amazing backdrop and helped paint some fantastic landscape scenery. I enjoyed the scenes where the cameras captured the facial expression, the long staring off into the distance. They’re typical ploys in camerawork in kdrama, but for this production, they appeared heightened.

Some of the most memorable scenes for me included the following:

  • The opening wedding/coronation scene being shot for the most part in slo-mo so that the audience can capture the desperation and longing look between the three parties to the love triangle and also the drops of tears falling from Empress Ki’s eyes. It was woefully statuesque and set the scene for the coming conflict and merry-go-round of the love triangle. This scene was shot in China’s Forbidden City. It was one of the most important scenes of the entire production and a lot of effort and choreography went on behind the scenes. The Emperor is dressed in a gorgeous period-gown of black and gold and his Empress is regally adorned in red and gold. A camera attached to a helicopter was used to capture some of the aerial footage.
  • The horse-back scene with Gi Seungnyang and Ta Hwan was brilliantly staged and shot in a variety of angles and then edited to sheer perfection. If there weren’t other amazingly choreographed scenes that were captured in the lenses of the cameras, this could have been an all-time favourite for this production. Capturing Ta Hwan leaping from his horse to Gi Seugnyang’s was masterful and the horse buckling toppling them both to the sand with Gi Seungnyang landing atop Ta Hwan. It’s playful and slightly provocative in a cheek,y innocent way.
  • The first kiss scene between Ta Hwan and his empress-to-be comes when he hides her in his bathtub but she is immersed in the water too long and starts to drown. Ta Hwan brings her round by blowing air into her lungs beneath the surface of the water, but to the audience, it appears to be a life-saving-kiss. This underwater cinematography, enhanced of course with CGI was breathtaking and romantic as by now the audience has a full understanding of the way Ta Hwan feels about Gi Seungnyang.
  • I think of all the countless scenes that are amazing and stand out for their beauty and visual narrative, the bridge scene for me is my favourite. The atmosphere created by this scene is overwhelming. There is a wretched sadness in the Emperor, a strong desolation and worthlessness. The only thing that Gi Seungnyang can think of to help heal this lonely, fearful and submissive man is to offer her back in support and to cast no judgment on what she hears or sees. So, she covers her ears, closes her eyes and allows Ta Hwan to lean back on her and ‘take rest’ literally and figuratively. It’s an exceptionally moving scene and allows the audience to understand that while Gi Seungnyang is cold-heartedly seeking revenge, she still has room in her soul to offer empathy and compassion. It was perhaps one of the most powerful interactions between these two leads.
  • The consummation of their relationship is another scene favourite for me and it includes their real first kiss too. The tension of a sexual nature build up in the preceding scenes following a few false starts and almost kisses, but finally, in this intimate and very honest scene, Ta Hwan confesses the depth of his love, “Now I am whole, thanks to you. No one moves me like you do.” The camera angles, the lighting and the method of shooting up close before moving to shooting from a distance just give the impression of the audience peeking in on a private, tender moment. It’s extremely well done and tastefully choreographed.
  • Pretty much any scene that involved Ta Hwan with his son Ayu and with Empress Ki or not, but the one I am particularly fond of is the one where Prince Ayu stares up fascinated into his father’s face as he coos down at his son. The chemistry between this adorable little baby and Ta Hwan was exceptional. In the scene, Ta Hwan promises to make his son Crown Prince and Gi Seungnyang empress.
  • The final scene where Ta Hwan is close to dying and any moment will take his final breath and he is being held in Empress Ki’s lap. It’s a gentle goodbye, between two people who love one another but are not given sufficient time to really enjoy each other’s love. The flashback to the scene where Gi Seungnyang chooses to ride with Ta Hwan is played and the audience understands that while a love existed between King Wang Yu and Gi Seungnyang, her place was always to be beside Emperor Ta Hwan.

The standard of camerawork was above-par and even though CGI was used in scenes, the cameras did add dimension and depth. The visual narrative was poetic and only enhanced by the amazing attention to details for production sets and wardrobe.

The level of detail was superb from the wardrobe, jewellery, hairstyles and accessories to the scene props. The wardrobe did justice to the known styles of the era. There was such an array of colour and style — I preferred the Goryeo style more than the Yuan. The jewellery and outfits worn, whether they were courtiers or servants, were of an exceptional quality and the hairdos and various hair accessories were exceptional, particularly the men who were more prone to wearing their hair down. Some of the wardrobes were more opulent than others – the El Temür clan appeared to like lavish design and pomp.

To further enhance the success of the production, a wonderful soundtrack accompanied the script and visual elements which only bolstered an already successful kdrama series. The soundtrack comprised of some great tracks included Kim Jang-woo’s Opening Title and Main Theme, 4Men’s Thorn Love, Soyou’s track Love Wind, Park Wan-kyu’s track The Wind, Ji Chang-wook’s track To the Butterfly, Zia’s tracks The Day and her ballad I Love You which was as heart-achingly good as the drama was itself. You’ll enjoy the mix of music and it’s available on my Spotify playlist below.

The level of the acting was above par. I have very few criticisms of the acting and think that the directors did a fine job of carefully choosing their cast and supporting actors and actresses.

Ha Ji-won played Gi Seungnyang/ Empress Ki and was absolutely mesmerizing in the role. She immersed herself and completely inhabited her character, from playful almost mischievous cross-dressing hoodlum to dutiful court made and then charming court lady, to distant, cold, calculating concubine and finally battle-hardened Empress. I thoroughly enjoyed the playful cross-dressing scenes at the beginning of the drama but I enjoyed the character most when she found her feet and her place in the Yuan court. Ha Ji-won has always had a broad acting range and has mastered how to portray the emotions and personality of her characters. This production was no exception. There was a visible difference in how her character started the drama to how she ended it. I think I have to tip my hat to Ha Ji-won for her mastery at military skills – including sword fighting, martial arts moves, her strength with the bow and arrow and of course her riding abilities. She did an exceptional shop and delivered a stellar performance, unrivalled by any of the other female supporting actresses.

Ji Chang-wook played Emperor Huizong of Yuan (Ta Hwan) and was sensational in his role. I was entertained from the moment my eyes set on him (and not just because he is a handsome young man) because he gave his character so much life. From fearful, whiney, spoilt cry-baby in the beginning, to determined young man in his prime as he tackled literacy and understanding of government and politics through to the self-sacrificing man he becomes. Ji Chang-wook was astounding! I was held captive by his character’s unconditional love and the way in which he expressed his every emotion and sentiment through his facial expressions or body language or a combination of both. I believe Ji Chang-wook perfectly portrayed his character’s early vulnerability and immaturity. When the character had matured somewhat Ji Chang-wook exhibited confidence in the way his character spoke and walked and interacted with other characters. Ta Hwan’s jealousy, crazy rants, sometimes irrational thinking and decline into violence while being poisoned was creepily illustrated for the audience by Ji Chang-wook’s skilled acting. This role of Ta Hwan could not have been delivered by anyone else at the level Ji Chang-wook delivered, not in my opinion anyway.

Together Ha Ji-won and Ji Chang-wook shared an amazing chemistry that never felt forced but only came across as natural. I would have enjoyed seeing more love develop between the two, so I would have preferred a lot more intimate and close personal interactions – more physical affection and tender moments, although there were enough for the production to be a success and successfully convey the depth of the Emperor’s love. I just wanted more of the lovey-dovey to balance the political shenanigans that were going on at all levels of court.

Joo Jin-mo played the third wheel in this production as character King Wang Yu. I write it that way because honestly, that is what it feels like. I understand that other’s felt that King Wang Yu and Gi Seungnyang should have instead been the partnership but I never felt like they truly loved each other. There were respect and duty between them both. I’ve always been an in-between fan for Joo Jin-mo, I’ve never really gotten to the point where I can honestly say I love his acting style and method. To me, he’s a mixed bag and although he always does a great job in his role, like this production, I keep wanting more from him and expecting more. As King Wang Yu, his character has virtually no room for personal growth so the role is stunted from the start. Joo Jin-mo was to me under-utilized in this role and the whole love triangle thing was as annoying as it was entertaining. I did, however, interpret his performance as first-rate because he is an exceptionally adept actor and very skilled in sageuk-styled kdrama. He emotes well, uses his stature and physicality to the advantage of his character’s traits and idiosyncrasies.

The chemistry between Ha Ji-won and Joo Jin-mo’s characters felt unbalanced to me. It existed, there is no denying it, but I felt it came stronger from Joo Jin-mo than Ha Ji-won. Maybe that’s exactly how the writers wrote it and the directors interpreted it. I do believe that there are varying levels of love and adoration and the relationship between these two characters was on a whole different playing field to that of the relationship Gi Seungnyang shared with Ta Hwan. I would have liked to see more of the relationship develop initially to have a greater appreciation for the so-called ‘love story’ between the two.

As there were many, many accomplished actors and actresses in supporting roles I will mention a few of them here.

Baek Jin-hee played Empress Tanashiri and was supported directly by Yoon Ah-jung who played her court lady Yeon-hwa. Baek Jin-hee did a remarkable job of depicting the extremely jealous first wife of the Emperor. She managed to convince me time again of her evil side-plotting. It was a solid performance. As her court lady, Yoon Ah-jung did well in portraying her characters side-swapping personality.

Kim Ji-han played the character Tal Tal and did such an amazing job in his supporting role that I feel he should have been given a more prominent role where his character actively participated. Perhaps he should have played King Wang Yu. There is a quiet disposition to Kim Ji-han’s method of acting, an almost secretive art form. It is very endearing. I look forward to watching him give other performance. This was a good role and a solid delivery of his character.

Kim Young-ho played character Baek An and wow, he gave an interesting performance for his character. I ultimately believed every word that he spoke and I think he may have done some research on Bayan who his character was loosely based on because his performance was organic and authentic.

Kim Seo-hyung played the unbalanced Empress Dowager and she gave a fine performance. I believed that she was driven by a hunger for power and Kim Seo-hyung’s performance convinced me. I enjoyed how she interpreted her character’s ability to on the surface appear sane and in command of herself, but behind closed doors her growing insanity, jealousy and suspicion spurred her on to make rash decisions and become involved in plots and political intrigues. It was a strong performance.

Jeon Kuk-hwan played the evil El Temür to perfection. The character was creepy and more than a little narcissistic and Jeon Kuk-hwan used every ounce of his acting skills to bring this vile creature to life. My skin crawls just imagining the performance now as I write.

oh! … sidekicks

There were so many performances by an amazing cast that it would take forever to write something about everyone, so I’m going to list them here and hope you and they will understand that I am trying to include everyone who left a significant impression on me for their role and the acting they delivered.

Actress and actors portraying good characters worth mentioning for their strong performance in a supporting role included:

Han Hye-rin as Concubine Park

Lee Moon-sik as Ban Shin-woo

Choi Moo-sung as Park Bool-hwa

Lee Won-jong as Dok-man

Kwon Oh-jung as Choi Moo-song

Actress and actors portraying bad characters worth mentioning for their strong performance in a supporting role included:

Lim Ju-eun as Bayan Khutugh

Lee Jae-yong as Wang Go

Kim Jung-hyun as Dang Ki-Se

Cha Do-jin as Top Ja-hae

Jung Woong-in as Yeom Byung-soo (the scum)

oh! … that’s a wrap

It was a long journey from start to finish but it was time well spent to see the amazing Empress Ki deliver with a strong script, solid directing, amazing camerawork, awesome soundtrack and excellence in acting by a cast of well-known favoured actors and actresses. There is very little wrong with this amazing production and I highly recommend it. However, I must warn that it is long.

I am adding this to my collection but it’s unlikely that I will get a chance to watch end-to-end again given my growing list of other productions I still want to see. If you like historical drama series, then you will appreciate this one, but I do suggest that you read the real history behind the figures to have a greater appreciation of the era and the ongoing conflicts, political and personal.

Don’t forget to download and play the soundtrack, there are some really good songs included.

oh! … tidbits

The series received high ratings which were surprising given the initial controversy with the script and the fact that the production was largely fictional instead of factual.

Ha Ji-won took home two awards for her role as Empress Ki – the first the Grand Prize (Daesang) and the second the Top Excellence Award for an Actress in a Special project Drama.

Ji Chang-wook won a 2013 MBC Drama Excellence Award for an Actor in a Special Project Drama.

The writers Jang Young-chul and Jung Kyung-soon won a 2013 MBC Drama award for Writers of the Year.

Joo Jin-mo also won a Daesang Top Excellence Award for an Actor in a Special Project Drama.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailers

oh! … nooz

Ji Chang Wook reveals his thoughts about historical distortion in Empress Ki

Ji Chang Wook reveals the difficulties of filming Empress Ki with Seoul News

Empress Ki writer returns with new series for MBC


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