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K-drama ● Review: The Last Empress

English Title: The Last Empress

Korean Title: 황후의품격 [lit. empress’s character]

Director(s): Joo Dong-min

Screenwriter(s): Kim Soon-ok

Studio: SBS Released: 2018–2019

Runtime: 26 episodes, ~1h each.

Starring: Jang Na-ra, Shin Sung-rok, Choi Jin-hyuk, Lee Elijah, Shin Eun-kyung

My Verdict: Twist-filled mystery/thriller-drama about the corrupt imperial family in alternative present-day Korea. Ridiculous but addictive.

The Last Empress

● Set in an alternative present-day Korea in which a constitutional monarchy is in place, the series follows the intrigues surrounding the corrupt imperial family.

● The two main viewpoint characters are Oh Sunny (Jang Na-ra) and Na Wang-sik. Sunny is an aspiring musical actress, a “commoner” who marries Emperor Lee Hyuk who is a widower. Na Wang-sik (initially played by Tae Hang-ho) seeks vengeance after the imperial family leaves him to die. After merely a year or two of intense training, he is transformed (played by Choi Jin-hyuk) and infiltrates the imperial family as a bodyguard.

● The premise is interesting enough, but the plot and its execution are ridiculous. It’s not so ridiculous that it is jarring, at least not always, but it is as if the makers of the show are on coke then some weed in an attempt to balance things out and then just happened to have a smidge of LSD afterward. Because they can. Due to the constant intrigue but well-managed pacing, some may even find the series highly addictive if one can accept all the ridiculousness.

● Jang Na-ra is typecast as the meek Oh Sunny who is thrown into a different world in which she has to survive, but she is so good at it that one is unlikely to question it. Choi Jin-hyuk is also his usual straight-up cool self.

Oh Sunny (Jang Na-ra)
Oh Sunny (Jang Na-ra)
Na Wang-sik (Choi Jin-hyuk)
Na Wang-sik (Choi Jin-hyuk)

● The real star of the series is Shin Sung-rok as Emperor Lee Hyuk. He is, to put it mildly, unlikeable as a person but is nonetheless sufficiently interesting as a character. The man is nasty but is able to put on a front of civility that fools outsiders. He does occasionally try to be decent and kind—but like a lot of bad people that effort is somewhat superficial even though it seems like a lot in his mind—and then gives up because it’s too hard. Shin Sung-rok does enough to actually evoke some sympathy whilst at the same time making his character unpredictable and scary. He is all the more disturbing because he does occasionally waver between good and bad.

Emperor Lee Hyuk (Shin Sung-rok)
Emperor Lee Hyuk (Shin Sung-rok)

● Part of the sympathy for Lee Hyuk is due to comparisons to other characters. As nasty as he is, most of the others are far from good. His mother Kang Eun-ran (Shin Eun-kyung) is the worst. She is the tyrannical witch of the series and Shin Eun-kyung plays her well. Interestingly, her character regularly receives certain illegal injections to stay looking young. I am a little surprised that such a reference is even allowed to be made.

Kang Eun-ran (Shin Eun-kyung)
Kang Eun-ran (Shin Eun-kyung)

● With a large supporting cast, there is plenty of ridiculous intrigue in addition to the actions, past and present, of the emperor and his mother: Lee Hyuk’s personal assistant/secretary/love interest Min Yoo-Ra (Lee Elijah) has her own agenda; the murder of the kindhearted Grand Empress Dowager (Park Won-sook), the emperor’s grandmother and Sunny’s ally within the palace; the mystery surrounding the death of the emperor’s first wife So-hyun (Shin Go-eun); the ambitions of Seo Kang-hee (Yoon So-yi), the nanny of the princess’s daughter, amongst others.

Min Yoo-Ra (Lee Elijah)
Min Yoo-Ra (Lee Elijah)

● The twists, even when predictable, are handled well due to the pacing as almost nothing drags on for too long without some sort of exposition (even if it is not the whole truth). It is a little like the twisty craziness of 24 but without the real-time format or the action set pieces.

● The weakness of the series is that it was extended by four 30-minute episodes (or two 1-hour episodes). Whilst that undoubtedly allowed a not-too-rushed ending, Choi Jin-hyuk could not feature in those final episodes so his character’s arc ends clumsily. Surprisingly, this does not ruin the entire series as the other characters and their arcs are strong enough.

● The series is a not-so-subtle and somewhat clumsy jab at the monarchial system, at least implying a preference for a democratic system. Although not intended to be an in-depth exploration of the issue, it would be better to not bother; after all, it is not so much the formal system in place but the people that are the problem.

● If one can accept that the main character can transform into another person within a short period of time, and if one is interested in this genre, then this will probably be an enjoyable series.


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