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Novelization of “Empress Ki”
Description of characters
(Jump to Some holes in the “Empress Ki” narrative; Reasons to watch “Empress Ki”; Photography lessons from “Empress Ki”)
“Empress Ki” synopsis with minimal spoilers and links to free episodes in Dramacool website
Ep. 1 to 6
SeungNyang, her mother, and other Koryo women are being dragged off to Yuan as part of the concubine tribute. But they are released from prison by Wang Yu, the young Crown Prince of Koryo. While trying to escape, SeungNyang’s mother is killed by Tangqishi, son of the Yuan Regent, El Temur. Before dying, SeungNyang’s mother tells her that her father is still alive and gives her the ring that her father will recognize. SeungNyang escapes successfully and, from then on, pretends to be a boy to protect herself.
SeungNyang learns archery, sword fighting, and other military skills with the help of Wang Ko, the brother of the King of Koryo. But SeungNyang secretly turns against Wang Ko when she learns that he is helping Tangqishi with getting women for the concubine tribute.
Thirteen years later, SeungNyang pretends to work faithfully for Wang Ko. But the band of Koryo boys she leads is actually trying to save their sisters taken as concubines to Yuan. Not knowing that Wang Yu is the Crown Prince, SeungNyang helps him to uncover Wang Ko’s salt-trafficking activities. About to be exposed, Wang Ko tries to deceive the King of Koryo into investing him as the next king, but the King chooses Wang Yu.
SeungNyang becomes a soldier under Commander Ki Ja-oh whom she has found out is her father. She helps her father and Wang Yu in protecting Togon, the exiled Yuan prince, from assassins sent by El Temur. But her father gets killed, and El Temur frames Wang Yu for the assassination attempt. Wang Yu is deposed as king and, together with SeungNyang, is exiled to Yuan.
Ep. 7 to 9
Along the way, Tangqishi and Wang Yu find out that SeungNyang is a woman. Tangqishi wants SeungNyang for himself, and so he sends Wang Yu to the dangerous border where the Turks are trying to control the Silk Road. SeungNyang ends up as a kitchen maid and later on, as a palace maid in the Yuan capital.
Togon, now the Yuan emperor, also learns after some confusion that SeungNyang is a woman. He becomes enamored with her and neglects Empress Tanasiri, El Temur’s daughter.
SeungNyang blames Togon for her father’s death and tries to kill him on several occasions. She fails in her last attempt because she is stopped by Lady Park, Togon’s concubine from Koryo. (SeungNyang and Lady Park later on become good friends and help each other out.)
Ep. 10 to 20
Wang Yu defeats the Turks using the Koryo slaves he inspired and trained. He makes a secret deal with the Turk general Batolu (aka Yon Feisu) and sets General Bayan and his adjutant Tal Tal free.
Returning to the Yuan capital, Wang Yu is welcomed as a hero by El Temur and the Empress Dowager. With music and poetry, he charms the Empress Dowager and even Tanasiri, who begins to think that he is romantically interested in her.
Wang Yu finally reunites with SeungNyang, and they consummate their relationship.
Ep. 21 to 23
SeungNyang saves Wang Yu, Bayan, Tal Tal, and Togon from being implicated in a failed rebellion against El Temur. Out of gratitude, El Temur promotes Bayan as governor. He also pressures Togon into deposing the Empress Dowager who has placed upon herself all the blame for the rebellion. Togon banishes her to a nunnery. At the same time, El Temur denies Wang Yu’s request to be reinstated as King of Koryo. Wang Yu decides to return to Koryo, but SeungNyang stays to search for the Blood Vow, the will of Emperor Togon’s father. SeungNyang wants to use the will against El Temur and his family for her revenge and to help Wang Yu regain his throne.
SeungNyang becomes pregnant and hides for several months in a secret room in the palace. She survives through the help of her Koryo friends - the head eunuch, Lady Noh, Lady Park, and some kitchen maids. She finally escapes from the palace, but Lady Park, Lady Noh, and her kitchen maid-friends are massacred on Tanasiri’s order. SeungNyang escapes from the massacre and gives birth prematurely in a cave. Later on, she is shot with an arrow by Yom Byungsu, and her baby gets thrown into the river below. She buries her friends, and not being able to find her baby in the river, she accepts reluctantly that her baby died.
But SeungNyang’s baby is found alive by a monk who brings it to the hermitage where Tanasiri is staying. Tanasiri, who is faking her pregnancy, claims the baby as her own, naming him Maha. To hide her secret, Tanasiri orders that the monks be poisoned and the hermitage be burned down.
SeungNyang, along with former eunuch Jokho, gets captured by slave traders affiliated with the secretive group Eagle House. (The group, with help from El Temur, controls business in Yuan through counterfeiting and other shady practices.) While being held captive, SeungNyang finds the Blood Vow hidden in the mirror given to her by Lady Noh. She gains her freedom after Bayan, out of gratitude, buys her from the slave market.
Ep. 24 to 31
Thinking that SeungNyang is dead, Wang Yu agrees to marry El Temur’s niece for political reasons and to avenge SeungNyang's death. SeungNyang learns about his marriage and decides to avenge her friends in her own way. She tells Bayan and Tal Tal that she found the Blood Vow and convinces them to send her as their candidate for imperial consort. She plans to exact revenge on El Temur and his clan using the position of consort and Togon’s affections for her.
Despite Tanasiri’s schemes, SeungNyang becomes an imperial consort through the Empress Dowager’s help. When Wang Yu returns to Yuan, he finds out that SeungNyang is still alive and is now a consort. But Tal Tal warns him not to interfere with their plans of bringing El Temur down. Wang Yu and SeungNyang meet, and they agree to go on their separate ways.
SeungNyang secretly begins teaching Togon reading and writing, things that El Temur deliberately withheld from Togon as he was growing up. (Years later, Togon will forbid Prince Maha from learning how to read and write.)
Ep. 32 to 34
El Temur forces Togon to seal an abdication decree naming Prince Maha as Emperor and Tanasiri as Empress Regent. But SeungNyang, the Empress Dowager, Bayan, and Tal Tal rescue Togon from abdicating by helping the governors to stand up to El Temur. Tal Tal uses a document secretly given to him by Wang Yu. (The document, taken from Eagle House and decoded by Yon Feisu, names all the Eagle House men in the various provinces and outlines El Temur’s complicity.) But Togon fails to get back from El Temur the imperial seal when El Temur frames and then kills one of the governors.
El Temur then plans to assassinate Togon and SeungNyang during the Royal Hunt by using the imperial guards under Yom Byungsu. During the hunt, Tanasiri finds out that Wang Yu is still in love with SeungNyang. Feeling that Wang Yu led her on romantically, Tanasiri decides to kill him too.
With some imperial guards, Tanasiri tries but fails to kill SeungNyang. Caught in a trap later on, SeungNyang is saved by Togon from being struck by poisoned arrows. SeungNyang and Togon are then attacked by Yom Byungsu and other imperial guards. They are able to escape from the pursuing guards when, unknown to them, Wang Yu and two of his men risk their lives fighting against dozens of the pursuers. The pursuers surround the wounded Wang Yu and his men. Tanasiri also aims to shoot Wang Yu with a crossbow, but she hesitates. Wang Yu and his men are rescued by Yon Feisu and Jokho.
The Dowager Empress and the imperial court investigate El Temur and his clan for their role in the assassination attempt. Tanasiri doesn’t tell her father about how Wang Yu betrayed them, and so, El Temur asks Wang Yu to testify on their behalf. Tangqishi tells Yom Byungsu to take all the blame for the assassination attempt. Yom Byungsu is sentenced to death, but Tangqishi pulls off a switch and helps him escape. Yom Byungsu is sent to oversee the mine owned by El Temur.
Ep. 35 to 39
SeungNyang conceives a child with Togon. To cause SeungNyang to miscarry, Tanasiri uses the “Maledictum curse.” But with Tal Tal’s help, SeungNyang overcomes the curse, and the curse turns to torment El Temur. While these events are going on, El Temur appoints Wang Yu as commander of the city garrison. When the soldiers quit rather than serve Wang Yu, he takes in beggars and other men wandering aimlessly in the streets. He inspires and gives them hope. Several months later, SeungNyang gives birth to her son Ayushiridara, while Wang Yu finally has a small army of a hundred well-trained soldiers.
Using the Blood Vow, SeungNyang helps Togon plot El Temur’s overthrow through the Empress Dowager, Bayan, and the other governors. The uprising succeeds when Wang Yu and his men open the city gate for Bayan’s soldiers. El Temur is deposed and, on Togon’s order, is strangled to death. Togon also orders Tanasiri’s death by hanging after she refuses to take poison. Togon appoints Bayan as Regent and restores Wang Yu as King of Koryo.
Togon plans to invest SeungNyang as the new Empress. But, with the Empress Dowager’s urging, Bayan opposes Togon’s plan. He pressures Togon into marrying his niece. He also persuades Togon to undertake a military quest to restore Yuan’s former glory. These things start SeungNyang’s feud with Bayan and the Empress Dowager.
Ep. 40 to 45
SeungNyang learns about Bayan’s plans to annex Koryo and to reimpose the concubine tribute. She asks Wang Yu to help her become Empress, promising to help Koryo according to the request of Wang Yu’s father. Together, they find El Temur’s treasure, and they divide it equally. SeungNyang uses her share to help the famine victims in Yuan and to gain support from the governors and other court officials. (Later on, when her share is all used up, Wang Yu uses part of his share to help feed Yuan’s starving people.)
Bayan’s military quest ruins Yuan financially and militarily. To shift the blame, he uses Wang Yu as a scapegoat. To trick Wang Yu into going back to Yuan, Bayan uses Prince Maha. Wang Yu is deposed again as king because he allegedly helped Yuan’s enemies. Taking advantage of this situation, Bayan tortures Wang Yu, hoping that he will implicate SeungNyang. But SeungNyang rallies her political allies to petition Togon into releasing Wang Yu. When Wang Yu admits to SeungNyang that he really did help Yuan’s enemies, she breaks off their agreement to help each other. She questions herself as to whether her loyalties are with Koryo or with Yuan.
Bayan fights Wang Yu in a roadside duel. Despite not seeing Wang Yu’s body, he believes that he had killed Wang Yu. On learning about his death, SeungNyang tells Tal Tal that she will avenge Wang Yu. (Wang Yu is saved by Yon Feisu, but, as they were escaping from their pursuers, she dies.)
Ep. 46 to 51
Bang, Wang Yu’s faithful eunuch, finds out that the Empress wants to kill Prince Maha. To save Maha, Bang tells SeungNyang that Maha is actually her son. SeungNyang goes to save Maha, but Maha is shot with a poisoned arrow. SeungNyang exposes the Empress as having tried to assassinate Maha. Without revealing that Maha is actually her son, she tells the court that Maha is not Tanasiri’s son and that Tanasiri killed the monks who knew the truth.
Maha is disqualified as the Crown Prince. Wang Yu finds out that Maha is his son and spends time with him. He plans to take Maha back to Koryo, but Maha dies soon after. Wang Yu orders Eunuch Park not to tell SeungNyang about Maha’s death.
Bayan has become a tyrant just like El Temur. Consequently, SeungNyang and Tal Tal conspire to kill him. On SeungNyang’s pleadings, Tal Tal reluctantly becomes the next regent.
Kolta, Emperor Togon’s eunuch, begins poisoning Togon. Kolta is revealed as the Eagle House’s leader. Eagle House is financially ruined by Wang Yu and his men. Wang Yu, through Tal Tal and unknown to Togon and SeungNyang, gives the grain he took from Eagle House to help feed the starving Yuan people.
Tangqishi finds out that Maha is actually Wang Yu and SeungNyang’s son. Conniving with the captain of the imperial guards, he attacks Emperor Togon and SeungNyang on their way back to the palace. But Wang Yu and his men save Togon and SeungNyang. Before dying, Tangqishi tells Togon that Maha is Wang Yu and SeungNyang’s son.
Because of Tal Tal and SeungNyang’s request, Togon restores Wang Yu as King of Koryo. But to protect SeungNyang and her secret about Maha, Togon kills Wang Yu after SeungNyang’s investiture as the new Empress.
SeungNyang uses her position as Empress to rule Koryo by proxy. She also stops the Koryo concubine tribute. At the end of the story, Togon dies as rebels threaten the Yuan capital.
Some holes in the “Empress Ki” narrative
1. Why would the children in the mining town be singing the song that held the clues to the whereabouts of El Temur’s treasure? Even Tangqishi didn’t know where his father’s treasure was. Who taught them the song and why?
2. Why would Lady Yon steal the Empress’s ring of all things? (The ring became the evidence that exposed the Empress as the brains behind the assassination attempt on Prince Maha.)
3. Why didn’t Wang Yu kill the villain Yom Byongsu after Wang Yu defeated the Turks in Episode 13? Wang Yu sets General Bayan and Tal Tal free because he knew they could help him gain favor with El Temur and restore his throne. But Yom the Scum? He creates all kinds of trouble for Wang Yu and for SeungNyang until the very last episodes.
The same question could be asked about SeungNyang in Episode 33. Why didn’t she kill Tanasiri when she had the chance? Her previous plan (ensnaring Tanasiri on the issue of Lady Park’s pregnancy) had already failed. Episode 34 comes next and Tanasiri is back to her old ways. Did nothing happen at all in Episode 33?
4. Why did Wang Yu show himself to Togon in Episode 47 as SeungNyang and Togon were visiting the people in the city?
5. Why would SeungNyang shed a tear for Yom the Scum as he lay dying in Episode 51? The show’s writers gave her great lines about “a perfect Koryo” but didn’t Yom try to kill her numerous times? Didn’t Yom shoot Prince Maha with a poisoned arrow?
Also, when Togon met Lady Soh, he commanded Kolta and the guards to stay away so that they would not be able to hear their conversation. But in the scene where Togon was about to kill Wang Yu, numerous guards were all around. Unless the guards were totally deaf, they heard Togon and Wang Yu’s conversation about Maha. But Togon didn’t kill these guards. Either that scene is badly written, badly directed, or both.
7. The major selling point of “Empress Ki” is the love triangle among SeungNyang, Wang Yu, and Togon. But Wang Yu is heroic from start to finish, while Togon is pathetic. Are we really supposed to believe that SeungNyang will fall in love with Togon? In real life, would anyone want to marry a guy like Togon?
(For emotionally and intellectually satisfying examples of a love triangle, there’s (a) Jumong, Daeso, and Sosuhno in “Jumong,”(b) Hwang Jung, Yu Seon Rak, and Baek Do-yang in “Jejoongwon,” and (c) Do Min-joon, Cheon Song-yi, and Lee Hwi-kyung in “My Love from the Star.”)
8. The narrative keeps going briskly only because some characters overhear what the others are talking about. For example, Lady Soh overhears from Eunuch Bang and Wang Yu that Maha is actually Wang Yu and SeungNyang’s son.
Also, the characters display an utter lack of peripheral vision about other characters being near them and being able to see what they’re doing or hear what they are talking about. If used once or twice, these dramatic devices work. But when used repeatedly, the story becomes unbelievable.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “Fiction is the willing suspension of disbelief.” Where would “Empress Ki” be without Coleridge?
Reasons to watch “Empress Ki”
1. Excellent acting by Ha Ji-won as “SeungNyang,” Joo Jin-mo as “Wang Yu,” Ji Chang-wook as “Togon,” and Baek Jin-hee as “Tanasiri.”
(Baek Jin-hee has a new drama series titled “Pride and Prejudice.” I love Jane Austen; I have to check out what Baek Jin-hee’s new drama is all about.)
2. Great action scenes, especially in Episode 33; the sword fighting sequences are much better than that of “Jumong.”
3. Outstanding production values
4. Excellent cinematography
Photography lessons from “Empress Ki”
Lessons: natural frame, symmetry, rule of thirds. Note: This scene from Episode 4, if I remember correctly, foreshadows SeungNyang’s series-long conflict in choosing between Wang Yu and Togon, between Koryo and Yuan.
Lessons: natural frame, diagonal line, line of direction
Lessons: natural frame, selective or differential focusing, shallow depth of field, center the dominant eye
Lessons: rack focus, selective or differential focusing. Note: This scene shows Empress Ki leaving after confronting Wang Yu; in the background, Bang, the faithful eunuch, is torn about revealing that Maha is Empress Ki’s son.
Lessons: sidelighting, out of focus highlights
Lesson: background blur, shallow depth of field. Note: In this scene, Empress Tanasiri is about to be hanged; she looks back at Wang Yu after telling him not to witness her execution.
Lesson: high angle shot
Lesson: natural frame in the foreground
Lesson: natural frame in the foreground
Lesson: low angle shot. Note: In this scene (Episode 50, I think), Tangqishi reveals to Togon that Maha is Empress Ki and Wang Yu’s son.
Lesson: natural frame in the background
Lessons: low angle shot, diagonal lines. Note: SeungNyang finds Prince Togon hiding in a box; Episode3 or 4, I think.