MBC's fifty episode drama "Empress Qi" had an absolutely beautiful first episode penned by reunited writers Jang Yeong-cheol and Jeong Kyeong-soon-I. The pair wrote the well-received dramas "Incarnation of Money" and "Salaryman". In addition to stellar writing, the directing was tight, the camerawork was fluid, the costumes were magnificent and the intrigue was captivating. It bodes well for the rest of the drama if it follows suit.
A basic overview of the plot is necessary to continue this series of reviews.
The drama opens in the early 1300s with the elaborate coronation of the heroine, Ki Seung-nyang (Ha Ji-won), as Empress Qi of Yuan, a dynasty established in China by Kubla Khan. The first five minutes quickly sketch out the relationships between the major players. Emperor Huizong of Yuan (Ji Chang-wook) loves Empress Qi and so does King Chung-hye of the Goryeo (Joo Jin-mo). Empress Qi loves Chung-hye in return, but will remain with Huizong. This powerful opening creates intense curiosity as to why Qi loves Chung-hye and how she came to be an empress of the dynasty that controls her homeland, Goryeo.
Then the story jumps back to Qi's childhood where her mother was killed by Yuan slave traders and she barely escaped with her life. Chung-hye was a young prince Wang-yoo at that time and powerless to stop it. Young Seung-nyang (Hyun Seung-min) disguises herself as a boy and searches for her father with only one clue as to his identity: the name "Qi". It leads her through a series of events to Wang Yoo's uncle, Wang Go (Lee Jae-yong-I), king of Shen. He saves her life when his horse renders her unconscious and from then on she pledges her life to serving him. At the end of the episode it is revealed that she is actually working against him because he conspired with the Yuan to trade women to be concubines. That means that she's worked for her enemy for thirteen years and that she is one strong woman.
It becomes her mission to free Goryeo women who have been made slaves and she does it by working for Wang Go. She learns combat skills and archery from Wang Go's men and those skills bring her to the attention of the exiled Prince Wang Yoo. Wang Yoo pretends to be a fool obsessed with fighting and archery all while finding ways to fight his uncle for power. The intense mental, political and physical battles between Wang Yoo and Wang Go is a highlight of the episode in a series of highlights. They both struggle to remain a step ahead of the other and through a series of revelations, we slowly learn who is on whose side.
Wang Yoo confronts Seung-nyang and they establish a bickering relationship. They are attracted to each other despite the fact that Wang Yoo thinks she is a man. The romance is subtely introduced and not overdone. Wang Yoo figures out that she is his uncle's spy and is unable to kill her because he's grown attached to her. However, when she is caught by Wang Yoo's men trafficking in salt, a contraband substance, he is forced to tie her up and distrust her. He does not know that she has been the person tipping him off as to Wang Go's movements and the one clue she can offer, a head band, falls from around her head and is picked up by Wang Go's spy. The episode ends before the spy's identity is revealed.
The story is so finely wrought that there is not a moment of dullness or wasted screentime. Ha Ji-won as Seung-nyang is exceptional. She excels at portraying strong female leads and her athleticism is evident in all of the physical scenes. Joo Jin-mo is both powerful and boyish as Wang Yoo, the good-natured prince who wants to return to Goryeo and ascend the throne and do right by his people. He does a wonderful job balancing the goofiness of Wang Yoo's personality and the pressure that the prince feels while fighting his uncle. The chemistry between Ha Ji-won and Joo Jin-mo is both electric and natural. Lee Jae-yong-I's villainous Wang Go is sufficiently creepy and convincing as the clever King of Shen.
"Empress Qi" is a beautifully made show. The fight scenes are crisp and clean in execution and filming. They are slightly stylized without being overdone. The mass slaughter of the Goryeo women was both stunning and horrifying as computer graphics slowed arrows and blood splatter for effective dramatic effect. There was also some humor woven into the otherwise very heavy subject material. What I love most is that "Empress Qi" has incredible timing and pacing, something that often lacks in K-drama. This first episode, however, did not lack. It was a perfect example of how to begin a show.
Written by Raine from Raine's Dichotomy
Follow on Twitter @Raine0211
Managing editor, drama lover, and foodie, Lisa enjoys exploring Korea, speaking the language, and soaking in all that dramaland has to offer. Lisa Espinosa can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Drama Review] "Empress Qi" Episode 1"
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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