A (Pseudo) Halftime Review on the Awesomely, Intellectually Twisty Empire of Gold.

Empire of Gold (2013)
Empire of Gold (2013)

I am up to episode 12 as I write this, the halfway point of the currently airing Kdrama Empire of Gold. Which means that finally, here I am to convince you that you need to get on this wagon – what the hell is stopping you?

This show’s taught me this much, thus far – cut straight to the chase. So here you go, seven reasons – trust me! – you need to watch Empire of Gold, stat:

  • Kickass heroine

Trust me, Choi Seo Yoon is pure GOLD.

The Seoulbeat writers are the only ones I’m aware are writing about this show and I came across a comment saying that people need to quit being gender-aware and calling out strong female characters because what matters more is whether or not a character is well-written, the genders be damned. I get what the person is getting at but let’s face it – the Korean society, much like the rest of the (other) Asian societies, are male-dominant and male-biased. The expected roles (and more) of women are often more stressed upon and the characters which appear in our Asian dramas also tend to reflect this. Personally, in my years of drama-watching, there’s been very few heroines that I like in Kdramas. The real spunky ones are far and few in-between and when they are – so often they’re still written up with clear prejudices and discrimination as hardasses, cold or whatever other personality-handicaps.

Which is why I appreciate, love and thoroughly enjoy watching Lee Yo Won‘s Choi Seo Yoon, chaebol heiress to the Sungjin Empire. This woman is a force to reckon with! For one, she’s intelligent – by real merits! – as she really makes use of the knowledge and wisdom she’s gained over the years through her father and formal education. Second, she’s brave and I mean that literally – she’s an active pursuant of transactions etc that she wants and when she’s forced to come head to head with her opponents, she doesn’t shy away, acting all sheepish or coy. Third, she cuts the BS and goes straight to the point – seriously, I love that she doesn’t dilly dally on getting things done or smoothing conflicts or even better, calling people out on their BS. Fourth, she’s principled – she’s inherited not only her father’s empire but also his business traits, but one thing sets them apart: he’s shady while she isn’t. He’s a great business person, no doubt about that, but at least from what I’ve followed and interpreting thus far, Seo Yoon tries her damnedest to stay ethical even the at the price of higher costs etc.

In short, she’s a powerhouse. I friggin’ love and respect her.

  • Solid, all-rounded cast

There’s an entire ensemble of actors making up this show ranging from excellent to moderate but so far in my eyes – everyone’s delivering. What’s more enjoyable is that although there are main casts, spiraling as they may be, every single character is so richly layered, complex and each are intricate puzzles to be unraveled over time.

In my opinion, everyone’s pretty much on equal footing – there’s Lee Yo Won‘s kickass Choi Seo Yoon, her douchey eldest brother Choi Won Jae played by the ever-excellent Uhm Hyo Sup, their tough-as-nut cousin and opponent Choi Min Jae acted by none other than Son Hyun Joo and then there’s out (anti)hero Go Soo‘s Jang Tae Joo, among other A-list actors like Jang Shin Young as Tae Joo’s ace, Yoon Sul Hee and Kim Mi Sook in an excellent take as Han Jung Hee, the Choi siblings’ two-faced stepmother. Someone over the web pointed out Go Soo as the single weak link in the acting department but… I don’t know, I don’t think so. At least for me, I think he’s doing a great job thus far. In fact, everyone is delivering, seriously, and I just love that – there’s no clear hero, heroine, antagonist et cetera because these characters are at different periods of time, these definitions; the lines are murky, making it all the more interesting.

The way I see it, I’m enjoying the show very much because the intensity of each scene is so strongly felt and I think credit lies partly in the acting – everyone’s doing a mighty fantastic job, kudos to them.

  • Solid, solid, solid writing

Yes the thrice-repeated word is intentional. Mark my words: The writing is vacuum-sealed tight like crazy.

I confess I didn’t watch the writer’s earlier work, The Chaser but I did read and have heard so much about it that I jumped into this one knowing it would surely deliver – spot on. Watching this show feels like I’m watching a game of chess; I’m not a chess player but there’s always so much thinking and strategies going on in a game that nothing and no one are as they seem. Between two opponents who are going head-on in the battle, their poker faces give nothing away despite the truth that perhaps in reality, they’re quivering inside. As one of the two players, you’ve to rely on instincts and more in predicting your opponent’s next move – who will call for check mate first?

There’s no telling who’ll be the last winner; the game plays on.

That’s what always comes to mind when I am watching this show – they face-off constantly and the last (wo)man standing is often the one who steels him or herself and holds the fort steadily. But the win is never permanent, thus the triumphant feeling never lasts for more than five minutes. Rounds of poker faces, roundabout politically correct statements but one thing is certain: the act of setting the knife on the cutting board is always brisk, accurate and absolute.

The result is a delicious, intelligent – I call it being mindfucked but hey, that’s just me since I’ve zero background in economics/finance/business-related – and an utterly satisfactory two-hours weekly watch.

  • Airtight, fast-paced and awesomely, intellectually twisty plot

I appreciate that the story jumped right into present-day, adult versions of the characters. Like everything else about this show – it cuts right to the chase, without needing a childhood portion to buy time or whatever. Things happen right here, right now and become slipping slopes, motivations, reasons and excuses for more present actions, impacting decisions and more further along in the future. Nothing occurs without reason but the story? It starts this moment; now. Yes the first episode is kinda iffy, but it gets better in the second one, I promise. In the third, fourth episodes on? I don’t know about you but I got suckered right in, no more questions.

Then there’s the very thing about the plot itself – it’s so twisty in an intellectual way. It makes you think and question the actions, decisions and more of the characters – they’re moving like pieces in a chess game with no clear winner as ties are formed and cut, deals are sealed and broken but regardless whatever the conflicts-at-hand may be, their motivations are dark, insightful and above all… Human.

So, so friggin’ humanly flawed that it’s make for such a great premise – stakes are so damn justified because while it’s all about the money, at the same time… It’s not all about the money, you know what I mean? Personal desires and more are ugly, ugly truths but such compelling watch! Most times you’re angry at them but sometimes empathy creeps in in the quiet, subdued moments – whatever it is, there’s always something to feel when it comes to this show.

  • Character motivations – primarily, everyone’s humanly flawed

To reiterate the previous paragraph – these characters are driven and motivated by desires and reasons so familiar to us that it’s like they leap out of the screen and become real persons. I can so easily see them in Real Life, representative of not only the elitists in our society today but also those with the same rooted dark desires.

Take Tae Joo for instance, our supposed hero. He started off and justified his later actions and ambitions by the fact that he believed his father’s death was caused by Sungjin Empire’s evil-doing of kicking them out of their house. One thing led to another and the dad had to pay for it in death, causing the son to reel in anguish, anger and above all – revenge. He justifies his ambitions as being propelled by this supposed sense of justice – upholding and returning his dad and family honor as he single-handedly climbs the ladder to the empire of gold. In his sole pursuit, everyone and everything else simply becomes collateral damage and yet ironically, in his eyes – he might not be a good guy, but he’s not an evil one because his cause is backed up by a humble back story.

I call bullsh*t on this one. Just like in Real Life, when evildoers try to justify their evil, heartless deeds by stating that at the core and heart of it all, they meant well, really! … One word: Bollocks.

But this just makes Tae Joo doubly, triply interesting you know? In his once-humble path towards success, he becomes jaded, flawed and ultimately, transformed. Or is he? That once-humble goal is no more as his true colors are revealed – driven by greed, hatred, angst and more. Humanly flawed – terrible to accept but so deliciously exciting to decipher because the universality and resonance to each of us is so commonplace.

Take Min Jae for instance, another really interesting and complex pseudo-antagonist. He’s also supposedly the outcome of slipping slopes of unfortunate events – loss of his brother to suicide propelled by the family conflict, loss of his dearly beloved wife to sadness and sickness, the fall of his family’s honor when they were ousted by his uncle and his own transformed self – which collectively, become his motivations to betray his own family and climb up that ladder to grab what he believes to be rightfully his from the strong clutches of cousin Seo Yoon.

He’s supposedly to be on-paper our evil antagonist, but sometimes when I think about him and his motivations, I find him doing what I think all of us would honestly attempt, too: looking out for our own. Does it make the shady and evil actions he’s done right and justified? No. Does it make his cause morally acceptable because just like Tae Joo, essentially their motivations and desires are rooted to humbling back stories? No.

And yet. But… Even so… – I know, they’re sentence starters which are going through my mind, too. Which simply makes Empire of Gold and it’s characters all the more brilliant and engaging to watch.

  • Trust no one as ties make-and-break everywhere, all the time

I friggin’ love this, though it also makes my head spin and my heart hurts – mostly for Seo Yoon.

The internal family battle for the empire is seriously enthralling, also disgusting because the way they go at each other – sometimes as foes, sometimes as allies but always propelled by that single-driven goal to get their grabbity hands on the money pot – so clearly showcase humanly flawed characters.

How far can one man’s ambitions take him?

Now that’s a question worth asking and I believe, is constantly being explored in this show as ties are formed and break at almost every turn possible. Just when you think you’ve found an ally – the person turns on you.

Trust no one.

Even if you’ve made a partnership for three years for example, said-partner has absolutely no qualms, what more remorse, in cutting you loose the moment you become a liability. It’s crazier when these things happen within a family unit who are mostly, biologically related – I know, families are more than the blood ties but hot damn, if you can’t trust the ones you live with, then just who can you trust? At every turn, you can’t let your guard down lest they snatch that from you, returning it battered and bruised.

Trust no one.

This is where my heart just goes out to Seo Yoon, who in my eyes, is the single person in this show who’s trying to play the game honestly – or rather, as honest as possible – but others aren’t doing suit that she’s forced by the circumstance to play dirty, too. It’s unfortunate and it’s just heartbreaking when even if she’s won something, like a deal or bid – it’s like she still lost, you know what I mean? Her loneliness is stark, apparent and gut-wrenching because there is literally, apart from her advisor, no one she can trust, what more lean on.

Trust no one.

  • The lack of romance – just twisty, complex relationships

Frankly, the lack of romance is refreshing. I know, I’m surprised too – am I, of all people, actually saying this?!

But you heard me right – Empire of Gold is an absolute gem to watch not only because of the above aforementioned reasons, but also because the kind of emotions that drive these characters are anything but romantic notions.

By that I mean – there’s no need to deal with lovelorn heroes, emotionally battered heroines suffering from heartbreak and characters driven by first love agonies. Instead, these characters are propelled by other, more realistic and relatable emotions such as anger, hatred, deep and dark revenge thoughts and more. There’s love, but it’s the tough and pretentious kind, or the conditional sort – the kind that breaks spirits, forget fragile hearts.

+++

What are you waiting for? I’ve just given you seven totally validated reasons – in short, Empire of Gold is brilliant. Jump on this wagon, you now know it’s worth it!

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5 thoughts on “A (Pseudo) Halftime Review on the Awesomely, Intellectually Twisty Empire of Gold.

  1. I am… intrigued. I’ve had EoG in the back of my mind but I wasn’t hearing much about it so it was kind of way back there. You’ve moved it way back up. (You mentioned chess-games. I love chess-games! :D) I’ll wait for it to end — sticking to my one-live-at-a-time rule. But… yup, intrigued. :)

    1. Yay to being intrigued! I think you’ll love and appreciate Seo Yoon as I have :) but this show definitely requires the thinking cap on so yup, perhaps better to digest in a single sitting through a marathon later :)

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