The Last Empress: Tearing Down the Wall

Ever since it was first announced, the drama has garnered attention for various reasons: some finds it interesting that dramaland is welcoming a new imaginary Imperial Korea drama after quite a while (Princess Hours, anyone?), but the main attraction has the writer to be thankful for. Kim Sun-ok has scored a prime time slot for her drama after making a name for her ultra-makjang weekenders, but prior to that, she was already famous for her makjang works like her widely known Temptation of Wife. Thus, it is no big surprise that The Last Empress or 황후의 품격 (literal title The Empress’ Dignity) scored 7 to 8% ratings for its first week.

Personally, I am not that huge fan of melodramas or makjang tropes and I had a bad track record when it comes to such dramas, particularly Writer Kim’s works. I almost dropped Five Fingers when it was near the end but held on because of my strong love for Joo Ji-hoon and Ji Chang-wook, plus Chae Si-ra was killing it. However, My Daughter Geum Sa-wol was too much for me to handle despite having my darlings Baek Jin-hee and Park Se-young starring in it. There were so much tragedies and annoying people doing questionable things which made me drop it altogether early on.

[Spoilers ahead!!]

Hence, despite being so excited for the potential of it being a hanbok galore and priceless prime time makjang experience, I was scared if I won’t be able to stomach the “over-the-top”-ness of the plot and ends up abandoning it at once. Thank God the pilot week turns to be okay and surprisingly, I am able to stomach it pretty well! It’s milder than Geum Sa-wol! Now that the promo materials are out and the plot is served, the English title makes sense: looks like Jang Na-ra’s character Oh Sunny will be the last Empress who brings the Imperial family to its ultimate demise.

So…what is the real definition of makjang, actually?

Then what makes a drama makjang? When it comes to dramas, when plot devices involving extreme, absurd, or outrageous instances of life (cases that make you go, hmm, what’s the likelihood of that happening in an average person’s lifetime) are dealt with in an illogical or twisted manner to arouse or hook the viewers, or conveniently inserted for that exact purpose, they are described as makjang. 

-blue, Korean language and culture series: Makjang

Let’s break down the makjang tropes presented and hinted so far:

Murders!

The first episode opens with a skeleton remains being dug up in the middle of palace grounds (although I was wondering how on Earth the police just barge into the Imperial Palace and smash down the palace wall without any respect for the Imperial Household?). Multiple bodyguards got shot (and presumably dead) during the terror attack and hostage situation involving Lee Hyuk and Sunny. Wang-shik’s mom was hit by a boulder and ran by a car, a joint murder by Min Yoo-ra and Hyuk, then Wang-shik himself got shot in the head and fell into the water, presumed dead. Think you have it enough already? It seems that a series of murders happened seven years ago but it was hushed and swept under the rug by the elders. Another murder is on its way, and probably more to come.

Secret Affairs!

Kim Sun-ok’s works aren’t complete without secret affairs. Oh, delicious affairs! Hyuk seems to be the perfect Emperor but beneath his Prince on a White Horse persona, he has a pretty complicated personal life. It’s probably an open secret within the palace walls but everyone seems to be ignoring the glaring truth. I don’t think him sleeping with different women and never repeating the deed with the same person habitually will be noticed by his guards and maids, but they are supposed to be blind, deaf, and mute I think, acting like they are invisible and ignorant of his private affairs.

Birth Secret and Complicated Relationships!

Messy affairs will ultimately result in hidden children and birth secrets. Thank God the main characters aren’t the ones who have the complicated secrets at birth, but they are the one with secret children. Not one child, but two!

Take a look at the ginormous relationship chart for yourself.

(credit to 라피네의 Don’t worry Be happy)

So it turns out that not only Hyuk has a hidden daughter, Ah-ri, but the Imperial family made the decision to keep her real identity hidden in plain sight by making her the daughter of Hyuk’s sister, Princess Sojin. My prediction is that the one night stand he had with Seo Kang-hee was around the time Empress Sohyun passed away, so having a daughter out of nowhere was deemed too scandalous and detrimental to the household’s reputation. Thus, Ah-ri was made Sojin’s daughter who was born overseas before the princess divorced. However, it was a huge surprise to find out that Yoo-ra ALSO had a hidden son whom she abandoned, so her boyfriend’s mother (aka the person who took care of her orphaned self) adopted the baby as her own son…and that made the child as her boyfriend’s legal brother.

Meddling Mom and In-laws!

This factor over here can make or break it for me. I have low tolerance of annoying people in dramas. I can drop them easily if one of the characters become so irritating that I feel like delivering a proper kimchi slap, so I did approach the two characters with the highest annoying potential with caution. Darn, I am relieved and amused!

Shin Eun-kyung is killing it (like, KILLING IT) as Empress Dowager Kang with her grace and reactions to situations involving her son the Emperor. Of course, there are already slaps being delivered (a common trope I don’t really fancy to be very honest) but to see her one-upping Yoo-ra and vice versa is just priceless. Even Hyuk as the Emperor is scared of his mommy dearest, who can move a mountain if she wants to with her connections and influence. She even monitors Hyuk’s bedroom personally, so she practically knows everything going on in his bed..which is kinda gross actually, but it gives her the upper hand in everything, including taking appropriate measures to clean up the mess Hyuk could be leaving behind. Too bad that vanity mirror doubling up as CCTV monitor is broken (for now), but I hope it gets fixed and she continues munching mandarins while watching Hyuk like he’s a baby.

I was wary on how Grand Dowager Jo, Hyuk’s grandma would turn out, because I am still traumatized by Park Won-sook’s character in Geum Sa-wol, who was the most annoying mom ever. So far, she’s being the nice grandma to both Hyuk and Sojin, and looks like she will also be the strong supporter of Sunny when she enters the household, probably because Sunny is the Empress candidate Hyuk seems to like. Not sure if she was involved in whatever that happened seven years ago, but for now, I’ll take it that she is the kind grandma who won’t have a happy ending. Oops.

Candy’s Rag to Riches Story!

I still can’t decide if Sunny is a Candy or a Cinderella, but you got the idea.

She is a lady who dreams of becoming a famous musical actress for the sake of meeting the Emperor as one, but her dream seems farther with each day. She’s stuck doing minor roles in small theater, barely making ends meet. Her father has a chicken and beer place, but he’s a habitual gambling and borrows money from loan sharks. Luckily he has his two daughters: Hello and Sunny (I still wonder who on Earth gave his child names like freaking HELLO?) to clean up after his mess by scraping money here and there to save his kidneys from being sold. Sunny’s mom is long dead and she’s like a normal citizen being kicked around by the richer, prettier actress. Except that she suddenly finds herself at the center of attention when the Emperor is interested in her, and she’s unaware that she’s being a puppet to two different women at the same time.

I’m hoping that we won’t have to witness the frustrating goguma scenes for too long, given that this drama would be half the length of what Kim Sun-ok usually writes, and Sunny will be the refreshing soda we all need when things get tough in the middle of the story. I’m looking forward to her growth, her hanbok, and her interaction with Wang-shik!

The Makjang Icon

Who will be the ultimate makjang icon in this drama? For now, I have to crown Min Yoo-ra as the icon. This girl here is sure crafty, but her whole life itself is never a bed of roses. She was an orphan and grew up with a woman who cared for her, and she ended up dating the woman’s son. His boyfriend is kind of clingy and a ball of trouble due to his personality, and she feels suffocated with this family. But then, the woman she calls mother was also the person who kindly adopted the baby she abandoned. Just her luck, she finds out Empress Dowager’s weakness and wraps the Emperor around her fingers, while acting like she’s the martyr when he’s about to abandon her. Although she lost the chance to become the Empress, at least she breaks the Emperor’s tradition by becoming his secret woman. Heh.

Troublemaker and Personal Fixer!

Lee Hyuk (Shin Sung-rok) isn’t evil (not yet, at least not to the core) and his character is actually intriguing. He’s the dignified Emperor outside but deep down, he’s like an onion with multiple layers. He’s not the bad guy as for now, but he sure has a twisted way of dealing with his troubles. Luckily he has a very reliable problem solver Mr Ma, who will do anything for him: from twisting people’s arms and making use of ultra-tracking devices on possible threats, to wiping off unnecessary people from existence. Hyuk is menacing, cold-hearted, and puts on different masks when he meets different people, but his reactions are so human that they are too priceless and not to be missed. What an eccentric character we’ve got here…and hopefully, this will continue!

Extreme Makeover!

People were wondering why Choi Jin-hyuk did not appear in the first week although he is billed as the lead, and it turns out that his character Na Wang-shik used to have a different appearance altogether. Wang-shik looks and fights like a bear, but one has to suspend his disbelief because the character will have to grow 6cm in height after the transformation/makeover. Growth spurt in the name of revenge? Bring it on! Just ignore the short recovery time from all the plastic surgeries, because this man needs his revenge! Just kidding 😉 Wang-shik, or his new identity Chun Woo-bin, will have a love line with Sunny, so hopefully they will walk hand-in-hand and knock down all the people who used them for their own advantages.

I’ll have to see if next week will be as entertaining as this week, and whether I will be able to continue watching or not. What do you think about the premiere? Is the tropes over the top or are you able to stomach it just fine? I’ll look forward to witty lines, crazy antics, and amusing faces of the characters, but Hyuk is sure breaking down the fourth wall slowly, because he seems to know how absurd all these things are!

 

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7 thoughts on “The Last Empress: Tearing Down the Wall

  1. Firstly, wow it’s a bit disorienting to see earings paired up with the joseon bun!😅
    The family tree diagram is sufficient to understand how makjang the drama is! Reminded me of the Dream of the Red Chambers diagram . (Now that was the family tree to beat all family trees!)
    Speaking of makjang tropes, Queen mother observing the son’s room is SO CREEPY, but i think the son won’t feel ashamed even if he knows/find out. Such people are what they are because they’re incapable of feeling shame,no?
    However, that particular fact didn’t scarr me as much as when I read in “Marriage,not dating” recaps that the ex-girlfriend stalked the dude everywhere wanting his genes to make a “perfect” baby and that the to-be-mother-in-law forced the leading lady on to an OB/Gyn’s stirr-ups!!! shudders Now those are pretty high on the “Messed up Relatives” Scale!
    .
    .
    On a different, more pleasant topic, Ms.Mimi, Ive some questions to ask you. These had been bugging me for sometime now and this post reminded me of them.
    1. I know that in Korean, Yi and Lee are same. But most of the time, when romanizing people address joseon royalty they use “Yi” instead of Lee. And I don’t think i remember “Yi” ever being on a non-royal person name. So ive come to subconsciously think of Yi as the royal name and when sometimes I see recappers simply using “Lee” (as in this post) I start to think whether there had ever been any reason behind romanizing royalty as Yi or whether it was simply a coincidence that i put too much meaning to. What’s your opinion?
    2. Ive noticed that when Wikipedia and recappers romanize royal princess/queen names, they do it without separating the name into the two parts.
    Eg: Queen Seondeok, instead of Seon-deok
    Princess Seonhwa, instead of Seon-hwa
    Princess Deokhye, instead of Deok-hye

    And ive seen that the kings’/ queens’/princes’ were given courtesy names and posthumous names and that they always come in mono-words, but that’s not the case with princesses right? Their BIRTH names are written as mono-words even when they’re not monosyllabic, instead of the usual way.
    Why is that?

    (Wow. I guess I’m OCD over the weirdest things ever!😂)

    1. lol we have to practice the suspension of disbelief when it comes to this kind of dramas ^^;

      To answer your questions:
      1- I think the usage of Yi/Lee is because of the romanization system used for Korean romanization. The older McCune–Reischauer (MR) uses Yi while the newer Revised Romanization of Korean (RR) uses Lee, so Yi was widely used to write older, historical people’s name, hence the tendency to see it used for those figures; Lee is the newer romanization so the modern names adapt it for their usage.
      2- Those princesses and queens’ names were not their birth name actually. For the princesses, those were official titles bestowed when they came of age and they seldom have birth names recorded, unlike their male siblings. As for the queens, the names they become known of to us are the posthumous names, most of the time. So..that’s why those titles and names are written with monosyllablic form.

      Hope these answers are of help to you! Don’t worry, it’s not weird to quench your thirst on knowledge, no matter how trivial you think they are 😉

      1. Ohhh, thanks for the information. It was interesting!
        May I ask; were their names written in monosyllabic form for some special auspicious reason or was it simply to distinguish royalty from the rest?
        .
        P.S.- I’m sorry I was late to reply, my silly Gmail didn’t send me a notif.

        1. You’re welcome ^o^

          I think the monosyllabic form is used to distinguish titles from names, but it all depends on the translator’s way of translating. Some use hyphens to separate two name syllables while some would just combine the two first names. For example: Park Bo-gum’s name. If you Google his name, there are sites using the style above and there are some writing it like this: Park Bogum.

          Don’t worry, take your time with the replies 😉

        2. Mmmm. I remeber now that the idol companies often make their idols’ stage names that way, as in Hye-ri to Hyeri, Tae-ha to Taeha. Because it’s cooler? I dunno. I’d love if everybody follow the same set of rules when romanizing,lol.
          Anyway, is this all within the world of romanizing? When written in Korean is it all the same, or do separately written letters/syllables get written together after the name-change?

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