The Last Empress was so much better than I had expected. The reason it had been on my list was because of Jang Na-Ra. I’ve loved everything I’ve seen her do so I was anxious to watch her play the part of a modern-day royal. I thought it would be a light romantic comedy but boy, was I wrong. Yes, there are some bits of lighthearted silliness but most of this show deals with the evils of greed and power.
The story takes place in 2018 with a slight twist to history – in this drama South Korea is a constitutional monarchy. Although there is an emperor and an imperial family, the country’s main government leader is the Prime Minister. (It kind of reminded me of England.) For years, Oh Sunny has had a crush on His Royal Highness Emperor Lee Hyuk. They met briefly when she literally fell into his arms during a musical performance she was in. From then on she dreamed of what it would be like if she married the handsome Emperor. At a special dinner (in an effort to boost public opinion of the imperial family) Oh Sunny invites Emperor Lee Hyuk to come see a musical she is in and minutes later literally saves his life. Shortly thereafter, the Emperor does something against the law and decides to go see Oh Sunny’s performance as an alibi to cover up his crime. Then, his mother uses that lie in order to force her son to give up his secret girlfriend. He reluctantly agrees to marry the unwitting actress, under the guise of a love-at-first-sight kind of thing, but it doesn’t go exactly as planned and the monarchy’s cushy lives are turned upside down and inside out because of the new empress and a vengeful palace guard.
Oh Sunny is a 30 year old musical actress who belongs to a small acting troupe. She has a kind, cheerful nature and cares about others. She is strong, persistent, and doesn’t back down from a fight. Sadly, her mother passed away during an operation several years ago but she has a good relationship with her father and younger sister.
Emperor Lee Hyuk grew up in an emotionally sterilized family. He was compared to his younger brother and often came up short so the two boys were never close. His mother is a no-nonsense woman who values her own standing and reputation above her children’s feelings. Lee Hyuk was taught to shirk responsibly – nothing is ever his fault and he sincerely believes he is above the law. His father passed away and the relationship he has with his mother is terrible, at best. He was married to Empress Soheon but she passed away while pregnant with twins. He dislikes Oh Sunny until he thinks someone is trying to steal her away from him and then his competitiveness kicks in. He eventually grows to value her.
Na Wang-Sik was simply a loving son and brother when he discovered his mother had been killed by Emperor Lee Hyuk. Revenge is all he can think of now and he’ll risk his own life to expose the truth and see justice done. He drastically changes his appearance and name (he goes by Chun Woo-Bin) and enters the palace as a guard, winning the trust of Emperor Lee Hyuk, becoming the head of security, and His and Her Majesty’s personal bodyguard. He originally just wanted to kill Lee Hyuk but decides to first psychologically torture him while watching his life crumble. Once in the palace, he uncovers a horrifying truth (that the woman he loves was an accomplice in the murder and cover-up of his mother’s death) and befriends the new Empress, Oh Sunny.
Empress Dowager Kang has tunnel vision – nothing is more important than her status, wealth, and power, not even her own children. She is cruel, having no trouble killing a poor defenseless animal in order to control her own son. She wants everything done her way and everyone to bow to her wishes. Empress Dowager is hiding a few secrets and she’s scared out of her wits that Oh Sunny will be able to expose them.
Min Yoo-Ra is Emperor Lee Hyuk’s personal secretary and the woman he loves. When she found herself pregnant and alone she turned to her deceased mother’s friend, Na Wang-Sik’s mom, who took her in and adopted the baby. She is hungry for power and prestige and craves the position of Empress. She doesn’t really love Lee Hyuk but sees him as her ticket to wealth and power. There’s another reason she wants a high standing in the palace and it has to do with revenge.
There are several other important characters –
Lee Yoon is Emperor Lee Hyuk’s younger brother who has been living in the United States for the past several years. He sees the evil in his family and wants nothing to do with them.
Grand Empress Dowager Jo is Emperor Lee Hyuk’s grandmother, the oldest living person in the Imperial Family. She is drawn to Oh Sunny’s kind and happy nature.
Princess Sojin is the oldest child in the Imperial Family. She has been married and divorced twice and now has a crush on Chief Guard Chun Woo-Bin.
A-Ri is Princess Sojin’s daughter, the youngest Imperial Family member. She appreciates the fact that Oh Sunny often treats her like a regular kid.
Seo Kang-Hee is A-Ri’s nanny. She was the former Empress’s best friend.
Oh Geum-Mo is Oh Sunny’s widower father. He owns a chicken restaurant and has a weakness for gambling.
Oh Hello is Oh Sunny’s younger sister. She works under Princess Sojin at the Imperial Mall.
You can read about Jang Na-Ra, the darling actress who plays Empress Oh Sunny, in my review of Go Back Couple.
In my Tunnel review you can find more information on Choi Jin-Hyuk, the handsome actor who plays Chief Guard Chun Woo-Bin.
This drama has more twists and turns in it than a Disneyland rollercoaster. The whole thing is fast-paced and unpredictable. There are mysteries to figure out and reveals that raised my eyebrows in pretty much every episode. I remember thinking over and over, “They’ve got him/her now,” and then something would happen and the person would slip away – again! There is never a dull moment in The Last Empress.
I’ve mentioned in several reviews how I hate when a character is rotten throughout the entire show and then at the end the writer tries to make us feel sorry for the bad guy so we and all the folks in the show will forgive them. Well, there was something about this writing that made me go against my usual thinking. Emperor Lee Hyuk is a despicable human being but there were times when the writer showed us small glimpses into his heart, a heart that wasn’t necessarily all dark, unlike his mother’s. I sincerely think the only reason he turned out to be so horrible was because that’s what he had been taught (by example and words) to be like. His mother had molded him into the loathsome creature he was. There was good in him but it had been buried by years of emotional abuse. Lee Hyuk is the first Kdrama bad guy I have felt sympathy for.
There’s quite a bit of action in this show. From explosions, car chases, and sword fighting, to plain old hand-to-hand combat – all of it is choreographed and executed beautifully. There’s one really artistic scene where Lee Hyuk and Woo-Bin are sword fighting. We see a closeup of Woo-Bin’s face and it turns into a warm-colored drawing with a roaring sound in the background. It’s like a picture in a comic book. Then they do the same with Lee Hyuk, his face turning into a cool-colored drawing with a hissing background noise. Back and forth it goes throughout the entire fight. It’s an incredibly artistic (and cool) idea!
The Imperial Family’s lifestyle is an even split between modern and ancient – Empress Oh Sunny wears both a Hanbok and jeans in the palace where the architecture is an ancient style with interior that is modern, and they have to answer to a government entity while still feeling they are above the law. Their olden-times/nowadays balancing act is quite interesting. We never know which way they will lean.
The drama was only scheduled for 48 half hour episodes but its popularity and high ratings lead to them adding two more hours to it. Sadly, that posed a problem for Choi Jin-Hyuk’s schedule which meant the show came to a close without him. They explain what happens to his character but it just wasn’t the same without seeing Chief Guard Chun Woo-Bin. Personally, I think it could have been a better ending without the added two hours. Keeping the entire cast intact would have been a much more satisfying ending for this viewer.
The best used song in the drama is the good old theme from Rocky. As Na Wang-Sik is trying to loose weight and learn the fighting skills he’ll need to be a palace guard we see him exercising and working out to the tune of Gonna Fly Now. It’s crack-a-huge-smile awesome. We also get to hear Jang Na-Ra sing two different times as her character, the Empress, entertains members of the Imperial Family and then, on a different occasion, some important dignitaries at a special gathering. Among the songs on the drama’s soundtrack are three I really liked – Can You Hear Me which is sung by Kei from the group Lovelyz, Low Voice performed by Jimin Park, and Open Ending sung by GiRyeon.
As I mentioned a few paragraphs back, the palace is wonderful. The courtyard and grounds surrounding the palace look like it belongs in the Joseon era but on the inside the Empress’s wing looks like an IKEA showroom. The outside shots are beautiful too – there’s a lush forest and high cliffs overlooking the ocean. Some other backdrops are Oh Geum-Mo’s chicken restaurant and his home, the imperial shopping mall, and a mental hospital.
I sincerely loved this show! It’s writing is flawless, the directing is first class, the casting is excellent, and the acting is award-winning perfection! You can’t loose choosing The Last Empress as your next Kdrama watch!
Fast-paced, unpredictable writing
Superb action sequences
A bit long (52 half hour episodes)
Drama finishes without us seeing Choi Jin-Hyuk’s character, Chief Guard Chun Woo-Bin