Empress Ki, a popular Korean Series, was aired from October 2013 to April 2014 in 51 episodes. It is a historical series based loosely on the life of a real person, Empress Ki, a Korean concubine who rose among ranks to become the Empress of Toghon Temur, the last Mongol Emperor. She existed from 1315 to 1370 AD.
Nyang Ki, (Sungyang/Empress Ki) a little girl, is being dragged towards China as a human tribute along with her mother. Their life ahead threatens to be full of misery. The young Korean crown prince, Wang Yu is also a part of the people going towards Daidu in China. He takes pity on young Nyang Ki and opens the door at night to allow all the captive women and their children to flee. Tangqishi, a Chinese Warlord kills all the fleeing women, among them, Nyang's mother. She gives her wedding ring to Nyang before dying and asks her to find her father Ki, who has a similar ring.
Young Nyang tries to fend for herself in Inju, where she is stranded. She disguises herself as a boy, changes her name to Sungyang, and finds employment with Wang Ko, the King of Shenyang. In time, she becomes a trained warrior and an unerring archer. She grows up to help Wang Ko smuggle salt and becomes one his most trusted 'men'. On the side, trying to help her country she is also sending messages to Crown Prince Wang Yu who is trying to curb the salt smuggling.
After a successful stint with helping Wang Yu bust the salt racket of Wang Ko, she discovers Commander Ki posted in Inju. She joins his force to be close to her father. Her father's unit is deputed to take care of the deposed Prince of China, Toghon Temur and keep him safe. This is where Sungyang meets Toghon Temur and makes a lasting impression on him.
Toghon beats all odds to become the Emperor of China. Yet, he is under the thumb of his Regent El Temur, a fact that rankles with him. Sungyang is captured by Tangqishi and dragged to China to become a slave. He gets some feminine vibes from her and strips her to discover that she is a woman. He now wants her to be his personal slave after they reach Daidu. Wang Yu is also on his way to Daidu as a vassal of the Chinese Emperor, Toghon.
Wang Yu and Sungyang meet each other again later on and fall in love. Circumstances drive a wedge between them and Sungyang (after many plot twists) returns to the Palace as a concubine. She comes close to Toghon once again and finds that she is fated to be with him.
How the three major players, Sungyang, Wang Yu and Toghon cope with the circumstances to achieve what they dream of is the story of Empress Ki. Sungyang wants to help the Korean people as well Toghon. Wang Yu wants his crown to be restored and also wants Korea to prosper. Toghon wants to become an independent Emperor and shed the yokel of his Regent.
Rather than give out plot points which are too numerous to be listed here, it is better to give a brief sketch of all the major characters in the series. There are plethora of strong characters in the series and the story is also full of energy. Till the end, the viewer is kept on the edge of the seat while Ki, Toghon and Wang Yu cope with one crisis after the other. It is not possible to sketch every character in the series, and believe me, there are many great ones. I will limit myself to listing some of the major ones.
I was captivated by all the cute men in ponytails. The Emperor, Wang Yu, Tal Tal and Talahai all sport a pony tail that would put any pony to shame. The women are all very pretty too. It is a splendidly mounted series with gorgeous locales, dresses, horses and silks.
Empress Ki, Nyang Ki, Sungyang. Played by Ha Ji Won.
Nyang is woman of superior intellect. Being orphaned early in life, Nyang discovers it is better to hone her skills as a warrior and hide her femininity to survive. She becomes Sungyang, a boy skilled in warfare.
She loves Korea to distraction and will do anything to fell the people who hurt Korean interests. She helps Wang Yu, the crown prince of Korea, to uncover the Salt smuggling which is draining the Korean economy. She falls in love with him, but because of the constant strife in their life, they are not able stay together.
Tangqishi, the son of El Temur had killed her mother. The El Temur family also killed her father. Hence, she vows to take revenge. She could have returned to Korea and lived peacefully there, but she opted to join the Emperor's concubines to gain enough power to wreck vengeance upon El Temur. She helps Toghon overthrow them. In the process she also falls in love with him. Till the end, she is torn between her love for Wang Yu and her love for Toghon.
The role is played to perfection by Ha Ji Won. She has the requisite looks and talent for the role. Her face is the most perfect oval that I have ever seen. She has a beautiful eyes. Yet she looks perfect as a man with her swagger. It is not for nothing that she is one of major Hallayu stars of Korea.
Toghon Temur, Emperor of China, played by Ji Chang Wook.
When we first see Toghon in Empress Ki he is a mere boy. He is sent to Korea apparently under banishment, but El Temur's true intent is to kill him there. Thus, he would get rid of an Emperor Apparent and also be able to put the onus of his death on Korea.
Toghon knows this and is very scared. He tries to run away from the Korean Camp under Commander Ki but runs into Sungyang. She protects him and takes him under her wing. She teaches him how to use the sword and also how to shoot arrows. He becomes very attached to Sungyang but betrays her father to El Temur. Ki Nyang hates him for this for a long time.
Later, when he becomes an Emperor and learns that Sungyang is a woman, he falls deeply in love with her. He sticks by her through thick and thin and ultimately makes her his Empress. He grows from a frightened, unsure boy into an Emperor who rules on his own. Ji Chang Wook puts in such a natural performance that you are convinced absolutely by his act of a petulant boy who wants his way in everything. He looks ravishing in his ponytail as a fugitive Prince, and very handsome as the young emperor in his ceremonial robes.
Wang Yu, Crown Prince and later King-in-waiting of Korea., Played by Joo Jin Mo
Wang Yu is wise and sagacious. He has all the qualities needed to be the perfect King of Korea. Unfortunately, Korea is still the vassal state of China. He tries his best to do as much as he can for Korea from outside. He stays close to the Regent of China, El Temur in a bid to watch the Korean interests. He is also deeply in love with Sungyang. He tries to do all he can to help her, often putting his own life in danger in the process. He understands that a Korean Empress will be able to help Korea better and does all he can to ensure her success at investiture.
Most times the lead actors in Korean series are very cute looking. Joo Jin Mo, by contrast has rugged looks and a strong physique. He is one of the manliest actors that I have seen in K-series. In this drama, the Emperor is jealous of his good looks and feels he will lose Sungyang to his handsome looks.
Tanashiri, the first Empress of China, played by Baek Jin Hee
Tanashiri is the daughter of El Temur the Regent. Her father is the most powerful man in China. In an attempt to create a link with the Emperor, her father marries her to Toghon.
She is not keen on the marriage, but when she sees Toghon, she falls in love with him. Toghon is never able to warm up to her because he hates her father. This creates frustration in her. As it is, she is a spoiled, petulant young girl, fired by Emperor's rejection she turns into a hateful, vengeful young woman who does not think twice before getting people killed.
She creates such mayhem with her plotting and scheming, that she puts El Temur in the shade as the chief villain. For a long time, she captures Ki's attention as she is constantly doing something vile.
Baek Jin Hee has put in an absolutely stupendous performance as the nasty Empress, Tanashiri. She steals every scene she is in.
Yeon Chul – El Temur – Regent to the Emperor, Played by Jeon Kuk Hwan
Another magnificent character, another great performance by Jeon Kuk Hwan. Yeon Chul was Regent to three Kings. Toghon's father, Khutughtu Khan, his younger brother and Toghon. He started off by being a very loyal and a trusted aid of the King.
After tasting power as the Regent, he becomes corrupt and power hungry. He kills Khutughtu Khan and tries to install his younger son on the throne. He thought that the young boy would be easy to manipulate. But the boy-emperor dies of illness soon. When El Temur meets Toghon who is under banishment in Korea, Toghon acts like a fool and a very submissive boy. He fools El Temur into thinking that he would make a good 'sleeping king'. As it is, Temur has ensured that Toghon does not even know how to read and write.
Along with his two sons, Tanqishi and Talahai, he is on the road to absolute power. His daughter is married to Toghon and he wants to make her son the emperor which will ensure that power remains in his blood line. His plans are foiled by Ki Nyang who wants vengeance for her mother and father.
Empress Dowager - Budashiri – Played by Kim Seo Hyung
The Dowager Empress, Budashiri is the former Empress of Khutughtu Khan. After his death she tries to nurture Toghon's younger brother who is named emperor.
On Toghon's return, she attaches herself as his mentor. He treats her like his mother and gives her all respect. After the fall of the Temur clan, Budashiri tries to get more power attached to herself and works against Nyang Ki, who had supported her to get rid of the Temurs.
Budashiri does not want a Korean woman to be given any importance. In a bid to protect her own child, Empress Ki hit back and a power struggle ensues between the two women. She is another strong woman character on this series.
Tangqishi - Dank Ke Se – Played by Kim Jung Hyun
He is the older son of El Temur and is being groomed to take up the Regent's role. He is extremely cruel and mean like the rest of the people in his family. He loses his temper when the tribute women in his entourage, that he is escorting to China from Korea, are set free by the boy prince Wang Yu. He kills all the escaping women, among them Ki Nyang's mother.
Ki has several run-in's with him and always gets the better of him. Yet he manages to survive and come back to haunt Nyang. At one point he even falls in love with Nyang in a perverse fashion and wants to possess and destroy her. His younger brother Talahai is seen more as his shadow in the series, usually following him as Tangqishi goes around creating mayhem.
General Baek An- Bayan – Played by Kim Young Ho
Another fabulous character full of many shades of grey. When we are introduced to Bayan, he is with Toghon, escorting him to his exile in Korea. We soon learn that El Temur has ordered, on behalf of the boy emperor, that Toghon be murdered cleverly to make it seem like the Koreans failed to protect him.
Bayan is not very happy with the decision. He is more of a warrior, he does not like these cloak and dagger politics. He is happy to swear allegiance to his Emperor and fight for him. He was a true follower of Khutugtu Khan and does not think too highly of El Temur.
After almost killing Toghon, he decides to help him retain the throne. He also helps Ki Nyang initially. She is all set to return to Korea at one point when something happens that makes her decide to return to Daidu and help Toghon become the Emperor he wants to. At this point, Bayan steps in and nominates Ki Nyang as his candidate for a concubine, as his foster daughter. Later, his character becomes darker and darker as he gains power. He also becomes very anti-Korea.
Yeon Bi Soo – Batoru – Played by Yu in Young
Batoru was another fabulous female character that started out with a big bang. General Batoru is the faceless terror of the Silk Road, who vanquishes enemies wearing a mask.. He (people perceive him as a man) is a master of guerrilla warfare.
Tangqishi despatches Wang Yu to this area to bear the brunt of Batoru's attacks. He means to annihilate the Korean troops by putting them in the front and then sweeping in with General Bayan to finish Batoru and secure the Silk Road. Wang Yu uses his superior war tactics to defeat Batoru. He is surprised to find that the face behind the mask is a young girl.
After this encounter, Batoru helps Wang Yu and Ki Nyang actively. However, Yeon Bi Soo loses her edge as a character and becomes sidelined. It was sad to see such a promising character lose steam.
Tal Tal – Toqto'a - Played by Jin Yi Han
I have saved one of the best characters in the series for the last. He was, in fact, a real person. He was a respected scholar who became a Grand Chancellor under Toghon.
In the series, he is, as he was in real life, a nephew of General Bayan. He was extremely well-read and wise. In the series, he stays in the background to begin with. He just observes the actions of all around him. From his observations, he realises that Ki Nyang has the true interests of the people at her heart. Initially he opposes Bayan's decision to sponsor Ki Nyang as a candidate for a concubine. He feels she would not do justice to interests of his clan, being an outsider. To some extent, his fears are justified until Nyang tells him that she would always keep the interests of the common people above feelings of clan or class.
This resonates with him and they become thick associates. In fact, there are times when I feel the chemistry between them was much better than the one she shares with Wang Yu or Toghon – her romantic partners. Jin Yi Han is very impressive as Tal Tal.