"The love of money is the root of all evil." 1 Timothy 6:1

Empire Of Gold
금의 제국
SBS (2013) 24 Episodes, Grade: A
Melodrama, Revenge, Political Thriller
Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA

"It's the Empire Of Gold, not the Empire Of God."

I sound like a broken record sometimes, but I truly believe 2013 was the best year for the greatest number of the most brilliantly written Korean dramas ever made. Just go through the kdramalove drama index to see the mind-boggling array of great shows that came out that year which I've already watched and reviewed, and I just keep finding new ones to be impressed by as time goes by. I really don't know how the Koreans keep churning out these amazing sophisticated productions, while Hollywood keeps giving us boring reality shows like the junky Kardashians and dumb Honey Boo Boo type garbage shows instead. Most Americans today don't have a clue what they are missing in their entertainment anymore, it's been so long since they've seen anything of high quality that causes them to have to think. Even in this K-drama, just the clever use of brilliantly selected classical music pieces in the background added great tension to the plot, giving it a grand scale never seen before in American productions.

Empire Of Gold is up there in that great cavalcade of 2013 masterpieces, plus the actors are well experienced heavy-hitters in the Korean drama and film industry who are proficient at building a large, splendid tapestry of different characters; in other words they are versatile, they can play comical and playful, they can play sweet and romantic, they can play spiritual, they can play evil ones, gangsters or lovers, greedy or sacrificial types, good family people or home-wreckers. Just as a disclaimer, I would say that this melodrama is really not going to be interesting to the typical teenager, but older, more mature audience members will generally relish it as a more serious tale exploring the darker sides of human nature and ambition. Also, don't look for much romance here, almost all these characters just use each other to accomplish financial and power goals, and that's about it. Yet they are still fascinating to watch. The actors in this production are Actor's Actors. They probably all loved working together. You can see it in how seamlessly they play against each other. 

The Leading Players: In 49 Days, leading lady Lee Yo Won played two different characters in one body and did an outstanding job at both. Here she excels at playing a financial genius, family business tycoon named Choi Seo Yoon, but she's hard as nails and cool as a cucumber, cleverly and strategically getting the best of her weak older brother and her grasping, secretive cousin who want to wrest her father's company Sungjin Group away from her when the father develops a brain tumor and must step down from his responsibilities. This is a huge family business specializing in various investments, research and development of new products, and in real estate development. We watch how they struggle through the IMF financial crisis of the 1990's in Korea, recover, and grow again, up to the present day. If it takes bribing a few Congressmen to get laws passed in their favor, well, that's what they'll do. Seo Yoon is very reserved, and has a great poker face, which always seems to disarm the men who want to destroy the family business conglomerate out of revenge if they cannot take it over from her. It's no wonder Lee Yo Won received the Top Excellence Award for an actress at the SBS Drama Awards that year for this role. All these men against one woman gave her a lot of cool scenes!  

Weak brother on one side, ambitious cousin on the other,
and one wise female (Yo Won) who sees right through them!

The cancer stricken father Choi Dong Sung (played by veteran actor Park Geun Hyung from The Suspicious Housekeeper and Sandglass) can see all too well that his daughter is worth a million times more than his weak, petulant, alcoholic
, playboy oldest son Choi Won Jae (Uhm Hyo Sup from My Love From Another Star and In Soon Is Pretty) and he really wants her to take over the business, though he does feel guilty about showing favoritism. At first he tries giving the son some extra responsibility but it ends in havoc, and the daughter just has to step in out of necessity. There is also a younger brother Choi Sung Jae (Lee Hyun Jin from Operation Proposal) whose dream is to become an economist to help his father's chaebol conglomerate succeed.

Hence erupts a constant, addictive to watch, cat and mouse game among essentially 3 family members and 2 outsiders who want in to the top position. The first outsider is played magnificently by under-rated actor Go Soo (Will It Snow At Christmas? and Green Rose and the films Love 119 with Han Hyo Joo, and The Royal Tailor with Park Shin Hye), playing Tae Joo Jang, who manages to claw himself up to the top of their sphere of influence out of revenge for what he perceives as the murder of his own father by a group of sociopaths. (In order to make a desired real estate deal they commit arson to destroy an antiquated building where Tae Joo's father planned to open a diner; he dies without being able to realize his dream).

When Go Soo was in a scene I could never tear my eyes off him -- this is one of his finest performances, he's really matured as an actor over the past decade, he amazes me constantly. He was fascinating in this drama, his character beginning life well as a devoted son and brother to a sweet younger sister named Hee Joo (Yoon Seung Ah from I Need Romance 3), becoming an attorney to try and help them escape from their poverty, trying to be a good person ... until life hands him a tragedy he won't take sitting down - he must get even against the business people who essentially killed his father for a real estate grab.

Actor Go Soo was totally intense in this revenge drama

However, all revenge plans in dramas carry unintended consequences, and the more Go Soo's character Tae Joo turns to the dark side the fewer qualms he has about destroying anyone in his way, male or female, business person or gangster. He is helped by his girlfriend and lover for years, a corrupt real estate broker named Sul Hee Yoon, played sensitively well by beautiful actress Jang Shin Young (Rebirth: Next), whose character I disliked in the beginning but who grew on me as time went on and it became obvious she really did love him, while he didn't truly harbor the same feelings for her, though he professed that he did.

However, no one really loves you if he'll set you up as the killer of a corrupt Congressman when it was really he himself who accidentally plunged the knife into the guy. "It was self defense!" he yells at her, "he was trying to assault you!", and trembling, she agrees to take the fall for him. At first. :) 

Actress Jang Shin Young 
did a great job in her role too

Actor Son Hyun Joo (My Rosy Life, Three Days) gives another stellar performance here in Empire of Gold as the cousin named Choi Min Jae, who is a strange mixture of good vs. evil. He can be tender and loving with certain people, like his dying wife, and then in the next scene be full of avarice, greed, lies and deceptions against family members, cut throat in business and in personal relationships, later marrying a woman he doesn't even love just to get a fresh supply of wealth when his shrivels up. He also was fascinating to watch because of how unscrupulous he was. I kept thinking to myself, "These people will never know peace, and compared to so many others in life they're far richer in bounties, they just think it's never enough!" (Their attitudes reminded me of that scene between Bogie and Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo, "Will it ever be enough, Rocco?" "No! No! Come to think of it, it will never be enough. I WANT MORE!")

Actor Son Hyun Joo is equally adept at
playing sympathetic and despicable

When the economy collapses, former adversaries find it beneficial to be temporarily aligned with one another to rely on their separate strengths and talents to climb the business world back to success again (even if it involves blackmail!), and one is a petty gangster / loan shark, and thug named Jo Pil Doo (Ryu Seung Soo from Winter Sonata, Thank You, and Lie To Me -- I'm always happy to see this actor again, I've always liked him).

This second outsider eventually joins with Tae Joo and Min Jae to try and bring Seo Yoon down from her lofty perch in the rival company and to beat her out on real estate deals by the Han River and the prime Gangnam district area of Seoul. Jo Pil Doo is another strange mixture: I kept waiting for him to explode. He seems to desire to put his violent gangster life behind him and earn money in a cleaner way, dons a suit, and does footwork for Tae Joo gathering private information on future real estate deals, but all the time I kept thinking to myself, "Once a gangster, always a gangster, how long will this last?". His professional relationship with Tae Joo was ironic, because when they first met Jo Pil Doo ordered his thugs to beat him unconscious!


Ryu Seung Soo in a complex performance as
a gangster thug turned business executive

At one point Tae Joo puts his lover and professional cohort cruelly aside to marry Seo Yoon, whom he does not love, in a power grab, and he rushes to their wedding with literal blood stained hands after accidentally killing the corrupt politician when the guy angrily swung a golf club at him. Seo Yoon doesn't love Tae Joo either, she seems to believe the adage that you should keep your enemies closer to you than your friends, and she's such a tough customer she continues with the ceremony even after seeing the blood stains on his hands! What a dame! None of these people are "normal", but it's like watching two trains about to collide: you can't turn your eyes away.

The very ending surprised me and I liked it, but reading comments from other viewers online I could see that most people were angry with it. I couldn't help giggling at some of their comments; I don't think they thought things through enough, or paid enough attention to what Tae Joo was saying and what he was doing -- this reaction by many fans reminded me of people who were not swift enough to understand that the ending of That Winter, The Wind Blows was NOT tragic. I saw the end of Empire Of Gold in a completely different way: it was a gambling ending, very appropriate for Tae Joo, and he was leaving it up to God to decide his fate. I don't want to say anything more and give away an end spoiler, just trust me: it's an ending that requires you to use your BRAIN CELLS! :) Tae Joo was hedging his bets, to see if he would live. If he did, then he survived the hell of his own making and could start anew, and if he didn't then that was divine justice against him for his sins and he was okay with that.


Tae Joo's life reflected those people who get into situations too big for their britches, but they are so confident of themselves and their motives that they begin to justify entering the dark side, to use and hurt people and spit them out at will. When he first earned money in real estate he could have chosen to keep working with his family in the diner he bought them to honor the father's memory. He could have chosen to work as a pro bono attorney helping the poor. He could have chosen to marry for love and have his own children, which would please his mother. She just wanted him to be happy. However, when money becomes your god there's a bigger price to be paid than possibly losing a certain dollar amount in your bank account. "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?" Mark 8:36

As for Seo Yoon, she made her own magnificent bed and had to lay down in it .... alone. I loved the visual imagery where, as she eats all alone at the big family dining table, her memories melt back to happier times when the family was together at the same dinner table, enjoying the patriarch's birthday meal. She had more money than she knew what to do with, but everyone deserted her or died on her or landed in prison because she turned on them. And ... SHE LIKED IT THAT WAY! She liked being alone and at the top of her game, in her own mind. Yet after dinner, as she walks through a mirrored hallway, and her face is broken up into pieces, she stares at herself with anything but a radiant expression on her face. "For what does it profit a (wo)man to gain the whole world, but lose (her) own soul?" Mark 8:36

Empire Of Gold is really a morality tale and a dark melodrama giving a warning to anyone who puts money and power over people. If you like watching games of high finance, political intrigue, family ambition, then a thriller like this one should suit you to a T. I enjoyed the show and gave it an A grade, even though it's not usually the type of show I would gravitate to -- the acting makes this baby! Enjoy!


Empire of Gold Photo Gallery