The Last Empress

황후의 품격
SBS (2018-19) 52 Episodes
Spoof Of Historical Dramas
Underappreciated Masterpiece, Grade: A+
Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA

Absolutely the most delicious, over-the-top, satirical Korean drama I have ever watched, The Last Empress (2018-19) was an opulent spoof of traditional historical Korean dramas (sageuk), but bringing a dastardly royal family into the modern day era, with every member of that family essentially hating the others and wanting to get rid of them. I probably laughed as much watching the dark humor of this series as I laughed at the great humor in My Love From Another Star (2014) between stars Gianna Jun the comedienne and Kim Soo Hyun her straight man, and that's a huge compliment from me.

I have to tell you going in that this series had so many twists and turns, it was so unpredictable, that I could never guess what was going to happen next. It was constantly surprising me and I loved that! Usually I can tell by the first episode how a K-drama will turn out: not this one! Plus, if I had to write a review detailing all the twists in this story I'd have to write a novel as long as War and Peace, so my outline for this great drama, below, will only touch on some primary salient plot details and I won't give end spoilers here.

Early on I could tell on the streaming sites that few people were understanding that this series was a SPOOF, a FARCE, a SATIRE, not to be taken seriously, but simply to be enjoyed as one would enjoy a wild ride at a theme park. This is a K-drama for those folks who love the wild rides and not the kiddie rides at the park. Eventually more people started to recognize it for what it was, the grades started rising for it online, an odd cult following was born, the ratings in Korea skyrocketed too, and I often remarked how obvious it was that the brilliant cast here were probably laughing their heads off while working on this drama every time the director yelled "Cut!" because the scenes were often so "out there" that they probably couldn't believe the lines they were required to speak from their scripts!

A few months before this series began I knew I would watch it because it finally gave actor Shin Sung Rok (My Love From Another Star, Thank You, Liar Game, Return, On The Way To The Airport) a leading man role, even though it was the role of a King who was often so stupid, so misguided, so reprehensible that you wanted to wring his neck, or slap his face! Then once in a blue moon his character would seem to soften, to wise up, to become human, only to slip back down into becoming a mental case again eventually. So the audience would sometimes try and have sympathy for him but then he'd do or say something that would make you impatient with him all over again. Playing a vacillating character like that requires an out-of-the-ordinary acting talent, and it was evidence of this casting department's brilliance that they chose the right man for the job. Quite frankly, although it could be argued that this drama was basically an ensemble piece, in reality this series would have been nothing without Shin Sung Rok! 

Jang Nara Reunited With Choi Jin Hyuk
He Lost Her To Jang Hyuk in Fated To Love You

The leading lady is always fun to watch, Jang Nara (Fated To Love You, Old Goodbye, One More Happy Ending, I Remember You, My Love Patzzi), because she's a great comedienne, but she can also make you tear up when she is playing sad scenes as well (she also got to show some cool martial arts skills here as well).

In The Last Empress she is reunited with actor Choi Jin Hyuk (Tunnel, Pride and Prejudice, Gu Family Book) after being with him in 2014's popular
Fated To Love You K-drama when he was also the second male lead character. So all through The Last Empress I was wondering if their characters would end up together in this series, because he had lost her in the earlier drama that they did together. If that were to happen it would definitely buck convention since most second male leads lose the girl in the end.

You'll have to watch this great series to find out for yourself where the writer finalized all the characters' lives. I'm giving no end spoilers here. :)

The Story

A humble and sweet two bit theater actress named Oh Sunny (Jang Nara), the daughter of a chicken restaurateur, has had a crush on the country's monarch, King Lee Hyuk (Shin Sung Rok) for several years, and finally gets to meet him in person when he attends her latest play, not knowing that their meeting had been pre-planned by the secretive queen mother, Empress Dowager Kang (Shin Eun Kyung) to deflect the media away from finding out about her son's latest love affair with an ambitious royal secretary named Min Yoo Ra (Lee Elijah). The King has to pretend he loves this silly commoner lady, all the while he is engaging in a passionate affair with the secretary. Oh Sunny is swept off her feet and thinks the King really loves her, but she is in for a rude awakening when someone tries to murder her on her wedding and coronation day as the King's new queen!

The new queen is saved by a recently hired bodyguard named Cheon Woo Bin (Choi Jin Hyuk), however his real name is Na Wang Sik, and he is out for revenge against the royal family because he blames the King for the death of his beloved mother Baek Do Hee (Hwang Young Hee) in a car accident (one that was actually instigated by the devious royal secretary Min Yoo Ra to get the mother out of the way, for personal reasons of her own).

The Great Sword Fight

For quite some time Cheon Woo Bin, alias Na Wang Sik, does an excellent job fooling everyone as to his real identity, and the King actually grows fond of him like a brother, but of course like in all K-drama plots, anything that is secret in the beginning of a show is eventually revealed by the middle or near the end of the show. In addition, it doesn't take too long for Oh Sunny to realize that the King doesn't really love her, and to whom his real misplaced affection resides. Oh Sunny also becomes suspicious of the Empress Dowager Kang when the grandmother of the family (Park Won Suk) is apparently murdered.

Oh Sunny finally decides to grow up, face reality, and to start secretly investigating the suspicious death of the grandmother, of whom she had been quite fond. She even suspects her own husband after it seems Oh Sunny is framed for the old lady's death (her food had been poisoned and Oh Sunny had made the food). Meanwhile Lee Hyuk finally realizes the enormity of the sins against him that his female secretary has committed, and she is sent away from court and the King tries to reconcile with his wife, to little avail. She's onto his games and his weaknesses by now! Goodbye, Crush! However, the audience can't help to feel more sympathy for the King as time goes on, because he so obviously wants to reconcile with the wife he had once despised, and because he continues to be viciously used by his mother for her own evil purposes. 

This dowager queen is really the biggest reason why her son is a mess; she is totally arrogant and really has no love for her son Lee Hyuk, and a younger son named Yi Yoon (Oh Seung Yun), who has been ostracized from the family for several years. (If I were him I would have stayed away because they eventually go after him, too!). This other son had written a popular novel about the death of a supposedly fictional King's first queen, and many people in the nation surmise that he was actually writing about Korea's royal family.

It was true that Lee Hyuk's first queen had died under mysterious circumstances; the family had claimed she died of a heart attack, but she really was killed by drowning by a jealous nanny in the court named Seo Kang Hee (Yoon So Yi), who wanted her own illegitimate daughter with the King, Princess Ari (Oh Ah Rin), to claim the throne eventually. (I must admit the child actress who plays this little princess was a total doll, truly outstanding, another kiddie actor in Korea who is obviously going places in K-dramaland in future!).

Eventually all secrets are laid bare and all these characters can react to one another without hiding behind old lies and fake promises and false feelings. Will goodness triumph over evil, like in the best morality plays, or will any of the bad ones be redeemed?

This drama is yet another one, like King 2 Hearts, which shows the potential for a modern day monarchy to wreck havoc upon a nation, perhaps even more so than the royals did back in the old Joseon or Goryeo eras. A free Republic is much preferable to a nation run by a crazy, over-pampered, and arrogant royal elite, as shown here in The Last Empress.

If you love the wild rides in a theme park the most then don't miss this Korean drama, The Last Empress. You will be hooked and you will laugh and cry. A lot. I only give my highest grade of A+ to the dramas I feel are so enjoyable that I would re-watch them at the drop of a hat. It easily applies here to this delicious K-drama! Enjoy!