Behind the scenes: The Last Empress

I love alternate history stories wherever I can find them. The Last Empress has been uneven in some aspects of plot but is overall fascinating, especially because of the history of the real Korean Empire (the Yi family against the Chinese, the Japanese, the Russians, and the world).

A strong-willed never say die Empress with her cohort of tough lady warriors did exist. A foppish, weak, frustrated, yet romantic Crown Prince turned Emperor did exist. The multi-layered plots to overthrow and resist being overthrown, the double and triple agents, the bizarre assassinations . . . all existed.

Korean viewers undoubtedly are eating this up like a big pot of budae jigae since all the characters have to do is even vaguely remind them of the real historical figures in order to evoke a lot of emotion. The period of the Korean Empire was intense to say the least.

It would be great to learn how the screenwriters for The Last Empress were able to create such a convoluted story of intrigue and death, of persistence and hope. All the characters, all the plot lines, all the odd people and actions that suddenly make sense ten episodes later . . . how did they come up with all those elements and keep track of them?

I also want to know why they mashed up a thriller with a rom-com. Oh Sunny’s family and their encounters with the Imperial Family ARE funny, and they probably would have fit the lighthearted story line better if Oh Sunny’s imperial hubs was not a murder, a philanderer, and a general sociopath.

And Princess So Jin’s cringeworthy obsession with Na Wang Shik/Chun Woo Bin . . . very funny but so out of place in the grand scheme of things.

And Oh Sunny morphing from a really clueless ditz into a hard, scheming match for the Empress Dowager . . . kind of hard to believe.

But overall . . . riveting!


Your words reflect most of my feelings for “The Last Empress”. I’ve yet to watch last week’s episode so I’m not up-to-date on the story.

I’m not that knowlegable about writing, but I think “The Last Empress” has many elements of a dark comedy.

What really makes me shake my head is all those fans ‘rooting’ for Oh Sunny to accept the King and become a couple when he’s an accused murderer, known philanderer, and a general sociopath.

With regard to acting. Cast are all doing a marvelous job. I believe Shin Sun-rok being cast was perfect and he has the best written character. This man can transform in a moment and deliver a range of emotions that can be chilling one moment and laughable the next.

The writer Kim Sun-ok will be adding a few more lines to the story with the addition of four more episodes.
Looking forward to her next drama, she’s been writing drama nearly every year sinc 2007.


I think Last Empress started out being a thriller pure and simple, but somewhere along the way, Shin Sung Rok’s fans probably clamored loudly enough for him to have a role less scary than that of the bossy murderer in Return.

Blood, Hwayugi, While You Were Sleeping, and Yong Pal, are my idea of dark comedies.

I mean, based on the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare and stuff, a comedy is often full of the same elements as a tragedy. In a tragedy EVERYBODY dies, but in a comedy, after betrayal, war, dismemberment, death, etc., there are characters who survive. Characters reconcile. Charaters get married.

But for a long, long stretch The Last Empress was so violent, and all the characters (except Oh Sunny and her family) were so flat out selfish and manipulative and evil that I thought Sunny was going to end up dead.

But, even though she’s unleashing her inner witch more and more as time goes by, she is a “pure” character. She has no hidden motives. I mean, she’s a schemer just like everybody else, but she’s honest about it, and it’s founded on seeking justice rather than seeking personal gain. And pure characters tend to survive.

As the show has progressed, the purported explanation for Lee Hyuk’s behavior is that he isn’t really evil, he has been driven crazy by a whole lot of assorted crap, most of which is the doing of his mother. So, keeping in mind that he has killed Na Wang Shik’s mother and seems to be getting a pass on that, I’m not buying his sudden transformation into a loveable goofball as if he were a cast member of Father is Strange.

In fact, during the exceedingly long and complicated back story to the opening scene of digging up the body of Lee Hyuk’s drowned first wife, it seems to me there would have been plenty of time to establish that, contrary to the way so many episodes have reinforced, Sunny is not an idiot, and Lee Hyuk is emotionally broken and not an out and out demon from the dark regions.

So their apparent personality changes would have been less shocking and more believable.

Still, I am going to keep watching!

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The truth is that the Emperor is a very naive person, not cunning like all the women around him. He’s always ready to trust and to love. He has been betrayed a number of times, and every time this realization makes him more violent and paranoid. I am only at episode 29, but my heart goes out to him for the cruel betrayal by his best friend and “younger brother” which is undoubtedly going to come.
This character, as portrayed by Shin Sun-rok, has crazy charm, he is really irresistible. No, he’s not to be trusted because he’s too psychologically damaged to be anybody’s partner, so I don’t want Sunny to accept him, unless he accepts to get some professional treatment first. But I also don’t want her to end up with the equally violent and much more cold-blooded bodyguard. He also has always had anger issues, since the very beginning, and is quite ruthless.
From the moment I saw what they did to the bad girl - letting her half burn and then torturing her by ripping her burn wounds - I was so appalled that I decided I didn’t want any of those two ending up with our kind-hearted heroine.

By the way, if we want to be precise… what the girl did to the mother with the rock was attempted murder (we say attempted since it was intentional, but the victim didn’t die on the spot from that cause) and what the Emperor did was manslaughter (unintentional murder) plus hit and run. We actually didn’t know the exact cause of her death. Would she had died from the rock anyway or would she have survived the rock if taken to the hospital, and the hitting by the truck was the real cause?
The first empress… Also manslaughter, because he didn’t push her with the intention to make her drown. On the other hand, not helping her get out from the pond definitely puts him on a dark position.

Clearly, the code that everyone, even the “pure” Sunny, lives by is one that I read recently that supposedly comes out of the Middle East, but it could come out of any human culture, really.

“Me against my brother; me and my brother against my cousin; me, my brother, and my cousin against the world.”

And the motivation for all the shifting alliances is, “I’m better than you are, and you are acting as if I’m dirt, so I have to set you straight big-time.” For most of the schemers, there is no true humility, no recognition that we are all in the human struggle together, that everyone makes mistakes, and that love that makes a difference is not an emotion but an action, a choice to do good for another person no matter how we FEEL about that person.

Lee Hyuk seems to be groping toward that; Na Wang Shik seems to be groping toward that; Sunny seems to be groping toward that. And little Ah Ri seems well on the way to becoming a truly caring, compassionate person.

But revenge, great or small, seems to be the theme for everyone else, especially the Empress Dowager. Revenge is, “You made me suffer; I’m going to make sure you live through what I lived through and never forget the experience.” Compassion says, “You made me suffer. I want to make sure you never have to experience what I’ve been through.”

Maybe even the Empress Dowager will get there. But I’m thinking she will probably do so on her death bead after some gruesome accident. That’s a very typical K-drama scenario.

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Well, you are more far than I am in the story, so I cannot really comment on what you say about the plot, but what you say about compassion is surely true.
Justice is one thing, and it’s not bad, people should be made accountable for their actions. But enjoying torturing others is going to the dark side and putting yourself on the same level as the original “sinner”.

Woah, what a great quote! I haven’t seen the drama, and I don’t think I plan to, but what I do know is that revenge seems to be a driving force throughout many Kdramas. Sometimes, I wish the characters wouldn’t live with revenge in mind, it only takes away their ability to live life pursuing their goals. I feel that revenge puts life goals on hold and creates an obligation on the hurt person to right their wrong. I can’t help but think of The Count of Monte Cristo, how he spent years and years planning his revenge, but never felt satisfied, even when his enemies were destroyed and ruined. In the end, he sailed off into the sunset with his lover. That just shows me that love and life are to be chosen over revenge. However, I understand that humans are humans and we have a strong internal sense of justice, so seeking revenge is only natural. Extending compassion takes some supernatural work, it’s that difficult sometimes. Sorry, I got off topic, but I just wanted to say how inspiring that quote is to me.

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I love the plot. It’s not as elegant as in Healer OR as brutal as in Goodbye Mr. Black OR as heart-wrenching as in I Can Hear Your Voice, but it’s pretty awesome.

In terms of revenge vs. forgiveness, I Can Hear Your Voice blew me away completely. It seems to be a staple of K-dramas for a mom’s gentle touch (be she alive or dead!) to stop a hate-filled child from carrying out revenge. The mom in I Can Hear Your Voice is a bodhisattva when it comes to that.

Anyway, I am so grateful to the folks who have made it possible for Viki to share The Last Empress with viewers. Talented cast, talented scriptwriter, and most important to me, talented and very quick subbers!


Revenge is natural, forgiveness is supernatural. As a Christian, I have my own views on how a person can choose forgiveness over revenge, but the most powerful example of forgiveness I’ve seen in an Asian drama was in the Hong Kong movie Shaolin.

Andy Lau portrays a modern-era warlord who makes a bloody mess in revenge for the death of his wife and son and convinces his gentle younger brother to do the same. After killing and killing and killing, he comes to see the futility of it all.

He renounces his materialistic, vengeful way of life and enters a Shaolin monastery. (Jackie Chan shows up as the humble and funny monastery cook who helps Andy Lau transition from war to peace and learn how to do a proper and dispassionate Shaolin smackdown.) War continues to rage around Andy Lau, his enemies plot to do him in, and his younger brother especially wants to get rid of him because he “turned” him bad and then left him to handle the fallout by himself.

There is a final scene in which the monastery is being blown to splinters by cannon fire, and the two brothers are on a balcony in the temple itself, fighting above a huge statue of the serene Buddha.

Andy Lau pleads with his brother to renounce his violent life and refuses to do more than defend himself. The climax of the movie comes when cannon fire blows the temple apart, and Andy Lau flies off the balcony, landing on the Buddha and sliding down to come to a stop, cradled like a baby in the crook of the Buddha’s arm. I cried like my own father had died. It was powerful.

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I need to put that movie on my watch list! Probably the drama that really stood out to me with regards to letting go of revenge would be Baker King Kim Tak Goo. I really liked the message from that drama (not to mention, watching the characters bake bread inspired me to bake some bread, too :smile:)

Bread :heart_eyes:

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Wow, I need to see the movie Shaolin now. Thanks for sharing this with all of us.