Empire of Gold, after eight episodes, is my favorite drama airing right now. Surprisingly, my love for this drama supersedes that of Blade and Petal because the former is ridiculously addictive. But maybe I should clarify the fact that Blade and Petal isn’t much of an “addictive” drama. Instead, I would call it a stunning one, where you watch every moment with bated breath, every shot with the kind of attention you give works of art in a museum. Though I wouldn’t call Blade and Petal the most masterful of sageuks of all time (not that I’ve seen enough to make judgment), it most certainly has a lot going for it, and it has become rather difficult for me to write about because of this (I literally have a half written post). I’m always afraid of not bringing justice to Blade and Petal via my discussion of the drama, something which will likely appear superficial. But I digress.
Appreciating the artistry of a work is not the same as finding it to be your favorite. That appreciation is just understanding the sheer quality (Blade and Petal), not giving it your rabid attention only to satiate your inexplicable draw towards it (Empire of Gold). I never truly understood the term, “Crack Drama,” until this show, which is really strange because shows like Empire of Gold are not people’s general choice for crack drama. The usual contenders are dramas like Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Monstar and I Hear Your Voice, dramas with a gripping romance/bromance that are coupled with an interesting story; not boardroom antics and chaebol family histrionics. I guess I just have to accept my strange tastes, for I have an insane drive to write on it, vent about it, talk to my computer screen as I watch it, and do whatever else would imply that a drama has become crack. For heaven’s sake, I’ve even freaked out on twitter over a Wikipedia entry about the show (I’ll explain what I mean below)! If that isn’t a symptom of a crack drama, I don’t know what is.
What makes my affection for this show even more puzzling is how little I like the main characters. Jang Tae-joo (Go Soo) is officially the biggest narcissistic jerk-face that I’ve ever seen in K-drama (even more than what I thought in my first impressions). There is nothing likable about him, nothing. The only reason he seems to be the guy to have half a million admirers is because Go Soo is ridiculously handsome in a suit (it’s a fact of the world, I can’t fight it.).
No, I do not like Jang at all, (especially after the most recent episode) and I pity his poor family that has to deal with all of his nonsense. Unfortunately, my experience with Jang is worsened by the fact Go Soo isn’t the most compelling as Tae-joo to the extent that we need for such a heavy drama. Go Soo’s not a bad actor, but there’s something really dry about his delivery of such a horrid character. Maybe he just doesn’t have the gravitas of Sohn Hyun-joo has to play a fundamentally twisted person. Actually, it’s quite clear that Go doesn’t, because he basically crumbles when he shares scenes with Sohn—let alone the fact that we’re supposed to believe that Jang is intelligent enough to outsmart Choi.
Speaking of Sohn Hyun-joo, I find that I’m more drawn to the character of Choi Min-jae, than I am the lead. While Jang Tae-joo comes off as a one dimensional, misogynistic and avaricious man (basically the two worst qualities a man can have), Choi Min-jae is a more bodied character that is also portrayed as such. It’s easy to see that he has undergone the same conflict as Tae-joo but with a greater deal of personal turmoil. In effect, this gives Min-jae reason to claim the Empire of Gold, while making the so-called-main-lead Tae-joo appear to be only obsessed with earning money and having the power to move the world.
Theory 1 to my Addiction: The second lead has as much of a story, or even more of a story, than the main lead does.
Despite my sentiments towards Jang, I still bother to care about is craziness, for the fact that he’s legitimately crazy. I don’t support who Jang is, but I do find what he does interesting. There’s something rather enjoyable about getting fired up about the man comparing himself to Hitler (like really, who would want to be like Hitler?) and revealing himself to be male-chauvinist at the same time. Impressive dude, impressive. You are succeeding in making me hate you. And in many ways, that is compelling. In K-dramas, I rarely see the main male lead, ever be the worst man alive. They either show a man who is tortured and gives reason for his bad attitude and then later uses the main female (usually air-headed in some fashion) to “change him,” or he’s a living prince charming. Yet Jang Tae-joo breaks these K-drama norms and becomes not just an anti-hero, but practically the antagonist of the show.
Theory 2: The main lead is an undeniably terrible person, and that’s fascinating.
This brings us to Choi Seo-yoon (Lee Yo-won), who is currently my favorite character (even with the incredibly irritating dull factor to her, courtesy of Lee Yo-won) for her determination to win the war of the aristocracy over Sung Jin Group. For all intents and purposes, she’s the rightful heir to the throne, her motives catapulted not in greed, but in duty. She’s a literary scholar first, corporate mogul second. She grows from a reserved woman who lets her cousin “run over her” to a confident and powerful woman who has billions of won at the tip of her finger and will never, ever, step down from a fight. I admit that there are times when she lives so selflessly for her father that she’s on the verge of just being annoying, but for the most part, she handles everything with a deft hand. Above all, she’s a ruthless and calculating chairman who isn’t any less because she’s female. It’s why I think this show has made great strides in the K-drama world, a world defined by either weak female, “candy” characters or strong female characters that are left to wither in the hands of their male counterparts, dependent and needy.
Theory 3: The main female is not in love with the main guy and has an intelligent head on her shoulders without losing her compassion and freedom to be female.
That is, until I read the character description on Wikipedia (not the most trusted source in the world, but relatively accurate):
- Go Soo as Jang Tae-joo
- Jang Tae-joo comes from nothing, and his ambition grows after witnessing the misfortunes of his poor hardworking father. After their father dies, Tae-joo raises his little sister Hee-joo on his own, and fights tooth and nail to rise to the top by his wits alone. Smart, passionate, and cheerful, he endures contempt and humiliation as he works tirelessly toward his dreams of success and wealth. But he encounters betrayal and exploitation, which gradually transform him into a cold-as-ice victor.
- Lee Yo-won as Choi Seo-yoon
- A guarded and aloof chaebol heiress, and the daughter of Sungjin Group’s CEO. She and Tae-joo fall in love, and Seo-yoon struggles between love and family loyalty as Tae-joo goes head-to-head with her family’s company.
- Son Hyun-joo as Choi Min-jae
He is Seo-yoon’s cousin, and Tae-joo’s biggest rival for Sungjin Group’s top seat. Choi Min-jae is a ruthless, cunning, and unscrupulous businessman who spends his days lobbying and making backdoor deals.
WHAT THE HECK IS THIS DESCRIPTION!?!!?!?!?!?!?!? No. This cannot happen, and here’s why: all of these character descriptions imply that Jang Tae-joo is the tortured hero, Choi Seo-yoon the conflicted lover, and Choi Min-jae the backhanded weasel that wants money. Not only is that hackneyed and boring as heck, in reality, what each character wants is very, very different.
Choi Min-jae is the tortured man: mistreated by his uncle, ashamed of his father, forced to lose his first wife (and true love), tied to a woman he cares nothing about, and lost his wealth more than once by Sung Jin Group’s betrayal. And despite the countless mistakes he has made, I can still feel sympathetic towards his cause to seek justice for his father and fight for what he feels he should have a rightful stake in.
Choi Seo-yoon gives up her simple life of academia to save her father’s company from internal destruction. She may have been born privileged, but she never takes advantage of that status. She earns her keep through intelligence and hard work, through compassion for her family and father. For those reasons, she has equal stake in becoming the owner of Sung Jin as the two men—maybe even a greater stake. Min-jae and Tae-joo are just rocks in her way to accomplishing her goal of stabilizing Sung Jin.
Jang Tae-joo is only an ambitious man, and is fighting for wealth and power that destroyed his father’s livelihood and life. Maybe we could pit the scenario as a man seeking revenge, but it seems more like he’s enamored with the world of the rich as he is spiteful of his father’s death.
The key point of evidence supporting the above? Tae-joo and Min-jae work together (at face value…so far) to take down Seo-yoon.
What all this culminates to is an equal fight between three people for a conglomerate: the heiress, the cousin, and the outsider. What it is not is a painful romance and a useless fight between two men who shouldn’t really be vying for the throne anyway. For this to happen would be a waste a waste of Choi Seo-yoon’s novel development, and Choi Min-jae’s complexity. It’s even a waste of how unexpectedly immoral Jang Tae-joo is, and the impact that the famous opening minutes of the show had on the development his demeanor. Moreover, it seems to me that the only real antagonist is the Stepmother (Kim Mi-sook), whose only desire in life is to metaphorically suffocate Choi Dong-sung (Park Geun-hyung) to death.
Theory 4: Romance is completely divorced from the Sung Jin fray. In theory, anyway.
Empire of Gold is all about the writing, and to see the possibility of it dying to cliched portrayals of businessmen is ridiculous. I love this show too much to leave it because famed writer Park Kyung-soo lost his mind in the middle of creating a compelling narrative. (Drama gods, please don’t let it happen!) For the first time, I find romance entirely unnecessary in a drama, and to see that it could crumble everything I love about it is devastating. In fact, my OTP in this show is already dead!
Or maybe I should trust the writer over the Character Descriptions and Wikipedia and avoid freaking out like a mad woman. Since I’m clearly addicted enough to write the same thing over and over again, I should have some faith in the writer, right? Right? …
Theory 5: I’m probably better off not trying to make sense of nature.
(SBS Image Credit: Tumblr)