We all watch K-dramas to see the actors we like, but if you’ve watched enough K-dramas, you may have noticed that certain actors frequently show up in strong supporting roles. As a result, some actors gain a reputation for playing good guys, and others gain a reputation for portraying punks. Here are some of my favorite K-drama actors who play characters to love and loathe!
Asian historical dramas are replete with queens, empresses and court ladies duking it out behind the scenes while kings rule the country. Some might think they are something akin to Disney princesses with no agency and little power, but the Korean drama Empress Ki and the Chinese drama Virtuous Queen of Han both show that women are running things.
Many historical K-dramas (sageuk) revolve around royal figures involved in romantic quadrangles involving male and female leads. However, political realities complicate amorous entanglements, family relationships and general camaraderie in Empress Ki.
I know. Watchers of this K-drama were divided early on into Team Wang Yu (Wang Yoo, King of Goryeo, played by Joo Jin Mo) and Team Emperor (Emperor of Yuan, played by Ji Chang Wook). Wang Yu is in a tough position: king of a country under the thumb of an empire. He doesn’t have much power, and he can’t ally with another country. Most of all, he can’t stop the Yuan empire from taking the resources from Goryeo, including its women.Bbecause he’s frustrated, he has an unhappy smiley face though much of this K-drama.
Emperor-to-Be of Yuan doesn’t have it much better: pawn of the much more powerful and violent El Temur, the regent. He’s also the puppet of his overprotective mother/guardian Empress Dowager (played by Kim Seo Hyeong). In order to survive, he has to appear as naive as possible, lest he end up like every other powerful male in his family: dead!
These political realities complicate their romantic interest in the female lead, Empress Ki/Sungnyang (played by Ha Ji Won), who has to choose between the two. She’s not just some cute subject of the realm. Wang Yoo has to overcome the side-eye of liking one of his subjects and the fact that he has very little power to protect her when he sends her on missions impossible. The Emperor has to overcome criticisms by those who look down on his fraternization with the enemy aka “that Goryeo wench.” I found myself cheering Sungnyang on for her bravery (and the random decisions to have her shoot arrows in her royal finery!) and work on behalf of the Goryeo people. I admit, I was Team Wang Yoo all the way, so I like the few opportunities they had to have relationship. I was less impressed so when she looks like she is out for self, gets sucked into Yuan politics and looks like she has real feelings for that punk the Emperor, who never seems to grasp that he can’t have a love relationship when his world is collapsing around him.
Sungnyang isn’t the only one grappling with politics and relationships. One of my favorite characters is Tal Tal (played by Jin Lee Han), the ever-practical second-in-command to Baek An (played by Kim Young Ho). He is nothing if not consistent! Scarily good at strategy, he’s the one character who seems to always know all angles to a situation. Tal Tal is the moral pillar of the Yuan court. He’s cool with the Yuan empire, but he and his clan has suffered under the yoke of El Temur too, so they are keen to take him out. In the meantime, he’s working to get his clan some power by playing the political game, but he also has a love for the Yuan people, which Baek An and the Emperor do not. Tal Tal draws the line when Baek An goes supercray. When Baek An’s unscrupulous activities threaten the people, Tal Tal steps in and does the unthinkable.
No one escapes the impact of politics in Empress Ki, making it more than your standard historical Kdrama complicated by romance.
“Empress Ki/기황후 (2014), Main Poster,” Kdrama Kommentary, accessed July 12, 2014, http://kdrama.omeka.net/items/show/51.
“Empress Ki/기황후 (2014), Wang Yoo,” Kdrama Kommentary, accessed July 12, 2014, http://kdrama.omeka.net/items/show/52.
“Empress Ki/기황후 (2014), Emperor,” Kdrama Kommentary, accessed July 12, 2014, http://kdrama.omeka.net/items/show/53.
“Empress Ki/기황후 (2014), Empress Ki/Sungnyang,” Kdrama Kommentary, accessed July 12, 2014, http://kdrama.omeka.net/items/show/54.
“Empress Ki/기황후 (2014), Tal Tal,” Kdrama Kommentary, accessed July 12, 2014, http://kdrama.omeka.net/items/show/55.
Divided Loyalties in Empress Ki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.