Anyone who has watched a few K-dramas knows that the poor guy/girl struggles and makes it big narrative is pretty popular. Sometimes they do some bad things along the way, but there’s always redemption at the end. A good example of this type of story is this past winter’s Cheongdamdong Alice, which is a tale about a poor girl searching for her own wonderland in Seoul’s elite Gangnam neighborhood. She almost sells her soul to get rich, gets caught and still manages to redeem herself.
While Alice was a great meditation on upward mobility, I am admittedly slightly bored with this particular story line, so I looked at Empire of Gold, yet another tale of a poor person trying to get out of Seoul’s slums, with skepticism. But it does seem to be notably different from other dramas: eight episodes in, the show seems to have no heroes. This is good news. The show is quite unexpectedly excellent. The plot is compelling, the pacing is satisfying, and the dialogue is at times clever and insightful (when it’s not unnecessarily and unfortunately anti-Semitic, that is). Despite dramatic oversimplifications, it’s not difficult to imagine that these characters are real people making real decisions about how to get what they want out of the world. From a commercial stand point, it was a deft move on the part of SBS to reunite The Chaser’s writer Park Kyung-soo with director Jo Nam-kook and cast members from that award winning series Son Hyun-joo, and Jang Shin-yeong.
Ko Soo stars as the handsome and charming Jang Tae-joo, a once promising law student who tries to save his father’s life by committing attempted murder. As far as moral integrity goes, it’s all downhill from there for Tae-joo, who becomes increasingly obsessed with moving up in the world by any means necessary. Really, any means. Tae-joo’s friends and foes frequently go back and forth between those two roles and are almost always members of the Choi family, the scions of a powerful construction empire built after the war that parted north and south. Infighting over control of the family business ensures that a Choi always has utility for Tae-joo, and Tae-joo always has a new hustle to work on when his other ones fail. Conspiracies abound and friends are almost always more like tenuous allies than anything else.
Within three episodes, it’s very clear that there is no such thing as a good guy in this drama. What drives the story here is not the question of redemption, at least not yet, so much as the question of how morally decrepit the characters are willing to be. There are only bad people and people willing to stand by and help bad people for the sake of love and/or money. This could get old quickly, but two things hold the show together: fine acting and well-written characters who are able to draw sympathy, despite their moral failings. No one in the drama is simply mean because they were born that way, at least not so far. There is always a reasonably powerful story about how they got to be that way. These stories could merely be tired old tropes, but the actors deliver them with such feeling that they manage to elicit sympathy from the viewer despite their flaws.
In addition, all of these bad people are endowed with the human capacity for love, and we see them respond as they lose people they love even as their drive to succeed leads them to make choices that may cause them to lose even more. Son Hyun-joo is compelling as Choi Min-jae, whose father was cut out of his fair share of the empire and whose life has been shaped by trying to bite off more than that half in response. He’s an evil business man who is responsible for countless deaths in the name of creating more and more wealth for the family business; but when news arrives that his first wife has died of a broken heart, I teared up watching him cry.
There have been other surprises. Jang Shin-yeong’s turn as Yoon Seol-hee has been surprisingly attractive. In the first few episodes, Seol-hee comes off as an unlikable leech, but as the series goes on, she’s increasingly easy to have some affection for. We start to root for her and for her love of Tae-joo. Jang developed a wonderfully consistent and likable speech pattern for Seol-hee that makes the character charming for the viewer, even when she is doing the worst things. But, we know from the first few minutes of episode 1 that the love and charm isn’t really going to pay off for Seol-hee, and that makes watching her evolution into a likable character particularly fascinating. It’s hard not to feel a mixture of pity and interest as she develops into a multidimensional, emotive being whose moral transgressions will come back to bite her.
The end of episode eight left us on a cliffhanger: will a conspiracy be discovered before someone dies? Will we find out next time or will we have to wait again? Of course, I want to know what happens next. But what I’m most interested in is the equilibrium Tae-joo and Min-jae seem to have found with one another. Superficially, they are an unlikely pair, especially given that by episode 8, each one has screwed the other over a couple of times. But, in many ways, each seems like the twin brother that the other never had. There’s a lot of depth to be carved out there, and the writing so far makes me think that writer Park Kyung-soo plans to investigate its darker crevices, for better or for worse. I’ll be watching to find out which one it is, and I recommend that you do the same.