There’s no question about it: Empire of Gold always promised to be a difficult watch. But it was hard to envision just what a challenge it would turn out to be. The darkness we came to know in episodes 1 through 8 were just the prelude to a deep, painful plunge that would begin in the following episodes. One of the drama’s strengths is that it is partly so difficult because the main characters, while terrible, remain undeniably human.
For example, in episode 12, we witness Seo-yoon (played by Lee Yeo-won) crying as her step-mother evokes strong emotions in an attempt to manipulate her. The viewer can see the guilt, the sadness, the fear, and the need to pretend on her face all at the same time. The acting is excellent. The next turn of events is both predictable, stupid and tragic: Seo-yoon blames her step-brother Sung-jae for being her step-mother’s son, and the one strong sibling bond collapses.
Even for a K-drama, Empire of Gold features a spectacular number of twists and turns, zigzagging its way through the lives of characters who are all ready to abandon each other when necessary, with few exceptions. Although episode 8 might have left viewers with the impression that Tae-joo and Min-jae would form an interesting twosome that future episodes would explore, episodes 9 through 14 find us traversing the difficult terrain of a fully fledged family drama, and in the face of it, the Tae-joo/Min-jae partnership quickly collapses. The back and forth is a strength and a weakness of the show. It’s hard to keep track of the history of the plot, but something new and potentially exciting is almost always happening.
Episode 9 ends with the chaebol patriarch’s family-only funeral and standing before his photo, surrounded by countless white flowers, is the mess that a stubborn and cruel man can leave behind. Although they are all supposedly there to honor him, almost every person there resents him, except perhaps his daughter Seo-yoon. And even she has had to sacrifice her dream of a life in academia to take the helm of the family business. If her siblings, step-mother and cousin will let her.
There are many contenders for the throne in this tragedy that resembles Shakespeare’s Lear in many ways: Seo-yoon, the daughter entrusted with the keys to the kingdom; Jung-hee (played by Kim Mee-sook), the step-mother determined to exact revenge on her second husband’s family for what he did to her first; Won-jae (played by Uhm Hyo-sup), the older brother who is simultaneously enraging as a self-involved manchild and sympathetic as the wounded son who could never do things right; and Min-jae, the cousin whose father was cheated of his share.
The writing is layered, and this is a strength; throughout the show, there is a fascinating commentary on contemporary Korean economic history. As these episodes play out, Korea enters gets caught up in the 1997 Asian Financial crisis, and Tae-joo informs his colleagues, “IMF [International Monetary Fund] will be the last chance to become upper class in Korea. After this, the poor will get poorer. We got on the last train.” This kind of commentary is highly relevant to a 2013 audience in a country where the gap between have’s and have not’s is wide and the legacy of the 1990s collapse is still felt keenly by some.
In Tae-joo’s case, the last train is Sung Jin Corporation, The Empire of Gold, the Choi family business. In this arena, Tae-joo is a generally brilliant and cold, if imperfect, tactician. Because of that, one might think that Tae-joo is a kind of psychopath, immune to the emotional fallout from living such a cutthroat life, and it’s at the end of episode 13 and the beginning of 14 that we truly see the mask collapse. But only for a moment.
Episode 13 ends where episode 1 essentially began, catching the show up in time and explaining some of the early scenes to the viewer where he kills a man and has a traumatized woman take the fall for it. By the time we see this scene again, it is devastating. Seol-hee’s pure love for Tae-joo is such that she’s willing to go to prison for him, and Tae-joo’s twisted love for her is such that he’ll let her and tell her that he’s not going to visit her for however long she is there. Later we realize this might be a brilliant tactical move. But in either case, it looks like horrific emotional warfare.
There is enormous acting talent on this show and many scenes to point to for triumphant, emotional performances, particularly from supporting cast members Uhm Hyo-sup and Son Hyun-joo, and to a lesser extent, lead Lee Yeo-won. But this moment between Tae-joo and Seol-hee before the police arrive at the scene of the murder is sublime. Siren ALi provides powerful musical backing as the two cry, Seol-hee telling him, “What am I going to do? You won’t get to eat the food I cook. You would have had a big surprise,” before forcing out her signature cheerful, “Smile!” But this time the tone is that of a question and ALi painfully wales, “I love you . . . my painful love is you” in the background. Ko Soo and Jang Shin-young could not have captured Park Kyung-soo’s powerful writing any better and deserve an award for this scene alone — it’s just that powerful.
Not too long after, Tae-joo is again the voice of history, telling the Choi family breakfast table that in the face of IMF-imposed reforms, industry is changing such that, “The concept of lifetime employment will disappear. Everything will be focused around temporary and contract workers.” The instability of the corporation in the face of a family feud is a kind of allegory for Korea’s economic fate. Some are going to win big and many will be left behind with close to nothing.