Let me start out by saying this; if you’re going to sample Empire of Gold, I’d skip episode one and go for the juicy, meaty main course, episode two. Episode one is delicious, but episode two is decadent. You can read 10Asia’s short and sweet summary of episode one here. If you laugh in the face of tl;dr’s and have mastered the art of skimming paragraphs, here’s a slightly lengthier recap of episode one. There are a lot of adverbs (I get excessive when I’m excited). You have been warned (lulz).
EMPIRE OF GOLD EPISODE 1 RECAP
In one word, Empire of Gold is intense. It begins in medias res with Jang Tae Joo (Go Soo) stonily listening to the radio while speeding along a highway. Over the radio, we hear a female news presenter’s voice reporting that Congressman Kim Gwang Se will cooperate with investigations by the Seoul prosecutor’s office. He receives a call from Yoon Seol Hee (Jang Shin Young) alerting him that she’s finished showering and that Congressman Kim Gwang Se will be leaving for the Seoul prosecutor’s office shortly. He tersely orders her to delay Congressman Kim by sleeping with him again, ignoring the note of plea in her voice. Seol Hee stays still for a moment gazing at her reflection in the bathroom mirror before walking over to the politician and suggestively dropping her towel.
We cut to the next scene with a close-up of a plate of fruit and a paring knife (Chekhov’s gun, people). Tae Joo has arrived at the politician’s villa and proffers a one-way ticket to Macau, one million USD pocket money, and the papers for a shopping complex valued at two million USD and a luxury department store. Tae Joo wants Congressman Kim to leave the country immediately because he suspects that Congressman Kim plans on handing him over to the Seoul prosecutor’s office. Congressman Kim makes a show of heartily accepting Tae Joo’s offer and pretends to call and order his secretary to cancel his appointment with the prosecutor’s office and burn all incriminating documents. Tae Joo is onto him, however, and immediately calls Secretary Choi himself to check if Congressman Kim had really given those instructions. Tae Joo coolly reacts to Secretary Choi’s negatives and slowly corners Congressman Kim before grasping his throat. He growls, “Did you think you could throw me to the gutter? Listen carefully. What you have, ambition, power, I have too. So when I when my hand waves goodbye, leave.”
Upon Congressman Kim’s pleading, Tae Joo releases his stranglehold and walks away. Grasping a split second’s opportunity, Congressman Kim grabs a golf club and tries to swing it at Tae Joo’s head. Tae Joo turns and reflexively stabs him in the gut. Tae Joo drops his knife and freezes. The cuckoo clock strikes three o’clock in the silence. Tae Joo stares at his reflection while blood drips from his hand. Then he acts quickly and narrates to a horrified Seol Hee, “He was drunk. He tore your dress. He hit you. With his hand. With the golf club. And you stabbed him.” He ruthlessly slaps her and rips her dress to create corroborative evidence. Then he dials the police and waits for her to spill his revisionist account. When she hesitates, he sensuously kisses her and whispers in her ear, “You decide. Turn me in, or turn yourself in.” Seol Hee breaks down and screams into the phone, “I’ve killed someone.”
We cut to a Catholic church where Tae Joo is getting married to Choi Seo Yoon (Lee Yo Won). It’s Seo Yoon’s turn to slide a ring, a symbol of love and faith, on Tae Joo’s hand, only it’s dripping with blood. Tae Joo smiles cryptically.
It’s 1990 and we flash back to the days when Tae Joo is a law student. He’s in a ritzy house watching a quiz show with an elementary school student. Convergence (수렴. An economic term for the catch-up effect in developing countries). He’s guessed the correct answer yet again. The child’s mother and apologizes for testing him like this and gives him the tutoring job. She explains, ironically, that she had to test him because “not every law student from a top university is competent” (Riiight. Because it’s the poor who get legacy admission, *rolls eyes*).
Tae Joo visits his father, Jang Bong Ho (Nam Il Woo) at his noodle restaurant. Tae Joo tries to convince his father to give up trying to get compensation. The shopping mall his father’s restaurant is located in has been sold to developers who want to raze the building. His father refuses to give up however, unable to let go of the $90,000 he invested in his restaurant. He insists, “I’ve bowed to the rich and powerful my whole life. I saved for thirty years to put this sign up. Finally, at the age of sixty, I have a chance of making money. If I give up now, I have nothing left.”
Choi Seo Yoon (Lee Yo Won) visits her father, Choi Dong Seong (Park Geun Hyeong) at the hospital, where he’s awaiting surgery for what he claims is a steatoma, a benign brain tumor made of fat cells. Her stepmother, Han Jeong Hee (Kim Mi Sook) mentions her son, Won Jae (Eom Hyo Seop), who’s currently abroad. Won Jae has a delicate constitution and his mother frets about him while his father grumbles about his weakness. When Seo Yoon discusses her father’s health with his doctor, the doctor admits that her father actually has an astrocytoma, a benign brain tumor made of supportive tissue cells, and that her father only has a 35% chance of survival. Seo Yoon is stunned but she quickly collects herself and orders him to keep this is a secret. Seo Yoon’s chief concern is keeping her father’s illness a secret to keep stock prices from falling.
Choi Dong Jin (Jung Han Yong) thanks his brother, Choi Dong Seong, over the phone in the car. Dong Jin has sent flowers to the hospital and assures his brother that all will go well in his meetings with Deng Xiaoping, a veteran CPC leader who launched crucial economic reforms in the ’80s (Asian history class!!) and General Secretary Jiang Zemin. However, his son, Choi Min Jae (Son Hyun Joo), is suspicious of his uncle’s motives for giving his father an opportunity to help the Blue House establish diplomatic ties with China.
Jeong Hee (Seo Yoon’s stepmother) proudly mentions to Dong Seong (Seo Yoon’s father) that Myeong Hun (their grandson) was accepted into an international school in Rome. Seo Yoon re-enters the hospital room and asks if she can have a private word with her father, and her stepmother graciously agrees, though there may have been an almost imperceptible note of annoyance in her voice. Seo Yoon kneels in front of her father with tears in her eyes and her father realizes that she has found out that his condition is much more serious than he tried to pretend it was. He grumbles about his doctor’s loose tongue. Seo Yoon promises to do everything her father instructs her to do and take care of everything. She begs him to promise that he’ll survive his surgery. Her father gruffly retorts that he can’t die because his children are lacking and he refuses to let his life’s accomplishments slip through his fingers. When he hears from his secretary that his brother has arrived in Singapore and is on his way to China, he swiftly orders his secretary to block his brother’s meetings with the Chinese politburo.
Meanwhile, Min Jae hears from his secretary that negotiations have failed and that the shopping mall tenants have begun protesting. When he asks for his right-hand directors, he finds out that they were all sent on tasks abroad. He realizes that everything was a part of his uncle’s plan to hamstring him before the emergency board meeting. He grits his teeth and orders his secretary to unleash their hired gangsters on the protesters, despite his secretary’s caution that many of the protesters are elderly. Over the radio, we hear that it’s April, and the radio host muses, “I wonder why T. S. Eliot described such a beautiful season as cruel?” The radio host plays the Strauss’ Voices of Spring Waltz, and over the strains of the strings, Min Jae murmurs, “April is cruel. From the perspective of the wasteland. When the land is dry, they can eat grass and thrive. But spring comes, seeds sprout, and flowers bloom. Buildings are raised. New cities are built. And the wasteland disappears.” And while he speaks, there’s a montage of the shopping mall’s tenants, gangsters preparing to beat protesters, and sleek skyscrapers.
Min Jae walks into the company building for the emergency board meeting and encounters his cousin, Seo Yoon. She’s speaking with a prosecutor on the phone and locks eyes with Min Jae and raises her voice, “There are some people planning on using “hired help” to get what they want. No, you don’t need to investigate who they are.” She calls out “oppa,” and he responds, “Seo Yoon-ah.” They walk into the elevator together and make small talk. It becomes apparent that Min Jae’s wife is sick. Seo Yoon casually mentions that his wife asked her to stop fighting with her cousin. Seo Yoon coolly asks her cousin not to make a fuss in front of the board members. She tells him that the internal auditing team has begun investigating his father’s business dealings and that he and his father could go to jail. Min Jae’s mouth twitches. She pleasantly informs him that she can give him her shares of their company’s food subsidiaries. At this point, his secretary gets a call from (presumably) Seo Yoon’s stepmother who discloses insider information that her husband has a brain tumor. Taking a cue from his secretary, he changes the conversation’s tack.
Meanwhile, Tae Joo and his sister, Jang Hee Joo (Yoon Seung Ah), pick a shirt for their father, laughing and bickering, until she notices other high school girls shopping nearby and becomes self-conscious of her Yeosang high school uniform. Tae Joo cheers her up by treating her to lunch, her favorite, tonkatsu. In a parallel scene, gangsters rev up to use violence on the protesters. Car windows are smashed, protesters beaten, and molotov cocktails thrown.
Back to the board meeting, Seo Yoon’s secretary announces that the company has faced losses of 1.27 million USD from construction delay, 2.53 million USD from low price bidding, and 1.47 million USD from increased labor cost due to tenant negotiation failures. He proposes that they dismiss Vice Chairman Choi Dong Jin and President Choi Min Jae. Before they vote, Min Jae pulls his hidden card and presses the intercom button to speak with the head of the department of neurology. Min Jae asks the doctor several questions and extracts a prognosis of death for Seo Yoon’s father. Seo Yoon steels herself and confidently states that her father will survive the surgery and return to the company. Min Jae placates her, but mildly states that he can’t forgive her father’s deception. Seo Yoon glares at him and a warning “oppa” escapes from her mouth. Min Jae explodes and grinds out, “It’s president. President! President Choi Min Jae of Sung Jin Construction” (This scene was sooo sick). He goes for the kill and patronizingly tells her that the company isn’t her playground. She should stay at home and run her daddy’s errands from there. Min Jae’s secretary calls for a vote regarding the Chairman’s temporary replacement and the board members unanimously vote for Min Jae as the proxy Chairman. Min Jae states that he will be in charge of all the funds, halt internal investigations, and take over Director Seo Yoon’s role. He announces that his first order is to call in the police and “hired help” to break up the protesters and begin construction. He vows that ten percent of the two million new apartments being raised will be built by their company.
Meanwhile in the restaurant Tae Joo tells Hee Joo his dreams; once he becomes a lawyer, he’ll rent a bigger house so she can have her own room. He promises he’ll open a noodle restaurant for their father and send her to college. Hee Joo interrupts him with a gasp when she reads the news ticker on the TV screen. There’s been a fire at the shopping mall. Tae Joo finds his father at the hospital with covered with severe third-degree burns. Surgery will cost 30,000 USD and the doctors refuse to operate until they receive the money. The doctor warns Tae Joo that his father will die in 48 hours due to infection and respiratory failure if he’s not treated.
Tae Joo listens listlessly to the tenant protesters’ leader shouting that they’ll refuse to accept blood money, declaring that they’ll fight until justice is served. Tae Joo rises and scoffs.
“An apology? From whom? Who’s responsible? The land owner? The construction company? The police? Why are you all so blind? Everyone in this country is responsible! Everyone who buys land and kicks out the poor! You’re no different. You’d buy land too if you had money. Why hide behind idealism? If you’re angry, make money! Buy land! My father needs to get surgery. Settle, you bastards, settle!”
Protesters accost him to drag him outside and he struggles, but deflates when he sees the scattered pictures of the protesters’ deceased family members.
Desperate, Tae Joo visits Seol Hee, a high school sunbae who’s in real estate. She mocks him for running to her after cutting off all ties with her. Tae Joo cuts to the chase and asks what she wants him to do for her. She smiles and explains she’s built a pretty little church since religious property is protected by the law from land developers (I think, anyways). Her church attendants are homeless people plucked from the Seoul subway station (The light, playful music in the background highlights the absurdity of this). However, Jo Pil Doo (Ryu Seung Soo), the boss of a gang, took her church lot by force. She pauses for a moment to examine her nails and concludes that she’ll give him $30,000 if he gets back her church lot and pays back blood for blood. Tae Joo’s friend bursts out that she’s sentencing Tae Joo to death and Seol Hee flippantly shoots back, “who worries about tomorrow?”
Seo Yoon’s father’s surgery was successful, but due to complications, her father will be brain dead if he doesn’t wake up within 24 hours (you can bet your bottom dollar he’ll wake up twenty episodes later, lol). Min Jae offers his empty-hearted condolences and gives Jeong Hee (Seo Yoon’s stepmother) a package wrapped in gold silk. He tells her it’s something he picked up from his last business trip to Australia for her anemia (methinks it’s probably filled with cash or something). After he leaves, Jeong Hee warmly comforts Seo Yoon with an embrace. She implores Seo Yoon to share all of her burdens with her. However, once the camera closes in on Jeong Hee’s hand stroking Seo Yoon’s back, it becomes apparent that it’s the same hand that called Min Jae’s secretary and disclosed the decisive, highly classified news of Seo Yoon’s father’s critical condition.
Meanwhile, Pil Do drops off his son at school. He obviously dotes on his son, and watches over his son walking to school. During this brief lull, Tae Joo bursts into Pil Do’s car and starts driving at breakneck speed, weaving in and out of lanes, regardless of traffic. Tae Joo offers Pil Do an ultimatum, he either returns the church lot to Seol Hee or he dies. With Pil Do hostage, his henchman hands over the papers to Seol Hee. The car flips over and a bloody Tae Joo crawls out of the car. He grabs the money from Seol Hee and hands over the money for his father’s surgery to the hospital. Tae Joo screams at the hospital workers to begin his father’s surgery but his father’s heart stops beating and flatlines. In a parallel scene, Seo Yoon’s father’s heart also stops beating. Police officers scoping the hospital find Tae Joo and arrest him.
– End Episode 1 –