The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Kim Dae-seung, 2012)

the-concubineYou can become the King of all Korea and your mum still won’t be happy. So it is for poor Prince Sungwon (Kim Dong-wook) who becomes accidental Iago in this Joseon tale of betrayal, cruelty, and love turning to hate in the toxic environment of the imperial court – Kim Dae-seung’s The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Hugoong: Jewangui Chub). Power and impotence corrupt equally as the battlefield shifts to the bedroom and sex becomes weapon and currency in a complex political struggle.

Prince Sungwon first catches sight of official’s daughter Hwa-yeon (Cho Yeo-jeong) after a hunting party and develops a dangerous attraction to her. His possessive parent, the Queen Mother (Park Ji-young), finds this worrying and manoeuvres to take Hwa-yeon out of the picture by having her brought to court as a concubine of the king. Hwa-yeon, however, has a love of her own in the roguish hanger-on Kwon-yoo (Kim Min-jun) and is willing to risk her life by defying the imperial orders and running away with him. The pair consummate their union but are discovered at first light whereupon Hwa-yeon agrees to go to court on the condition Kwon-yoo’s life is spared.

Some years later, Hwa-yeon is the reigning queen as the mother of the sickly king’s only son but her life becomes considerably more complicated when the king dies in mysterious circumstances. Power passes back to the Queen Mother who puts her son, Sungwon, on the throne, making Hwa-yeon and the young prince direct threats to her power base. Sungwon is still in love with Hwa-yeon but his mother forbids him from pursuing her. Forbidding is something his mother does quite a lot of, and it’s not long before Sungwon becomes frustrated with his lack of real power. Matters come to a head when Kwon-yoo also resurfaces as a eunuch at the imperial court.

The imperial court is a golden prison and a world in itself. Once entered, it cannot be escaped. Everyone is vying for power but no one really has any. The king’s ill health and lack of a direct heir has left him dangerously vulnerable and the Queen Mother in a position of unusual strength. If one thing is clear, it’s that she has had to play a long game to get here, done terrible things in the name of power or self preservation, and will stop at nothing to make sure she remains on top.

The Queen Mother’s ascendency is contrasted with Hwa-yeon’s fall as she finds herself forced into the court against her will. Realising her total lack of agency as the court ladies are instructed to obey protocol in undressing her for the bath rather than allowing her to undress herself, Hwa-yeon exclaims that she has no right to her own body. Hwa-yeon’s body is, now, imperial property to be used and abused by the king for his pleasure and his alone. However, the Queen Mother may have met her match in the steely and intelligent politician’s daughter who seems just as well equipped to play the game as she is.

Much has been made of the sexual content of The Concubine which was largely sold on its titillating qualities. However, even if the adult content is frank it is far from erotic as sex becomes a tool of control and manipulation – one of the few available to the subjugated women of the court environment. Aside from the first love scene between Hwa-yeon and her true love, Kwon-yoo (which is perhaps the least direct), none of the subsequent scenes is fully consensual, each a part of a wider scheme or courtly ritual. Rather than an expression of love or intimacy, sex is an act of mutual conquest in which each side, essentially, loses.

Sungwon finds himself powerless both politically and romantically, unable to wrest power away from his controlling mother or win the heart of the already brutalised Hwa-yeon. A prisoner of his own circumstances, Sungwon’s increasing feelings of impotence manifest in violence and erratic behaviour as his obsession with Hwa-yeon borders on madness. Far from a liberation, Sungwon’s sex life is, in a sense literally, dictated as his ritualised consummation of marriage is conducted in front of an audience shouting out commands from behind screen doors who eventually criticise him for his lack of stamina. Kwon-yoo has been robbed of his ability to engage in this game and his desire for revenge is intense yet he will have to take it from the shadows by stealth if at all.

Director Kim Dae-seung manages the intrigue well in crafting the intensely claustrophobic environment of the oppressive court whilst ensuring motivations and desires remain crystal clear. There are no winners here even if there is a reigning champion claiming the throne. The cycle of violence and manipulation seems set to continue as even those who entered as innocents leave with blood on their hands, having become the very thing they fought so hard against. Often beautifully shot with opulent production values, The Concubine is an ice cold thriller in which desire competes with reason but rarely, if ever, with love.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Revivre (화장, Im Kwon-taek, 2015)

revivreThe 102nd film from veteran Korean film director Im Kwon-taek may appear close to the bone in its depictions death, suffering, and the long look back on a life filled with the quiet kind of love but Revivre (화장, Hwajang) is anything but afraid to ask the questions most would not want to hear as the light dwindles. The inner journey is just too hazy, as one man puts it, unknowingly commenting on the human condition, yet Im does manage bring us nicely into focus, if only for a moment.

Oh (Ahn Sung-ki), a successful salaryman working in marketing for a cosmetics company, finds himself slightly adrift as the brain tumour his wife, Jin-kyung (Kim Ho-Jung), had previously suffered from resurfaces. The treatment this time is apparently not as successful leading to prolonged hospitals stays as Jin-kyung’s condition deteriorates and she begins to require a greater level of medical care. While all of this is going on, Oh is still very much dedicated to his work but has also begun to indulge in an old man’s folly, fantasising about the pretty new girl at the office.

Much of Revivre is concerned with Oh’s inner life, the things he does not say (which are many because Oh is a quiet sort of man). Ahn Sung-ki captures this quality well in playing Oh with a kind of blankness that could be the numbing sensation of grief or an extension of his ordinarily reserved nature. This makes his impromptu verbal attack on the figure of his fixation, Choo Eun-joo (Kim Gyu-ri), all the more unexpected though his remorse over having acted in such an out of character way may actually help to generate a kind of relationship between the pair albeit more of a paternal than romantic one.

Oh’s continuing fixation on Eun-joo, the woman who becomes the accidental focus of his world even though his wife lying dies in a hospital, is intended to be a fantasy and nothing more. An early dream sequence sees Oh participating in an elaborate traditional funeral taking place in a desert in which all of the mourners are dressed in black, except, of course, for Eun-joo – the only fixed point of reference, clothed in vibrant purple and smiling back at him in contrast to the solemn faces of the other guests, each staring at the floor. In the real world time slows down for him as Eun-joo dances youthfully in a nightclub and as he leaves the party early, her’s is the lone still face, haunting him as he looks back at the other revellers still enjoying themselves heartily even outside the club.

Indeed, “looking back” with all of its various advantages and disadvantages becomes another central theme as Oh becomes a kind of Orpheus descending into his own personal hell in the hope of dragging back his departed Eurydice – an idea neatly recreated in one of the film’s few outright fantasy sequences in which Oh dreams himself into an avant-garde dance show. Like Orpheus, Oh cannot help but look back though he risks losing all in the process. What Eun-joo represents for him is perhaps not the woman herself but an image of his own youth and a desire to live again as he once lived before. The present and the past begin to overlap for him, Eun-joo becomes the future he cannot touch as well as the returning spectre of a past he cannot return to.

Oh’s daughter asks him at one point if he ever really loved her mother. His reaction to losing his wife is, it has to be said, restrained, practical. Yet this question is answered with an immediate cut to Oh helping his wife to the bathroom, performing the most intimate of tasks with unwavering devotion. As his wife fades, Oh’s fantasies become a shield against the growing fears of his own mortality as his body also begins to fail him. The melancholy sense of loss and loneliness coupled with the inevitability of the passage of time pervade as each of Oh’s points of reference slips away from him at exactly the same time.

Im opts for a non-linear approach beginning with Jin-kyung’s passing and thereafter moving freely, reflecting Oh’s fleeting memories and interior confusion as he deals with such a traumatic, life altering event. Neatly framing Oh’s dilemma within his work in which he faces a choice of sticking with the current marketing strategy or striking out in a bold new direction, Im plays with the eternal theme of transient beauty in a society which prizes bodily perfection above all else. The film’s Korean title plays on a pun involving a homonym which means both “cremation” and “makeup” perhaps harking back to the central theme that you dig a grave for yourself if you attach the wrong sort of importance to the impermanent, but is in a sense ironic as one represents a final acceptance and the other an attempt to hold off the inevitable. Poetic and intensely moving, Revivre is another characteristically multilayered effort from Im, still at his full strength even in this late career effort.


International trailer (English subtitles/captions)