Be with You (지금 만나러 갑니다, Lee Jang-hoon, 2018)

be with you Korean posterWhen Nobuhiro Doi’s Be With You was released in 2004, it followed the even more popular Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World as the second in a wave of “jun-ai” or “pure love” romantic dramas in which the heroes and heroines struggle to move past romantic tragedy. Where Be With You differed from the genre norm was on its focus on a love that was already successful – the couple were older, had married, and even had a son before their happiness was taken from them by a cruel illness. Lee Jang-hoon, adapting the source novel by Takuji Ichikawa, shifts the setting to Korea but more or less follows Doi’s blueprint with a number of notable exceptions.

Rather than the framing sequence which kicks off the original, Lee opens with the beautifully illustrated picture book Soo-a (Son Ye-jin) made for her son shortly before she passed away. In the book a cute mummy penguin lives up above in Cloudland watching her baby through a crack in the clouds. When the rainy season arrives, the mummy penguin will be able to catch the Raindrop Train to come back to Earth, but before the summer ends she’ll have to return else she’ll lose her place among the clouds and won’t be able to watch over her son even from afar.

Little Ji-ho (Kim Ji-hwan) has taken the book to heart and really believes his mother will come back when the first rains fall. His father, Woo-jin (So Ji-sub), knows better but hasn’t the heart to tell his son that the book is just a story and that he will never see his mother again. Against the odds, Ji-ho and Woo-jin do indeed find a woman who looks exactly like Soo-a collapsed in an abandoned railway tunnel in the forest but she has no memory of her life as a wife and mother or of the family who’ve been patiently waiting for her return.

In contrast to her counterpart in Doi’s original, Son Ye-jin’s Soo-a is a much less passive presence, less inclined to simply go along with her new circumstances and keen to remind us that the decision to “work or lurk” is entirely her own. Likewise, Lee scales back on Woo-jin’s disability, rendering it far less visible than it had been in Doi’s adaptation. Bar some barbed comments from insensitive relatives at Soo-a’s funeral who question Woo-jin’s ability to raise his son alone, Woo-jin suffers little by the way of stigma regarding his medical condition though he does worry he might have embarrassed his son by pushing himself too hard at a school sports day and making himself ill in the process. Rather than the typical “jun-ai” selfish selflessness which caused the hero to breakup with his one true love out of a noble desire not to be a burden, Woo-jin’s decision is perhaps more out of pride and insecurity than it is out of misplaced consideration.

Nevertheless the timeless innocence of the couple’s early courtship (such as it was) retains its essential sweetness. As Soo-a can’t remember her romantic past, Woo-jin recounts his recollection of it to her in all its painful honesty, and in return later gets to hear her side of events thanks to the diary she left behind for him to read. Having met in high school, the pair entertained crushes on each other they assumed were unrequited, never quite working up the courage to declare themselves and squandering opportunities through nerves and awkwardness. Reliving their original romance the couple fall in love all over again only to be parted by a season’s end.

Yet it is familial love rather than the romantic which eventually takes centre stage as the love of Soo-a and Woo-jin envelops their son in something deeper and richer than your average tragic love story and becomes all the more poignant for it. Realising her time is short, Soo-a sets about teaching her husband and son how to live without her – showing Ji-ho how cook eggs, how to do the washing, how to keep the place tidy etc while giving them a few more happy memories to see them through and reminding them to take care of each other in her absence. Dreamlike and ethereal as Lee effortlessly blends one time period into another in a vast web of memory, Be With You is a heartbreaking drama in which a family must attempt to come to terms with irreparable loss through learning to treasure past happiness and living on in its memory.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Also screened as the first in a series of teaser screenings for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next screening in the series will be Memoir of a Murderer on 21st May, Regent Street Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (신과함께-죄와 벌, Kim Yong-hwa, 2017)

Along With the Gods- The Two Worlds posterThere’s nothing like death to give life perspective. If life is a series of tests, death is the finals but if you pass you get to come back and do it all again, otherwise you’ll have to spend some time in the afterlife thinking hard about what you’ve done and presumably studying for some kind of resits. At least, that’s how it seems to work in the complicated Buddhist hell of Kim Yong-hwa’s fantasy epic Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (신과함께-죄와 벌, Sin gwa Hamkke – Joe wa Beol). The first in a two part series, The Two Worlds takes a saintly man and tries to pull him down only to build him back up again as a potent symbol of filial piety and wounded selflessness.

Firefighter Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-hyun) is killed leaping heroically from a burning building with a little girl wrapped in his arms. He doesn’t realise he’s dead until he’s greeted by two neatly suited, official looking types who explain to him that they are his “Guardians” and will be looking after him on his journey through the afterlife. It turns out that Ja-hong’s heroic death has earned him a “Paragon” badge – a rare occurrence, and he has a good chance of reincarnation before the 49th day if he can successfully pass each of the seven trials which mark passage through Buddhist Hell.

As the Guardians point out, it would be extremely difficult for a “normal” person to pass these seven trials and achieve reincarnation but as a Paragon Ja-hong should have an easier ride. Ja-hong is, however, an ordinary person with an ordinary person’s failings even if his faults are comparatively small. Ja-hong is literally on trial seven times – represented by his team of defence lawyers, the Guardians, he is charged with various sins each “judged” by a god presiding over a custom courtroom. Murder Hell is fiery chaos, indolence is assessed by a stern older lady (Kim Hae-sook), and deceit by (who else) a small child (Kim Soo-ahn) licking a large lollipop.

Ja-hong is indeed a “good person” but he has also been to dark places, wilfully deciding to turn and walk away from them in order to repurpose his rage and resentment into a determination to care for his seriously ill mother (Ye Soo-jung) and younger brother (Kim Dong-wook). Working tirelessly, Ja-hong has been selfless in the extreme, saving lives and saving money for his family whilst sacrificing his own life and prospect of happiness in order to provide for others. That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t a degree of “sin” in the selfishness of Ja-hong’s selflessness or that he hasn’t also been cowardly in making a symbolic recompense for a guilty secret rather than a personal apology.

Kim Yong-hwa weaves in a series of subplots including a lengthy shift into the life of Ja-hong’s brother Su-hong, a possibly gay soldier with an intense attachment to a comrade which eventually has tragic results. Su-hong’s mild resentment towards his brother becomes a key element in his trial, eventually developing into a more literal kind of spectre haunting the proceedings while perhaps creating even more turmoil and confusion in the living world thanks to a moustache twirling villain whose desire to “help” is probably more about saving face – the kind of “betrayal” which is not “beautiful” enough to get a pass from the Goddess.

In the end the court seems to bend towards Ja-hong’s moral philosophy, excusing his human failings through moral justification even when that justification remains flimsy as in the case of his “fake” letters intended to make people feel better through the comfort of lies. The essence of the judgement, however, looks for forgiveness – if a sin is forgiven in the mortal world, it is inadmissible in a celestial court. The message seems clear, face your problems head on and sort out your emotional difficulties properly while there’s time else you’ll end up with “unfinished business” and get bogged down in Buddhist Hell being attacked by fish with teeth and having old ladies asking you why you spent so much time watching movies about death rather than living life to the fullest.

Ambitious in its use of CGI, Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds acquits itself well enough in its carefully drawn (if lifeless) backgrounds and frequent flights of fancy which allow Ha Jung-woo’s enigmatic Gang-lim ample opportunity to whip out his fiery sword of justice. Narratively, however, it’s comparatively clumsy and content to revel in the melodrama of its tearjerking premise. A post-credits teaser linking part one and part two through the recurring figure of an old man who can see the Guardians presents a familiar face in an extremely unfamiliar light and hints at a great deal of fun to be had next time around – appropriate enough for a film about reincarnation, but then again it’s as well to have some fun in this life too, something The Two Worlds could have used a little more of.


Currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

Midnight Runners (청년경찰, Kim Joo-hwan, 2017)

b861faaff73e4760fa673b9ca1b1468dffb7a334b9e43caee1065e675364da586d07306fe12f0a8d2f3556ef798dde699b6f2adc283c1ae8d9b53a8d85745de393ee015725bff3c47298edfb94e7f49fThere are many good reasons for applying to Police University, even if many people can’t see them. That aside, the heroes of Kim Joo-hwan’s Midnight Runners (청년경찰, Chungnyeongyungchal) have ended up there not through any particular love of honour and justice, but simply because it was cheap, on the one hand, and because it was different, on the other. An ‘80s-style buddy (not quite) cop comedy, Kim’s followup to the indie leaning Koala is the story of two young men finding their calling once their latent heroism is sparked by witnessing injustice first hand, but it’s also careful to temper its otherwise crowd pleasing narrative of two rookies taking on evil human trafficking gangsters with a dose of background realism.

Rookie recruits to Seoul’s Police University, Gi-jun (Park Seo-joon) and Hee-yeol (Kang Ha-neul) could not be more different. Gi-jun is exasperated by his worried mother’s words of parting, but hugs her goodbye anyway. Hee-yeol’s dad looks on in envy at this touching scene, but asking if he should hug his son too gets a resounding “no” before Hee-yeol begins to walk away, turning back to remind his father to button his coat because it’s cold outside. Gi-jun doesn’t want to get his hair cut because he’s fashion conscious, whereas Hee-yeol doesn’t want his cut because they don’t sterilise the clippers and he doesn’t want to catch a bacterial skin infection. Nevertheless, the pair eventually bond first during lunch as Hee-yeol surrenders his “carcinogenic” sausages to the always hungry Gi-jun, and then when Hee-yeol sprains his ankle during the final endurance test and Gi-jun (eventually) agrees to carry him to the finish line. Not for the first time, Gi-jun’s “selfless” actions to help a person in need earn the pair a few words of praise from their commander who berates the others for running past an injured comrade and thinking only of themselves when the very point of a police officer is to help those in need.

A year a later the pair are firm friends and decide to take a night on the town to find themselves some girlfriends to spend Christmas with. Sadly, they do not find any but they do find crime when they spot a pretty girl in the street and then spend ages arguing about asking for her number only to see her being clubbed over the head and bundled into a black van. Slightly drunk, the boys panic, chase the van, and ring the police but are told to stay put and wait for a patrol car. They figure they can get to the police station faster than a car can get to them but once they do they realise the entire station is being pulled away on another high profile case and no one’s coming. They do what it is they’ve been trained to do, investigate – but what they discover is much darker than anything they’d imagined.

Police in Korean cinema often have a bad rap. It’s nigh on impossible to think of any examples of heroic police officers who both start and finish as unblemished upholders of justice. Midnight Runners, however, attempts to paint a rosier picture of the police force, prompting some to describe it almost as a propagandistic recruiting tool. It helps that Gi-jun and Hee-yeol are still students which means that the idealistic line they’re being fed goes mostly unchallenged (at least until the climactic events prompt them to think again), but there are certainly no beatings, no shady dealings with the underworld, or compromised loyalties in the boys’ innocent quest to rescue a damsel in distress.

The spectre of corruption hovers in the background but on a national, rather than personal, level as the news constantly reports on the kidnapping of a wealthy CEO’s child while a young woman from a troubled background has also gone missing but no one, not even the police who have devoted all their resources to the CEO’s case, is interested. Meanwhile, Gi-jun and Hee-yeol, having just escaped from certain death, attempt to get help from a nearby police box but the shocked jobsworth of a duty officer won’t help them because they don’t have their IDs. The boys’ outrage on being informed that despite all their efforts, the specialist team who handle cases like these won’t even be able to look at it for weeks is instantly understandable, but so is their professor’s kindly rationale that all lives are equal and the squad can’t be expected to dump their current caseload and swap one set of victims for another. The police, so it goes, are heroes caged by increasing bureaucracy which has made them forget the reasons they became policemen in the first place. 

Despite the grim turn the film takes after Gi-jun and Hee-yeol make a shocking discovery as a result of their investigation, Kim keeps things light thanks the boys’ easy, symbiotic relationship filled with private jokes and even a cute secret handshake. Jokey slapstick eventually gives way to hard-hitting action as the rookie officers finally get to try out some of their training and find it effective on entry level street punks, but less so on seasoned brawlers with mean looks in their eyes. Told to “leave things to the grown ups”, Gi-jun and Hee-yeol decide there are things which must be done even it is dangerous and irresponsible because no one else is going to do them (whether that be eating sausages or rescuing young women no one else seems to care about). A strange yet fitting place to make the case for a better, less selfish world, Midnight Runners is a buddy cop throwback which brings the best of the genre’s capacity for humour and action right back with it.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles – select from menu)

Enemies In-Law (위험한 상견례 2, Kim Jin-young, 2015)

enemies in-law posterIt’s tough when parents don’t approve of their children’s romantic partners, but fortunately most realise there’s nothing they can do about it so the best thing is to feign civility (and avoid saying I told you so when it all goes wrong). Unfortunately the older generation of Kim Jin-young’s Enemies In-Law (위험한 상견례 2, Wiheomhan Sanggyeonrye 2), a kind of follow up to his 2011 effort Meet the In-Laws, are of a very much more hands on mindset. One side is a police family in which literally everyone for generations has worked in law enforcement, and the other is headed by a pair of international artefacts thieves determined to live life on their own terms. You might think this is a situation ripe for comedy, and it is. Only, in a very strange and not altogether successful way.

Park Young-hee (Jin Se-yeon) and her fellow Olympian sister Young-sook (Kim Do-yeon) are on the way back from a fencing competition when their policeman father, Man-choon (Kim Eung-soo), gets into a car chase with the son of the two criminals he’s been trying to catch for years. Chul-soo (Hong Jong-hyun), a high school student with an expensive sports car, comes out on top but displays unexpected heroism when he notices the Park family car is on fire and someone is still trapped inside. Dousing himself with water he valiantly rescues Young-hee just before the car explodes and the pair fall in love at first sight.

Man-choon most definitely does not approve of this union, but Chul-soo vows to leave the criminal world behind and join the police like the rest of the Park family. Seven years later he’s still trying to pass the police exam and in a committed relationship with the now successful policewoman (and former Olympic gold medallist) Young-hee. As it looks like Chul-soo is about to achieve his goal, both the Parks and his parents Dal-sik (Shin Jung-geun) and Gang-ja (Jeon Soo-kyung), become increasingly worried about the marriage of crime and justice. Accordingly they form an unlikely alliance to break the pair up at all costs.

Enemies In-Law has its share of oddness, but remains disappointingly conventional in its comedic approach. The most objectionable aspect manifests itself in a persistent layer of fat jokes, mostly at the expense of Olympian judoist Young-sook whose weight is the constant butt of every joke in which she is derided as unattractive, greedy, lazy, and mannish. Despite the fact that the sisters seemingly each hold high offices in the police force, the overriding tone is a socially conservative one, even shoehorning in a bathing beauty sequence in which policewoman Young-hee is forced to dance lasciviously in a red bikini followed by her sister in a much frumpier one in another predictable and unfunny joke, as part of an odd sequence investigating a “secret” hostess bar. The jokes are at least mitigated by the fact Yuong-sook could not care any less what anyone thinks about her and is fine with both her appearance and anything anyone might have to say about it.

The major crisis point in the relationship comes when Chul-soo becomes fed up with the situation and captures his parents, presenting them to Man-choon tied up like two prize turkeys. This, he hopes, will be enough to get them to give in and accept him as a son-in-law, but he makes a rookie mistake. Young-hee, disappointed in him and getting the impression she’s become the subject of a “trade”, resolutely rejects Chul-soo’s attempt to buy her hand in marriage from her father with a slap to the face and a swift exit. The women have been bypassed as Chul-soo attempts to deal directly with Man-choon and the decision of the two men to view their relations as objects to be exchanged is rightly criticised in its effect of almost ending the entire endeavour and causing a possibly permanent rift with Young-hee.

Things also take a darker turn with the ongoing investigation the sisters are working on which involves a number of rapes and murders of well to do single women. In contrast with Chul-soo’s parents whose criminal enterprise is apparently successful, the police are depicted as blithering idiots who couldn’t catch a chicken in a supermarket. Using such a serious and unpleasant crime spree for comic value seems in poor taste even given the obvious throw away quality of the film, though it does provide the final plot motivation to bring everyone together as the master criminals have to step in to point the police in the right direction, even if Chul-soon’s mother has to pretend to be President Park Geun-hye to do it.

For a film which involves the ability to talk to dogs as a major device, Enemies In-Law never fully embraces its absurdism, leaving it with a curiously uneven tone which might have benefitted from even more silliness. Shifting from romantic comedy to police procedural in an interesting series of straight to camera monologues with re-enactments, Enemies In-Law takes its cues from popular TV dramas and pushes them in a more interesting direction but the jokes are never really big enough to pay off. Amusing enough, at times, but poorly pitched and uneven, Enemies In-Law is not the film it claims to be, but fails to be much of anything else either.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bluebeard (해빙, Lee Soo-youn, 2017)

bluebeardIf you think you might have moved in above a modern-day Sweeney Todd, what should you do? Lee Soo-youn’s follow-up to 2003’s The Uninvited, Bluebeard (해빙, Haebing), provides a few easy lessons in the wrong way to cope with such an extreme situation as its increasingly confused and incriminated hero becomes convinced that his butcher landlord’s senile father is responsible for a still unsolved spate of serial killings. Rather than move, go to the police, or pretend not to have noticed, self-absorbed doctor Seung-hoon (Cho Jin-woong) drives himself half mad with fear and worry, certain that the strange father and son duo from downstairs have begun to suspect that he suspects.

Seung-hoon has only just moved into this very modest apartment after a recent setback in his career and personal life. Once the owner of an upscale practice in Seoul’s trendy Gangnam (not usually known for its doctor’s surgeries), Seung-hoon is bankrupt, divorced, and working as a colonoscopy specialist in a local clinic which just happens to be situated in a run down industrial town that everyone knows the name of because it’s that place where all those murders happened.

Used to better things, Seung-hoon finds his new job boring and annoying. Though members of staff at the clinic including pretty nurse Mi-yeon (Lee Chung-ah) do their best to make him feel at home, Seung-hoon spends all his time alone staring into space and eating snacks in the treatment room rather than enjoying proper meals with the others in a nearby cafe. Despite being a bookish looking guy, Seung-hoon hasn’t much taste for literature but loves his mystery novels. When his landlord’s family use him as a connection to get the elderly patriarch in for a scan, it sparks a crisis in Seung-hoon’s already strained mind. Midway through the treatment, the old guy starts muttering about dumping body parts in a lake. Is he just senile and dragging something up from the news or a movie, is Seung-hoon’s overactive imagination coupled with a steady stream of grisly police procedurals playing tricks on him, or is this diminished yet creepy old duffer really responsible for a series of brutal killings?

The original Korean title means something like “ice melting” which gives a better indication of Lee’s intentions as long-buried evidence is unearthed by changing weather both mental and physical. Bluebeard, for those who don’t know, is a creepy horror story told to children in which a horrible old man imprisons and then murders all his wives. Seung-hoon’s suspicions are further aroused by the fact that all of the women associated with the guys downstairs seem to disappear. Then again, they are quite strange, so perhaps their wives really did just leave without warning.

Seung-hoon’s wife appears to have left him high and dry preferring to stay behind in the city rather than accompany him to this grim one horse murder town. The couple’s son wants to go to summer camp in Canada but Seung-hoon can’t quite afford it in his present difficulties. Now afraid to go home because of his creepy neighbours, Seung-hoon spends his nights curled up in the office where he accidentally discovers another employee’s morphine pilfering habit. Pushed to the edge, Seung-hoon’s mind starts to crack. Less concerned with the murderer than Seung-hoon’s fracturing mental state, Bluebeard neatly frames its hero whilst blithely wondering if he’s accidentally framing himself. Presented with a series of alternate histories, Seung-hoon’s memories seem increasingly unreliable and his paranoid, irrational behaviour less justifiable. When the ice melts the truth will be exposed, but it looks like it might be a long, cold winter for Seung-hoon.

Lee takes her time but builds an eerie, dread filled atmosphere where everything seems strange, suspect, and frightening. Seung-hoon has already hit rock bottom and may not have been such a great guy in the first place, but his descent into psychotic desperation and terrified paranoia is at the heart of the story which hinges on whether his suspicions are correct or if he’s simply read too many detective novels and has too much time on his hands now that he’s all alone. Anchored by a stand out performance from Cho, Bluebeard is an intricately designed, fascinatingly complex psychological thriller which carries its grimly ironic sense of the absurd right through to the cynical closing coda.


Bluebeard was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스, Kim Jung-hoon, 2010)

petty-romanceKorea is quite good at rom-coms. Consequently they make quite a lot of them and as the standard is comparatively high you have to admire the versatility on offer. Korean romantic comedies are, however, also a little more conservative,  coy even, than those from outside of Asia which makes Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스,  Jjae Jjae Han Romaenseu) something of an exception in its desire to veer in a more risqué direction. He’s too introverted, she’s too aggressive – they need each other to take the edges off, it’s a familiar story but one that works quite well. Petty Romance does not attempt to bring anything new to the usual formula but does make the most of its leads’ well honed chemistry whilst keeping the melodrama to a minimum.

Manhwa artist Jeong Bae (Lee Sun-kyun) is not having much success with his latest project. In fact, his publishing house has been using his submitted drafts as scrap paper. He’s also got a problem in that a gallery owning friend of his late father has been the caretaker of a precious painting left to him in his father’s will but now wants to call in a loan or sell it to get the money back and so Jeong bae is in desperate need of fast cash.

Across town, Da-rim (Choi Kang-hee) has managed to bag a writing gig on her friend’s woman’s magazine but finds herself out of her depth working on a sex advice column when she has no direct experience of love or dating. Given the axe by her friend and living with her moody twin brother to whom she owes money, Da-rim is also in need of something to sink her teeth in to.

When a friend of Bae’s lets him know about a new competition with a $100,000 cash prize it sounds like just what he needs. The only snag is the competition is for “adult” manhwa which has not generally been Bae’s thing. Taking his editor’s advice, Bae decides to work with a writer but most of his interviewees are not exactly what he’s looking for. Da-rim with her “experience” in translation and publishing, as well as her unusual forthrightness concerning the subject matter very much fits the bill.

Kim doesn’t waste much time in getting the two together though their love/hate relationship is a definite slow boil as both Bae and Da-rim spend most of their partnership playing each other to try and get the upper hand. Bae’s trouble, according to his editor, is a talent for action but a failure with narrative – hence the need for a writer. Da-rim, by contrast, has altogether too much imagination coupled with the kind of arrogance which masks insecurity. Having blagged her way into the job, Da-rim spends most of her time ensuring that she’s in a superior position to Bae so that he will have to do most of the work while she enjoys freshly made coffee ordered to distract him from the fact that she has no idea what she’s doing.

Despite coming up with a promising storyline about a sex obsessed female assassin, Da-rim’s naivety is palpable in her attempts to come up with a suitably “adult” atmosphere. Disney-esque scenarios of handsome princes and desert islands, even if spiced up (in the most innocent of ways), isn’t quite striking the tone for the kind of prize winning raunchy manga that the pair are aiming for. Pushed further, Da-rim’s extrapolations from “research” are so unrealistic as to set Bae’s alarm bells ringing but offered with such insistence as to have him momentarily doubt himself.

Kim makes good use of manhwa as a visual device allowing him to include slightly more erotic content than usual in a Korean romantic comedy in an entirely “safe” way. Refreshingly he keeps the usual plot devices to a minimum though there is the “sibling mistaken for lover”, “mistimed job offer,” and “aggressive rival” to contend with, even if the major barriers are entirely centred around the personalities of the protagonists who are each fairly self involved in their own particular ways. Despite making good use of the chemistry generated by previous collaborators Lee Sun-kyun and Choi Kang-hee, Petty Romance lives up to its name in providing enough low-key drama to keep rom-com fans happy but never quite moves beyond the confines of its genre.


Available to stream on Mubi (UK) until 15th March 2017 courtesy of Terracotta Distribution.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)