NB: This review is based on the European edit of The Treacherous.
In 1505 AD, the tyrannical King Yeonsan (Kim Kang-woo (김강우) has insatiable sexual desires that, alongside his violent suppression of any who oppose him, makes him one of the most despised rulers in the history of Korea. His lust becomes so great that he orders advisors Im Soong-jae (Joo Ji-hoon (주지훈) and Lim Sa-hong (Cheon Ho-jin (천호진) to become ‘Beauty Scout Officers,’ and acquire 10,000 women from across the land for his pleasure. Yet King Yeonsan’s greed results in widespread anger across the peninsula, while the motivations of some of his new beauties, including peasant girl Dan-hee (Lim Ji-yeon (임지연), may seal his doom.
Based on the true story of abhorred King Yeonsan, The Treacherous is a beautifully composed and colourful period drama by director Min Gyoo-dong who generates an acute epic scale and flair to the proceedings. Yet the overly long film is marred by a thread-bare narrative and frightfully misogynistic sexual politics throughout that, in conjunction with distinctly OTT performances by the main cast, make the erotic piece little more than a visually attractive male fantasy.
Helmer/scribe Min Gyoo-dong has certainly exceeded himself in a cinematic sense, as The Treacherous represents his most visually competent work to date in an impressive filmography that contains All About My Wife and Memento Mori. The period drama consistently emphasises epic scale whether capturing the grandiose exterior locations or within the beautifully ornate rooms in the palace, displaying lavish production values in every frame. Combined with a glorious use of colour, the Joseon dynasty has rarely looked more elegant and wondrous.
Yet while director Min conveys the extravagance of the era with aplomb, the manner in which he portrays women is appalling. King Yeonsan is despised within the annals of history for his violent subjugation and womanising – he is especially noted for converting revered libraries into concubine abodes – however rather than convey the royal’s actions negatively, director Min glamourises them as male fantasy to the point of disbelief. Scenes involving his forcibly acquired 10,000 women being paraded, putting special powder into their vaginas to make them tighter, or bent over in a line and forced to endure different sized dildos before receiving a stamp on their rears, are presented as erotica and are thoroughly misogynistic in nature.
Actress Lim Ji-yeon, fresh from winning a few Best New Actress awards in erotic drama Obsessed in 2014, is generally the focus of such fetishisation within The Treacherous. It’s curious that she has opted to appear in another film that requires much more exposure and sexual scenes as her latest project, but she acquits herself confidently and capably. Her unique form of ‘non-acting’ and the coldness she exudes however makes her character difficult to empathise with, yet luckily her motivations alongside the dire ways in which she is treated within the palace easily position her as the heroine of the film.
The narrative also attempts to posit royal advisor and beauty scout officer Im Soong-jae as a hero of sorts yet fails through the poorly constructed plot. Though he is very much the central protagonist of the film, Im is portrayed as a horribly selfish and ambitious individual from the very opening with his impetus to change based solely on his attraction to peasant girl Dan-hee. Actor Joo Ji-hoon does what he can with the role yet as there is precious little chemistry between him and Lim Ji-yeon, the advisor’s attempts to reform ultimately ring hollow.
The greatest problem however lies with Kim Kang-woo as King Yeonsan. Suffering psychological issues due to a disease brought on by his promiscuity, the King is undoubtedly a villainous figure yet Kim Kang-woo portrays the man as the Joker on acid, cackling throughout scenes while falling into hysterics in others, and forcing those around him to endure ridiculous tests of torment. It’s a frustrating approach and one that effects the entire film, and makes the overly long two hour running time even more arduous.
The Treacherous is a visually extravagant and epic period drama by helmer/scribe Min Gyoo-dong, with the Joseon dynasty rarely appearing more elegant and grandiose. However the misogyny laced throughout the weak and overly-long narrative is awful, presenting the violent sexual subjugation of 10,000 women as male fantasy masquerading as erotica. Combined with bland performances by the central cast, The Treacherous is an attractive yet frustrating effort.