Many years ago, a peasant uprising led by the legendary 3 Swords goes awry when Deok-gi (Lee Byung-hun) betrays the band of warriors by aligning with the corrupt king and murdering Poong-chun (Bae Soo-Bin). Distraught, Seol-rang (Jeon Do-yeon) flees with Poong-chan’s infant daughter Hong-yi, vowing revenge. 18 years later, Hong-yi (Kim Go-eun) has become a master swordsman thanks to the tutelage of the now-blind Seol-rang, and upon learning of her tragic history embarks on a quest to avenge her father.
Hong-yi tests her skills against the military’s finest warrior
Memories of the Sword is perhaps best described as a Korean attempt at the wuxia sub-genre, a particularly bold undertaking by writer/director Park Heung-sik considering the its very Chinese origins and the quality of titles to emerge. To his credit, Memories of the Sword is a handsomely shot film and often features beautifully composed sequences as characters interact with stunning natural landscapes. The film owes a huge debt of gratitude to cinematographer Kim Byeong-seo as he employs wuxia traits to make a visually engaging and stylised piece of work that is rare in K-cinema.
Yet Memories of the Sword falls apart due to its highly convoluted plot and poor narrative structure. Attempts to create melodrama and intrigue between characters quickly become tedious as the relationships and shared histories presented are laborious to endure, while big reveals that could have injected tension into the story are haphazardly divulged. As such, it’s often difficult to tell whether Memories of the Sword is a reverential wuxi undertaking or a parody of the genre.
Blind master Seol-rang perfects her swordplay
Both Jeon Do-yeon and Lee Byung-hun are without a doubt two of the most talented actors in Korean cinema, and it’s a genuine delight to see them interact on screen together. Jeon Do-yeon in particular stands out in Memories of the Sword as she injects a passionate intensity and humanity into Seol-rang, an impressive feat given the character is so thread-bare. Kim Go-eun is also a great talent as witnessed in A Muse, yet here she appears to be in completely different film to her co-stars as she overacts her way through scenes with youthful glee.
In terms of action, no one fairs especially well when it comes to the martial arts sequences and wire-work essential to the film. The choreography is competent but generally uninspired, failing to generate the required investment to make the thrills riveting viewing. While watching it’s impossible to not recall superior examples of the genre – notably Hero and House of Flying Daggers, from which Memories of the Sword appears to take so much influence – and wish to be watching them instead.
Villainess Deok-gi lusts for power
Memories of the Sword is visually impressive Korean attempt at the wuxia sub-genre, yet aside from a selection of beautifully composed scenes the martial arts adventure falls flat.
Acclaimed actress Jeon Do-yeon is to be honoured at the 21st Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) this year, in celebration of her 20 year career that began with Contact back in 1997.
Entitled ‘Contact, Jeon Do-yeon,’ the special program is dedicated to the revered actress and will feature highlights from her incredible filmography, including Secret Sunshine – for which she won ‘Best Actress’ at Cannes Film Festival – tense drama The Housemaid, gangster/action film No Blood, No Tears, time-travel drama My Mother, The Mermaid, period-actioner Memories of the Sword, thrillers Countdown and The Shameless, and more to be announced.
In addition, BiFan will also hold a press conference, a special Q&A between Jeon Do-yeon and the audience, an exhibition of the posters in which she starred alongside stills of the famed actress, and an exclusive collectors book for fans.
Jeon Do-yeon is undoubtedly one of the most talented – and internationally celebrated – artists in Korean cinematic history, and as such the program is a great boon for audiences and the festival alike, allowing fans old and new to revisit her extraordinary filmography.
With his non-invasive, realism-infused vision, director Lee Yoon-ki’s (이윤기) films are wonderfully character driven as he explores the fragility and complexity of modern relationships. My Dear Enemy (멋진 하루) is very much set within such a framework, as the director subtly peels away the psychological and emotional layers of two ex-lovers who join forces for a day. With his palpable sensitivity and rejection of cliches, director Lee has crafted a poignant examination of the difficulties of early thirty-somethings in contemporary Korea, and their hopes and desires in forming lasting relationships. While the impetus wanes during the final third of the film, My Dear Enemy is an incredibly charming film bolstered by tender and captivating performances by Jeon Do-yeon and Ha Jeong-woo.
Searching high and low in a betting office, Kim Hee-soo (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연) has almost given up hope of finding ex-boyfriend Jo Byeong-woon (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우). She doesn’t wish to reconcile, however; Hee-soo wants the large sum of money she lent Byeong-woo a year ago and is determined to retrieve it. Finally locating her happy-go-lucky ex, Byeong-woo claims he doesn’t have the money but, with some effort, he can repay her by the end of the day. Afraid he will disappear as before, Hee-soo chaperones Byeong-woo as he collects the money during the course of the day, and as time passes they begin to understand each other more deeply than they thought possible.
Hee-soo confronts ex-boyfriend Byeong-woon about his unpaid debt
Right from the start, director Lee employs his trademark opening long take to absorb the audience into the narrative, following resolute Hee-soo as she traverses a squalid gambling den in search of Byeong-woon. The technique is highly effective in constructing realism as well as provoking curiosity, so that when conflict finally occurs it feels both natural and rewarding. The initial confrontation highlights how wonderfully characterized Hee-soo and Byeong-woon are, with her determination, cynicism and anal retentiveness in stark contrast to his easygoing, considerate, and positive attitude. The differences between them give rise to the question as to why they became a couple in the first place, yet once this minor detail is overlooked what follows are incredibly compelling interactions as the former lovers converse and quarrel, coming to understand each other more clearly than ever before. As Byeong-woon is penniless himself, both he and Hee-soo travel together as he attempts to borrow funds from friends and acquaintances, placing them in a variety of situations that force the duo to re-examine their ideologies and lives. Director Lee uses each opportunity to not only interrogate his protagonists but also contemporary Korean society, and how it has shaped an entire generation now in their thirties. Given the crux of the reunion is debt, financial issues abound in conjunction with marital pressures and gender roles, each explored from an alternative perspective as additional characters are introduced. The subtle sophistication of each encounter is a real delight.
Yet My Dear Enemy is also notable for the captivating performances of A-listers Jeon Do-yeon and Ha Jeong-woo. Director Lee’s distinctive sensitivity and compassion calls for a particular style and quality of acting, and the two gifted stars fulfill their roles with the utmost sincerity. Jeon Do-yeon is wonderfully cynical and stubborn as Hee-soo, exhibiting a frosty and distancing demeanor that initially makes her unlikeable. However through Byeong-woon’s positivity and kindness, as well as a re-examining of priorities due to their shared experiences, the subtle changes that Hee-soo undergoes are deftly exuded by Jeon as she slowly softens into a more considerate person.
Hee-soo spends time with Byeong-woon’s family, learning more about his past
Of the two, Ha Jeong-woo arguably has the more challenging role in portraying the down-on-his-luck yet affable Byeong-woon. His kindness and generosity convey a palpable positivity, yet it is his natural charisma that makes the character so lovable and draws people closer. The actor superbly sidesteps any potential ‘playboy’ implications by emphasising naivety as a trait which is often scorned by Hee-soo, indicating that while the former lovers are quite different their attributes actually help to make each other stronger.
While the performances and the evolving relationship are a joy to watch, the film begins to falter in the final third. Director Lee seems unsure of how to lead the protagonists through to some form of finale, and a series of missteps detract from the journey they’re on. Just as Hee-soo and Byeong-woon begin to learn from and understand one another, their development is suddenly cut short and while such scenes are occasionally romantic, they could have easily been condensed without interrupting the revelations they discover. Yet luckily the film manages to right itself during the final moments, allowing the couple to convey their fundamental changes while also not taking the easy way out. As such, My Dear Enemy a highly poignant and uplifting film, and in-keeping with the compassionate sensitivity for which director Lee is renowned.
Over the course of the day, Hee-soo’s priotrities begin to change
My Dear Enemy is a charming and moving slice of realism from director Lee Yoon-ki, whose trademark sensitivity and compassion are fully on display. Bolstered by wonderful performances from Jeon Do-yeon and Ha Jeong-woo, the film is a sophisticated yet subtle exploration of the thirty-something generation and their relationships, as well as an interrogation of the role of Korean culture in such matters. As such, the drama is mature and sincere throughout, displaying some the best Korean filmmaking talent at their most sensitive.
The French classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been adapted for the screen several times, including the critically acclaimed Dangerous Liaisons (1988) which employed a traditionalist approach, as well as a successful contemporary teenage variation with Cruel Intentions (1999).
Untold Scandal relocates the infamous text to 18th century Korea during the Joseon Dynasty, an era of strict Confucianism and the emergence of then-illegal Catholicism, a time when men were allowed multiple wives and concubines and women had precious few rights. As such, the French literature so concerned with scandal is transplanted astonishingly well, and aside from rather uninspiring direction, is an entertaining tale in old Korea.
Sir Jo-won (Bae Yong-joon (배용준) is the most famous lothario in the land, a man of ill-repute who passes his days bedding the local women and painting images of his conquests. His cousin and rival Lady Jo (Lee Mi-sook (이미숙), is a manipulative and vindictive woman of aristocracy who, upon learning of her husband’s desire for 16 year old concubine So-ok (Lee So-yeon (이소연), forges a gambit with her sexually predatory cousin; take the virtue of the concubine and impregnate her, and in exchange Sir Jo-won can have the prize he’s always coveted – a night with Lady Jo. Should he fail however, Sir Jo must spend the rest of his days as a monk. Considering the bet to be unchallenging, Sir Jo raises the stakes by including bedding the most virtuous widow in the land, Lady Jung (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연), and sets out to fulfill the task and receive the conquest he has always desired.
Lady Jo and Sir Jo-won create the scandalous bet
18th century Korea is wonderfully realized in Untold Scandal, and the costume and set designers deserve praise for their painstaking attention to detail throughout the film. The costumes in particular form a major proponent of the mise-en-scene, as the style and colour schemes of the traditional hanboks worn are indicative of the personality of the wearer; the seductive yet dangerous reds worn by Lady Jo are in stark contrast to the calm and natural blues worn by Lady Jung, and as such protagonists convey a wealth of emotion and anticipation through their appearance alone. Director Lee J-yong captures the world of Untold Scandal competently and with sincerity, yet his style is often bland and uninspiring, framing the action as if it were on stage rather than celluloid. Furthermore, the director’s apparent preference for mid-shots tends to detract from establishing the beauty of the era with long-shots or, crucially, the intense seduction between the protagonists with close-ups. However, the performances of the cast more than redress these shortcomings as their provocative and flirtatious encounters with each other are palpable.
The narrative is, as expected from the source material, a captivating and enthralling tale and the inclusion of features inherently Korean serve to enhance the story in a varied and interesting fashion. The strict Confucian ideology of the era serves to make Sir Jo-won’s bet more difficult to achieve, as Lady Jung initially will only communicate through a proxy for fear of sullying her reputation as a virtuous woman. As was commonplace in the Joseon Dynasty, men were within their rights to have a wife as well as several concubines, roles which Lady Jo and So-ok embody quite naturally and serve to give an alternative perspective on their troublesome relationship. Rather than letters or a diary, Sir Jo-won paints his conquests in the style of Joseon painters adding authenticity as well as a unique spin on the evidence of his philandering. Combined, these organic features establish Untold Scandal as unmistakably Korean, with the contrasting approach conveying the seductions and betrayals as markedly different from other adaptations.
Sir Jo-won must seduce the most virtuous woman in the land, Lady Jung
As is often the case, Jeon Do-yeon is incredible in her portrayal of Lady Jung and outshines the rest of the cast. Her performance evolves from icy to humble with deft skill, although the jump from humble to loving requires further suspension of disbelief. Such criticism is also applicable to Bae Yong-joon as Sir Jo-won, who is never convincing in his declarations of love for Lady Jung. As a casanova, Bae Yong-joon performs well despite lacking the charisma and subtlety expected of the role, raising doubts as to how he is able to seduce so many woman. For example the night in which he beds concubine So-ok is not achieved through mastery of seduction or language, but through force. The scene is conveyed as rape rather than alluring temptation, and undermines Sir Jo-won’s character enormously. Despite her limited role, Lee So-yeon (이소연) portrays the naivety of So-ok wonderfully, and it’s a shame more dramatic scenes, such as the ramifications of her actions, were not produced to convey the shattering of her innocence. So-ok’s mentor Lady Jo is captivatingly performed by Lee Mi-sook (이미숙), who seemingly seethes with vengeance and pride. Lee Mi-sook not only wonderfully conveys, but clearly also relishes, every ounce of tension, manipulation and seduction she creates in every scene. Her character is somewhat limited however in that there are scant few scenes of her actually displaying her enticing prowess, which serves to make her threatening demeanor slightly shallow.
16 year old concubine So-ok must be impregnated for Sir Jo to win the gambit
Untold Scandal is a delightfully scandalous and entertaining film about seduction and betrayal in 18th century Korea, with beautiful costume design that adds elegance and authenticity to the mise-en-scene. The adaptation works incredibly well and offers an interestingly unique perspective on the source material. However the direction by Lee J-young is often bland and uninspiring due to a general lack of technical variation, failing to fully capitalise on the lustful charisma between the protagonists, which are joyous performances despite their occasional limitations. Untold Scandal is highly engaging and enjoyable, and a fascinating take on an old classic.