The Treacherous (간신) – ★★☆☆☆

The Treacherous (간신)

The Treacherous (간신)

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.

The insatiable king commands his advisors to bring him 10,000 women

The insatiable king commands his advisors to bring him 10,000 women

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.

The acquired women are forced to endure sexual humiliation for the King's pleasure

The acquired women are forced to endure sexual humiliation for the King’s pleasure

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 King becomes palpably psychotic as he forces bizarre tests of endurance

The King becomes palpably psychotic as he forces bizarre tests of endurance

Verdict:

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.

★★☆☆☆

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Detective Choi risks everything to keep the scandal secret

The Unjust (부당거래) – ★★★★☆

The Unjust (부당거래)

The Unjust (부당거래)

If there is one universal truth within Korean cinema, it is the representation of every level of the law enforcement infrastructure as incompetent, unprofessional, and corrupt. In certain cases, such as true-life thriller Memories of Murder (2003), the result can be an incredibly intense and fascinating character study; in other more generic offerings such as S.I.U. (2011) the incompetence of the force is frustratingly infuriating. Yet regardless of whether the central protagonist(s) are operating within law enforcement or without, the abuse of human rights, flagrant disregard for procedure and scandalous corruption are seemingly inherent to the respective institutions.

The Unjust (부당거래), director Ryoo Seung-wan‘s (류승완) eighth feature, continues such ideological distrust with the auteur’s trademark wit, ingenuity and postmodern sensibilities. With an incredible screenplay by Park Hoon-jeong (박훈정), The Unjust is a highly engaging and intense thriller featuring electric performances by the principal cast and arguably the highlight of Ryoo Seung-wan’s career thus far, winning ‘Best Film’ at 2011 The Blue Dragon Awards.

With intense mounting pressure from the media, citizens and politicians, the police are desperate to catch the perpetrator of the serial rape and murder of young girls in Seoul. Yet when the only major suspect is killed, the law enforcement are in dire need of someone to take the blame and to be held accountable. Director Kang (Cheon Ho-jin (천호진) believes he has the perfect officer to find such a scapegoat – Choi Cheol-gi  (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민), an incredibly efficient officer who is routinely passed over for promotion as he did not emerge through the academy. Employing the help of gangster Jang Seok-goo (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진), the pair find a viable replacement. Yet Jang’s corrupt business rival enlists the help of Prosecutor Joo-yang (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) to find something – anything – that will stop Jang and Choi and allow his business to prosper. As the fate of all three becomes increasingly intertwined, they delve deeper into a moral abyss from which they may never return.

Detective Choi (right) enlists the help of Jang to find a scapegoat

Detective Choi (right) enlists the help of Jang to find a scapegoat

The script by Park Hoon-jeong – which received the best screenplay award at The Blue Dragon Awards – wonderfully balances the array of characters and plot threads at an incredible pace, rarely slowing the momentum or intensity. From the second the film begins the speed at which the narrative is set-up and the players are introduced is spectacular, conveying the seriousness of the situation convincingly. Director Ryoo Seung-wan – who also received an award at The Blue Dragon Awards for best directing – brings the script to life with confidence and style, with camera movement and rapid editing raising the level of excitement to a staggering level. The partnership between both filmmakers is seemingly a perfect match as their respective styles compliment one another in tone, pace and content. The array of socio-cultural discourses and anxieties within The Unjust are vast, from minor subtle issues such as favoritism within the police department, public hysteria and presidential involvement, to more scandalous affairs including secret meetings with criminals, corruption, and personal promotion over public service.

The relationships between protagonists and the various underhanded methods employed to gain leverage are brilliantly portrayed and are highly engaging. In particular Detective Choi and Prosecutor Joo-yang are excellent character studies as well as serving as mirrors of each other, of which they are subconsciously aware as they attempt to prove their superiority through obtaining incriminating evidence. Their methods of corruption are wonderfully explored, with Detective Choi more violent, impoverished and urban while Prosecutor Joo-yang meets executives at fancy restaurants and is introduced to high-ranking officials through his father-in-law. Even the gangsters they deal with have differing social statuses, and as such The Unjust is also concerned with class divide and power, as well as the motivations and loop-holes that are exploited in corrupting those within.

Prosecutor Joo-yang and Detective Choi confront each other over their corrupt behaviour

Prosecutor Joo-yang and Detective Choi confront each other over their corrupt behaviour

Hwang Jeong-min gives a towering performance as Detective Choi Cheol-gi, with his absence from the ‘Best Actor’ category a bizarre oversight. The actor convincing conveys the underdog cop as a violent and diligent yet honest man, who is forced to sink ever-lower due to the request of his captain. His mere physical presence adds intensity to each scene with his height and mannerisms an intimidatingly powerful force. Hwang Jeong-min is so compelling as the violent corrupt cop that when he eventually breaks down it is something of a visceral shock, adding a dimension to his character that creates empathy despite his crimes.

Ryoo Seung-beom is also highly competent as Prosecutor Joo-yang, conveying weasely charm in abundance and is a delight to hate. The actor, nominated for his role, also adds a comedic sensibility to his role as he slithers from one lie to the next as he attempts to rectify his situation wth his superiors and corrupt colleagues. As a slight negative, Ryoo Seung-beom does have a tendency to shout his lines rather than act them which can be distracting.

As street gangster-turned-businessman Jang Seok-goo, actor Yoo Hae-jin is terrific. Also nominated for his supporting role, Yoo Hae-jin oozes criminality and effectively conveys his internal war with his urban thug mentality hiding beneath his fitted suits. The actor clearly relishes scenes in which he gains the upper-hand, smarmy and condescending with glee at the misfortune of his rivals and partners.

Detective Choi risks everything to keep the scandal secret

Detective Choi risks everything to keep the scandal secret

Verdict:

The Unjust is not simply another continuation of Korean cinema’s distrust of law enforcement agencies; it is an incredibly thrilling and compelling exploration of an array of socio-cultural discourses and anxieties, articulated with an intelligent script and visualised with a career-best by director Ryoo Seung-wan. The fast pace, confident stylisation and electric performances make The Unjust one of the best cop thrillers in recent years and a fantastic addition to the genre.

★★★★☆

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