The year is 1777. King Jeongjo (Hyeon Bin (현빈) has only been in power for a year yet has survived numerous assassination attempts, while the political machinations within the kingdom due to conflict with the rival Noron group has resulted in a tenuous grip on power. Paranoid and afraid, King Jeongjo retreats to a small study to protect himself and to find a resolution to the crisis, trusting only his eunuch servant Kap-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong (정재영). Unbeknownst to King Jeongjo, another attempt on his life will soon be made by a collusion between his young grandmother Queen Jeongsun (Han Ji-min (한지민) and Noron military General Goo Seon-bok (Song Yeong-chang (송영창). Yet the conspirators have also enlisted the services of an assassins guild led by Gwang-baek (Jo Jae-hyeon (조재현), who orders his best killer Eul-soo (Jo Jeong-seok (조정석) to carry out the task lest his girlfriend Wol-hye (Jeong Eun-chae (정은채) be killed instead. In the final 24 hours leading up to the attack, King Jeongjo must use every means at his disposal to save himself, his mother Lady Hyegyeong (Kim Seong-ryeong(김성령), and the very kingdom itself from the sinister coup.
The Fatal Encounter (역린), also known as The King’s Wrath, is a visually impressive feature debut by director Lee Jae-gyoo (이재규), whose previous credits have largely applied to television dramas. Director Lee makes to leap to film with incredible confidence and fortitude, expertly constructing the ominous tone leading to the assassination attempt with beautifully realised composition and quite lovely cinematography. His prowess is often astonishing, ranging from scenes depicting a dark foreboding rain-soaked palace at night to stunningly colourful scenes in which the King’s clothes are dyed and worshipped; from ethereal shots on a lake during clandestine meetings to tense and sexually-charged confrontations between the King and his young grandmother. From beginning to end, The Fatal Encounter is a gorgeously attractive film.
Yet while the film is consistently visually engaging, unfortunately the same cannot be said for Choi Seong-hyeon’s (최성현) script which, while competently written, becomes weakened due to the overly-ambitious narrative juggling act and the vast number of characters within. Set in the 24 hours leading up to an assassination attempt, the narrative attempts to fill in the gaps of certain complex relationships and historical events by employing flashback sequences. This is itself is an effective storytelling device, however the great number of flashbacks utilised within the narrative structure proves a great distraction from the main tale of King Jeongjo’s efforts at securing stability within the kingdom, becoming subsumed beneath the weight of so much excess. With far too many protagonists and antagonists to cover, it’s difficult to invest in the King’s struggles, or to care that this could potentially be his final day on earth.
The Fatal Encounter features a stellar cast, headlined by superstar Hyeon Bin as the King. The actor is an imposing presence as the royal leader, conveying a restrained strength and stoicism that is expected of such a role. The stoicism does however occasionally veer towards blankness, while the absence of subtlety suggesting paranoia is something of a missed opportunity. Interestingly it is Jeong Jae-yeong who steals the limelight as devoted eunuch Kap-soo, as he impressively balances his unquestionable loyalty to the King with nuances suggesting disquiet as well as a range of emotional angst. The best moments of the film come from the interplay between the King and Kap-soo as their relationship is explored and develops into new territory.
For the myriad of other talents within The Fatal Encounter, their characters tend to be limited to one-dimensional stereotypes, yet the cast all perform competently. Han Ji-min is particularly impressive as femme fatale grandmother Queen Jeongsun, conveying an intense sexual energy in her scenes with King Jeongjo which she has clearly perfected from her similar characterisation in Detective K.
The abundant cast results in so many narrative strands and sub-plots, in multiple time streams no less, that The Fatal Encounter loses the sense of urgency required in making the countdown to assassination compelling. While director Lee excels in crafting a visually striking film, and in executing a kinetic action-filled finale well, the overly-ambitious narrative structure ultimately combines to make The Fatal Encounter a mediocre period piece.
The Fatal Encounter is a visually arresting feature film debut by Lee Jae-gyoo, who confidently and impressively constructs beautifully realised compositions of the ominous 1777 era. Yet the film loses agency due to the combination of an overly ambitious narrative structure in conjunction with an over abundance of characters, resulting in a very attractive period film that is difficult to invest in.