Choon-hyang falls for Bang-ja's charms, leading to erotically charged sequences

The Servant (방자전) – ★★★★☆

The Servant (방자전)

The Servant (방자전)

The ‘erotic period drama’ has almost become a sub-genre unto itself. In recent years narratives have become increasingly more concerned with the sexual scandals of the ruling elite of eras gone by, and the impact such affairs have on the governance on the region. Rather than the sexless morality consistently promoted by the aristocracy, records clearly indicate a swathe of sexual liaisons which contemporary filmmakers seem determined to commit to celluloid.

The Servant, written and directed by Kim Dae-woo, certainly fits well into the category and while sexual sequences are initially misogynistic they are highly erotically charged, adding passionate depth to the central couple. Yet it is the incredible performance by Jo Yeo-jeong as dutiful albeit entrapped feminist Choon-hyang that makes The Servant such a compelling period drama, providing a poignant humanistic grounding set against a background of betrayal and corruption during the Joseon era.

During the Joseon Dynasty, a renowned crime lord (Kim Joo-hyeok (김주혁) recounts his path into the underworld to a scribe, with the intent to publish the autobiographical story and reveal the truth behind his descent into crime. Surprisingly the gangster’s tale begins as a humble servant, or Bang-ja (방자), in service of ambitious aristocrat Lee Mong-ryong (Ryu Seung-beom (류승범). Upon hearing of the beauty of a local woman named Choon-hyang (Jo Yeo-jeong), the daughter of a ‘gisaeng house’ owner, Mong-ryong visits to see for himself. Choon-hyang’s beauty has not been exaggerated, and Mong-ryong insists on meeting her in private in an attempt to woo her. Yet Bang-ja is also captivated by Choon-hyang, and so begins a rivalry between the master and servant for her affections. Tutored in the art of seduction by infamous Lothario Mr. Ma (Oh Dal-soo (오달수), Bang-ja successfully wins Choon-hyang’s heart yet in doing so unleashes a wave of ramifications that leaves all of them irrevocably changed.

The crime lord recounts his history as a servant (Bang-ja) to a scribe

The crime lord recounts his history as a servant (Bang-ja) to a scribe

The Servant is a re-imagining of the classic ‘Choon-hyang’s Tale’, told from the perspective of the titular servant Bang-ja, and as such is a much more male-centered narrative. This is both a blessing and a curse as while the shift detracts from the feminist perspective, Choon-hyang’s strength and passion are idolized through Bang-ja allowing for more poignant, romantic storytelling. Writer/director Kim Dae-woo’s interpretation also expresses a highly interesting variation on the tale as he has chosen to forgo the themes of chastity in favor of scandalous sexual liaisons, yet still foregrounds the issues of social status, tyrannical government officials, and women’s rights to produce a refreshing and socially aware take on the subject.

Kim Dae-woo’s screenplay – as well as his directorial style – does a wonderful job in exploring such concepts with a sexual twist, as the motivation behind all conversations and undertakings involves discussions of sex and sexual power. The relationship between Bang-ja and Choon-hyang wonderfully explores such dynamics as despite the romantic gestures, passionate physicality and development of love, their relationship can never be accepted due to social status adding genuinely moving melodramatic fatalism to the proceedings. Juxtaposed with their situation are the laughable attempts to woo Choon-hyang by aristocrat Mong-ryong, which serve as comical highlights as well as a source of frustration as despite his awkward masculinity Mong-ryong is by far the better suitor. Choon-hyang, and most notably her body, is continually used as a bargaining chip by those around her as she precariously walks the fine line between dutiful daughter/love interest and independent woman. Actress Jo Yeo-jeong is absolutely enthralling in the role as she conveys the unapologetic resolve to her family with strength and dignity yet still emphasizes her own desire to escape the rigid social hierarchy with passion and verve. Such is Jo Yeo-jeong’s skill and prowess that it’s difficult to imagine any other actress in the role, as she embodies the plight of Choon-hyang wholly and with sincerity.

While Jo Yeo-jeong’s performance is pivotal in making The Servant such an enthralling film, unfortunately a large part of the advertising campaign – and indeed, word of mouth – focused more prominently on her sexual scenes. The sequences themselves are highly erotic, arguably the most erotic within mainstream Korean cinema, as Jo Yeo-jeong’s incredibly glamorous figure is fully on display as she and co-star Kim Joo-hyeok commit themselves fully in conveying the utmost passion. Such scenes are, at least initially, highly problematic however as the first liaison is highly misogynistic and certainly falls into the category of sexual assault – perhaps even rape – a stark contrast with Kim Dae-woo’s prior sexual sequence in Untold Scandal. Yet despite this the resulting sexual sequences are not employed merely for titillation, as they convey the unbreakable passion and love between the central protagonists and infuse the relationship with romance and enchantment.

Choon-hyang falls for Bang-ja's charms, leading to erotically charged sequences

Choon-hyang falls for Bang-ja’s charms, leading to erotically charged sequences

Yet despite the fascinating exploration of the role of sexual power, The Servant falters during the final act. In his bid to offer a fresh take on the classic tale and offer a narrative twist to surprise audiences familiar with the story, Kim Dae-woo’s finale feels forced and contrived as he attempts to resolve all the narrative strands. While his technique allows the protagonists to come full circle, the tone is markedly different from prior events and frustratingly reduces the status of heroine Choon-hyang. That said, the impact of such melodramatic scenes linger long after the credits.

In terms of performance, Jo Yeo-jeong largely makes the entire film her own due to her tremendous prowess and charisma, although she is ably supported by her co-stars.

As the titular servant, Kim Joo-hyeok is highly effective as a man fully aware of his dire social status yet cannot control his impulses. He conveys his unique brand of dualism very well as he gallantly strives to help Choon-hyang or simply to be noticed, yet scant seconds later is begging for forgiveness for overstepping his social boundaries. Special mention must also be given to his scenes with infamous Casanova Mr. Ma, played by legendary supporting actor Oh Dal-soo. As a master in the art of seduction Oh Dal-soo is on perfect form and is incredibly humorous and heart-warming, offering comical interludes to the melodramatic scenes. As the teacher to Kim Joo-hyeok’s student, the pair play off each other effectively, discussing not only the techniques of seduction but also the ramifications.

Ryu Seung-beom is wonderfully sadistic as scholar Lee Mong-ryong, oozing villainy and moral corruption throughout the film. Yet the actor also skillfully conveys the sensitivity and frailty of Mong-ryong, particularly in the first act – ably accompanied by ‘feminised’ clothing and mise-en-scene – that places him in contrast with Bang-ja’s rugged masculinity well. As such Ryu Seung-beom portrays a more tragic ne’er-do-well, one poisoned by bitterness and jealousy.

Bang-ja and Choon-hyang are punished for their transgressions

Bang-ja and Choon-hyang are punished for their transgressions

Verdict:

The Servant is a wonderfully scandalous Joseon era melodrama, and a highly engaging and compelling reinterpretation of the classic tale. The themes of social inequality, sexual liaisons and women’s rights are expertly intertwined by writer/director Kim Dae-woo, while it is Jo Yeo-jeong’s seminal performance that remarkably emphasizes the plight of Choon-hyang. While elements of misogyny and a slightly contrived final act are apparent, The Servant is a powerfully seductive film about the power of sex and love in a bygone era.

★★★★☆

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The masked swordsman displays incredible grace and skill

Duelist (형사) – ★★★★☆

Duelist (형사)

Duelist (형사)

Well before the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, martial arts epics set in ancient Asia were incredibly popular. However it was Ang Lee’s classic tale of love and sword-play that thrust the sub-genre into Western cinemas with unprecedented popularity, resulting in even more entering production. Of these, Yimou Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) are noted as perhaps the most critically acclaimed with the Chinese auteur’s keen sense of colour and balletic style proving a winning formula for audiences.

Lee Myeong-Se’s (이명세) Duelist (형사) is one of Korea’s forays into the martial arts epic, and as with most of the auteur’s films it will instantly polarize audiences between those with preconceived mainstream expectations, and those with more art-house sensibilities. Those who fall into the latter category will highly enjoy the exquisite mise-en-scene, abundance of visual metaphors and cinematic playfulness for which the director is renowned.

Set during the Joseon Dynasty, Duelist features Nam-soon (Ha Ji-won (하지원) and Detective Ahn (Ahn Seong-gi (안성기), officers working undercover trying to discover the source of a counterfeiting scandal that is disrupting the country by devaluing the monetary system. The duo track down a gang suspected of circulating fake coins to a market place, and a chaotic battle ensues. Yet before Nam-soon and Detective Ahn can apprehend the criminals, a performing masked swordsman enters the fray and murders all the suspects in an unbelievable display of grace and speed that shocks them all. Spilling a cartful of fraudulent coins to cover his escape, the swordsman flees yet is pursued by Namsoon who engages her target in battle wielding knives, proving herself to be equally as adept by cutting off a portion of his mask. Calling him Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won (강동원), Nam-soon and Detective Ahn must track him down and halt the counterfeit operation before the hyperinflation destroys the country and the monarchy.

The masked swordsman displays incredible grace and skill

The masked swordsman displays incredible grace and skill

Duelist is an absolutely stunning film, featuring sumptuous visuals and incredible cinematography. The locations are rendered with striking attention to detail, with wonderfully vibrant colours conveying the passion in the markets while shadows consume the back alleys with a noirish aesthetic. As has become expected of director Lee Myeong-Se (이명세), the highly articulate and almost playful artistic style extends to both the narrative and the technical proficiency and in doing so Sad Eyes and Nam-soon are constructed in terms of their opposing gender, offering a radically different stance on traditional action film conventions. Sad Eyes is feminised through his long hair, elegance and grace. His sword-play is mostly captured in slow-motion to convey his fluidity and finesse, while his calm demeanor adds a feminine charm that is simultaneously meek yet confident. Sad Eyes is also without a name, existing purely as image and a prize to be sought after, tamed, and dominated, attributes traditionally enforced upon female roles. As such, Sad Eyes becomes more beautiful than handsome, while his counterpart Nam-soon becomes more handsome than beautiful with her incredibly boisterous and hot-tempered characterisation. She curses, starts fights, and conveys mannerisms akin to a lower-class ruffian, even stalking Sad Eyes in an overt masculine fashion. The ambiguity of gender is enthralling with the role reversal offering an alternative perspective on traditional action and romantic narratives.

Such romantic sentiments are expressed through their martial arts displays, as the fighting is more a highly choreographed dance than a duel to the death. Their styles match perfectly together, flowing and moving as if one, expressing the passion, anger, frustration and longing contained within them knowing that as officer and criminal their relationship can never be. The fighting styles also express their characterisation as Nam-soon’s passionate masculine fervour is contrasted with Sad Eyes’ restrained elegance, moving in and out of shadow, through regular and slow motions, and in the most beautifully poignant scene under gently falling snow.

The lovers' displays of martial arts convey their longing

The lover’s displays of martial arts convey their longing

In addition to employing technical techniques to portray the artifice of cinema, Lee Myeong-se also emphasizes performance in this regard. Ha Ji-won’s tendency to over-act is superbly exploited in Duelist as her exaggerated mannerisms highlight the performance of masculinity, and the hypocrisy in the social acceptance of it for one gender and not the other. Her acting is also amusing particularly when she is forced to adopt a traditional feminine role through wearing hanbok and pouring tea for aristocratic men, the degradation and artifice of which she clearly loathes. Ahn Seong-gi is also required to over-act, yet his performance often alludes to mocking traditional authoritative patriarchal roles of the father figure and law-giver. His mannerisms are quite comical, usually reserved for sidekicks and jesters, undermining his position as authoritarian while simultaneously crafting Detective Ahn as kind and likable.

As he functions primarily as image, Kang Dong-won gives a highly restrained performance allowing his mannerisms, eyes, and the mise-en-scene to convey his characterisation. He does so with incredible skill, conveying a feminine beauty and elegance that are impossible to miss. His eyes are indeed sad, especially when his identity and passivity are expressed, whereby he emerges comparable to a socially suppressed princess with an undesired fate.

The cinematography and mise-en-scene are stunningly rendered

The cinematography and mise-en-scene are stunningly rendered

Verdict:

For cineastes with an appreciation of the aesthetics of cinema, Duelist is an incredible treat with its sumptuous visualization of the Joseon Dynasty era and the gendered role reversal of the leading protagonists. Rather than produce standardized mainstream fare, director Lee Myeong-se has crafted an elegant alternative perspective of martial arts action, making Duelist one of the most impressive contributions to the sub-genre and an outstanding addition to his exemplary filmography.

★★★★☆

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Detective K and his dog-thief partner evade the authorities

Detective K: Secret of a Virtuous Widow (조선명탐정: 각시투구꽃의 비밀) – ★★★☆☆

Detective K (조선명탐정: 각시투구꽃의 비밀)

Detective K (조선명탐정: 각시투구꽃의 비밀)

In the time of the Joseon Dynasty, corruption is rife; the funds needed for the people are being siphoned off and laundered by shady figures, and the conviction rate is low as the fearful citizens refuse to talk. The King, working hard to consolidate a power base from which to strengthen and unify the country, is in need of help. Enter Detective K (Kim Myeong-min (김명민), Joseon’s top investigator, charged by the King to find the scoundrels responsible and bring them to justice.

Detective K: Secret of a Virtuous Widow (조선명탐정: 각시투구꽃의 비밀), from the outset, firmly has its tongue in its cheek. Opening with an apparent suicide, K uses his keen intellect to prove its not the case. Yet he does so in a bizarre fashion, highlighting comedic features of the murder scene such as the incongruity of the faeces pattern, the physical disabilities of the servants that remove them as suspects, and the impairment that points to the real villain. K’s eccentric genius is equal only to his cowardliness and Charlie Chaplin-esque physicality, as he’s regularly involved in awkward situations from which he must flee. If this all sounds similar to Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther series, then you’d be correct as Detective K bungles his way from one crime scene to the next.

Detective K and his dog-thief partner evade the authorities

Detective K and his dog-thief partner evade the authorities

Acquitted by the King on false charges, K is sent to investigate the alleged suicide of a widow in a different province, as a cover for continuing his corruption investigation. Teaming up with dog thief Han Seo-pil (Oh Dal-soo (오달수), the duo must contend with poisonous flowers, quirky country folk, corrupt merchants, and assassins. During the course of the investigation, K meets the enigmatic femme fatale Han Gaek-joo (Han Ji-min (한지민), who may have more answers than she claims. Pulling strings from the sidelines is Minister Lim (Lee Jae-yong-I (이재용), but is he friend or foe? And how is this mystery intertwined with the suicide of an unrelated widow? Fumbling their way through each scene, K and Seo-pil are very entertaining and the recurring jokes are consistently amusing, such as K’s attempts to bribe everyone with an illustrated pornography book and constantly leaving his partner to take the blame in every situation. Similarly, the seductive Gaek-joo plays a wonderful role in making K even more ridiculously foolish, despite his best intentions.

Seductive temptress Gaek-joo creates a stir

Seductive temptress Gaek-joo creates a stir

However, what starts as a quirky and enjoyable romp through old Korea quickly becomes over-burdened with the array of narrative tangents offered. Rather than providing additional layers of mystery, or even silliness, the number of stories being presented serves to convolute the entire plot. For example, the addition of Christian persecution does not feel organic to the story, and the biased way in which the Christianity versus Confucianism debate is conveyed detracts from the enjoyment of the film. Luckily K – who reveals he was only baptized in order to receive a rubik’s cube – has the charm and swagger to recapture the tongue-in-cheek magic and keep the narrative flowing consistently.

K tries to use illustrated pornography to solve his predicament

K tries to use illustrated pornography to solve his predicament

Verdict:

Detective K is a charming and very amusing comedy, with enough wit and ingenuity to keep the narrative flowing well despite the convoluted plot threads. The recurring jokes and slapstick comedy routines make Detective K thoroughly enjoyable, thanks chiefly to the actors who all deeply understand the comedy style and perform accordingly. Hopefully, if a sequel does appear, the number of narrative devices will be scaled back to allow the true heart of the film – K and Seo-pil – to continue their whimsical and hilarious relationship.

★★★☆☆

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