Ga-heun and Jin-pyeong begin their steamy affair in secret

Obsessed (인간중독) – ★★★☆☆

Obsessed (인간중독)

Obsessed (인간중독)

Erotic drama Obsessed (인간중독) is the latest tale of sexual seduction by director Kim Dae-woo (김대우). Upon release in Korean cinemas, audience expectation for a lustful period drama – chiefly due to director Kim’s resume as director on The Servant and Forbidden Quest, as well as screenwriting duties on Untold Scandal and An Affair, and furthered by a marketing strategy emphasising sexual content – propelled Obsessed into the number one spot at the box office in its opening week.

Yet, with the exception of the notably lavish production design as well as moments of gorgeous cinematography, Obsessed is one of the director’s weaker films. The story is bland and uninspired while most importantly the romance itself is particularly contrived. Audiences hopeful for racy erotic scenes will also find themselves disappointed, as aside from two attractive leads the encounters are clumsy and sparse. Obsessed is an entertaining erotic drama, although one with little depth.

Jin-pyeong helps Ga-heun wear an earring after he saves her from a life-threatening incident

Jin-pyeong helps Ga-heun wear an earring after he saves her from a life-threatening incident

The year is 1969. Commander Kim Jin-pyeong (Song Seung-heon (송승헌) is a respected Vietnam War veteran at the military base he now resides, making great effort to hide his dependence on anxiety medication due to past trauma. Life is generally quite agreeable, except for Jin-pyeong and his wife’s (Jo Yeo-jeong (조여정) struggles to become pregnant. When a subordinate (On Joo-wan (온주완) arrives on base with his Chinese wife Jong Ga-heun (Lim Ji-yeon (임지연), Jin-pyeong feels an immediate, uncontrollable attraction…one is equally reciprocated. As he and Ga-heun begin their passionate affair, their desires threaten to destroy everything around them as well as their very sanity.

From the outset, it becomes very clear that director Kim is attempting to emulate Ang Lee’s masterful Lust, Caution mixed with classic American melodrama. He moderately succeeds yet mostly in terms of production design, as the sets, mise-en-scene and costumes are truly impressive and are wonderful in creating the world in which the affair takes place. The care and detail applied to each scene, whether in the homestead, hospital, or local dance bar, is consistently remarkable and does wonders in drawing the audience into the narrative, and the production team deserve to be congratulated. That said, Obsessed feels more skin to an American production as aside from the actors, there is very little evidence of Korean culture on screen. Interestingly efforts are made to convey ’50s era American housewives through hierarchy and gossiping, and to authenticate Ga-heun’s Chinese nationality through the crude inclusion of bird cages, yet surprisingly, other than the language, there’s little to suggest the film is Korean.

Ga-heun and Jin-pyeong begin their steamy affair in secret

Ga-heun and Jin-pyeong begin their steamy affair in secret

Despite the strength of the production values, it’s not enough to distract from the poor script and mediocre acting. The power of a film of this nature lies primarily on the build of passion and the chemistry between the lead actors, and in this respect Obsessed is lacking. The event at the hospital that initially draws Ga-heun and Jin-pyeong together is silly at best, conveying the commander as inept rather than a strong military leader, with later confrontations equally as contrived. The quiet stoicism both actors exude, particularly Lim Ji-yeon, makes such cliches stand out all the more meaning that when the couple declare their love it feels more like a leap in logic rather than a natural and sincere build of emotion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, such impassive traits lead to erotic moments that are lacking in passion. The scenes are perfectly serviceable, yet are crucially lacking the raw intensity intended. Luckily director Kim avoids the rape-esque scenes of The Servant to present more equal sexual encounters in Obsessed, but bizarrely in eschewing such latent misogyny the choreography sufferers. Sex between Jin-pyeong and Ga-heun is indeed erotic but clumsily so, akin to inexperienced teenagers rather than two lovers addicted to each other.

Despite such criticisms, Obsessed is entertaining for the most part. Fans of the genre will undoubtedly enjoy the story and derive pleasure from witnessing such cliches play out, while others will find the drama to be a watchable experience. Obsessed is generally a competent film though one of little depth, leading to a final act where the narrative jumps head-first into the pitfall of attempting to melodramatically wrap up all the narrative threads, yet as the film is generally dispassionate such scenes have little emotional impact.

Jin-pyeong suffers a crisis of morality, and must come to terms with his actions

Jin-pyeong suffers a crisis of morality, and must come to terms with his actions

Obsessed (인간중독) is a competent erotic drama from director Kim Dae-woo, the filmmaker responsible for several noteworthy racy period films. While the production design in Obsessed is lovingly crafted and wonderfully absorbing, the lacklustre story and stoic acting from the leads make the film a mediocre affair, and as such the intensity and passion is lacking throughout. In conjunction with some clumsily choreographed sexual scenes, Obsessed is a mildly entertaining romp that never fulfills the promise insinuated in the title.

★★★☆☆

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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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