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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Cart (카트) – ★★★★☆

Cart (카트)

Cart (카트)

With only 3 months more service until she becomes a regular employee, supermarket cashier Seon-hee (Yeom Jeong-ah (염정아) works diligently for the position that will enable her to provide greater stability for her family. Despite the difficulties of raising wayward teenage son Tae-yeong (Do Kyeong-soo (도경수) and a young daughter (Kim Soo-an (김수안) alone, Seon-hee strives to make ends meet for them all. Yet when the supermarket officials decide to layoff all the workers in favor of cheaper labor, the mostly female staff – many of whom have worked with the company for years – are outraged. Led by fellow cashier Hye-mi (Moon Jeong-hee (문정희) and cleaner Soon-rye (Kim Yeong-ae (김영애), the women begin to unionize and issue demands for reinstatement. However when their efforts are ultimately ignored, the women decide that more drastic strike action is necessary for their voices to be heard.

Seon-hee witnesses abuse at work, yet her desire for job stability keeps her silent

Seon-hee witnesses abuse at work, yet her desire for job stability keeps her silent

Based on a true story, director Boo Ji-young’s (부지영) Cart (카트) premiered to high acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as later back home in native Korea at Busan. The drama is an incredibly impressive exploration of the issues plaguing the temporary workforce in contemporary Korea. From the very moment Cart begins director Boo effectively portrays the grueling monotony of menial labor, employing a brilliantly washed out colour palette in conjunction with fluid camerawork that depicts workers performing machine-like tasks under the watchful eyes of aggressive management, evoking the same sensibilities as Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times. Rather than individuals, the workers are consistently framed as cogs in a machine hurriedly operating the factory-esque supermarket whilst robotically repeating phrases such as, “We love you, customer!” Director Boo wonderfully juxtaposes such hard work and empty slogans with the awful humiliations dealt by the customers and executives, while the workers themselves tolerate such human rights abuses simply in order to keep their jobs.

The contrast between such scenes and the representation of the characters personal lives offer a powerful, provocative glimpse at class and gender warfare as well as social injustice in modern Korea. As the vast majority of the workers are underprivileged women, the film depicts the daily struggles of the female workforce as they endure abusive employment in order to desperately stave off poverty, emphasising an array of feminist issues with potent insight. Director Boo has crafted an empowering social rights drama, one which is a true rarity in both current Korean and international cinema. The range of characters within the film, each with their own dilemmas, poignantly capture the challenges facing modern women in society. While Seon-hee and Hye-mi struggle to raise their children alone, Soon-rye exposes the plight of the elderly, while the inclusion of married protagonists as well as disaffected graduate Mi-jin (Cheon Woo-hee (천우희) convey the breadth and scale of discourses effecting contemporary women. Cart is a truly refreshing alternative to male-centered narratives, one that unequivocally portrays working class women as heroines in their own right.

The mostly female workers keep in good spirits as they demand reinstatement

The mostly female workers keep in good spirits as they demand reinstatement

The power of Cart lies in the conflict between the mostly female workers and the male executives, as the unfair dismissals result in unionization, and the ignorance of which in turn spurs strike action. Director Boo structures the escalation of hostilities between both sides with skill, as the workers who stage peaceful protests with colourful clothes and slogans are confronted by the dark bullying tactics of the company. In so blatantly portraying the corruption and underhand manner of the corporation, director Boo has produced a challenging and provocative film that will undoubtedly ruffle feathers amongst the conservative upper classes, who are depicted offering bribes, employing gangsters, and hurting innocents in the bid to continue profits and to save face. Yet director Boo also implicates government agencies in the scandal, particularly the police force and their unnecessary brutality, as the women peacefully demonstrate against injustice, making Cart not only an insightful film but a courageous one too.

Cart does however suffer from a case of over ambition as too many protagonists feature, which ultimately makes it difficult to invest in all of the narrative threads that arise. All the characters certainly add a perspective on the discourses through the film, yet as there are so many tangents it’s difficult to invest in every one. Screen time is mostly ascribed to Seon-hee and her family, and an impressive contrast is made between her and her difficult son Tae-yeong, implying the conditioning of the populace as automatons as one that begins from a young age. However Tae-young’s story line, in which he becomes attached to prospective girlfriend Soo-kyeong (Ji Woo (지우), is a little trite and appears to be a device to attract teenage audiences. Scenes such as these, and others that feature the quite cheesy musical score, sometimes threaten to put Cart in TV drama territory, yet director Boo never lets the story stagnate and consistently keeps the drama moving apace.

As tensions escalate, Seon-hee and Hye-mi fight back against their affluent male abusers

As tensions escalate, Seon-hee and Hye-mi fight back against their affluent male abusers

Verdict:

Cart is moving, provocative glimpse at class and gender warfare as well as social injustice in modern Korea. In depicting the unfair working conditions and the incredibly strong women attempting to stave off poverty, director Boo Ji-young has crafted an empowering social rights drama, one that examines the status of human rights and feminist issues with insight and sincerity. A powerful film, Cart is a real rarity in both contemporary Korean and international cinema.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014
The detective discovers Joon's psychometry ability the hard way

The Gifted Hands (AKA Psychometry) (사이코메트리) – ★☆☆☆☆

The Gifted Hands (사이코메트리)

The Gifted Hands (사이코메트리)

When supernatural elements feature within a thriller film, the production can go one of two ways. The suspense generated from the unknown can heighten the intensity of the events that unfold, adding an original spin to the genre; or, on the other hand, the abilities and powers can appear as cheap gimmicks that add a decidedly silly dimension to the proceedings. The Gifted Hands – aka Psychometry (사이코메트리) – easily falls into the latter category, although between this, the horrendous script, and the appalling acting, it is difficult to know where exactly to fully place the blame for such a ridiculous, vacuous film. Director Kwon Ho-young (권호영) attempts to generate tension amongst his generally competent direction, but it’s not enough to save the frankly awful thriller from being instantly forgettable.

The joke of his precinct, detective Yang Choon-dong (Kim Kang-woo (김강우) regularly causes trouble for his superiors and rarely solves cases. His ineffective style has made him an outsider in the police force, so when a woman reports her daughter as kidnapped he takes the case while the others scoff. When the girl is later found murdered and a scapegoat is required, Choon-dong is blamed and suspended. Distraught, the detective happens upon some graffiti that accurately portrays events of the murder in a startling amount of detail. Tracking down the artist responsible, Choon-dong discovers that the young man named Joon (Kim Beom (김범) has the supernatural ability of psychometry, the power to see events through touch, and the duo set out to catch the murderer before he strikes again.

Detective Choon-dong happens upon artist Joon as he portrays events from the murder

Detective Choon-dong happens upon artist Joon as he portrays events from the murder

The Gifted Hands begins badly, only to become progressively worse. Ignoring the fundamental rule of the thriller genre in hooking the audience within the opening sequence, the scenes of Joon painting the location of the murder are dull yet are also a huge editing faux pas as the scene actually takes place a good twenty minutes later in the movie. Following the opening credits, the film’s ‘true’ beginning takes place during an over-zealous pyramid scheme in which detective Yang is a participant. Immediately the ineffective cop is portrayed as an utter idiot through these attempts at comedy which are not in the least bit funny, as Yang desperately tries to save his dignity and the reputation of the force from his blunder. The detective is clearly an underdog cliche evolving from bumbling fool to responsible cop, which in itself is no bad thing were it not for the awful acting by Kim Kang-woo. The actor performs the ineffective cop as a manic-depressive petulant child, flitting between whining like a teenager to bursts of violence. To be fair to Kim the script also calls for such absurdity in the attempt to provide multiple genres, clearly a cynical move to attract all but ultimately pleasing none, yet the actor certainly doesn’t help himself.

While detective Yang’s story is foregrounded, bizarrely Joon is sidelined. For a film containing supernatural features, Joon’s psychometry abilities appear more like an afterthought rather than the basis for the thriller, so much so that the protagonist infrequently appears throughout. Despite Joon’s cliched emo melancholy – black clothing, hoody, creative talent, misunderstood, etc etc – actor Kim Beom provides an adequate performance, although he is intended to look sullen and attractive for the most part. His psychometry ability is woefully under-utilized within the context of the narrative as well as inherently misunderstood by the writer. During the first of only two times in which Joon uses art to express his gift, it is explained that he was able to do so in such incredible detail, featuring moments from various points throughout the timeline of the murder, because he touched a pigeon who was passing overhead. Seriously.

The detective discovers Joon's psychometry ability the hard way

The detective discovers Joon’s psychometry ability the hard way

Such ridiculous logic continues to arise as the investigation for the killer, and a newly abducted victim, moves forward. For no reason other than detective Yang is in need of a car, he teams up with a petty criminal sidekick who informs the cop that as the first girl was found frozen before she was buried, the killer must be a single man. The reason? All single men freeze their trash before throwing it out. As the graffiti artist depicting the murder, Joon is of course the chief suspect, but as he doesn’t freeze his trash, he is immediately discounted as the criminal. Such instances are incredibly frustrating, as flimsy hunches are employed and conducted with no solid evidence or basis, making it a wonder how any crimes are solved within this particular district. Yet for all of detective Yang’s newfound verve for solving the case, the kidnapping is ironically dropped from the narrative in order to develop the ‘bromance’ between him and Joon – through more comedy and psychologically unbalanced violence. A brief respite appears in the form of potential love interest Seung-gi (승기, Esom (이솜), although as she appears twice and provides nothing of merit the character is wholly unnecessary.

For all of the silliness, director Kwon Ho-young does a competent job at the helm, and attempts to inject the film with tension and suspense whenever the script allows. He does well for the most part, that is until the asinine logic kicks in once more. Locating the murderer is well-staged while the mise-en-scene of the apartment is suitably morbid, yet the compulsion is completely lost when the psychopath begins monologuing about how he simply has no reason or motivation for what he does – only to later explain it anyway. The Gifted Hands is a great example of interesting concept, lazy execution.

Joon must put his abilities to good use to stop the murderer

Joon must put his abilities to good use to stop the murderer

Verdict:

The Gifted Hands spectacularly fails as a supernatural thriller. Featuring an awful script full of holes and bizarre logic, bad acting particularly from the (unintentionally) mentally unbalanced central protagonist, as well as wasting the potential of psychometry itself, the film really is a shambles. Director Kwon Ho-young performs competently at the helm, but it is not enough to save the vacuous thriller from being instantly forgettable.

★☆☆☆☆

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