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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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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