Assassination (암살) – ★★★☆☆

Assassination (암살)

Assassination (암살)

During the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, independence fighters wage war against the regime. However complicating matters significantly are the native Koreans who offer support to the invaders, turning traitor for wealth and power. One such turncoat, Kang In-gook (Lee Kyeong-yeong), is selected as the next assassination target with sniper Ahn Ok-yoon (Jeon Ji-hyeon), bruiser ‘Big Gun’ (Jo Jin-woong) and explosives expert Deok-sam (Choi Deok-moon) recruited for the task by independence captain Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jeong-jae). However unbeknownst to the trio, contract killers Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jeong-woo) and Old Man (Oh Dal-soo) have been hired to stop them before they can fulfil the mission.

Liberation fighter Yeom gathers together a team for a daring task

Liberation fighter Yeom gathers together a team for a daring task

Deserving credit for producing blockbuster fare in the Korean film industry – as well as for touching on the extremely sensitive issue of Japanese collaboration – director Choi Dong-hoon has once again crafted solid entertainment in the form of Assassination. While boasting a talented ensemble cast and and production values most other directors could only dream of, Choi’s latest still, as with prior film The Thieves, suffers from an overly-long and convoluted narrative that is tonally inconsistent. Alongside poor characterisation and lack of depth, Assassination is ultimately eye-candy cinema that is fun while it lasts but difficult to truly invest in.

Assassination begins in explosive fashion, as the fraught political period is brought to life through an adrenaline-inducing opening sequence that sees resistance fighter Yeom attempt to take out a high-profile Japanese target. It’s an engrossing and brilliantly executed introduction, with director Choi effortlessly generating thrills while setting up momentum for events to come. It also, ironically, contains much of what the film is about – glorious production values and camerawork, and talented performers wrangling with thread-bare characterisation.

The film’s reported $16 million budget is clearly visible in every frame as Assassination is truly a visual treat. The production, set and costume design are consistently impressive from beginning to end and it’s a genuine shame that the talented teams behind these areas have not been more widely celebrated for their work, for Assassination is worth watching largely for the visual finesse within.

Trio Big Gun, Ok-yoon and Deok-sam are recruited to assassinate a conspirator

Trio Big Gun, Ok-yoon and Deok-sam are recruited to assassinate a conspirator

Director Choi has always managed to attract an impressive ensemble cast featuring some of the best talent within the industry for his projects, and Assassination is no exception. The manner in which such disparate characters are weaved together is arguably more organic than Choi’s previous work, and there is great entertainment value to be had during the film’s first half as alliances are forged and events set up. Yet at the half way mark the narrative takes a turn for the worse, veering into a wealth of convoluted and contrived plot points while taking initially promising characters and reducing them to one-dimensional stereotypes.

While the film’s stars perform their roles competently, unfortunately the characterisation issues effect them greatly. Jeon Ji-hyeon is promising as an empowered captain of the indolence who defies authority, only to be later reduced to her image in the film’s second act and never really shows her range. Ha Jeong-woo does what he can in the role of Hawaii Pistol though it quickly becomes apparent that both he and sidekick Oh Dal-soo never really belong in a story of Korean independence, seemingly remnants from a comedy-western that are shoe-horned in for light relief. Lee Jeong-jae performs the role of resistance leader Yeom with confident ease and is arguably the most charismatic presence, although the actor is in real danger of becoming typecast which undermines the tension.

While consistently entertaining, perhaps the biggest issue with Assassination is that the narrative itself is simply vapid. Director Choi bravely employs the extremely sensitive topic of Koreans collaborating with their oppressors during the era, but never explores nor takes a stance on the issue. It’s only in the film’s dying moments when one such traitor is allowed to twist history into portraying himself as a patriot that the film’s message takes a disturbingly conservative tone, and as such the underutilisation of a key feature of Korean history is sadly wasted.

Team leader and sniper Ok-yoon takes aim

Team leader and sniper Ok-yoon takes aim

Verdict:

One of the big tentpole films of 2015, blockbuster Assassination is an entertaining affair. Director Choi Dong-hoon once again proves his ability to command a talented ensemble cast and enormous budget. Top marks however instead go to the production crew who’ve crafted Assassination into a visual treat, making it possible to withstand the overly-long convoluted narrative and thread-bare characterisation that so often threatens to derail the proceedings.

★★★☆☆

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Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Reviews

Veteran (베테랑) – ★★★★☆

Veteran (베테랑)

Veteran (베테랑)

After a three month sting operation involving stolen cars, tough detective Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) and his team, headed by Team Leader Oh (Oh Dal-soo (오달수), congratulate themselves and prepare for the inevitable promotion their work has wrought. Yet the celebration is cut short when Do-cheol’s truck driver friend Bae (Jeong Woong-in (정웅인) is critically hurt while protesting for unpaid wages, with all evidence pointing to rich, spoilt conglomerate owner’s son, Jo Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in (유아인). While Jo’s aide Choi Sang-moo (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진) attempts to use money and influence to have the case closed, Do-cheol is relentless in his pursuit for Jo’s incarceration.

No-nonsense detective Do-cheol finds himself in hot water during a car theft sting

No-nonsense detective Do-cheol finds himself in hot water during a car theft sting

Brilliantly entertaining, wonderfully inventive, and featuring a gripping politically-charged story alongside bone-crunching stunts, director Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran is easily the most exciting slice of Korean cinema in 2015 so far. In what has been a particularly poor year for the industry, Veteran offers a badly needed revitalising breath of fresh air as well as marking director Ryoo’s most accomplished work to date.

Veteran begins in incredibly strong fashion as Do-cheol and his team take down an international car smuggling ring, with the quips flying almost as fast as the punches. It’s a fantastically thrilling introduction to director Ryoo’s distinct stylisation as well as the quirky characters on the investigative team, as the film excels with brilliant tongue-in-cheek humour mixed with frenetic stunts to hugely entertaining effect. For action aficionados Veteran also manages to include comedic riffs on other examples of the genre, notably Transporter 2‘s garage sequence, to raise self-referential laughs. It all makes for one of the most high-octane adrenaline-pumping openings in recent memory and is an absolute riot.

After kicking off so impressively, Veteran‘s pacing dramatically changes gears in order to lay the foundations for the central narrative. It’s a jarring alteration yet also a necessary one, as helmer/scribe Ryoo takes his time to incorporate new conflicts and antagonists, building the politically-charged threats posed to palpable levels. It’s an effective technique that demands investment while allowing the film to roar to life through exciting set-pieces, culminating in an explosive pulse-pounding crescendo that will have audiences gasping, wincing and laughing in equal measure.

Jo Tae-oh, the young heir to a conglomerate, wields power and influence

Jo Tae-oh, the young heir to a conglomerate, wields power and influence

Veteran never forsakes the story for action, with the engaging narrative consistently touching upon highly politically sensitive issues within contemporary Korean culture. News media in the peninsula has for years reported on the spoilt and selfish behaviour displayed by chaebol (conglomerate) CEO’s children – the most recent of which was the infamous ‘nut rage’ incident – and Veteran picks up such themes brilliantly by exploring how such figures employ their power, finances and influence to avoid legalities. Bolstered by a basis in modern society, it’s great material for the genre, providing villainous personal and corporations and some compelling twists and turns, whilst also granting a sense of catharsis for the general public.

While corruption informs the impetus of the story, Veteran is also at its core a tale of two men in bitter conflict, and it’s hard to imagine any two actors other than Hwang Jung-min and Yo Ah-in fulfilling the roles so emphatically. Hwang Jung-min in particular is clearly having an absolute ball as detective Do-cheol, bringing incredible humour and charisma to the role so that even when he is being stubborn and downright dirty, he is nothing less than engrossing. Yoo Ah-in meanwhile is in absolute top form as the vile Jo Tae-oh, with his performance earning considerable praise. The characterisation is a tad excessive yet Yoo Ah-in commits so confidently that he’s an absolute joy to hate. Legendary supporting actor Oh Dal-so gets some of the film’s best laughs, while it’s great to see Yoo Hae-jin, who’s often typecast in comedic roles, stretched into new terrain.

Although an enormously entertaining film, Veteran is not without problems. Writer/director Ryoo still seems to have difficulty writing three-dimensional female characters, constructing them either as nagging bitches or wholesome victims. Miss Bong, wonderfully portrayed by Jang Yoon-ju, is somewhat of an exception and a welcome kick-ass heroine but tends to provide punchlines rather than development.

That aside, Veteran is easily the best slice of popcorn cinema this year and a joyous thrill ride from start to finish.

Do-cheol chases his adversary in a thrilling finale through the streets of Seoul

Do-cheol chases his adversary in a thrilling finale through the streets of Seoul

Verdict:

Veteran is a revitalising, pulse-pounding action/thriller from director Ryoo Seung-wan. Examining the corruption in chaebols has never been so cathartic as the film is consistently entertaining, wonderfully inventive and featuring some truly exciting and hilarious stunts that has audiences gasping, wincing and laughing in equal measure. Easily the best slice of popcorn cinema in 2015.

★★★★☆

Reviews

Ode To My Father (국제시장) – ★★☆☆☆

Ode To My Father (국제시장)

Ode To My Father (국제시장)

In modern day Busan, cantankerous old fogie Deok-soo (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) runs a general store in the famous international market region. Walking around the area with family and friends prompts memories from his past to return to the surface, reliving the experience that he and his country endured on the path to modernisation after the Korean War. Deok-soo recalls the traumatic events his family suffered through during the Hungnam Evacuation in the winter of 1950; working in the coal mines of West Germany, and meeting his wife Yeong-ja (Kim Yoon-jin (김윤진); operating as an engineer during the Vietnam War; and striving to reunite with the people he lost so many years ago. Always at his side is best friend Dal-goo (Oh Dal-soo (오달수) as they sacrifice everything for family.

Deok-soo recalls the horrific experience his family endured during the Hungnam Evacuation

Deok-soo recalls the horrific experience his family endured during the Hungnam Evacuation

Impressive production values and an epic sense of scale are the scant positives of director Yoon Je-kyoon’s Ode To My Father, a disturbingly nationalistic take on recent Korean history that eschews the complexity of the era in favour of manipulative melodrama. Poorly written, shallow, and horribly acted throughout, the film’s revisionist take on past hardships and overtly patriotic sentiment ensured its success with the middle aged while perpetuating the alarming trend of ultra-conservative cinema for everyone else.

Ode To My Father – literally translated as International Market – is best described as ‘the Korean Forrest Gump‘ for the manner in which the film depicts dark periods of history through rose-tinted glasses, centred around the actions of one man. Indeed, while the events onscreen are specifically and uniquely Korean, the narrative structure as well as visual devices are constantly ‘lifted’ from its American counterpart. While Forrest Gump rightly received criticism for its revisionist take on American history, Ode To My Father takes such conservatism to new heights by completely removing any mention of the military dictatorships and authoritarian rule Korea endured following the war while crucial events aren’t even alluded to. Korean films that were produced during the strict censorship of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – when Ode is set – contained more insight and compulsion so it’s perplexing to see the periods romanticised in the contemporary age.

The mines of West Germany are claustrophobic

The mines of West Germany are claustrophobic

While Park Su-jin’s screenplay eschews historical detail, director Yoon Je-kyoon instead puts all of Ode To My Father‘s large budget onscreen with considerable flair. The Hungnam Evacuation is brilliantly realised as thousands of panic-induced refugees seek transportation to evade war; the claustrophobia of the West German mines is palpable; Vietnamese jungles and bases appear authentic; and the collective grief of TV show ‘Reuniting Separated Families’ is powerfully poignant.

However in each case the impressive production values are undermined as melodrama is exalted above all else, serving to greatly limit the impact such scenes attempt to generate. Director Yoon is so determined to make audiences cry during the (a)historical vignettes that national pride and overacting take place over subtlety and good taste.

The scenes in Vietnam are employed merely to at as a crude parallel to Korea decades earlier and to boast of the nation’s advancement, while a dramatic bomb blast sequence is all but ruined due to a voice over articulating Korean struggles. Yeong-ja is forced to halt her legitimate argument with Deok-soo in order to rise to the national anthem (reportedly President Park Geun-hye’s favourite scene according to several news outlets). Even conveying the importance of TV show Reuniting Separated Families is impaired when an American adoptee, who cannot speak Korean, suddenly recalls perfect sentences from her youth 30 years prior while wailing uncontrollably.

Deok-soo's journey to Vietnam acts as a crude parallel to Korea

Deok-soo’s journey to Vietnam acts as a crude parallel to Korea

Further exacerbating the situation is the manner in which Korean celebrities are horribly shoehorned in throughout the narrative, as well as the representation of youths as ungrateful, rude and self-centred, which serve to provide catharsis for the target audience – middle-aged Koreans – and in that sense is a resounding success, but the achievements come at the cost of context, respect and decency.

Carrying the entirety of the film on his shoulders is Hwang Jeong-min, a usually reliable actor with an impressive filmography, yet in Ode To My Father his theatrically is unnecessarily excessive and akin to a bad TV drama. Certain scenes are absolutely cringeworthy to experience, particularly his rendition of being elderly. Kim Yoon-jin fares slightly better as wife Yeong-ja, yet that’s primarily due to her character’s absence for much of the running time once she’s served her purpose of marriage. There is no chemistry between them thanks to the poor script and characterisation, which attempts to make the couple saintly figures.

Oh Dal-soo, as is often the case, is the most entertaining presence. Using his knack for great comic timing he is fun to watch, and ironically it’s his bromance with Deok-soo that forms the central relationship of the film. However even Oh Dal-so cannot save Ode To My Father from being little more than a well-made nationalistic melodrama.

Whilst working in Germany Deok-soo falls head over heels for nurse Yeong-ja

Whilst working in Germany Deok-soo falls head over heels for nurse Yeong-ja

Verdict:

Ode To My Father boasts an epic scale and lavish production values yet is a disturbingly nationalistic and highly melodramatic take on recent Korean history. Director Yoon Je-kyoon is determined to force audiences to cry throughout his revisionist tale and for middle-aged Korean it undoubtedly provides catharsis, while simply perpetuating the alarming trend of ultra-conservative cinema for everyone else.

★★☆☆☆

Reviews

Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (조선명탐정: 놉의 딸) – ★★☆☆☆

Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (조선명탐정: 놉의 딸)

Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (조선명탐정: 놉의 딸)

It’s 1975, and Joseon (Korea) is struggling. The country relies heavily on imported goods from Japan to sustain the economy, particularly silver. Yet when a deluge of counterfeit silver currency enters circulation, Joseon’s very existence comes under threat. Detective Kim Min (Kim Myeong-min (김명민) and his trusty sidekick Seo-pil (Oh Dal-soo (오달수) are sent to investigate, however instead of being rewarded for his efforts the sleuth is bizarrely exiled onto a tiny island. There he befriends young servant girl Da-hae (Lee Chae-eun (이채은) whose sister has mysteriously disappeared and, disregarding his royal punishment, sets out to solve the both the counterfeit silver and kidnap conundrums, yet what role does Japanese giaseng Hisako (Lee Yeon-hee (이연희) play?

Detective K and Seo-pil again find themselves on a madcap race for their lives

Detective K and Seo-pil again find themselves on a madcap race for their lives

Comedy-sequel Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island is much like the original – colourful and madcap, sporadically humorous, and tonally all over the place. Kim Seok-yoon steps back into the director’s chair bringing all the same strengths and weaknesses as before, resulting in halfhearted yet quite amiable Sunday matinee fare.

One of the great strengths of Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow was the tongue-in-cheek nature of the comedy combined with an OTT pretentious hero who, more often than not, was a victim of slapstick situations of his own making. Detective K 2 delivers much the same, as investigator Kim and loyal sidekick Seo-pil are caught in farcical situations that end in silly humiliations. However as much of the original’s charm has dissipated, such encounters provoke titters rather than laughs. This is often due to a lack of gags and set pieces, but primarily a consequence of the relationship alteration between the lead duo. In the first instalment the pair frequently clashed, comedically employing misdirection as their friendship developed, yet in Detective K 2 they are close comrades and the chemistry has dulled as writers Kim Su-jin and Lee Nam-gyoo have characterised the duo as more serious, and sometimes downright mean, in nature. Actor Kim Myeong-min still hams it up as the arrogant sleuth as best he can despite given far less opportunity to do so, while his frankly horrible characterisation towards servant girl Da-hae makes him quite dislikable as well as detracting from his journey to solve the case. Meanwhile Oh Dal-soo tries desperately to make his character more relevant in a story that largely regards him as a prop.

Detective Kim and Seo-pil continue to find themselves in slapstick stiuations

Detective Kim and Seo-pil continue to find themselves in slapstick stiuations

Detective K 2, while competently helmed by returning director Kim Seok-yeon and featuring the same impressively zany and colourful interpretation of old Korea, contains tonal imbalances even more severe than the previous instalment. In the original the largely fun narrative gave way to a story about religious persecution which diluted the light-hearted appeal; in the sequel however the case involving counterfeit silver gives way to themes involving prostitution, child slavery and murder, and paedophilia. Such issues are not appropriate nor ripe material for a slapstick adventure like Detective K and naturally the film suffers for it.

Despite such concerns, Detective K 2 is generally a well-made and jovial jaunt through old Joseon. The film consistently features attractive set designs and amusing comedy set pieces, enough to consider it an enjoyable, if largely forgettable, viewing experience. That said, if director Kim Seok-yoon wishes to return and complete a successful final instalment for a Detective K trilogy, the tonal imbalances, characterisation, and a female role that requires the respective actress to do something other than look attractive, is an absolute necessity.

Giaseng Hisako has mysterious motivations

Giaseng Hisako has mysterious motivations

Verdict:

Comedy sequel Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island is a zany and cheerful jaunt through old Joseon, much like its predecessor only less so. While returning director Kim Seok-yoon helms the shenanigans competently, the film suffers greatly from mismanaged characterisation as well as employing weighty themes involving child murder, slavery and prostitution. Sporadically humorous, Detective K 2 is amiable, yet quite forgettable, matinee fare.

★★☆☆☆

Reviews

The Thieves (도둑들) – ★★★☆☆

The Thieves (도둑들)

The Thieves (도둑들)

Following a spectacularly daring art heist, criminal Popie (Lee Jeong-jae (이정재) and his band of thieves – Yenicall (Jeon Ji-hyeon (전지현), Jampano (Kim Soo-hyeon (김수현) and Chewing Gum (Kim Hae-sook (김해숙) – have too much heat on them to operate in Korea for the foreseeable future. Yet as luck would have it, a job offer in Macau arises from master thief and former associate Macao Park (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석). Joined by safecracker Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo (김혜수), the gang join forces with a team of Chinese bandits to steal a $20 million diamond named  ‘The Tear of the Sun.’ Yet Macao’s plans to sell the diamond back to owner and ruthless mobster Wei Hong, as well as the alternative agendas of everyone within the team, results in a crime caper that goes anything but smoothly.

The team gathers to prepare for their latest heist - to steal 'The Tear of the Sun' from a mob boss

The team gathers to prepare for their latest heist – to steal ‘The Tear of the Sun’ from a mob boss

When The Thieves was released back in the summer of 2012, it rapidly became a cinematic phenomenon. Within its opening weekend the film had grossed over 2 million admissions; on its ninth day, The Thieves became the most attended Korean film of the 2012 before beating that record four days later by becoming the top selling film of the year. 22 days after release the crime caper joined the elite ’10 million admissions’ club, before passing 12 million 11 days later. At the end of its theatrical run The Thieves had taken almost $83 million at the Korean box office, as well as becoming the second most attended film in Korean history at the time. The success and popularity were unprecedented, yet that aside, is it any good?

The Thieves is a noble effort at producing an entertaining all-star international crime caper. Writer/director Choi Dong-hoon has established himself as a success within the genre for quite some time with The Big Swindle and Tazza: The High Rollers, however The Thieves marks an altogether different, more Hollywood-esque, approach for the filmmaker and it’s one that has paid enormous dividends to his career. The pleasure of witnessing some of the Korean industry’s biggest stars interacting and attempting to outwit each other in exotic locations is particularly enjoyable, often – and especially the case for 12 million domestic viewers – taking attention away from the frustratingly convoluted narrative. Juggling such an inordinate amount of actors is an impressive feat and director Choi does his very best to give every character a history and motivation, some of which works well amongst an array of superfluous tangents, and while occasionally entertaining it also serves to create periods where precious little actually occurs as well as to make The Thieves acutely overly long.

Safecracker Pepse and thief Popie make a play for the diamond

Safecracker Pepse and thief Popie make a play for the diamond

One of the reasons attributed to the success of The Thieves is the presence of Jeon Ji-hyeon and her flirtatious relationship with heartthrob Kim Soo-hyeon (indeed, their chemistry together later translated into incredibly lucrative TV drama You Came From the Stars). While the crime caper is a great comeback vehicle for Jeon, who has clearly been selected to bring sex appeal both on and off screen, her and Kim Soo-hyeon appear rather sporadically throughout. Instead, it is Kim Hye-soo who steals the limelight in terms of both beauty and allure as well as in forming the emotional centre of the film. Her appearances within the film are magnetic and amongst all the betrayals and double-dealings that arise, her steadfast character provides a stabilising core that is sorely needed. Ultimately however the simply excessive amount of characters weighs the story down, and The Thieves would have benefited from jettisoning several of them – particularly the Chinese criminals, who bring little to the story – and developing the core team instead.

Yet The Thieves really hits its stride in the wonderfully kinetic final act, where all the various parties involved in the diamond heist collide with extreme effect. The acrobatic wire-work battles and blazing stand-offs with criminals brandishing automatic weapons are impressive, and are consistently highly entertaining, silly, fun. It’s pure popcorn cinema, and director Choi does an excellent job in constructing an enjoyable finale while still keeping to the spirit of Korean crime caper.

Flexible wire work thief Yenicall brings deceptive sex appeal

Flexible wire work thief Yenicall brings deceptive sex appeal

Verdict:

The Thieves is an entertaining crime caper, and a real pleasure to witness some of the best stars in Korea go head-to-head in ‘winner take all’ race to the finish. Director Choi Dong-hoon juggles the excessive cast well throughout the convoluted narrative, yet tedium does occasionally appear during the overly long running time. The Thieves is pure popcorn cinema, and consistently entertaining, silly, fun.

★★★☆☆

Reviews
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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