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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16 year old concubine So-ok must be impregnated for Sir Jo to win the gambit

Untold Scandal (스캔들 – 조선남녀상열지사) – ★★★★☆

Untold Scandal (스캔들 - 조선남녀상열지사)

Untold Scandal (스캔들 – 조선남녀상열지사)

The French classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been adapted for the screen several times, including the critically acclaimed Dangerous Liaisons (1988) which employed a traditionalist approach, as well as a successful contemporary teenage variation with Cruel Intentions (1999).

Untold Scandal relocates the infamous text to 18th century Korea during the Joseon Dynasty, an era of strict Confucianism and the emergence of then-illegal Catholicism, a time when men were allowed multiple wives and concubines and women had precious few rights. As such, the French literature so concerned with scandal is transplanted astonishingly well, and aside from rather uninspiring direction, is an entertaining tale in old Korea.

Sir Jo-won (Bae Yong-joon (배용준) is the most famous lothario in the land, a man of ill-repute who passes his days bedding the local women and painting images of his conquests. His cousin and rival Lady Jo (Lee Mi-sook (이미숙), is a manipulative and vindictive woman of aristocracy who, upon learning of her husband’s desire for 16 year old concubine So-ok (Lee So-yeon (이소연), forges a gambit with her sexually predatory cousin; take the virtue of the concubine and impregnate her, and in exchange Sir Jo-won can have the prize he’s always coveted – a night with Lady Jo. Should he fail however, Sir Jo must spend the rest of his days as a monk. Considering the bet to be unchallenging, Sir Jo raises the stakes by including bedding the most virtuous widow in the land, Lady Jung (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연), and sets out to fulfill the task and receive the conquest he has always desired.

Lady Jo and Sir Jo-won create the scandalous bet

Lady Jo and Sir Jo-won create the scandalous bet

18th century Korea is wonderfully realized in Untold Scandal, and the costume and set designers deserve praise for their painstaking attention to detail throughout the film. The costumes in particular form a major proponent of the mise-en-scene, as the style and colour schemes of the traditional hanboks worn are indicative of the personality of the wearer; the seductive yet dangerous reds worn by Lady Jo are in stark contrast to the calm and natural blues worn by Lady Jung, and as such protagonists convey a wealth of emotion and anticipation through their appearance alone. Director Lee J-yong captures the world of Untold Scandal competently and with sincerity, yet his style is often bland and uninspiring, framing the action as if it were on stage rather than celluloid. Furthermore, the director’s apparent preference for mid-shots tends to detract from establishing the beauty of the era with long-shots or, crucially, the intense seduction between the protagonists with close-ups. However, the performances of the cast more than redress these shortcomings as their provocative and flirtatious encounters with each other are palpable.

The narrative is, as expected from the source material, a captivating and enthralling tale and the inclusion of features inherently Korean serve to enhance the story in a varied and interesting fashion. The strict Confucian ideology of the era serves to make Sir Jo-won’s bet more difficult to achieve, as Lady Jung initially will only communicate through a proxy for fear of sullying her reputation as a virtuous woman. As was commonplace in the Joseon Dynasty, men were within their rights to have a wife as well as several concubines, roles which Lady Jo and So-ok embody quite naturally and serve to give an alternative perspective on their troublesome relationship. Rather than letters or a diary, Sir Jo-won paints his conquests in the style of Joseon painters adding authenticity as well as a unique spin on the evidence of his philandering. Combined, these organic features establish Untold Scandal as unmistakably Korean, with the contrasting approach conveying the seductions and betrayals as markedly different from other adaptations.

Sir Jo-won must seduce the most virtuous woman in the land, Lady Jung

Sir Jo-won must seduce the most virtuous woman in the land, Lady Jung

As is often the case, Jeon Do-yeon is incredible in her portrayal of Lady Jung and outshines the rest of the cast. Her performance evolves from icy to humble with deft skill, although the jump from humble to loving requires further suspension of disbelief. Such criticism is also applicable to Bae Yong-joon as Sir Jo-won, who is never convincing in his declarations of love for Lady Jung. As a casanova, Bae Yong-joon performs well despite lacking the charisma and subtlety expected of the role, raising doubts as to how he is able to seduce so many woman. For example the night in which he beds concubine So-ok is not achieved through mastery of seduction or language, but through force. The scene is conveyed as rape rather than alluring temptation, and undermines Sir Jo-won’s character enormously. Despite her limited role, Lee So-yeon (이소연) portrays the naivety of So-ok wonderfully, and it’s a shame more dramatic scenes, such as the ramifications of her actions, were not produced to convey the shattering of her innocence. So-ok’s mentor Lady Jo is captivatingly performed by Lee Mi-sook (이미숙), who seemingly seethes with vengeance and pride. Lee Mi-sook not only wonderfully conveys, but clearly also relishes, every ounce of tension, manipulation and seduction she creates in every scene. Her character is somewhat limited however in that there are scant few scenes of her actually displaying her enticing prowess, which serves to make her threatening demeanor slightly shallow.

16 year old concubine So-ok must be impregnated for Sir Jo to win the gambit

16 year old concubine So-ok must be impregnated for Sir Jo to win the gambit

Verdict:

Untold Scandal is a delightfully scandalous and entertaining film about seduction and betrayal in 18th century Korea, with beautiful costume design that adds elegance and authenticity to the mise-en-scene. The adaptation works incredibly well and offers an interestingly unique perspective on the source material. However the direction by Lee J-young is often bland and uninspiring due to a general lack of technical variation, failing to fully capitalise on the lustful charisma between the protagonists, which are joyous performances despite their occasional limitations. Untold Scandal is highly engaging and enjoyable, and a fascinating take on an old classic.

 ★★★★☆

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