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“The Concubine” sees actress Jo Yeo Jeong following her much praised performance in “The Servant” with another bodice-ripping costume drama and tale of lust and envy, this time for director Kim Dae Seung (“Bungee Jumping of Their Own”). Set in the royal palace during the Joseon Dynasty, the film is a twisted web of tangled scheming and betrayals, and also stars Kim Dong Wook (“Romantic Heaven”), Kim Min Joon (“Hindsight”), Jung Chan (“Superstar”) and Park Ji Young (“The Housemaid”) as the other players struggling for power and survival.
The film opens with Jo Yeo Jeong as Hwa Yeon, the daughter of a lesser nobleman, in love with commoner Kwon Yoo (Kim Min Joon). Sadly for the lovers, when Prince Sung Won (Kim Dong Wook) falls for Hwa Yeon, his ruthlessly ambitious mother (Park Ji Young) separates them by selecting her as the king’s consort. Forced by her father to accept in order to save Kwon Yoo’s life, she is sent to the palace and becomes queen. Several years later, the king (Jung Chan) dies in suspicious circumstances, leaving Hwa Yeon vulnerable and fearing for her future and the fate of her son. In order to keep them both safe, she turns to new king Sung Won, attempting to manipulate his desire for her, running into deadly conflict with his controlling mother. Meanwhile, Kwon Yoo appears at the palace as a eunuch, plotting vengeance for his suffering.
Though the plot of “The Concubine” itself is undeniably nothing new, palace intrigue being only too common in Korean costume dramas, it stands head and shoulder above most other similarly themed efforts thanks to its depth and intelligence, and to Kim Dae Seung’s considerable skill as a storyteller. Although the film certainly starts off looking like it will be a fairly typical historical melodrama about thwarted lovers, it soon heads off into darker territory, charting a labyrinth tale of infatuation, revenge and self-destruction.
With a large cast of supporting characters, each with their own motivations and desires, the film has an incredible amount going on, though thankfully its many tangents are woven together in satisfactory fashion, Kim keeping things tense and unpredictable throughout. With so many different people and factions playing off against each other, there’s a constant sense of conflict behind the well-mannered faces and elegance of the court, and thanks to some surprising twists and character deaths, the viewer is frequently reminded that none of them are safe, no matter how high their position.
What’s most fascinating here, and what truly makes the film stand out is its psychological complexity, the script giving it a near Shakespearian feel at times. Unusually for a costume drama, the film comes across more as a noir than a melodrama, with its weak and insecure male characters being manipulated and moved around like pawns by the stronger females, with sex and obsession being taken advantage of at every turn. The strong script shows excellent character development in this regard, Hwa Yeon making for a substantial and intriguing protagonist, and her rise from innocent girl to Machiavellian conspirator is gripping and rewarding to watch. Through her, Kim explores what desperation and the fight to survive under such hellish pressure can do to people, though the film wisely avoids any kind of moralising or judgement, and is all the more suspenseful and affecting as a result.
Although the acting is great across the board, with Kim Min Joon and Kim Dong Wook doing excellent work in making their male foils more than feeble obsessives, the film unsurprisingly belongs to Jo Yeo Jeong, who after this and “The Servant” is rapidly emerging as one of the most talented actresses in Korea. Turning in a wonderfully understated and multi-layered performance in the lead, she tackles the difficult role with maturity, making Hwa Yeon a believable and sympathetic figure, whose increasingly ruthless behaviour is only too understandable.
On the film’s release in Korea, much of the attention was on her many nude and sex scenes, several of which verge on the rough and unpleasant. However, to categorise the film or her performance as mere eroticism is to do both a great disservice, as the sexual content is clearly a very important part of the plot and psychological underpinnings, Kim never aiming for cheap titillation. Though the film is absolutely an adult affair, it’s beautifully and tastefully shot from start to finish, with some exquisite cinematography and visuals, and costumes and sets which while gorgeous to look at, are never too sumptuous or colourful to distract from the story or the characters themselves.
Although it’s sometimes hard to keep track of all the historical costume dramas of this type coming from Korea, “The Concubine” is easily one of the best for years, and one of the very few to offer real substance and intelligence. Anchored by Jo Yeo Jeong’s bewitching central performance and benefitting hugely from Kim Dae Seung’s assured direction and noirish touches, it’s a film which shakes off the limitations of the genre and which will hopefully find a wider admiring audience.
Dae-seung Kim (director) / Yoon-Jung Hwang, Dae-seung Kim, Mi-jung Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Eun-ji Jo … Geum-Ok
Yeo-Jeong Jo … Hwa-Yeon
Dong-wook Kim … Prince / King Sungwon
Min-jun Kim … Kwon-Yoo
Ji-Young Park … King’s mother