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The famous Korean romantic folk story ‘Tale of Chun Hyang’ gets another screen adaptation with “The Servant”, though this time around, with writer director Kim Dae Woo at the helm for his sophomore outing, things are a little different. Having previously directed the racy, unconventional period piece “Forbidden Quest” and written Lee Jae Yong’s “Untold Scandal”, Kim mines the classic story for themes of lust and seduction, turning it on its head by having Chun Hyun falling in love with the servant instead of the master. Jo Yeo Jeong (“Vampire Cop Ricky”) takes on the role of the heroine, with Kim Joo Hyuk (“My Wife Got Married”) and Ryoo Seung Bum (“No Mercy”) as the other two players in what becomes an increasingly complex and torrid romantic triangle.
The film’s narrative is framed by Bang Ja (Kim Joo Hyuk) telling his story to a writer, relating his time as a servant to scholarly nobleman Myung Ryong (Ryoo Seung Bum), when the two of them both fell for a beautiful young woman called Chun Hyang (Jo Yeo Jeong). Despite Chun Hyang being a mere singer and of a lower class, Myung Ryong decides to pursue her, only for Bang Ja to succeed in seducing and winning her heart first. This leads to all manner of romantic complications, not least since Chun Hyang herself is scheming to marry higher up the social ladder in order to further her own status, having been coached by her mother from an early age.
Kim Dae Woo’s take on ‘Tale of Chun Hyang’ is certainly quite different, and thankfully breathes new and playful life into the time honoured tale rather than just rehashing it again as a glossy blockbuster period piece. The film is actually a far more complex affair than might have been expected, with a great deal of scheming and jostling for position, and it frequently plays out in unconventional fashion. The switch in having Chun Hyang fall for Bang Ja is an interesting one, with his servant acting as the main protagonist of the story, which not only changes the plot by adding a lustful romantic triangle, but also allows for Kim to explore the power struggle between the different social classes, a subject which is still very relevant for modern audiences. At the same time, Kim never simply demonises the upper classes or allows the film to become a case of the evil rich oppressing the honest and hard working poor, with all of the characters from the different levels of society having their own often selfish motivations and goals.
Although there is a fair amount of courting involved, the film is not a simple love story, balancing an early sense of romantic idealism with an increasing air of cynicism that leaves the viewer trying to guess who will end up with who. In this respect Bang Ja makes for a very engaging figure, being a wilful seducer who is at the same time big hearted and in his own way quite innocent and naïve, partly due to his low social standing. Thanks in no small part to a powerful, brave performance from Jo Yeo Jeong, Chun Hyang herself is a similarly fascinating figure, by no means a chaste or pure hearted maiden, and she quickly develops into being far more than a mere prize for the film’s male characters. This in turn adds another emotional layer to the film, with Bang Ja’s relationship with her being all the more gripping for its many ups and downs, and the film’s ending packs a surprising punch.
At the same time, the film is very funny, with the script being sharp and witty throughout. Like the film in general, the humour starts off with a fairly light tone, mostly revolving around Bang Ja’s training in seduction techniques from an experienced lecher of a house guest, before becoming a touch darker as things progress. Kim never resorts to cheap laughs or slapstick, and the film is all the more amusing for being a real comedy of manners, almost in the fashion of a Shakespearian play, with a lot of sly and clever gags involving the social structure and the ridiculous situations which it results in.
Inevitably, one of the most talked about aspects of the film will be its raunchy scenes, and not without good reason, as it features a great deal of graphic nudity and sex in a wide variety of positions and situations. All of the leads frequently appear unclothed, with Jo Yeo Jeong in particular spending a large part of the running time with her modesty covered only by the skimpiest of strategically placed undergarments. Although the sexual content is high, none of the scenes are gratuitous, and are tastefully shot and fit in well with the film’s ongoing power struggles and shifting relationships. The film as a whole is visually opulent, with some gorgeous cinematography and exquisite sets and impressive costumes – impressive at least when the characters keep them on. Kim makes good use of what was obviously quite a high budget, and the film has excellent production values and a convincing eye for historical detail, giving it a polished and crafted feel.
“The Servant” is certainly one of the better period set dramas of the year, and shows that not all such films need be sword slinging epics or dry history lessons. Witty, intelligently plotted and erotic, it confirms Kim Dae Woo as one of the most interesting and ambitious directors working in the form, and should certainly be enjoyed by all opened minded adults.
Kim Dae-woo (director) / Kim Dae-woo (screenplay)
CAST: Kim Joo-hyeok, Ryoo Seung-beom, Jo Yeo-jeong, Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong, Oh Dal-soo, Song Sae-byeok