The Concubine (Hoo-goong: Je-wang-eui cheob)
Korea (2012) Dir. Dae-seung Kim
In the early Joseon Dynasty, the Queen mother and former concubine Dae-bi (Park Ji-young) conspires to usurp the power of her stepson, the current king (Jung Chan), via her timid son Prince Sungwon (Kim Dong-Wook) and the girl he is smitten with, Shin Hwa-Yeon (Jo Yeo-Jeong), the daughter of a wealthy nobleman. Dae-Bi feels Hwa-Yeon is not fit for her son, so instead she calls her in to be a concubine to the King. Hwa-Yeon however is in love with a commoner Kwon-Yoo (Kim Min-Jun) but their plans to run away together are scuppered.
In order to save Kwon-Yoo’s life, Hwa-Yeon accepts the concubine role and soon bears the king a son. Five years later, the king mysteriously dies and Sungwon is moved into his place as King with Hwa-yeon as his wife, but Dae-bi is the one with the power. Learning of Dae-Bi’s role in the previous King’s death, Hwa-Yeon realises she must live by her wits in order to survive in the royal palace.
Another high budget period drama from Korea, The Concubine has an interesting if often convoluted story of revenge, deception and twisted loyalties that relies as much on the lush visuals and dedicated reconstruction of yesteryear as it does on its nudity and sensuality. Either Korea is getting bolder with its saucy content or Korean actresses have developed a vain proclivity for showing off their (frankly unflattering) boob jobs to the world.
There are a number of subplots floating around in this that, rather than create intrigue, simply muddy the story to the point that allegiances and indeed the motives are not as clear as they should be. It also doesn’t help that the first act which lays the foundation for the rest of the plot is clumsily handled, with hurried and vague introductions to the main players and inconclusive exposition.
Gradually this is rectified as the film progresses with flashbacks the occasional info dump but the only things that are clear from the get go is that Dae-bi is a bit of a controlling cow, the incumbent King seems to take after his stepmother on the personality front while his stepbrother is a meek little chap.
Hwa-Yeon’s relationship with Kwon-Yoo is a little complicated as he once saved the life of Hwa-Yeon’s father Shin Cham-pan (Ahn Suk-hwan) and in gratitude, he took Kwon-Yoo in and treated him as son. Hormones being what they are, the two youngsters fell for each other but kept it quiet, until they were rumbled when the palace guards come calling to take Hwa-Yeon in to play royal concubine.
A furious Cham-pan is not happy upon learning of the relationship between Kwon-Yoo and his daughter and orders Kwon-Yoo’s castration. Eek!
Five years later when Hwa-Yeon is queen and Sungwon is king, there is a new eunuch in the palace – you guessed it: Kwon-Yoo. However he’s just a tad bitter about the way Cham-pan treated him, which doesn’t bode well when Cham-pan is charged with treason against Dae-Bi and is sentenced to death. Hwa-Yeon wants daddy reprieved but even Sungwon can’t talk mommy dearest around, a situation which has a very messy ending. Spurned by his wife, Sungwon suddenly grows a set and stands up to Dae-Bi and it’s family feud time.
Sounds exciting and in many ways it is, with the various twists and turns to keep us guessing but the execution is a little sloppy. The problem lies with the way certain players that play a key part in the final unravelling are introduced. Some show up out of the blue, others appear then are forgotten until later.
Alliances are made which fail to make sense and rarely last, simply confusing the issue and undermine the characters standing within the overall framework of the story. If ever there was a case for the “less is more” maxim to be applied, it would certainly be to the plot department of this otherwise intricate yarn.
Part of what made the film a huge success in its native Korea was almost certainly the “graphic” (by Korean Standards at least) and incongruous sex scenes. Unfortunately actor Kim Dong-Wook possesses one of the funniest “sex” faces likely to be seen on screen making these scenes more comical than erotic which I am sure was not the intention.
For example when the new king Sungwon consummating his union with Hwa-Yeon – also marking his first time – his advisors are on hand to shout instructions from behind the doors. I defy anyone not giggle as Sungwon freaks out seeing the increasing number of silhouettes appear behind the doors as Hwa-Yeon’s screams get louder!
It’s not all fun and games though, especially for male viewers who may get their kicks from seeing Jo Yeo-Jeong’s often exposed bolt-on-boobs but will lose their lunch over the needlessly explicit shot of what is left of Kwon-Yoo’s groin post castration! Meanwhile a couple of death scenes are particularly grisly to the level usually reserved for horror and thrillers – and the Korean Times called this a “commercial” film!!
Thankfully the cast are on form and inhabit their roles with a keen sense of empathy for their complex characters, making them as believable as possibly for both themselves and the viewer. Jo Yeo-Jeong actually serves her character of Hwa-Yeon better with her clothes on than off, exuding a calm air of dignity as her world comes crashing down around her.
Kim Dong-Wook surprises us by taking Sungwon from placid wimp to psycho king while Park Ji-young is marvellously detestable as Dae-Bi. Final kudos goes to Kim Min-Jun who is chilling as the vengeful Kwon-Yoo and Jo Eun-Ji, who threatens to outshine our leading lady as her devious maid Geum-Ok.
A more streamlined and focused script and adventurous direction would have made The Concubine a solid treat to watch. Instead it is a capable but pedestrian film that belies the ambition and potential of the story.