The Treacherous (Gansin)

Korea (2015) Dir. Min Kyu-dong

We may moan about the deluded megalomaniacs in positions of power that are blighting our daily lives with their despotic solipsism, class war baiting and Twitter based idiocy but if history has taught us anything, we should be lucky modern rulers aren’t nearly as dangerous as the leaders of the past – as this Korean period drama illustrates.

In 15th century Korea, the 10th king of the Josean dynasty was the vicious Yeonsan (Kim Kang-woo), driven to insanity by the murder of his mother, incurring an extensive and brutal revenge on the guilty. With few trusted retainers left after this purge, Yeonsan appoints his best friend Im Soong-Jae (Ju Ji-Hoon) and his father Im Sa-Hong (Cheon Ho-Jin) as his right hand men.

But Soong-Jae and Sa-Hong both intend to manipulate Yeonsan for their own power grab by exploiting his lascivious and libidinous side. Convincing he needs an heir, Yeonsan orders that all young women (single or not) are rounded up for his carnal pleasure, with Sa-Hong sponsoring high class concubine Seol Jung-mae (Lee Yoo-young) while Song-Jae supports lowly butcher’s daughter Dan-Hee (Lim Ji-Yeon) to serve in their favour.

At the start of this glossy and raunchy historical romp is the now familiar disclaimer that The Treacherous is based on real events and documents from the era. Whilst we have no reason to doubt the veracity of this statement we can at least deduce that some (read: plenty) liberties have been taken with the details, unless the real Yeonsan really was a student of the Caligula school of ruling.

Putting aside the rampant prurience and unfettered decadence on display – which admittedly is a bit difficult – one will find a sprawling tale of political intrigue and betrayal set against the backdrop of Josean era Korea and the attendant decorative landscapes and sumptuous splendour of the lovingly replicated period architecture.

Despite the visual treats, salacious titillation and immersive, sometimes confusing story, things are less impressive in building the characters, affecting many principal players including Yeonsan himself. His unstable state of mind is explained clearly and graphically in the opening prologue showing him unleash his fury on anyone involved in his mother’s murder.

To give you an idea of how demented Yeonsan was, he not only killed his late father’s concubines but also his own grandmother (in an unintentionally funny scene where he launches at her with a Roman Reigns like spear) before digging up the bodies of already deceased enemies to crush the remains and feed them to his pigs! Even Kim-Jong-Un wouldn’t go that far – would he?

Yet this close attachment to his mother is never disclosed or referenced, neither is the relationship with Yeonsan’s father. His mother’s death was only revealed as murder long after the event so his outrage is understandable but the depth of his vengeance is excessive, if creative. We do learn though that Yeonsan was a skilled painter, his preferred subject, naturally being sex, even if it is two horses going at it!

Similarly, it is not until the end the childhood friendship of Yeonsan and Soong-Jae is mentioned, the only real clue offered as to why Soong-Jae would betray his friend. Part of this would be the influence of his father who has his own agenda, again not clearly explained beyond a lust for power, working in tandem with ambitious MILF concubine and surrogate mother to Yeonsan, Jang Nok-Soo (Cha Ji-Yeon).

Of the two women vying to be the womb to the royal seed, whilst Jung-mae is easily defined by her slutty credentials, Dan-Hee is the real enigma. When she saves Soong-Jae from a beating by angry peasants, Dan-Hee asks Soong-Jae to endorse her as prospective comforter for “personal reasons”. He refuses since he fancies her, so she disguised herself as the daughter of a nobleman who once wronged Soong-Jae’s father.

The story twists and turns, occasionally buckling under the weight of the multiple strands of machinations and subterfuge, leaving the viewer feeling that they don’t always have a full grip on what is happening. Running 130 minutes, the film outstays its welcome, the main narrative seemingly having reached its natural conclusion with 20 minutes to spare, but at least it is never dull.

A tonal clash between the lurid content and historical drama finds film undecided as to which is the more important. There is only one full on sex scene, a Sapphic showcase between Dan-Hee and Jung-Mae while Yeonsan paints them; steamy and raunchy but not Blue Is The Warmest Colour level explicit. The extreme training all the women undergo to be the perfect comforter might yield some laughs via the rituals, procedures and treatments recommended for stamina, hygiene and maintenance of their lady parts.

Director Min Kyu-dong has form with provocative films, helming the Sapphic K-Horror Memento Mori and more recently the steamy drama In My End Is My Beginning, with a series of saucy rom-coms in between. The leap to lavish historical drama might seem a stretch but Min does everything right to make it a visual and engaging experience, let down only by the confused storytelling.

Luckily, Min has a great cast on hand to rise above these shortcomings and distract us from being too begrudging about them through their committed performances. In spite of being emotional shallow, Kim Kang-woo truly lets loose to make Yeonsan a believably unhinged deviant, a veritable livewire against the graceful presence of Lim Ji-Yeon as Dan-Hee and the peccante guile of Lee Yoo-young as Jung-mae, two actresses with more to offer Korean cinema, than their naked bodies.

With luscious sets and costumes, superlative acting and cinematography to die for, The Treacherous is a frustrating film in that it ticks all the right boxes to provide the audience with an exhilarating and compelling experience. It has so much going for it and so much to like, but occasionally struggles to meet its ambitions by mistaking indulgence for substance to obtain that epic status.