I was slightly skeptical when Lee Jae-gyu (Beethoven Virus, The King 2 Hearts), mostly known for his TV work, decided to move into mainstream cinema. Lee’s feature debut, The Fatal Encounter, is based on one of many assassination attempts on King Jeong-jo, the 22nd ruler of the Joseon Dynasty that reigned over a unified Korean Peninsula for approximately 500 years. The film depicts the 24 hours in the King’s life leading up to the assassination attempt in 1777 and is set against a beautiful traditional Korean landscape. King Jeong-jo (Hyun Bin), also known as the “King of Misfortune”, is living his life in a palace, surrounded by scholars, the Dowager Queen Jeong-sun (Han Ji-min), his mother (Kim Sung-ryung), and the devoted court servant Gap-soo (Jung Jae-young). On one hand, Jeong-jo is seen by some as a calm and considerate man, but on the other he is seen as a threat which must be eliminated. The King, who is aware of the danger, decides not to give up easily. The endless attempts on his life make him eager to stay alive and be a stronger person. Jeong- jo’s mother, Lady Hyegyeong, is also desperate to save her son’s life and does everything to do so. Nevertheless, with two powerful factions, the Noron and Soron, the chances of protecting the man equals null. Nor does it help that the Queen hails from the Noron faction and is behind the assassination attempt on King Jeong-jo, who personally supports Soron.
Parallel to Jeong-jo’s story is that of Gap-soo and his childhood friend Eul-soo (Jo Jung-suk), a vicious killer sent on a mission to put the King to death. Both men met as children when abducted by the bloodthirsty man, Gwang-baek (Cho Jae-hyun), who, in a cruel way, trains the young boys to become barbarous slaughterers. The only support they receive is from one another. Through flashbacks, we learn that Gap-soo and Eul-soo are put to a test, one that might lead to the castration of one of the youngsters. Gap-soo, aware of the punishment, decides to fail it in favour of his friend. He is emasculated and sent to the palace to serve the King. However, behind all that, is the plan set up for Gap-soo. He must eliminate Jeong-jo when the right time comes. Years pass by and the King and servant slowly develop an unusual friendship. Gap-soo gradually starts to think that Jeong-jo is suitable to rule. Eaten by the guilt of planning the assassination, Gap-soo confesses the truth to him and swears to protect the King. A cat and mouse game begins. Who will die and who will survive? The Fatal Encounter is definitely a great spectacle and an enjoyable historical costume drama. However, there was something missing in the film. I was watching the film thinking that I would see a story behind the assassination attempt of the King. What I saw was slightly different; countless flashbacks about Gap-soo’s life, the torture of the young boys and unnecessary fights which had nothing to do with the King’s story. I was also disappointed when it came to Kim Sung-ryung’s character as well as the Queen. It seems like their characters weren’t properly developed in the script. There was a lack of explanation about the Queen’s relationship with the King and his mother. Hyun Bin also had limited screen time, which is why I felt like Gap-soo was the main protagonist instead of the King. I am not sure if that’s what Lee Jae-gyu intended for us to see. The acting was sublime, and it goes to all of the actors. TV star Hyun Bin acquits himself marvelously in his first go at a period drama, grippingly convincing as Jeong-jo, while the role of Gap-soo creates an intense and unusual turn for Jung Jae-young, whom some of us might remember from Our Sunhi, which was shown at last year’s London Film Festival. Cho Jae-hyun’s portrayal of the wicked man was electrifying and terrifying at the same time. His performance was as good as the one in Kim Ki-duk’s film Moebius. I think he’s an actor who, like a chameleon, can fit himself easily in any type of a role.
I must admit that most of the film is filled with populous and artfully staged palace attacks, conspiracy, and needless jumps in chronology. Nevertheless, the amazing cinematography by Go Nak-seon definitely added a positive note to the film along with the music composed by Mowg and the flawlessly edited slow motion fight scenes. You will not be bored while watching the film and it is definitely worth seeing it on the big screen. Unfortunately, The Fatal Encounter had a limited release outside of South Korea, and I am not aware of any screenings apart from those in the US, so there seems to be no further showings in Europe or the UK. Hopefully the film finds a distributor in the UK so that you can all enjoy the spectacle that is The Fatal Encounter.
Written by Maggie Gogler