I have honestly lost count of how many period films, set in the Joseon Dynasty, have been made in Korea. It seems like this particular kingdom, which was founded by Yi Seonggye in 1392, has left a significant legacy for modern Korea; not only when it comes to societal norms, attitudes and language, but it has also become one of the main subjects of Korean contemporary cinema. 2015 was filled with hit and miss historical productions, and one of them was The Treacherous by Min Kyo-dong.
Min Kyo-dong is well known for being a versatile director; he can easily express himself through a romantic, a horror or an erotic film. He started his career as a director in 1999, when he co-directed Momento Mori, a supernatural horror film that depicts the story of two school girls who become romantically involved and whose liaison causes unexpected death of young students. This was the first time for Min Kyo-dong to tackle the – in Korean eyes – complex issue of homosexuality. A few years later, he explored a similar topic in Antique and in 2009 he directed Five Senses of Eros, which showed his interest in queer cinema, dealing with meaningful LGBT characters and issues. The Treacherous, his latest production, definitely broke down boundaries like no other film in terms of eroticism and intense homosexual relation between the two female characters.
Yeonsanggun, faultlessly portrayed by Kim Kang Woo (Five Senses of Eros, Doomsday Book), is the 10th king of Joseon Dynasty, a monarch who is mainly seen as a despot and a mentally unstable ruler of the 15th century Korea. Although he was a wise and able administrator at the beginning of his reign, it all changed after he had killed one of his teachers and learnt the truth about his mother’s death, which resulted in mental health problems, including paranoia. Yeongsanggun is also an avid artist who mainly finds pleasure in painting naked concubines. Nevertheless, the endless search for an inspiration to paint the perfect picture causes havoc in the palace. To find a solution to his problems, he decides to gather all females from his kingdom and train them to be the best in everything: dance, education, flirtation, sex, as well as combat. He also decides that he will choose two ladies who will compete for the place beside him – to become the royal concubine. The monarch’s two (at first) faithful servants and scholars, father and son – Im Sa Hong (Chun Ho-jin: Veteran) and Im Soong Jae (Ju Jin-hon: Confession), agree to organize a national search to collect a league of lovers for the king that could sedate his paranoia. Among the captured women, there are two engrossing individuals; an ambitious and shameless Gisaeng, Seol Joon Mae (Lee Yoo-young: Hide and Seek, Late Spring), who was secretly sent to the palace by Yeongsanggun’s current mistress, Jang Nok Su (Cha Ji-yeon: Haeuhhwa), and a dark horse – a butcher’s daughter, Dan Hee (Lim Ji-jeon: Obsessed), who is hiding the fact she isn’t from a noble family; she nevertheless enters the palace and starts her training along with hundreds of other girls. Soong Jae personally trains Dan Hee, noticing that she might be the perfect addition to his hidden agenda of dethroning the King and also possibly killing him. The two develop a voluptuous relationship which is bound to fail, but even so, they move forward steadily, intent on destroying Yeongsanggun. Will they succeed or will they fail?
The Treacherous is a different kind of an erotic sageuk: Min Kyo-dong has reached another level with his visual storytelling. He satisfactorily captures the relationship between Soong-jae and Dan Hee, as well as the sensual liaison between the butcher’s daughter and Joon Mae; the scene where they are compelled to make love in front of the king was filmed tastefully, showing the beauty of both women. Having said that, this particular scene – as well as the erotic training, forced upon captured women – might repel some of the viewers; to others, however, they might be fascinating.
The film looks like a big theatre production, the narrative of which uses the traditional storytelling technique, called Pansori. The lavish set design (Lee Tae- hun: I am a King, Glove), superb costumes and magnificent cinematography (Park Hong- yeol: Hill of Freedom, Our Sunhi) made this film look like it was taken out of a Shakespearean play. Having said that, the director concentrated too much of his attention to the fight for power and to the sexual relations in the film; as a result, it lacked details, especially when it came to Yeongsanggun’s character, who was more than just a king and an artist. There is no doubt that Min Kyo-dong’s cast was filled with great actors, who delivered very well: their performances were believable and not overly-dramatic. I am sure that some film-goers will consider The Treacherous to be a superficial production, and see it as a film that only serves the primitive needs of showing sex and violence on screen. The critics’ opinions are divided, but I personally consider it to be an intriguing attempt to make an erotic film without being vulgar or pornographic, while retaining the depth of an artistic production.
Written by Maggie Gogler
All photos: © 2015 – Soo Film