They act like animals, but, animals don’t know sin, do they?

Survival was her only hope, success her only revenge

Helen Bobat

 Empire of Lust (2015) 
Also known as
   Age of Innocence
Action, Drama, Fictional, Historical, Melodrama, Sageuk,
Written by
 Kim Se-hee 
Directed by
 Ahn Sang-hoon
Country of Origin
South Korea
Running time
 113 minutes 

oh! … background

Loosely based on historical figures of the newly formed Joseon dynasty, this film depicts the downfall of a fictional general loyal to King Taejo.

King Taejo was known as Taejo of Joseon (27 October 1335 – 24 May 1408) was the founder and the first king of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea reigning from 1392 to 1398. He was the main figure in overthrowing the Goryeo Dynasty and was posthumously raised to the rank of Emperor in 1899 by Gojong, the Gwangmu Emperor, who had proclaimed the Korean Empire in 1897.

Yi Bang-won, (13 June 1367 — 30 May 1422), the fifth son of King Taejo, was an official of Goryeo Dynasty in 1382. He helped his father to garner support from many influential figures of the government and helped found the new dynasty by assassinating powerful officials such as Jeong Mong-ju, who remained loyal to the Goryeo dynasty. He expected to be appointed as the successor to the throne but was overlooked by his father who favoured his eighth son and Yi Bangwon’s half-brother Yi Bangseok (second son of Queen Sindeok).  The conflict between father and son arose because Jeong Dojeon (Prime Minister) saw Joseon as a kingdom led by ministers appointed by the king while Yi Bangwon wanted to establish an absolute monarchy. Following the sudden death of Queen Sindeok, Yi Bang-won raided the palace killing Jeong Do-jeon and his supporters, as well as Queen Sindeok’s two sons including the crown prince. This incident became known as the First Strife of Princes.

Jeong Do-jeon (1342 – October 6, 1398) was a prominent Korean scholar-official during the late Goryeo to the early Joseon periods. He served as the First Prime Minister (or First Chief State Councillor) of Joseon, from 1392 until 1398 when he was killed by Yi Bang-won, the fifth son of Yi Seong-gye the founder of the Joseon dynasty. Jeong Dojeon was an adviser and the principal architect of the Joseon dynasty’s policies, laying down the kingdom’s ideological, institutional, and legal frameworks which would govern it for five centuries.

oh! … brief

The rape of a young maiden, Ka-hee, who later becomes a gisaeng, is perpetrated by the son of distinguished general Kim Min-jae and son-in-law to King Taejo, Kim Jin. Unable to participate in politics, Kim Jin merely seeks pleasure and takes it whenever he can, with and without consent. Ka-hee’s rape becomes the catalyst of a much larger plot of vengeance but also opens her up to manipulation.  Sometime later Yi Bang-won, the king’s fifth son, who has been overlooked for the position of crown prince uses Ka-hee’s desire for vengeance to enact a plot to overthrow the kingdom. Kim Min-jae who has been carefully watching Yi Bang-won has his attention drawn away by his love for his new concubine.  Melodrama ensues.

oh! … talks film

WOW! I was blown away by this film. The sex, the violence, the politics, the bittersweet romance all combined to create a hard-edged melodramatic film. One disgustingly authentic in its horrific portrayal of women as chattel.

Writer Kim Se-hee used Korea’s first known inter-monarchy fight for the throne of the Joseon era (First Strife of Princes) as the backdrop to the writing of the narrative for this production. Paying more attention to elements of entertainment for the screenplay than historical fact, Kim Se-hee’s story is an interesting take on the era and filled with plotting, conspiracy, vengeance, romance and the seedier aspects of the nature of men who take whatever they desire. From the opening battle, interspersed with rough lovemaking, the film held me captivated by the very raw depiction of the lives of the characters.

One aspect of this film that I sincerely appreciated, is that unlike some of the kdrama sageuks, the royal politicking and palace intrigue is kept to a minimum and is not the focus for this screenplay. Instead, the focus is the romance that sparks between General Kim Min-jae and gisaeng Ka-hee.

Perhaps disturbing for some, are the horrific and graphic sexual assaults, carried out by General Kim Min-jae’s entitled son and his friends. One of the victims of those assaults, determined to avenge the crime against her, is then deliberately groomed by the king’s fifth son to carefully insert herself into General Kim Min-jae’s affections and life. The stratagem by writer Kim Se-hee was fantastic even if obscene. In addition, Kim Se-hee uses a heightened level of violence with the abundant framed martial arts fight and chase scenes. I revel in the martial arts genre, so I thoroughly enjoyed its subtle incorporation into the screenplay.

The ardent romance was scintillating, but, tinged with a growing sadness. It was masterful to play the aggressive rape scenes against the passionately tender and budding love. Throwing in the cloak and dagger scheming of a spurned Prince just added the icing to the cake, so to speak. Without the addition of the misogynist and his ripping off of hanboks and bodices, this screenplay would have joined other mediocre historical productions. Adding in the vulgar depictions took this production to a whole new level and leaves the audience with a bitter aftertaste.

But, for me, the screenplay was impressive because of these elements. The writing behind the various characters was strong and I found I could connect on a personal level with some of the main characters. The intelligence, complexity and multi layering of the plot capture attention and remains interesting and fast-paced throughout. Kim Se-hee uses opportune reversals and revelations for a surprise.

If I have one criticism of the film’s screenplay it is the writing of the ending. The climactic build-up wasn’t as strong as I’d like and I didn’t find the ending as moving as it could have been. Perhaps Kim Se-hee struggled to find the most appropriate ending, or, maybe, the ending was changed somewhat based on location and timing. Not distracting enough to make it negative, just so strong enough to bring me to tears. And it wasn’t the actors!

I found it interesting for Kim Se-hee to include a misogyny and rape into the story, but understand why. There’s certainly a lot of sex and nudity and the brutality of the rapes was balanced by the romantic sex. I did find the underlying misogyny and characterization of the women right on the money, so hats off to the actors and actresses who delivered realistic portrayal and depiction of these seedier elements. Some may believe these seedier elements mar the ongoing romance, but I think they make a stark comparison and elevate the emotions the audience experiences.

The extravagant production and set designs, the lavish wardrobe, the choreographed martial arts techniques and violence, the locations for shooting scenes, the cinematography, and the soundtrack were all managed under director Ahn Sang-hoon.

Ahn Sang-hoon’s directing style is steadfast, paying strong attention to visuals and sense of time and he worked well with his budget, producing elaborate set designs and stately costumes. Invest in these production values paid off well, the film was aesthetically produced and Ahn Sang-hoon’s eye for details allowed for impressively beautiful storytelling in spite of a hard-edged narrative. Very astute!

The attention paid to the details of the frantic violent pairings or the romantic erotic scenes was apparent and Ahn Sasng-Hoon shot them all in a tasteful manner. The contrast between the two was needed for the overarching love story that Empire of Lust is. The intimate moments between lovers and the pain of the rapes the audience is subjected too was as organic as it will get in the South Korean film industry.

There is a lot of action in this production, fast-paced and including sword fighting, martial arts, chase and fight scenes. Ahn Sang-hoon’s approach to the ‘violence’ is unpretentious and accurately displays the military and political conflict, as the key players jostle for the ultimate seat – the throne. The violence underlines the danger and turbulence of the era and is captured scene-by-scene in graphic detail by the cameras.

Under Ahn Sang-hoon’s directing, the cast members craft a compelling story that displays the power struggle between two three men, all roles played by renowned South Korean actors – award winning Shin Ha-kyun, my favourite Jang Hyuk, and the ever-dashing and talented Kang Ha-neul. Such a handsome, disciplined, and multi-talented leading male cast!

Shin Ha-kyun who played General Kim Min-jae delivered a solid performance and perfectly portrayed his character’s stoicism and vulnerability. He had this unique ability to create a haunted look with his eyes. I wish he had brought more to the climatic ending. I would have liked to see more emotion in those final moments and less of the calm, austere upright general. I think the writing of the script for Shin Ha-Kyun’s character downplayed his role in the story and that’s sad because as a mature actor he had so much more he could have brought to his character.

I can’t lie, I’m an avid fan of Jang Hyuk. He is an amazing actor with the unique capability of inhabiting every role he takes on. In this production, he played the king’s fifth son Yi Bang-won. He was perfect as the calculating, plotting and scheming. Once again, Jang Hyuk brought his character to life with a seething bitterness that he portrayed with keen facial expressions – those snide smirks and angry eyes, it was a shrewd and honest interpretation of his character’s traits, idiosyncrasy, and personality. The first time I’ve watched Jang Hyuk in a royal role and he was mesmerising with his depiction of a man of stature, courtly manipulation and conspiracy. This was a strong performance, not perhaps his best, but who can argue which is his best performance, when they are all brilliant?

Kang He-neul as misogynist Kim Jin was surprising, but not shocking. Someone had to fill the role, I was surprised he took on the role as he is a gentle soul.  This type of role, with all the sexual violations the character perpetrated,  is tough to undertake and walk away from. But, having written all this, Kang He-neul took on the role and nailed it. He gave a solid, no, more than solid performance as the entitled son-in-law to the king and son to General Kim Min-jae. Cold-hearted and creepy Kim Jin’s seedy secret life was brought to the surface by a keen performance. Kang He-neul who has since said he struggled with the rape scenes and misogyny was able to work with the subject matter and interpret the dark nature of his character to paint an authentic story displaying the sense of entitlement and abuse of power. The acts were horrific but he managed to rise about it all.

Kang Han-na who played Ka-hee, a victim of Kim Ji’s misogyny and then manipulated and coerced by Yi Bang-won is perhaps the most pitiful character in this production, even more so as she falls in love with the subject of her revenge plan. Kang Han-na’s performance was at the same level as the male leads – strong and honest to her character. She gave an understated performance and her facial expressions and emotions were muted, but, this only served to make her performance stronger in contrast to the larger-than-life depiction of the male leads.

oh! … sidekicks

Strong performances were given by supporting roles, but there is only one I’m going to write about and that is the performance given by Jo Hee-bong. His performance is only a cameo performance as a hwajeon owner. Cast in supporting roles, Jo Hee-bong’s performances are often lost, but this mature actor is a great performer. I wanted to mention him, even though his performance in this production was minor. He still put in the effort and delivered, as he always does.

oh! … that’s a wrap

Among its peers, Empire of Lust might come across as a production that is familiar and done before, but that’s an understatement. Yes, the political machinations and story of plotting and conspiring to overthrow the kingdom is one that is often used in historical period pieces. This one, however, is scarily authentic and far seedier in nature than any of the others I have watched. The seedy nature reflects perhaps an honesty of the times that is often overlooked because let’s face it, who wants to admit to eras of misogyny and abuse in modern day?

I enjoyed this production, far more than I expected to, given the subject matters dealt with – vengeance, conspiracy, and rape. A skilled director, Ahn Sang-hoon pulled this one off. And while some will think he didn’t a do a good enough job to make this production stand out from other ‘Yi Bang-won historical productions’, I think he has done exactly this.

I recommend this production, but warn anyone contemplating watching that there is a lot of nudity and sex and not all of it romantic. I must also warn that women are not portrayed in good light, but rather subject to abuse, manipulation, and chattel. Lastly, there is a lot of violence. Warnings aside, this is a great film!

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailers

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