Some women would not cheat & some would not have cheated had they married a man whom they love!

The greatest concubines in history knew that everything revealed with nothing concealed is a bore.

Geoffrey Beene

The Concubine (2013) 
Also known as
Royal Concubine: Concubine to the King
Written by
 Hwang Yoon-jeong, Kim Dae-seung, Kim Mee-jung
Directed by
Country of Origin
South Korea
Running time
122 minutes

oh! … brief

A royal, Sung-won, of the early Joseon Dynasty court, falls hopelessly in love with an aristocrat’s daughter, Hwa-yeon, after seeing her. He doesn’t know that she is already in love with Kwon-yoo, a low-born commoner who her father has adopted in a manner of speaking. The two lovers try to escape their reality but are caught and as punishment Hwa-yeon’s father sends her to court to become a concubine to the childless king.

oh! … talks film

This film is all about love, lust, envy, and sacrifice, all of which you cannot escape, it’s the reality of this telenovela screenplay, in all its glory and horror.

The storyline is nothing new to the South Korean film industry, palace intrigue and the melodrama of disillusioned love, but, skilled storytellers, Kim Dae Seung, Hwang Yoon-jeong, and Kim Mee-jung screenplay stands head and shoulder above its peers, except perhaps A Frozen Flower. They penned a tangled story of love, infatuation, lust, envy, revenge and self-destruction. Add in the eroticism and nudity and you have a winner? Yes, there are many nude scenes and some sex scenes that border on aggressive. The sex was important though. It’s important to the overarching plot and established the deep-seated desire and repressed psychological turmoil of more than one character. The sex was certainly not included for easy thrills and to sell more tickets at the box office, no matter what any man says!

The screenplay keeps all the characters busy and each of them had their own interests and motives they were pursuing which keep things interesting, at times intense, and of course, at best, unpredictable. The various plots and schemes were written to keep the film fast-paced and the added surprising twists of individual characters facing-off against one another, the political machinations behind closed doors, the court factions vying for position and favour, and the several character deaths were all hidden in the façade of an elegant court. The screenplay was incredible and the dialogue for the characters was strong and realistic.

The writers used the kind of psychological complexity of Hollywood thrillers and this film would fit quite neatly in film noire genre, but for the over melodramatic atmosphere. I liked that this screenplay had a strong, bold female character that was unafraid to use sex as an instrument to manipulate the weaker, insecure male characters. The writers’ insight into the female nature was keen and they used it to their benefit in their narrative. The character development of all three main women – the queen mother, the ousted queen and her sly handmaid all transformed from seemingly innocent young women into conniving, scheming beings. Of course, these women are merely struggling to save their lives in a court filled with conspiratorial factions where safety and sanctity of life were not respected or revered.  The end-result of this amazing screenplay, was a suspense filled roller coaster ride depicting the power struggle within a historical palace setting.

Kim Dae Seung, along with writing the screenplay continued his director skills in creating intense and gripping atmospheres for this production. The film was visually pleasing with the creation of lavish sets designed to lay backdrop to all the palace intrigue. The impressive production design, especially the king’s chamber, allowed for wide shots and close-ups but also allowed various camera angles (high-angle and low-angle shots were used alongside aerial shots), it’s all very mise-en-scene and obvious that the director has paid attention to every detail, which is, of course, Kim Dae Seung’s style. Overall the cinematography was above par under the skill of Hwang Ki-seok.

The costumes were extravagant and fit well with the Joseon Dynasty, but reminded me of costumes from the Goryeo era. I was particularly fascinated by the muted tones of the women’s outfits. Typically, productions coming out of South Korea, whether film or drama, the female costumes are almost always brightly fashioned and coloured. This production toned that down and created a stark visual depiction of the mood and atmosphere through the wardrobe of the various characters.

The soundtrack that accompanied the production was created and directed by Jo Yeong-wook and was fitting for the tense atmosphere, is well composed. If I had one criticism, the editing of the music in various scenes is cut short leaving an abrupt impression which was annoying after it occurred more than a few times.

Now let’s talk about all that nudity and sex. There are several explicit sex scenes and all, except perhaps one, are not the loving coupling of arduous lovers. Kim Dae Seung used the sexual violence to heighten the disturbing obsessive behaviours of individual characters. It’s as tastefully captured as one can imagine given the nature of the narrative and each scene is not glossed over, but graphically portraying the pulsating desire of one man whose mission it is to capture and hold captive the woman his heart desires most. The scenes are not titillating, nor stimulating, rather, the camera and direction depict the slow descent into lustful madness. It’s certainly not seductive but rather borders on the obscene and are fitting for a story of love, lust, envy, and sacrifice.

This film is for adult audiences and not just because of the nature of the nudity and sexual interactions. Kim Dae Seung also took the risk of shocking his audience with the depiction of a eunuch’s genitalia. I don’t think any other production I’ve seen or know of among its peers in the Asian film and drama industry has ever taken this drastic approach, but it worked, both for the narrative and the audience’s understanding of the vile act against an innocent man. His only fault was that he was a commoner in love with an aristocrat’s daughter and had consummated that love. So, while many may belie Kim Dae Seung’s risky portrayal, I was impressed and both transfixed and repelled by the horrific and inhumane act.

Kim Dae Seung managed to fill the two-hour period piece entirely. The film never drags and compels the audience to be engaged with the characters and the various plotting and scheming. The story offered many opportunities to be absorbed and immersed in the emotions and lives of each character and the fight for or against the seat of power – the throne.  And when the climax draws to its conclusion and the conqueror is revealed, it’s not relief the audience will feel, instead, a spine-chilling omnipresent mood settles in and the savage and cold-blooded victory cannot be applauded architect

The actors and actresses cast in this production were carefully chosen for their roles and each one with their unique acting skills brought excellent work to the table. Having written that, as strong as the male performances were for this film, this production was ‘owned’ by its female lead.

Jo Yeo-jeong who played Shin Hwa-yeon, the young woman whose life is stolen by her calculating father and the queen mother. This role was a difficult one, as an innocent pawn in the power struggle and political machinations of the royal court, Jo Yeo-jeong interpreted her character’s personality, traits and idiosyncrasies and delivered an amazing and multi-layered performance. The skill she employed to emote her character as a victim in the early part of the film was judicious and ultimately contrasted the heartless conqueror she would become by the film’s conclusion. Jo Yeo-jeong managed to maintain a bland façade, hiding the emotions and inner turmoil of her character for the most part, which kept the audience guessing her ultimate plan. Her performance was understated, mature and compelling!

The obsessed and lust-filled Prince Sung-won was played by Kim Dong-wook. His performance deserves applause and appreciation. It’s not easy to play a weak, ineffectual simpering and cowardly man, nor is it easy to portray obsession and sexual violence, especially rape. These are complex issues. But, he succeeded. I must question how one mentally prepares themselves to portray the descent into obsessive madness and lust? Becoming a monster is no easy feat! Kim Dong-wook portrayed his character’s struggle as devoted protector and a hopelessly frenetic man suffering from obsessive love disorder with incredible insight.  You could visibly see the character’s internal dialogue playing out in his actions. It was an incredible performance.

In contrast to Kim Dong-wook’s portrayal of Prince Sung-won, Kim Min-joon’s delicate portrayal of Kwon-yoo (Shin Hwa-yeon’s first love and lover) was intriguing. As an aggrieved character with a growing hatred of the royal family members, Kwon-yoo or Choong-young as he is known in court manipulated his way into a position of trust and power. Kim Min-joon’s reserved performance heightened the trauma perpetrated against his character and made for a strong, raw portrayal of a man repudiated by the people who claimed to hold him in esteem, both in the early and later parts of the film. I found Kim Min-joon’s downplaying of his character more insightful than I expected. I initially wanted him to get angry, show any emotion other than a submissive respectful eunuch. I needed to see his anger, his hatred, his angst, his fury at losing his manhood and ability to procreate. Anything! But, Kim Min-joon was consistent in hiding his character’s emotions and feelings behind bland and respectful facial expressions. I had the most empathy for all the characters for Kwon-yoo.

The queen mother, calculating and manipulative matriarch was played by accomplished actress Park Ji-young. I love to hate this actress in all her matriarchal roles that she takes on. She’s so skilled at delivering cunning and scheming beneath an exterior hardened beauty. Once again, she did not disappoint! And in her usual style, Park Ji-young showed little actual or real emotion, instead opting for her fierce ‘kill-them-all’ punishing stares. Of course, Park Ji-young also carried herself like royalty and interpreted her character’s frightening disregard for anyone but herself and her son with clarity and organic realism. Her performance was horrifically magnetic for this production.

Jo Eun-ji (fast on her way to becoming one of my favourite South Korean actresses) played Hwa-yeon’s maid. Another victim in the story, but one who quickly learned to use her new power as a concubine of the new King, to try and oust her former mistress who is the object of the King’s obsession. Jo Eun-ji was hilarious at first as the hapless maid, but apparently, her character was smarter than we are initially led to believe. As the production progresses, Jo Eun-ji’ character loses her innocence and is replaced with a, yet another, scheming and plotting wench. Jo Eun-ji portrayed this transformation with cunning and characterized the transformation through a hardening to her facial expressions, the tone of voice and body language. The playful maid gone, Jo Eun-ji used every ounce of verisimilitude available to convince the audience of her betrayal and sacrifice.

oh! … sidekicks

So many to choose from but performances that stood out for me included Lee Geung-young’s portrayal of the Chief Eunuch and Jung Chan’s performance as the King before he is killed off. Both these men had supporting roles of some importance. And both gave commendable performances.

However, not every performance was worthy of applause, I found Ahn Suk-hwan’s portrayal of Hwa-yeon’s father, Shin Ik-chul a little over the top. Anyone who is familiar with my reviews knows that I don’t tolerate excessive acting well. Ahn Suk-hwan’s performance was one that turned me off. Excessive emoting, excessive tone of voice, excessive facial expressions, it would have been distracting if he had been in a leading role, fortunately, he wasn’t!

oh! … that’s a wrap

While the title of this film captured my attention, I did not expect to be blown away by this production. I expected a tale of love and political intrigue, perhaps even a little play on relationships between King and Queen and Queen and concubine, or some such. I did not expect the story that this film delivered. It was gratifying to find writers and a director that was willing to risk and push the boundaries of the typical South Korean historical genre. I’m glad I watched this film and I highly recommend it as one, above par, of the typical period romance stories.

The horror of living in a royal court, graphically described and captured, will play tug-o-war with your emotions. If you’ve read the hype surrounding this production’s sexual content and are considering not watching it because you’ve heard it borders on pornographic titillation or eroticism, let me tell you, those critics got it wrong! The sexual content, while demeaning is included in a production whose foundation to its narrative involves the themes of obsession, lust, betrayal and revenge. The screenplay is far deeper and nuanced than titillating or expositional.

In fact, the production boasts an epic ending with a slow-zoom out of the palace, reminiscent of a famous Christian image – The Pieta. This moving imagery at the finale bridges the gap between tragedy and self-destruction.

oh! … tidbits

The film was recognized at the 2012 21st Buil Film Awards where Park Ji-young won Best Supporting actress and again at the 2013 49th Baeksang Arts Awards where Jo Eun-ji won Best Supporting Actress.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailers

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