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The long troubled history of the Korean peninsula has been fodder for a number of well-made films, documenting many of the colorful stories and rich traditions of this proud culture. With The Concubine (Korean 후궁: 제왕의 첩), a fictionalized account of a true event, the film concentrates on life within the walls of Gyeongbokgung Palace during one part of the long-lasting Joseon Dynasty, a place of absolutes, with a rigid caste system played out with a small number of people who hold great power. An extremely well-acted film, it is a gripping, emotional experience that provides a glimpse into the ruling class of the time and how the effects of human nature have far greater consequence when those in control are affected.
The Queen Mother (Park Ji-young) is at an impasse. With no blood connection to the childless king, she fears her place in the royal palace is tenuous. She schemes to displace the king and have his stepbrother Sung-won (Kim Dong-wook) take the throne. The young unimpressive prince in far from ready to be king and his himself hopelessly attracted to Hwa-yeon (Jo Yeo-jeong), an aristocrat’s daughter. However, she is already enamored with a commoner named Kwon-yoo (Kim Min-joon), a man her father thinks is unworthy of her stature. When he catches the two trying to run away, he castrates Kwon-yoo and sends his daughter to be the king’s concubine.
Five years later, Hwa-yeon is now queen, having borne a blood-line son, something that has greatly distressed the former Queen Mother, not to mention both Sung-won, who is still in love with her and Kwon-yoo who, despite his status as a eunuch, seeks revenge. When the Queen Mother takes extreme measures to secure her place, she threatens the stability of her family and the royal court, but her firm grip over Sung-won leads him close to the breaking point.
Directed by Kim Dae-seung, The Concubine is a slow-paced thriller that builds with staggering effect toward a brutal, manipulative conclusion that ends with a breathtaking image. While the sexual and political machinations of those in power is far from a new story, for those unfamiliar with historical Korean monarchial governments, this is a solid treat.
Women in power are the real story here and the two females leads are excellent, with the Queen Mother a ruthless, ice-cold ruler ever in control of her puppet king, a meek man who only wants to feel the flesh of the young Hwa-yeon against his own. While as king, he has access to any girl he desires (though these sexual trysts are ever monitored and scripted by his advisers hoping he sires a son), but he is in constant ache in the fantasy he has built up around his uncontrollable longing to be with the former queen, his own step-brother’s lover.
When he seduces one of Hwa-yeon’s maids, a loose-lipped, naive mistress with her own schemes, he uses her nude body as a template to fantasize about Hwa-yeon in a devastating scene that is both sexually explicit but also emotionally charged as we see a man wholly out of control, bedding one woman while visualizing Hwa-yeon with Kwon-yoo until the fantasy becomes so overwhelming, he only sees her under his trembling body. And then her taking control of him.
It is that sexual need in Sung-won, who eventually crosses a very uncrossable line with Hwa-yeon, that ultimately shapes the destiny of all those around him. Hwa-yeon understands this compulsive desire the king has for her and, she also knows she is walking a very thin line in keeping herself alive with the Queen Mother wanting her banished or executed. When Hwa-yeon is faced with a terrible loss and the realization that the king will truly never be a kingly man, she sets upon her own quest with the small trappings of the palace where she is housed and, for all intents and purposes, trapped. She is a careful and calculating woman, but never so manipulative as to lose our sympathies, and in truth, we feel equally taken by her tragic story as we do for the king.
The Concubine does best with this relationship but it also features some great supporting roles, especially in a pair of eunuchs who have been in service to the royal family for decades. There’s is a small but crucial part in the larger story but one of the more memorable as well. The are no unimportant characters in this story, with each bearing weight on the outcome, and it is easy to become invested in all their paths, as each will have a part in shaping the climax. The Concubine is a rewarding film (spoken entirely in Korean), and one that will stay with you for a long while after, its haunting final image the silent tragic symbolism for a young king’s foolish lustful distractions and weakness in the shadow of his mother.
Director: Dae-seung Kim
Writers: Yoon-Jung Hwang, Dae-seung Kim
Stars: Yeo-jeong Jo, Dong-wook Kim, Min-jun Kim