The South Korean erotic historical drama comes nine years after its world premiere THE CONCUBINES finally to United Kingdom – thanks to the success of “Parasite”. We’ll reveal in our review whether the well-known Cho Yeo-jeong was already convincing here.
OT: Hoo-goong: Je-wang-eui cheob (KOR 2012)
It is the 15th century and we are in the early years of the Korean Joseon Dynasty: Hwa-yeon (Cho Yeo-jeong) learns that she is to become the king’s concubine. She doesn’t take this news well. Without further ado, she runs away with her lover Kwon-yoo (Jung-min Kim). But Hwa-yeon’s father convicts the couple, whereupon Kwon-yoo faces death by execution. In order to save her lover, the young woman agrees to join the concubinage in the sinful palace and give up all rights to her body. Five years later: Hwa-yeon is now the mother of an heir to the throne, the king is dying. And the royal mother’s biological son, Sung-won (Kim Dong-Wook), has his eye on Hwa-yeon. The woman is threatened with an increasingly dangerous whirlpool of sex and power…
In 2012, “The Concubine” was one of the eleven biggest domestic box office hits of the cinema year in South Korea: over 2.6 million people bought a ticket for the historical material with a lot of naked skin. An erotic historical drama among the top local hits of the year? This has now become unthinkable in many other cinema markets. Perhaps that’s why it took nine years for “The Concubine” to make its way to United Kingdom – the film only succeeded on the back of “Parasite”. After all, it can now be marketed as “erotica with ‘Parasite’ star Cho Yeo-jeong”. Director Kim Dae-seung is blessed with his first regular USA release – if you exclude “Sopyonje – The Blind Singer”, in which he was involved as second unit director. Of course, it remains to be seen whether “The Concubine” will trigger a wave of delayed USA premieres of his works – we wouldn’t want to venture a prediction at this point. This sensual costume and intrigue drama is written in a nuanced way, but that is precisely what is likely to cause disappointment due to incorrectly set preliminary expectations. It would be a shame if that gave the film a difficult time in United Kingdom.
The Korean Joseon Dynasty in the 15th century.
But first things first: “The Concubine” opens very quickly – within a few minutes, several plot-relevant relationships are introduced, established and shaken up. All of this while the audience who are not familiar with the culture of Korea in the 15th century also have to casually understand the social rules and the resulting hopes and (especially) threats for our title character. The script by Yoon-jeong Hwang, Dae-seung Kim and Mee-jung Kim demands an increased ability to concentrate from minute one, instead of allowing the audience to leisurely empathize with the setting. Once Hwa-yeon has become a concubine and mother of a possible heir to the throne, a leisurely narrated game of intrigue unfolds, with simmering tension behind it, in which we follow a growing group of figures from the palace as they build up, question, betray and/or give up loyalty , obsessions and desires for revenge. Hwa-yeon and Sung-won in particular are given depth and a nuanced personality – not only through their delicate dialogues, but also through the delicate acting of Cho Yeo-jeong and Kim Dong-Wook, whom director Kim Dae-seung with his gallant scene management full of quiet sequences shot with just a few cuts gives plenty of room for facial expression.
“’The Concubine’ opens very quickly – within a few minutes, several plot-relevant relationships are introduced, established and shaken up.”
However, some of the numerous supporting characters are little more than thematically decorative accessories in this depiction of a rigid culture that does not allow individual biographies. Although there are some scenes that are as charming and entertaining as they are biting, for example when two eunuchs discuss and question their career decisions, the structure and resolution of some small subplots is clumsy, which makes the much more gallant and psychologically complex central story deserve attention robs. As befits such material, the sex scenes are not decorative accessories, but rather tastefully filmed driving forces for the plot and characterization. It doesn’t matter whether we are witnessing a business-related, embarrassing sexual intercourse, while the advisor Sung-won is constantly telling him how he has to act in order to supposedly increase the prospect of a son, pointing the camera at the bored or tormented faces of various concubines, or the Sexual partners go through a roller coaster of thoughts as they surrender, pull together and surrender again: Kim Dae-seung knows how to tell his story non-verbally.
A whirlpool of sex and power…
While the sex scenes undoubtedly benefit from Ki-seok Hwang’s distantly observing camerawork, there are isolated back-chamber dialogue passages that are bathed in an overexposed shimmer that gives the proceedings a slightly soapy effect. However, such moments are only sporadic – but they still remain irritating, while the costumes are generally attractive.
Conclusion: “The Concubine” is a historical drama about power games, intrigue and (the lack of) freedom, driven forward by memorable sex scenes and slowed down by a multitude of only moderately attractive subplots.
“The Concubine” has been available digitally since July 22, 2021 and will be released on July 30, 2021 as DVD, Blu-ray and 2-Disc Limited Collector’s Edition.