Absorbing even at its most impenetrable, “The Fatal Encounter” is a splendidly crafted, sumptuously photographed costume drama-actioner about the heroic and embattled reign of King Jeongju, the 22nd ruler of Korea’s Joseon dynasty. A twisty 18th-century saga that packs a full arsenal of palace intrigues, elaborate double-crosses and convoluted backstories, not to mention countless assassination attempts, Lee Jae-kyoo’s full-bodied epic divides its attention perhaps too evenly across a dizzyingly complex canvas, but still fascinates in practically every particular. Although greeted with mixed reviews in April, the result has been one of Korea’s biggest hits of 2014 with close to 4 million local admissions to date.
By turns brainy and brutal, this is a movie perfectly epitomized by the memorable recurring image of a monarch’s garb splattered with blood; the gore never distracts from the formal elegance on display, or obscures the intricacy and detail of the narrative tailoring. As it builds with great deliberation toward a climactic full-scale assault on the court of King Jeongju (Hyun Bin), the aftermath of which we see in an opening teaser, the film skips relentlessly forward and backward in time, slowly revealing the character’s true friends and enemies, and the warring factions they represent. In part because the life of a king is forever at stake, watching “The Fatal Encounter” is at times like bearing witness to the mysterious final moves of a chess game, albeit one where the individual pieces are in no hurry to reveal who they really are and how they function.
The atmosphere here at times feels as tense and charged as that of a horror film, as Lee and screenwriter Choi Sung-hyun effortlessly capture the feel of a world governed by courtly ritual, where appearances count for everything and the slightest misstep can prove lethal. Against this meticulously controlled backdrop, the filmmakers quickly establish that Jeongju has long been accustomed to repeated attempts on his life, ever since his own royal father was put to death years ago.
The film addresses, without really attempting to explain, the extremely tortured family dynamics at work: Behind a veil of smiling politeness, Jeongju’s grandmother, the Queen Dowager (Han Ji-min), patiently plots his demise, working with the increasingly powerful Gen. Koo and the dangerous Norton faction that he commands. Meanwhile, two other characters who turn out to have a stake in Jeongju’s downfall are a palace lady-in-waiting (Jeong Eun-chae) and a skilled assassin (Jo Jung-suk) from the stix, the sort of trained killer who can turn chopsticks into a deadly weapon.
But the king also has his allies, including his formidable Queen Mother (Kim Seong-ryeong), who treacherously goes on the counteroffensive, even recruiting a cherub-faced young servant girl to slip an undetectable poison into the Queen Dowager’s tea. (As played by Kim and Han, the two queens look no older than Jeongju, a surreally effective touch.) Indeed, one of the film’s running themes is the degree to which innocent children were exploited by the ruthless political machinery of the era, a subtext that explains how Jeonju came by his loyal clerk, Gap-soo (Jung Jae-young), who, as we see in flashbacks, endured a truly miserable childhood en route to becoming the grave, serious-minded scholar who attends to the king’s personal library.
These abrupt retreats into the distant past (“15 years earlier”) are occasionally jarring, especially when contrasted with the story’s habit of meticulously keeping track of time in the present (“9:15 a.m.”), to the point where we seem to be watching “24: Joseon Dynasty Edition.” But if “The Fatal Encounter” at times resembles a narrative patchwork, a jumble of historical events coalescing ever so slowly into an epic big picture, the individual scenes are beautifully shaped and utterly compelling — held together by time-honored themes of love, loyalty, honor and betrayal, but also by the restraint and gravity of the performances, and by the richness and coherence of the film’s visual design.
Following the terrific “Masquerade” (2012), currently the fourth highest-grossing Korean film of all time, it’s clearly a popular season for handsome portrayals of sensitive Joseon Dynasty rulers. If Lee Byung-hun’s dual-pronged star turn remains in a class by itself, then Hyun nonetheless brings a powerful, understated magnetism to his depiction of a king determined, against considerable odds and plenty of opposition, to overcome evil by remaining doggedly true to his own moral code. Jung is no less impressive in a performance of greater emotional range; the rapport between Jeongju and Gap-soo is wrenching enough to elevate “The Fatal Encounter” to the realm of gloriously overwrought male weepie, their bond chastely consummated in an ecstatic intermingling of blood and tears.
The actors’ delicate shadings are complemented in full by the jewel-like precision of the filmmaking. Within the palace walls, Go Rak-sun’s beautifully considered widescreen compositions find endless visual counterpoints for the story’s various narrative symmetries; outdoors, the lensing is no less impressive, although some of the later exterior fight scenes have a somewhat digitally processed look. Lee Sung-hyun’s score, like the picture as a whole, is subtly enveloping.