An Agatha Christie country-house mystery transposed to the royal court of Korea’s Joseon dynasty, given a distinctive femme twist and then drenched with gore, “Shadows in the Palace” boasts the kind of jackknife plot of which the Queen of Crime would have been proud. This sumptuous-looking item purports to examine the forgotten lives of Korean court women (the original title translates literally as “palace women”), but basically it’s a sophisticated whodunit whose temporal tricks sometimes dazzle, sometimes baffle.
Given the recent Korean taste for historical dramas a la B.O. hit “The King and the Clown,” pic has been tailored to play well at home and will stir up business in other Asian territories, with an outside chance that its Western-friendly format could generate limited offshore interest.
As portrayed here, the Joseon court is a rigidly hierarchical place where scheming women run the show from behind the scenes. Maid Wol-ryung (Seo Young-hee) is found hanging by Jeong-ryul (Jeon Hye-jin), who removes from the body a red jewel that later becomes a major plot point. Court nurse Chun-ryung (Park Jin-hee) is called in to investigate and quickly concludes that it was not suicide but murder — a cover-up job connected with the royal succession. But almost nobody is prepared to back her up.
The plan is that the king’s successor will be his child by the royal concubine Hee-bin (Yoon Se-ah). However, the Queen Mother wishes to raise the child as her own, a conflict that will enormously complicate Chun-ryung’s investigation.
Court records are stolen, Jeong-ryul goes mad for reasons that flirt with the supernatural, and court supervising maid (Kim Seong-ryeong) decides someone must be sacrificed at the annual court maids’ discipline ceremony. The only male character apart from the king is an aristocrat (Kim Nam-jin), whose true identity may rep one twist too many.
The plot shuttles furiously back and forth, inching forward as new complications are introduced in practically every scene: By the end, some careful retracing of steps is necessary to make sense of it all. Sometimes, the effort of keeping the puzzle together prevents enjoyment of the drama. Characterization is slim, since all concerned are chess pieces in a complex game.
Women are seen as both victims and agents of an enclosed world that depends on fear for its survival. Pic emphasizes the sadism to which victims are subjected — when the pace slows, which is rare, it’s normally so auds can sit back and enjoy a spot of torture: Legs are whipped, pins are inserted under fingernails, and when that’s not possible, the fingernails are removed, all in glorious, gleaming closeup.
Pic was largely shot on the set used for “The King and the Clown,” and visually it’s magnificent. Early on, a marvelous establishing shot focuses on the palace as a lone spot of light surrounded by miles of dense forest.
Rather than emphasizing the splendor of the costumes, costume designer Shim Hyun-seopdelivers functional but striking uniforms in the interest of historical authenticity. Scenes of the discipline ceremonies that bookend pic are rare examples of the lensing being anything more than purely functional, as d.p. Lee Hyeong-deok doesn’t let style get in the way of story. Sound work is minimal, merely underpinning atmosphere.