Tonally dissonant but dramatically intriguing, Kim Dae-woo’s “The Servant” offers a sexy, cynical take on a centuries-old Korean folktale, reimagining a romantic story of faithful love and triumphant virtue as an O. Henry-style yarn about social climbing and reckless lust. Although Kim’s ironically detached storytelling style keeps the aud at a distance, this beautifully lensed period piece, already a B.O. success in South Korea, could attract venturesome arthouse auds in offshore markets.
Set during the later years of the Joseon Kingdom, “Servant” unfolds as the memoir of Bang-ja (Kim Ju-hyeok), a notorious gangster who recalls his salad days as a humble manservant while a fawning novelist takes notes. Although the pic never deals explicitly with Bang-ja’s current underworld activities, there are occasional suggestions of his capacity for violence during many extended flashbacks — particularly one in which he dispatches a belligerent tough who briefly threatens his employer, Lee Mong-ryeong (Ryu Seung-beom), the fatuous son of a nobleman.
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Bang-ja’s actions aren’t entirely selfless: He knows his rough stuff likely will impress Chun-hyang (Jo Yeo-jeong), the beautiful daughter of a wily courtesan (Kim Seong-ryeong), shortly after Chun-hyang witnesses Mong-ryeong’s petty humiliation of Bang-ja.
Coached by her mother to marry into money, Chun-hyang allows herself to be courted, and eventually bedded, by Mong-ryeong. But even before the lightweight aristocrat takes off for higher education in a far-off city, Chun-hyang gets horizontal with the appreciably more virile Bang-ja. Upon Mong-ryeong’s return, he employs Chun-hyang in a scheme to advance his career prospects. Nothing good comes of this.
Working from his own script, Kim — who also wrote “Untold Scandal,” E J-yong’s 2003 reworking of “Les Liaisons dangereuses” — occasionally tosses a smidgen of satirical anachronism into the steamy mix. (Bang-ja greets his would-be biographer as an author “at the top of the beach-reading heap.”) For broader comic relief, he relies on character actor Oh Dal-su, in fine form as a randy old goat who teaches Bang-ja how to be a more efficient seducer.
Pic takes a casual approach to carnality, with the three lead players — and Ryu Hyeon-gyeong as a maid smitten with Bang-ja – periodically appearing undressed and engaged during bedroom interludes. Performances are fine across the board, and the production values are aptly attractive. Even so, the final scene fails to achieve the impact Kim obviously intends, largely because everything that comes before the finale discourages much emotional investment in the characters.