A well-crafted Joseon Dynasty palace saga in which a royal consort is thrown into a merciless game of thrones, “The Concubine” seduces by way of a slow but ultimately gratifying plot reversal. Forbidden desire governs the protags’ fates in this sultry erotic drama, but it’s more than a sexed-up Korean TV costumer, as helmer Kim Dae-seung skillfully interweaves compelling lust-hate relationships, character twists and familiar court intrigue. Pic did virile biz on its June local release, consolidated by healthy sales in Asia-Pacific territories.
The pic opens with a royal hunt, which, in this genre, usually serves as a lead-in to a sexual pursuit. After a day spent shooting deer, Prince Sung-woo (Kim Dong-wook) makes a stopover at the estate of deputy minister Shin (An Suk-hwan), where he becomes besotted with Shin’s nubile daughter, Hwa-yeon (Jo Yeo-jeong). His subsequent hunting trips don’t go unnoticed by his mother, royal concubine Dae-bi (Park Ji-yeong), who promptly nips his yearnings in the bud by engineering Hwa-yeon’s marriage to her stepson, the widowed King (Jung Chan). Hwa-yeon tries to elope with her lover, Kwon-yoo (Kim Min-jun), who later turns up in court as a eunuch serving Shin’s archenemy, Yoon (Oh Hyun-kyung).
The ensuing court conspiracies may not be particularly original, but the film’s measured pacing allows the narrative to unfold its five-way story of vengeance comprehensibly. Kim, best known for the 2001 Korean Wave romance “A Bungee Jumping of Their Own,” again sketches the distaff roles with a sensitive hand, affectingly drawing out how Hwa-yeon is backed into a corner, relying in vain on men too weak or too begrudging to protect her and her toddler son. Her passivity may throw off auds expecting the operatic catfights typical of such pics, but the gripping final reel proves that revenge is indeed a dish best served cold.
While it takes Hwa-yeon some time to come to the fore, the picture sustains an atmosphere of perpetual peril, and the lull in the action makes room for a teasing cat-and-mouse game between Sung-woo and Hwa-yeon. Although Sung-woo is the reason for Hwa-yeon’s woes, the futility of his obsession and the Freudian dynamics of his relationship with Dae-bi make him a figure of pity.
The sex scenes, which are lushly shot and explicit by Asian standards, gain resonance insofar as they reflect deeper control issues, as with Sung-woo’s husbandly duties, performed under eunuchs’ embarrassingly precise instructions as Dae-bi monitors from behind paper screens. The unendurable manner in which Sung-woo’s desire is aroused and toyed with adds a layer of tension different from that generated by political struggle.
Sinuous thesp Jo downplays Hwa-yeon’s vampish potential by exuding intelligence and gentleness; her grace when fully clothed renders her climactic disrobing all the more tantalizing. Park delivers a fiery turn as Dae-bi, a tigress who harbors no love or pity even for her own son, though her brief backstory implies she’s just continuing a vicious cycle. Kim Dong-wook and Kim Min-jun imbue their volatile character trajectories with ample emotional range.
Tech credits attain the usual high standards of Korean commercial features, with extra class courtesy of Cho Keun-hyun’s production design and Cho Sang-kyung’s costumes.