A dark thriller exposes the underbelly of monarchical splendor
Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)
The time is the Joseon dynasty -- unspecified but presumed to be around 18th century. The place is the women's quarters inside the court, entirely staffed by women and governed by their own inhumanly strict rules. In this world completely devoid of a male presence, a simple act of stealing might result in amputated hands, while falling in love with a male court officer might lead to a Grand Guignol-like semi-public execution.
A royal maid, Wol-ryung (Seo Yeong-hee
, "Jealousy Is My Middle Name
"), is found dead by hanging in a room, an apparent suicide. However, the medical officer, Cheon-ryung (Park Jin-hee
, "Spy Lee Chul-jin", "Love Talk
"), uncovers that not only was Wol-ryung murdered, but also that she recently gave birth to a child.
The supervising officer, Kim Seong-ryeong
"), who wants to whitewash everything, and the royal concubine (Yoon Se-ah
, "Blood Rain
"), who has been promoted to the status of a queen thanks to her birthing of a Crown Prince, seek to sabotage Cheon-ryung's investigation for their respective reasons. Meanwhile, a supernatural "shadow-thing" with an agenda of its own seems determined to cause havoc as well.
"Shadows in the Palace
", written and directed by Kim Mi-jeong
, who had assisted Lee Joon-ik
in the megahit "The King and the Clown
", is a gloomy, gory thriller that nonetheless presents a unique perspective on characters and a setting familiar from countless Korean TV dramas and movies.
Casting her film almost exclusively with actresses, Kim takes all the weepy melodramatics and bedroom politics out of this landscape and instead focuses on the anxiety, sacrifice and heinous suppression of human feelings forced on these women (graphically illustrated by an extraordinarily bloody scene in which one character sews a love poem on her thigh with golden threads) by the court system. While a few actresses are somewhat awkward mouthing period dialogue, and the leads Park Jin-hee
and Yoon Se-ah
look too modern to be convincing as pre-modern court ladies, in general the cast rises to the challenge posed by Kim.
Kim also does an admirable job with unspooling a rather complicated mystery plot and generating considerable suspense, culminating in a nightmarish, carnivalesque execution sequence swirling with the decadent miasma of a medieval ritual gone haywire.
The film's main weakness is the completely unnecessary intrusion of the cascading-black-haired J-horror ghost into the narrative. Well, her motivation at least makes sense in this film, unlike many other PSC (Pointless Sadako Clone) infected summer horror flicks.
"Shadows in the Palace
" was accused in some circles for being excessively dark and confusing, but I think it is a very promising debut by yet another Korean female director. It unflinchingly looks into the abyss of human cost that has always underlain the glamorous pageantry of Korean monarchy, and does so with considerable command over filmmaking skills and compassion toward its characters.
Other articles by reporter Kyu Hyun Kim