The time is eighteen century Joseon. There's been a murder at the royal palace. Medical examiner Cheon-ryeong (played by Park Jin-hee) can tell that much from the condition the body is in, but is currently under pressure from Chief Maid Gam-cheol (played by Kim Sung-ryung) that the death is to be recorded as a suicide, owing to a delicate political situation between the Queen Dowager (played by Ye Soo-jung) and the royal concubine Bin (played by Yoon Se-ah). Predictably, Cheon-ryeong concludes that these are not mere coincidences.
"Shadows in the Palace" styles itself as a classic gothic mystery. All the right elements are present. There are a lot of suspects. Gam-cheol talks and acts like a cult leader, to the point it's difficult to tell whether draconian enforcement of court maid standards is actually a long-standing tradition or just her personal obsession. Bin is powerful in theory yet weak-willed in practice, and is surrounded by women who are obviously trying to manipulate her with varying degrees of success.
And yet Cheon-ryeong is curiously lacking in motivation as investigative lead. We're given no reason why Cheon-ryeong is so determined to see the case through. She has no official sanction. Given how disinterested everyone else in the palace is when it comes to the suspicious death of court maids, the question is begged as to why Cheon-ryeong's attitude is so different. As far as I can tell Cheon-ryeong doesn't even have a backstory, which makes her an incredibly bland perspective character.
Although far more questionable than that is the writer/director Kim Mi-jung needlessly dabbles in supernatural horror story elements. I kept hoping that maybe Cheon-ryeong was going to discover mercury poisoning or something to explain the freaky visions that keep popping up every so often. Instead, by the end, there are literally ghosts. This was a bit out of step with the tone, considering how an early scene features Cheon-ryeong chastising her young assistant for believing in such silly superstititons.
"Shadows in the Palace" makes up for these shortcomings via impressively slick visual design. For the most part these are just traditional Joseon costumes. But in between the palette and the film's overall dark tone they consistently just oook very...dirty. We see that the women who work in the palace have very difficult jobs, and the ones who survive long enough to become headmistresses inherit a typically brutal thought process about the way palace work functions.
Really, probably the single most impressive point of "Shadows in the Palace" is how it shows us the feminine side of a world that we tend to think of as dominated by men. The film then proceeds to note that women can be just as vicious and brutal as their male counterparts when given the opportunity. It's a pity that the story doesn't take this overarching theme to a more logical conclusion. Although in all fairness I'm not totally sure what that logical conclusion would even be. That's the trouble with a unique style. You need an equally unique story to go with it.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Shadows in the Palace""
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