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[HanCinema's Hall of Fame Review] "The Servant": A Romantic Rendition with a Classic Twist

2014/05/24 | 2651 views | Permalink

In the Spotlight this Week: Kim Dae-woo's "The Servant"

Kim Dae-woo's third feature "Obsessed" was recently released in Korea, and despite having to square off against the American monstrosity "Godzilla" his latest is still hijacking hearts and putting plenty of bums on seats. Like the gargantuan ghost currently conquering the West, Kim enjoys re-imagining the past and twisting the record for our modern amusement. In 2010 Kim took on the challenge of re-telling Chunhyangjeon, one of Korea's most beloved folktales; a pansori-inspiring piece that's been adapted to the big screen before, most notably by the prolific Im Kwon-taek. Kim, however, has a particular flair for romantic distortion, and his version delightfully deviates from the classic narrative to splendorous effect.

Kim Joo-hyuk plays the soft-spoken servant Bang-ja. His master (Ryoo Seung-bum as Lee Mong-ryong) is a powerful and up-and-coming aristocrat whose gaze is caught by the mythical beauty of Chunhyang (Jo Yeo-jung). Both master and slave become immediately entranced by her loveliness, as if both were struck by Cupid's arrow simultaneously, and proceed love-struck and stumbling to claim her heart. But one's cast is cruel, and Bang-ja is forced to yield to Mong's majesty and keep his passions private. But as the arrow's potent poison curses through his veins, his love for her becomes unbearable--he simply must have her.

Like any good hero, Bang-ja needs some archetypal assistance in order to obtain that which he seeks. He receives amorous aid from Elder Ma (Oh Dal-soo): a notorious womaniser who schools him in the art of premarital persuasion. Bang-ja, much to displeasure of Chunhyang's own handmaiden (Ryu Hyun-kyung), pursues his treasure behind his highborn master's back, and a catastrophic conflict is then seeded that threatens to topple this tragic triangle.

The narrative itself is structured as a flashback as Bang-ja tells his tale to a popular author hoping to eternalise events and, like Kim's modern rendition, perhaps poetically redirect some of the details. This subtle self-reflexive inclusion is apt and appealing, and contains all the romance and nuances of a poetic historian. Kim's film is both historically erroneous and presently beautiful: a devious departure that some may despise, but many will remember fondly as Kim's writing and cinematic style still favours the folktale's enduring core.

Like any potent memory the film is vivid and crisp. The historical era in which it is set is radiant and alive with detail and texture. From costumes to conflicts "The Servant" is truly cinematic and, when required, stagey and balanced. Kim's classical style of storytelling is never at the mercy of the films pictorial prettiness, and the compositional care shown is always in service to story and never feels superficially seductive.

"The Servant" also strikes a welcomed emotional balance. Like a lavishly layered cake the film contains levels of appeal ranging from melodrama, comedy, suspense, tragedy and romance, with perhaps the most alluring addition being the erotic cream Kim packed in. There are a number of sex scenes that are among some of pulsating around, but whose inclusions don't taste like cheap icing or callow excuses for framing flesh. Leading up to and from these sexual encounters are sentimental sequences and romantic acts that smother any thoughts that silver-screen sex and box office pull was all that was at play here.

The film claimed over 3 million admission during its summer release and went onto become the seventh highest-grossing Korean film of its year. It's taken Kim almost four years to return to the director's chair, but fans are now seeing what this romantic writer/director has been working on with his new film "Obsessed": another romantic look-back where class and rank wreak havoc during the end of the Vietnam war. For those like myself who aren't able to immediately indulge in Kim's most recent arousal, it is well worth returning to "The Servant" and losing oneself in Kim's twisted and rapturing remembrance of a cultured classic.

- C.J. Wheeler (


Available on Blu-ray and DVD from YESASIA

Blu-ray (Normal Edition) (En Sub) DVD 2-Disc Normal Edition (En Sub)

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