A scene from "Shadows in the Palace"
By Lee Hyo-won
Marked by intrigue, scandal and a touch of gore, ``Shadows in the Palace'' showcases classic formulas of Korean horror with a modern edge, while exploring novel dimensions of humanism beneath the pomp and circumstance of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
Kim Mee-jung makes a stellar directorial debut with ``Shadows,'' which made its world premiere in Spain last month, competing for the Gold Shell for Best Film at the San Sebastian Film Festival. The movie offers an Agatha Christie-style suspense crossed with the meticulous period detail of ``King and the Clown'' (Kim was involved in the making of the movie). Be warned, however, that there are some skin-crawling scenes, like when needles turn into torture devices.
Set during the times of King Jeongjo (1752-1800), the 22nd king of Joseon, the story unfolds with the suicide of Wol-ryeong, the maid in waiting of royal concubine Hee-bin, the mother of the mostly likely heir to the throne. Cheon-ryeong, a court medic, is convinced otherwise by the autopsy results. Although her superiors try to silence her calls of murder, she ventures off to uncover the truth. As Cheon-ryeong probes deeper into the case, she unveils the dark scandals and shocking secrets involving Hee-bin, a string of court ladies and a high government official.
The film takes an intimate look into the claustrophobic realm of the Korean harem, marked by fierce competition and brutality beneath the apparent calm. It gives a highly dimensional look into the hitherto unknown lives of court ladies, who, like eunuchs, were the invisible pillars of the Joseon court.
Once these women entered the palace at a young age, they were forever bound to the palace as unwed brides of the king. Dictated by cruel hierarchical systems and court customs, these women were to remain chaste all their lives, and perhaps one in a million might catch the eye of the monarch and become his concubine. The film remarkably depicts the bitter contestation among these demoralized women, who, after a life of sexual reppression and suffocation by harsh patriarchic laws, are doomed to perish within the harem walls, silently and woefully.
Moreover, these ladies were the driving labor force of the palace, fulfilling all the traditional household roles of a woman en masse, from cuisine and needlework to medical care (spotlighted by the international hit TV series ``Jewel in the Palace'') as well serving the royal family as ladies in waiting.
But ``Shadows'' is markedly different from other period pieces, and portrays un-court lady-like characters like protagonist Cheon-ryeong. ``I wanted to break deeply imbedded stereotypes of how a king, court lady or so should be,'' said Kim during a press conference at a Seoul theater earlier this month. The director also makes a memorable appearance as one of the court women.
Leading lady Park Jin-hee (Cheon-ryeong) is enjoying the peak of her 10-year acting career, and offers an almost Don Quixote-like fervor in uncovering mysteries, which becomes slightly comic at times. She is nevertheless charming, and her high energy serves well to downplay the overly fast-paced beat of the film.
``Shadows'' takes audiences on a harrowing swim in the sea of royal mayhem -- like a swan who appears to gracefully glide across the lake, while treading water furiously beneath the water. The movie shines brightly among the renaissance of period pieces on the big and small screens, with forgotten historical figures gaining a human dimension and giving way to a whirlwind of suspense.