Posted : 2010-05-27 17:11
Updated : 2010-05-27 17:11

Servant: erotic twist on folktale falters

Actors Kim Joo-hyuck, left, and Jo Yeo-jung appear in Kim Dae-woo's period comedy "The Servant," which gives the traditional love story of "Chun-hyang" an erotic twist. It will open in theaters on June 3.
/ Courtesy of CJ Entertainment

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff reporters

Kim Dae-woo, who made his directorial debut with the period sex comedy ``Forbidden Quest’’ after penning the script for E. J-yong’s ``Untold Scandal,’’ returns with yet another racy story set during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).

The Joseon era can be likened to the Victorian Age, with strict gender and class segregation and Confucian codes of conduct imposed upon every aspect of life. A contemporary look into the period’s hushed sexuality has given flight to films brimming with Peeping Tom-style coquetry, and Kim is no newcomer to this.

``Bang-ja,’’ his second feature film, capitalizes on the subtly sexy silhouette of ``hanbok’’ (Korean traditional costumes) and the urgency of forbidden romances. The movie boasts exquisite production values and creative twists to the country’s most representative folktale of Chun-hyang.

However, as a whole the movie fails to grip the viewer throughout the rather dragged out narrative (in spite of some explicit sex scenes). A well-organized script does not necessarily translate well audio-visually when it tries to pack in too much by trying to be funny, sexy and touching in a rather erratic manner; perhaps better editing could have achieved a balance of the comedy, eroticism and pathos exploring the themes of human desire but it ends up just skimming the surface.

Box office prospects are not all gloomy however. While performances by some of the most talented lead actors, including even the uncanny Ryoo Seung-bum, get lost in the murky storytelling, supporting roles by funnyman Oh Dal-soo and Song Sae-byeok, a rough diamond of an actor who appeared briefly in Bong Joon-ho’s ``Mother,’’ keep the movie afloat, providing some lighthearted, oversexed entertainment apt for commercial projects.

The story of Chun-hyang is perhaps the country’s most representative folktale about the star-crossed romance between Myong-ryong, the son of a nobleman governor, and Chun-hyang, the lowly daughter of a former courtesan. They marry in secret but Mong-ryong is forced to leave his bride to prepare for the state examination. The faithful and virtuous Chung-hyang waits patiently, all the while suffering imprisonment and torture when she refuses the advances of the new governor. But the two live happily ever after, when Mong-ryong returns and saves her.

Kim (almost) de-romanticizes the tale by featuring a risqué love triangle among a foxy femme fatale Chung-hyang, a rather unattractive Mong-ryong and his dashing manservant Bang-ja. As the title suggests, Bang-ja (Kim Joo-hyuck) is the protagonist who unfortunately has to shadow Mong-ryong (Ryoo) including when they cast eyes upon the lovely Chun-hyang (the attractive Jo Yeo-jung).

What unfolds is a tale of comic sexual intrigue, as Mong-ryong pursues Chung-hyang who is hot one minute and cold the next. But what he doesn’t know however is that she is already enjoying a dalliance with the handsome Bang-ja, who, in addition to his good looks, has learned some tricks from a Casanova cook played by Oh Dal-soo.

The premise here is that Bang-ja is a ``momjong’’ or enslaved manservant that cost less than cattle back in the day. The director indeed demonstrates that slaves too were human and propelled by desire. But Kim has perhaps taken the lowly status of his character too literally, and has a woefully forgetful screen presence.

The most potentially intriguing aspect of the film should have been the characters’ hidden intentions. Mong-ryong, despite his power and wealth, suffers from jealousy and an inferiority complex toward his manservant, while the social ladder-climbing gold digger Chun-hyang truly loves Bang-ja but is hungrier for power than romance.
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