Thursday, June 26, 2008

NYAFF: Shadows in the Palace

The New York Asian Film Festival is screening war films, horror movies, and gangster shoot-outs, but the cruelest deeds seen on-screen probably come from the maids in the royal court of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. Their court intrigue leads to murder and other heinous crimes in Kim Mee-Jeung’s historical mystery, Shadows in the Palace.

In her directorial debut, Mee-Jeung submerges the audience in an often sinister world, in which young women consigned to court service are subject to harsh discipline and sadistic rituals. What men they have limited contact with appear weak and decadent. The king reigns supreme of course, but through proximity to him comes real influence. As Palace opens, the Queen is engaged in a deadly serious power struggle with her rival, Hee-Bin, the king’s favored concubine. As the mother of the king’s only son thus far, she stands to secure her position if the king declares him the royal heir. However, her efforts are jeopardized by the murder of her chamber maid.

Needless to say, scandal is to be avoided at all costs, so Chun-Ryung, the court nurse, is under great pressure to sweep the affair under the rug. In defiance of her own interests, Chun-Ryung becomes a reluctant sleuth, pursuing the case (officially deemed a suicide) as suspicion falls on highly placed members of the court.

Palace is a well-crafted period mystery, featuring some great performances, starting with Park Jin-Hee as the nurse-investigator. However, some of the abuse meted out on the young maids is literally painful to watch. (Let the squeamish be warned, you might be more comfortable in Tokyo Gore Patrol.) Still, the cinematography and production design are creepily effective, allowing for elements of horror to creep into the mystery, even including the archetypal image of the terrifying woman with long, flowing tresses.

As ruthless as life in the court can be, through Mee-Jeung’s lens, it also represents a rare opportunity for social mobility to common-born women. It is a world where a young girl scrubbing floors can aspire to become a royal concubine, wielding power behind the scenes. It is not an easy climb though, as Palace dramatizes in exquisite detail.

Palace is a smart, compelling film. While uncomfortably graphic at times, its images last well after viewing. It screens this Friday and next Tuesday, as part of NYAFF.