Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Servant: Chun Hyang’s Story Turned Inside Out

During the Joseon era, seduction was a form of blood sport. Chun Hyang was one of the star players. Though the low-born daughter of gisaeng singer is celebrated for her chastity in legend and song, Kim Dae-woo paints a rather different portrait in The Servant (trailer here), now available on DVD from Pathfinder Entertainment.

Chun Hyang’s mother Wol-Mae knew what she wanted for her daughter and the noble scholar Lee Mong-ryong fit the bill well enough. While duly setting her sites on the big fish, Chun Hyang also turns the head of his servant Jeon Bang-ja, a future outlaw, who tells the tale to his prospective biographer in a series of flashbacks. Despite his commonness, Bang-ja (as he is traditionally referred to) also catches Chun Hyang’s eye thanks to the tricks of seduction he learns from Lee’s dissolute old house guest.

Before long, the servant appears to have out maneuvered his master, seducing Chun Hyang first and more satisfactorily, if you will. However, the stratagems in this game are decidedly long term, as Bang-ja learns when his former master returns as a newly appointed government inspector. Like most cowards, Lee is petty and dangerous by virtue of his power.

While Servant has the outward veneer of a prestige costume drama, it often inhabits some sexually provocative territory somewhere between tease and softcore, much like Kim’s previous film Forbidden Quest, except more so. One assumes its take on Chun Hyang’s famous story resonated with Korean audiences in much the same manner Shakespeare in Love spoke to the English-speaking market, but with more naughty bits. Yet, the surprisingly complicated intrigues and cutting comedy of manners should still appeal to viewers previously unfamiliar with the legend.

Jo Yeo-jeong fearlessly takes on the iconic role, vividly portraying her hitherto unknown Machiavellian instincts and seductiveness. She has a real screen presence, yet Ryu Hyeon-gyeong is quite possibly hotter as Hyang Dan-yi, Chun Hyang’s maid who carries a torch for Bang-ja. (Arguably, Kim Seong-ryeong is as well, playing the gisaeng stage mother with delightful relish, but she is one of the few cast members to stay fully clothed.)

As far as the men are concerned, Ryu Seung-beom is appropriately hissable and cold-blooded as the serpentine Lee. Yet Kim Ju-hyeok is a bit of weak spot for the film, never really delivering the animal magnetism required of Bang-ja.

Servant really is a lushly produced period drama. Indeed, Jeong Gyeong-heu’s costumes look great while the cast wears them. Those who know a bit about the epic folktale will also appreciate the clever ways director Kim’s screenplay invokes and subverts it. It is definitely for adults, but it is one of the smarter lusty films you will see. Freely recommended for fully informed and mature viewers, The Servant is now available on DVD.