Monday, May 19, 2014

The Fatal Encounter: The Plot to Kill King Jeong-Jo

It is like a Joseon era Downton Abbey, except bloodier. The Dowager Queen openly schemes against her “grandson,” the king, as the palace servants furtively choose up sides. The drama all builds towards the infamous 1777 assassination attempt in Lee Jae-kyoo’s The Fatal Encounter (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Things get complicated in the palace. Reluctantly, King Jeong-jo’s mother and grandfather sacrificed his father, the crown prince and heir to the throne, to placate the Noson faction, led by his “Grandmamma,” his grandfather’s Queen-consort. They did it solely for his sake. However, now that he has ascended to the throne, the Dowager Queen has grown tired of his independent inclinations.

When deciding to assassinate the king, the Noson conspirators assume they are holding all the cards, including key allies in the military and sleeper assassins planted deep within the palace. As a trump card, they also retain the services of Eul-soo, a hired killer who was once the sworn brother of the King’s private clerk, Gap-soo. However, many of the hidden assassins have concluded King Jeong-jo’s personal discipline and concern for the common people make him better suited to reign than their masters. Betrayals come fast and furious as the twenty-four hour countdown to the palace assault ticks down.

Fatal might just be the ultimate film for laundry intrigue, largely due to the important role played by Wol-hye, a senior maid and royal laundress with divided loyalties. Remember, they didn’t let just anyone scrub the King’s undies. While the focus is squarely on political maneuvering, there are also a few nicely staged action sequences. Viewers will not feel let down when the assassins finally arrive.

Domestically, the big story regarding Fatal was television megastar Hyun Bin’s return to acting after his compulsory military service. He provides a perfectly fine model of strong, silent rectitude, but international audiences will be more taken with the supporting cast. Living up to his chameleon-like reputation, Jung Jae-young (known for Broken, Confession of Murder, and Moss) again transforms himself, fully bringing to life the conflicted and guilt-ridden Gap-soo. Likewise, emerging star Jung Eun-chae anchors the film as Wol-hye, neatly playing off and with nearly the entire ensemble as her numerous secret relationships come to light.

Han Ji-min (who majored in social work according to Asianwiki) is also appropriately hiss-able as the cold-blooded Dowager Queen. Sensitive viewers should be warned Fatal features several young characters in various stages of distress, but Yoo Eun-mi is particularly impressive as Bok-bing, a seven year-old apprentice maid caught between the competing factions.

Fatal provides sufficient skullduggeries to keep a steady string of shoes dropping, without getting bogged down in its own complications. It is a nicely crafted period production, with enough tragedy to keep the Korea box office satisfied, but should still appeal to most American filmgoers’ tastes. Recommended for fans of grand historicals, The Fatal Encounter opens this Friday (5/23) in New York at the AMC Empire and is now playing at the CGV Cinemas in Los Angeles.