Thursday, September 29, 2011

방자전 (2010)

The Tale of Chunhyang is a nationally renowned classic tale of one woman's fidelity to her secret love and has been told many times in cinematic form. However, being such a well known tale has also resulted in a number of alternate takes on the story and that's where The Servant (or: The Tale of Bangja) comes in. Turning the story on its head and making the protagonist the servant of the original male love interest, the film plays with both the traditional story's interpretation and adds in touches of humor and a more than a pinch of sex with a lot of style to make for an interesting revision of the classic tale.

In this version of the tale, Bangja (Gim Juhyeok), servant to the aristocrat Mongryong (Ryu Seungbeom), who both become smitten with Chunhyang (Jo Yeojeong) the moment she shows up in front of them. From there it's a quiet battle between the two for her affections, with Mongryong playing a power game, wielding his aristocratic might before the peasant class Chunhyang and Bangja taking some lessons in seduction from the lecherous Ma (O Dalsu). Chunhyang finds herself torn between going for the seductive hunk of Bangja and the marrying up potential of the clever Mongryong, but quickly sleeping with them both. The story follows the rest of the tale as Mongryong is sent to study for the civil service exam and Bangja is left, but at no point does the competition for Chunhyang stop as things comes to a head leading up to Mongryong's return.

The story itself is couched in a narration by Bangja, now a gangster, to an aristocratic writer, which is itself an interesting mechanism given that the story is traditionally told via pansori, a Korean song-based storytelling form and might itself be a mild allusion to director Im Gwontaek's Chunhyang. Nevertheless, the new take is full of twists to the original story, having Chunhyang be much less chaste and much more willing a gold-digger, but I like the inherent conflict between the three leads and that Chunhyang really does face a considerable conflict of interest with both men. I also like the texture added to Bangja's character in not being so idealistic and "good" that he's willing to take lessons in seduction technique from the rake, Ma, whose interactions with Bangja serve as one of the sources of comedy in the film, another coming from the competition between the two boys as well as the traditional villain of the story, the new local magistrate, Byeon Hakdo (Song Saebyeok). The third act becomes more serious, but doesn't lose all levity until the conclusion, which somehow manages to keep the film warm, despite going to a darker place and all this complexity and multi-genre texture results in a rather interesting film.

Taking after other sexy Korean period pieces like Untold Scandal or director Gim Daeu's own previous film, Forbidden Quest, the film features several scenes of intense lovemaking, although not so much or so lurid as it turns the whole film into softcore pornography. Gim mostly keeps the film stylistically simple in his direction, but he manages to draw out some wonderfully understated comedic beats and the actors do well to oblige, leaving some rather grin inducing moments. The main leads both capture their inner conflict believably and keep the film captivating. Of course, this is a modern fusion tale, so the film doesn't really worry about historical accuracy, with the characters speaking in modern plain dialect. And this approach adds considerable benefit, especially when it comes to the art, costume and production design. The modern fusion takes on Korean traditional costumes are gorgeous and the sets and production elements all feel rich, from the dark wooden room that Bangja and Ma share to the beautiful blue fabric of the scrolls that the eunuchs carry. This is a beautifully photographed film and manages to put in some lovely modern takes on traditional music too.

The final result is a surprisingly enjoyable film, one that blends comedy, drama, past and present together into a tale that subverts the traditional tale of fidelity to a more modern examination of the choices we make in love. It's not perfect as the conclusion is a bit unsatisfying and the story seems almost driven by the original narrative's event, rather than finding its own forward motion, but it's still quite clever, very sexy, and a feast for the eyes and ears when ti comes to the art of the film. As such, I can easily recommend it to those interested in modern re-examinations of period pieces or perhaps anyone who likes sexy tales of conflicted lovers. 8/10.

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