Costume Drama, Hold the Costume | The Treacherous (2015) Review

Directed by Min Kyu-dong
Starring Jun Ji-hoon, Kim Kang-woo, Lim Ji-yeon

This movie is brutal. Like, tremendously, exceptionally disturbing. Chronicling the last days of a mad king, director Min Kyu-dong apparently wants you to feel that madness, to leave the film a wide-eyed, gibbering mess, soaked in blood and stabbing at pigs. My understanding of Korean cinema – which I’m trying to advance past – is that there are the early export arthouse films like Oldboy and Memories of Murder, and then the movies indistinguishable from K-dramas like My Wife is a Gangster 3. The Treacherous leans more toward the latter in terms of visuals and direction, but has the unflinching violence and sex of the former. It’s a mostly discordant mix, all set against the constant soundtrack of screaming and moaning.

Taking place in the early 1500s, we follow the strange story of Im Sung-jae, retainer to the tyrant Prince Yeonsangun. It’s a profitable arrangement for himself and his father, Im Sa-hong. He’s perfectly willing, for example, to look the other way when Yeonsan demands one thousand consorts for his personal pleasure – and more than that, relishes the proceedings. In a “training montage,” women who have been abducted from their homes are stripped down and abused, marked, sorted, then splashed with powder to shrink their vaginas. They lick at hanging fruit meant to simulate testicles.

This is a cinematic illustration of the ultimate male fantasy: to turn the world into one massive orgy. When we start with that, suddenly things like harems and modern American legislative trends make sense – if it’s all about control, then what’s the endgame? What’s the one exclusive thing that all heterosexual men want from women? The kingdom becomes Yeongsang’s playground where women exist solely for pleasure, and there’s just enough tension in each scene that it never becomes even remotely sexy. Kim Kang-woo imbues the villain with menace, of course, but also enough edginess that he’s scarily unpredictable. As the historical figure consolidated power in part by murdering his own grandmother, he’s perfectly comfortable beating and killing women, prompting consorts to attempt immediate sexual pleasure to calm him down. It’s a kind of horror achieved by a constantly revolving subjectivity, like a hot potato of perspective.

As such, The Treacherous suffers a protagonist problem, between the truly guilty Im Sung-jae and Dan-hee, a vengeful swordswoman who’s more heroic but also more fictional. In reality, Yeongsang was deposed with a coup, as seen in the film, but died in exile. This movie posits that Sung-jae’s final straw with the prince came from falling in love with this swordswoman, who’s not technically a warrior but infiltrates the consort program to get within striking distance of Yeongsang. Sung-jae eventually resolves to help her, leading to a white-knuckle sequence of twists and turns and near-misses such that the film, maybe ironically, achieves the battered exhaustion of Memories of Murder. I just want this fucking guy dead. And I want her to kill him.

Going in, I had no idea about this particular dark chapter in Korean history, in which this Prince Yeongsang initiated two “Literati Purges,” executing and enslaving hundreds of people. Drawn by Lim Ji-yeon (who’s a fantastic villain on The Glory), I was excited by the prospect that she’d play a badass who did the deed like Jun Ji-hyun in Assassination. With Jun Ji-hoon’s Sung-jae more the lead, it’s instead a movie about the inner conflicts of betrayal and redemption. Can a man who made a monster ever ask for forgiveness? At the same time, this historical account doesn’t do that thing where its characters are modernized – despite some idiomatic subtitle translations – and the motivations of, say, the scholars, are simply that the consorts are now occupying the archives. The prince has gone far enough! Sung-jae is never depicted as a good man, though inventing a love story to motivate the rebellion is a strange choice. I don’t need to like this guy.

The Treacherous is also color-graded in a way that approaches Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, in terms of obvious green screen and a blackened sky. It’s not nearly as bad as that, but the consistent unreality is only aggravated by the shouted voiceover. To be honest, the entire film has a bizarre style, where the editing might land on a crying face or an instance of brutality with the rhythm of a punchline. The grandmother killing is depicted as a slow-motion tackle; extreme subject matter clashes with an unexpectedly juvenile lens. And yet, sometimes, all elements align and it works. A sequence late in the film has two women forced to bring the other to climax, with the promise of beheading for the loser. It goes on for so long that it’s almost unbearable, and that’s kind of the whole idea. Despite everything and almost by accident, The Treacherous can be incredibly powerful – tyrannical, let’s say.

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