REVIEW: The Concubine (2012)

The king’s concubine gets stuck in the middle of the prince’s lust, her former lover’s scheme for revenge, and her mother-in-law’s thirst for power.


By Raymond Arcega
Last updated on

The Concubine

Original Title: 후궁: 제왕의 첩
Year: 2012
Country: Korea
Language: Korean
Genres: Historical, Drama, Thriller
Director: Kim Dae-seung

Set during the Joseon Dynasty, the story of The Concubine centers around Hwa-yeon (Jo Yeo-jeong), an aristocrat’s daughter who has a secret lover in commoner Kwon-yoo (Park Min-joon). It has been decided that Hwa-yeon is to be sent to the palace and become a concubine to the king, who has yet to bear an heir. In desperation, the secret lovers decide to flee, only to be caught on their first night by Hwa-yeon’s father. Hwa-yeon agrees to be sent to the palace so long as Kwon-yoo lives. However, his fate is ultimately unbeknownst to her.

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Five years later, Hwa-yeon is now the queen after giving birth to the king’s son. This enrages the queen mother (Park Ji-young), whose lust for power has her enact a plot to assassinate the king and put her own son, the king’s half-brother Prince Seong-won (Kim Dong-wook) onto the throne as a puppet king.

Hwa-yeon is caught in the middle, as she has been in the target of the Prince’s affections since he set eyes on her years ago. Both her son and she become targets of assassination by the queen mother to eliminate any slight chance of opposition. Things get more complicated when it is revealed that Kwon-yoo is still alive, and is in service in the palace as a eunuch.

Each of the central characters have an ambition that is threatened by the others in the story. For Hwa-yeon it’s survival. For Prince Seong-won, it’s his lust for Hwa-yeon. For Kwon-yoo, it’s revenge. And for the queen mother, it’s her lust of power.

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The film is so engrossing in the journey that each of the characters take to accomplish their individual ambitions. The further each journey is traveled, the more bystanders are pulled in, leading to the climax where everything crashes and explodes.

The performances were all simply amazing, but the most outstanding of which would have to be that of Jo Yeo-jeong with her portrayal of Hwa-jeon. Stealing the show, she switches easily from the wholesome girl that Kwon-yoo fell in love with to the seductive devil that exists in Seong-won’s fantasies.

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A fascinating part about the cast is that there is not one character, including Hwa-jeon, who is 100% free of sin. Kwon-yoo is out well-deserved vengeance, but his ways of doing things turn him into more of a selfish anti-hero. Seong-won earns sympathy points as the puppet king trying to stand his own against the villainous queen mother. However his obsession with Hwa-jeon turns him into a creep rather than a helpless romantic. Lastly, there is the titular concubine, Hwa-jeon, who is pulled into things against her will, but isn’t afraid to use anything, or anyone, for the ultimate purpose of her survival.

What enhances the performances is the hypnotizing musical score by Jo Yeong-wook. The music does well in controlling the emotions in the viewer, as well as creating the right amount of tension when things start getting out of control.

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One surprising thing…well, not really, if you take a look at any of the movie posters you’ll notice easily, is that there are a lot of steamy sex scenes. However, this is not Jo Yeo-jeong’s first time bearing it all for the camera; fans have already experienced her in the nude in the 2010 film The Servant.

Was the sex necessary? Some argue no, and that the film could have done well without it. However, others argue yes, and that it adds a lot of depth to Seong-won and how much he obsesses over Hwa-jeon. It also complements to how much he is pressured by the queen mother to have a son. Yes, there is a scene in which the queen mother and her aides coach Seong-won as he attempts to impregnate a concubine.

But, really. The sex scenes, in all their explicitness, are a big reason why The Concubine is a hypnotizing thriller.


Watch this film…

…to be seduced, confused, angered, and shocked by amazing characters and a tangling plot.


About the Author

Raymond Arcega

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Follow Ray on Twitter and chat with a fellow cinema nut. He also tweets about tokusatsu, assorted geekery, and life and adventures in Japanland.

  • Gotchagold

    Great movie, review was exactly how my husband and I saw it. we totally recommend it! Love historical films, love Korean film. can’t wait to see and read more. Also waiting to see Empire of Lust someday.

    • Jason Yu

      Korean films are pretty awesome, yes 🙂

      Empire of Lust is not a bad historical film watch either. While I felt the film could have done the romance and royal political intrigue a bit better, the environment and camera shots are breathtaking.

      If you and your husband watch Empire of Lust, I’d love to know your take on it!

      • Gotchagold

        Jason. we would love to, but we can’t find it on Netflix, Dramafever, Amazon, and Vicki. Do you know of a site that is safe that carries it? then for sure I would love to let you know what we think. Also we love Chinese film very much, those two countries( Korea) seem to have the best production value. My husband is a makeup artist who has won 4 Daytime Emmy’s and is currently working on films. He thinks overall the quality of the makeup is very good. Sorry this response is so long, but we have no one to share our love of Asian film. Don’t forget, if you know where Empire of Lust can be viewed, we’d love to hear about it.
        Thanks again for responding and happy viewing!

        • Like yourself, I couldn’t find the movie on Netflix, Dramafever, Amazon, or Viki. But I did find it! Here’s two places where you can buy Empire of Lust DVD.

          http://www.yesasia.com/global/empire-of-lust-dvd-2-disc-korea-version/1044573655-0-0-0-en/info.html

          http://www.ebay.com/itm/Empire-of-Lust-DVD-Shin-Ha-Kyun-Jang-Hyuk-Kang-Han-Na-Korean-NEW-R3-Eng-Sub-/151912427469

          It’s always great to talk about Asian film with fellow Asian movie fans. Please feel free to talk to us anytime about Asian cinema 🙂

          I’m also honored to be talking to someone that knows someone (your husband) actually works within the film industry itself. *bows down* I’m sure you and your husband see a lot of detail, such as makeup and other minute details in films.

          • Gotchagold

            Thank you Jason for your reply and compliment towards my husband Joe. He loves the work being done in Asia and he will occasionally see a little something, like extra spirit gum on a beard or wig but not often and thinks there are fine artists working on these films.
            As far as Empire of Lust, thanks for the sites but I have to make sure that our DVD player works with the regional format. That may prove to be a problem since we don’t have the users guide that tells us which it is. We are continuing to watch what we can. Vicki is having problems, not loading, or not showing the films it says it is on the listing screen.But we are still getting to as many as we can on other sites.
            . The Tiger is next.

  • Anna M

    Im just a bit confused with the ending