Original Title: 후궁: 제왕의 첩
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.