By the time of our story all his hard-working concubines -- it's challenging to hold those porno poses for long -- aren't enough for Yeonsan anymore. He demands a roundup of promising females from across the land, hundreds of whom will serve as his "comforters." That's got to be a sensitive subject for a Korean movie, given how the Koreans continue to hector the Japanese for recruiting Koreans as "comfort women" during World War II. Of course, any film featuring an insane absolute ruler will have special significance for South Korean audiences, given what they have to deal with north of the border. I'm surprised the Kim dynasty didn't treat Treacherous, a film portraying a conspiracy to kill an absolute monarch, as yet another provocation justifying missile launches. But for all we know, they did.
Anyway, Yeonsan entrusts the comforter search to his two top henchman, the father-son Im team. Most of our attention goes to the son, Im Sung-jae (Ju Ji-hoon), the king's boyhood playmate who still goes in for the occasional round of sparring. Feeling guilty about enabling a monster like Yeonsan, Sung-jae discovers a diamond in the rough in Dan-hee, a pretty butcher (Lim Ji-yeon) who makes an entertainment out of animal slaughter. Secretly the daughter of an official killed on the king's order, this woman of many skills could make the perfect assassin. But first she has to rise through the ranks, meeting the strict standards set for the king's new number-one bedmate. To get her big chance, she has to win a sex fight with her main rival as the king orchestrates probably the most demoralizing lesbian sex scene since Requiem For a Dream. Min Kyu-dong lavishes a lot of attention on the training process for the comforters, which ranges from sword dancing (Dan-hee's lead role in one performance gives her an early opportunity to kill the king that goes to waste) to dildo testing. Again, none of this rises (or sinks) to Caligula-level explicitness, at least in what Netflix is streaming, but while that might make it more erotic for some viewers it might also make viewers complicit for any arousal they feel as Yeonsan puts his comforters through their paces.
The best word to describe The Treacherous is ravishing. It describes the king's antics as well as the gorgeous art direction and Park Hong-ryeol's cinematography, not to mention all the beautiful women and their often-opulent costumes. It's almost Italian in its combination of luscious craftsmanship and almost unflinching brutality. I don't know how it works as history, but as a wild work or cinema I recommend it highly.