Wednesday, March 22, 2017

THE TREACHEROUS (2015)

The way this film tells it, King Yeonsan of Joseon was the Korean Caligula. That doesn't mean that Min Kyu-dong's history play is Korea's Caligula, though the mad king himself (Kim Kang-woo) is a kind of amateur pornographer, compelling his concubines to assume Sapphic positions so he can paint the scenes. Whatever his politics were, if this film teaches you anything it's that Yeonsan was sex mad. Another favorite artistic subject is the mating of horses. Also, he has an infantile fixation on a favorite concubine who has become a power in the palace, finding comfort by suckling on her breast. The poor king has mommy issues, it seems, because his own mother was murdered in a past palace intrigue.


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.


Finally, Dan-hee gets the break she's been waiting for, but if you'd begun to suspect that Treacherous was going to be a tragedy your suspicions would soon be confirmed. While her mission fails, however, this isn't a nihilistic "resistance is futile" tragedy like, say, Curse of the Golden Flower, but something more Senecan or Shakespearean in its ultimate grotesquery, as Yeonsan, after getting the Carrie prom night treatment from Im Sung-jae, ends up in a disquietingly vague scrum with a room full of pigs. And then you get an epilogue that wraps up the running quasi-operatic narration in a manner that suggests that things didn't turn out entirely as you'd just seen.


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.

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