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During the Chosun period, a court lady is found dead, hanging by the rafters of the palace. After examining the dead body, place physician Chun-ryung discovers that the dead maid was probably murdered and carries out investigation even though her higher-ups pressure her to close the case as suicide. Written by
Although it might have a little too much going on, seeing the machinations of a Chosen era court--from the women's point of view--makes Shadows an interesting film to watch
Shadows in the Palace is a mighty interesting film. First of all, it's a women's film. And I don't mean that in the sense that Lifetime is a "women's network", but more in the fact that the vast majority of the key creative positions in the film were filled by women. Second, the film is interestingly a sort of detective mystery/thriller with some horror elements put in the film, set in the Chosen era of Corean history. Although the film suffers from having too much going on, its wonderfully shot and costumed and the story has so much going for it, despite its weaknesses, that it certainly kept me interested.
The visuals in the film are absolutely striking. Although I'm uncertain that the costumes are necessarily historically accurate, they are absolutely beautiful to look at and the film is well photographed. The acting is mostly superb as well, having a primarily female cast, I especially enjoyed watching the more mature actors really get into their rather complex characters.
Another thing about the film I found fascinating was the exploration of court dynamics. While the court maids were bound to serve the royal family (and similarly bound to chastity, among other rules), there's a lot of hinting that power plays were happening behind the scenes on the highest levels of power and these activities had a trickle down effect on the court maids. It's also interesting to see just how much power the women in this story wielded and how they are internally self-policing and self-sustaining.
The story begins, however, with a corpse and one court medic's search for what really happened. Her search causes us to cross paths with one of the king's concubines, who bore the only male heir to the thrown and who is also embroiled in a political power struggle to retain her place in the court, being pressured by the house of the queen. We run into a number of the house's administrators, most of whom seem eager to quell the medic's investigation and a number of additional characters, who are in turn suspects and further victims both. Finally, some even more mysterious occurrences begin happening as well. And all these steps are actually quite interesting to watch.
Part of the problem is that there's more going on than is necessary. First of the all, I find the medic's story to be the hardest to empathize with, and while it all plays out, I don't find it convincing. In addition, there's a bit of a horror element to the film as well and I feel it adds an unnecessary layer to the film--I think it would've been better served being more grounded--the story could've been told easily without those elements (many of which risk being a little stale). Then there are multiple red herrings and actual stories going on and while I could follow each story, without a strong grasp of the language and the ability to keep track of who's who and what's what (my advice: pay attention to the costumes--they actually help you keep tabs on the non-central characters), it might certainly be confusing to the less attentive viewer.
But seeing the machinations of the court play out and, even more interestingly, how they affect the next layer down in the level of the court maid was quite fascinating. With great visuals, a well-paced who/what-dunit, and a set of interesting plot lines, I ended up finding myself pretty fond of this film. Granted, it's no masterpiece and some of its excesses, especially the horror elements, probably limited the film's impact. Also, even though the film was essentially created by women, this is definitely not the kind of stuff you'd find on an American women's television network. There is blood, gore, a few jump frights and some creepy imagery to spare. But in the end, this is a sometimes fascinating piece held up well by the twisting plot, the well propelled story and a whole lot of interesting things for the eyes to see. 8/10.
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