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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
Polished period murder mystery marred by horror elements
A crime story and a lush costume drama about Joseon dynasty Korean court life are combined with horror elements in this directorial debut by South Korean Kim Mee-jeung. She was an assistant director for Lee Jun-ik's 2005 'The King and the Clown' and shot this on the same set. In Shadows,Wol Ryeong (Seo Yeong-hie) a maid-in-waiting at the palace, is found hanged. Chun-ryung (Park Jin Hee), the (female) royal doctor to the court women, investigates. Discovering the dead girl had a child of which there is no written record, she begins to suspect foul play. She questions a string of court ladies who might be implicated in a murder but nobody opens up and Chun-ryung's superior is obviously looking for a scapegoat to cover things up. This puts the doctor under the gun to find out what really happened before the scapegoat is named and everything is hushed up.
Throughout the film, the smooth workings of the Korean film-making machine are evident in lovely shots, nice but not grandiose settings and costumes, and an elegant period feel. The focus is far and away on women, and it's twenty minutes into the film before a single male appears. Men are seen as attractive predators. Higher ranking women are agents of repression. The underlying issue is that court maidens are meant to be virgins, but court men are out to impregnate them. This is always the maiden's fault and punished by death if detected.
Both 'Shadows in the Palace' and the previous 'The King and the Clown' are dramas that use a period setting to bring up issues of court (i.e. government) repression. 'Shadows' focuses on women and shows how they're treated cruelly in the palace, even by each other. In fact the focus on this is so strong--and there's a subplot of a concubine, Hee-bin (Yun Se-ah) who wants her son to be made crown prince--that intense interest is aroused in the sexual politics of the Korean court. The repressions of the supervising court maid (Sung-ryeong Kim) and her agents is shockingly brutal, and some of the torture scenes are hard to watch. She tries to pin everything on a court maid named Jung-ryul (Jeon Hye-jin), but it's obvious this cover-up is to protect a high ranking male. Meanwhile a court maid who's gone mute (Lim Jeong-eun) is terrified but nonetheless provides valuable evidence.
About half way into the story, the trappings of a scary movie begin to filter in--things that go bump in the night, screams, ominous music. That may raise the heart rates of some viewers, but detracts from the socio-political and procedural themes.
A review of the film on DVD two weeks ago on the website Twitch expressed what is probably the reaction of many. Shadows in the Palace, the Twitch writer (Mack) said, "is an attempt at the 'epic genre' that simply doesn't convince. Plot twists aside, when the real intentions behind the murderous plot are revealed you are neither surprised nor convinced, they are almost expected considering the context and content of the film." The reviewer was "more interested in the maiden court workings than. . .the horror/haunting elements. The physical and mental stress that came with positions in the court was more horrific than the ghost bits. They were stronger, more interesting and actually bloodier than their horror mashing counterpart." This is quite true. The socio-political themes work quite well with the mystery. The supernatural element may be logical as an outgrowth of the superstitions of the period, but it detracts from what was already a complicated enough story. Kim Mee-jeung shows talent in this handsomely put together film and the cast turns in good work. Maybe the director's focus on women's issues will find better and fuller expression next time.
Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 2009.
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