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This is not an erotic film
The previous reviewer dwelled on the penis thing and the erotic aspect of this film, but I think he, along with many others, missed the point. It's partly the fault of the advertising campaign, which I understand emphasized Jo YeoJung's (as well as other actors') nude scenes -- but I don't know how anyone can still retain the impression that this movie is an erotic bodice-ripper after actually watching it. This is a dark, perilous journey through the obsessions and grudges of people who cannot stop running lest they fall behind, and the sweat is all of the cold kind.
The said scenes involving nudity and sexuality are not in the least erotic, nor did I find Kim DongWook's reaction to the coitus-by-the-book(literally) as the hapless young king at all comedic, intentionally or otherwise; rather he did a fine job of assaying a pathetic and desperate character trapped in an intolerable situation, and his mental near-collapse was almost palpable. And the supporting characters' stories did not interfere with the unfolding of the main plot for me -- they were not subplots so much as back stories for the characters' motivations, and served to flesh out, not complicate, the plot.
Aside from the mostly fine direction and the acting -- which latter ranged from decent (in a few cases) to very good (mostly) -- for me the art direction and cinematography were particular standouts. While most historical epics tend to emphasize sumptuous costumes and the splendor of the architecture and ornamentation, this movie did the opposite; while it is visually rich in its own, gloom-laden way, everything in it is in dark, muted colors as if it were dyed with tea, the ladies wear little jewelry and the sets are kept very lean, to sometimes very striking, almost expressionistic, effect, as when HwaYeon's maid is assigned new, better quarters of her own after catching the King's eye, but the room is entirely empty, and the woman is shown laughing in semi-hysterical self-congratulation on a tiny mat on an otherwise bare floor.
There are many, many scenes shot at very close range, often lit by simulated candlelight at night, creating an overall claustrophobic feel that visually replicates the suffocating atmosphere of the intrigue-riddled court these people endured. Fittingly, the scenes of violence are presented suddenly and starkly, with minimal cues in the soundtrack, which makes them all the more shocking yet realistic.
While not exactly a masterpiece, this movie is a well-thought out and well-executed production, much superior to the kind of titillating fluff it is made out to be by some. It definitely deserves a thoughtful watch.
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