Kim Dae-woo is running the risk of stereotyping himself, but when the result is a film like The Servant (2010), is this a bad thing? After starting off as a versatile scriptwriter with the films An Affair (1998), Rainbow Trout (1999), and The Foul King (2000), Kim made his first foray into the period film, more specifically the Chosun-era erotic melodrama period film, with his adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, Untold Scandal (2003). His directorial debut came in 2006 with the comedy Forbidden Quest (2006), before his sophomore feature The Servant. Like Untold Scandal, The Servant is based on a famous text, this time the oft-filmed pansori tale Chunhyang. To western audiences, the most famous take on this tale is Im Kwon-taek’s Chunhyang (2000), an epic and beautiful version that blends in scenes of pansori being performed in a modern theater with the narrative shot as a representation of the performance. Kim’s version is far less Brechtian but nonetheless engages with the text/song in a thoroughly satisfying manner.
Chunhyang is a simple tale of a woman named Chun-hyang and Mong-ryeong, a studious magistrate’s son who falls in love and marries illegally before he must leave for Seoul. During his absence a corrupt magistrate arrives and forces Chun-hyang to become his concubine. She refuses and is faced with death, but saved at the last moment by Mong-ryeong who has now become a Royal Inspector.
The Servant follows a similar pattern, but twists the narrative in favor of examining social structures and adding some eroticism. In this version, Mong-ryeong is a conceited brat and it is actually his servant Bang-ja who fills the role of the love interest. He is strong, smart, competent, and kind, if a little shady and naïve. He undermines Mong-ryeong, in his quest to have Chun-hyang, at every turn, but not always intentionally. Mong-ryeong leaves for Seoul to follow his studies and Chun-hyang and the servant (who is now a merchant) pursue a relationship, which surprisingly is more or less in plain view of her family who disapprove (because it will not elevate her status) but tolerate it. The ending is also quite different, but I won’t go into that here.
2010 seems to be a banner year for eroticism in Korean cinema. In my previous review of A Frozen Flower (2008, review here), I mentioned how nudity and sex, which had previously been very taboo in Korean cinema, are getting more and more prevalent and graphic. Last year brought us the pseudo-erotica 3D film Natalie, the sexually-charged remake of The Housemaid, and The Servant, one of the most sexually-explicit Korean films I have seen. Not only does it feature numerous sex scenes but it also introduces elements of sexual deviance (the inspector who comes to town and tries to take Chunhyang as his concubine) to what is really supposed to be a “love overcomes all” romantic tale. The Servant is a well-written and assiduously directed affair, but even more so it features jaw-droppingly gorgeous cinematography and sumptuous production design. Korean cinema constantly amazes me when it produces films for a fraction of the cost of Hollywood, yet visually puts all of those larger budgeted pictures to shame. It is also packed with great performances from Ryoo Seung-beom as Mong-ryeong Kim Joo-hyeok as Bang-ja, and even better characters, like Oh Dal-su who is a riot as a lubricious old man who gives Bang-ja tips to woo Chun-hyang. While this is a thoroughly entertaining film I do hope that Kim will try something new with his next feature, I have been forgiving but many reviewers have commented on this film’s similarity to Untold Scandal.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.