But the movie, to be released on Dec. 30, is not limited to sexual entanglement. Sex is used as a key tool to prod the plot forward, often at a rapid pace. To that end, director Yoo Ha includes plenty of explicit scenes of sex and graphic violence. The result, however, is somewhat mixed. The film`s poetic justice produces an unlikely anti-hero.
Although the movie sets itself out as a historical drama set in the late Goryeo Dynasty, viewers should bear in mind that the story is purely fictional. The nation is now under the virtual rule of China`s Yuan Dynasty, and Goryeo`s king (Joo Jin-mo) has to produce a son to keep his position. The only problem is that he cannot sleep with a woman, much less have a romantic relationship with one.
The king`s real romantic partner is none other than his chief bodyguard Hong Lim (Zo In-sung). The two have sex in the inner sanctums of the Goryeo court, and we are shown a graphic kiss scene between the king and Hong Lim, which is bound to shock some Korean viewers.
But the real shocker comes when the king decides to ask Hong Lim to sleep with his wife - the queen (Song Ji-hyo). This idea is based on his assumption that all his political problems will go away once there is a royal son.
The king`s miscalculation, of course, is that passionate romantic feelings sometimes form after sex. Hong Lim, who has never slept with a woman before, hesitates to touch the body of the queen at first, but once the physical bond is initiated, he finds himself totally enslaved.
Love triangle established, the plot sprints ahead with a portrayal of the uncontrollable anger and jealousy of the king, leaving heads rolling in the process.
Director Yoo seems to suggest that Hong Lim has long been subjected to a sort of coercion, rather than a real romantic relationship with the king. Hong is a mere subordinate, while the king has all the power, including the right to order his death.
The queen, for her part, discovers the liberating exhilaration when she falls in love with Hong Lim after years of neglect and inattention. She suffers a deep sense of guilt initially but she finds herself indulging in the dangerous liaisons with Hong Lim.
What is notable is that sex in "Ssanghwajeom" is deeply associated with death. Eros is often depicted in literature and film as being able to overcome everything. The feelings that interconnect Hong Lim and the queen could backfire lethally because they are cheating on the almighty king.
As far as a plot is concerned, the unfortunate queen and her lover bravely defy the obstacles to prove that mutual love is more powerful than unrequited passion. The king`s relationship with Hong Lim has been futile and one-sided. Failing to confirm whether his bodyguard is truly in love with him, he comes to realize that he is totally alone.
It is a pity that the king, trapped in a man`s body, is betrayed by his secret lover. What the king fails to notice is that Hong Lim is a bisexual who prefers heterosexual sex.
But Joo Jin-mo does not have to lament his role. It is Zo In-sung who fails to create much-needed emotional subtlety and often delivers his lines in an annoyingly mechanical fashion. In contrast, Joo Jin-mo emerges as the ultimate winner in the film. Joo pulls off creating a complex and nuanced character with whom audiences will be able to sympathize, rescuing a film that might otherwise have fallen into the trap of having too much sex and violence.
By Yang Sung-jin