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Actress returns in another racy period thriller

Jo Yeo-jung stars in Kim Dai-seung’s highly convincing noir ‘The Concubine’

Despite the media frenzy and concern for her “going nude too often,” actress Jo Yeo-jung appears to have a fine taste in selecting her roles.

After breaking into Korea’s film scene by going nude in her 2010 erotic period drama “The Servant,” the actress has chosen another period thriller with explicit sex scenes.

But despite the media hype about Jo’s graphic nude scenes, “The Concubine” is actually an alluring thriller revolving around ominous fate, desire, survival and revenge.

Jo, who had remained obscure since her TV debut in 1999, instantly rose to the spotlight in 2010 by starring as the ambitious Joseon woman of low caste in “The Servant.” The R-rated movie, which was a newly adapted and tragic version of Korea’s famous folktale “Chunhyang,” was a huge stepping stone in Jo’s career. Upon the release of the film, Jo successfully escaped being “another pretty face” in Korea’s entertainment scene. 
Jo Yeo-jung stars in Kim Dai-seung’s latest period thriller “The Concubine.” (Lotte Entertainment)
Jo Yeo-jung stars in Kim Dai-seung’s latest period thriller “The Concubine.” (Lotte Entertainment)

However, few would have expected her to choose another period drama that requires full nudity, as doing so may stigmatize her in Korea’s film industry ― where most young actresses still stay away from nude scenes as much as possible. Despite the collective concerns expressed by the local media outlets, Jo proved she’s made the right choice ― “The Concubine” offers substance and ample entertainment, as well as almost Shakespearean psychological intricacy.

“The Concubine” is director Kim Dai-seung’s third feature-length film. His previous works ― “Bungee Jumping on their Own” (2000) and “Blood Rain” (2004) ― were all far from conventional. His 2000 romance movie stood out for its original plot, which deftly linked the theme of reincarnation and homosexuality. His 2004 murder mystery “Blood Rain,” on the other hand, dealt with a gruesome murder case in the 19th century Joseon. Kim’s latest movie does not disappoint.

“The Concubine” takes place sometime in the Joseon Dynasty. The movie begins as the ruthless queen mother and former concubine (Park Ji-young) makes her own plan to dethrone the current king (Jeong Chan), with whom she has no blood ties. Her goal is to somehow replace the king with her timid biological son, Prince Seong-won (Kim Dong-wook).

Meanwhile, Prince Seong-won falls in love at first sight with Hwa-yeon (Jo), an aristocrat’s daughter, during his jaunt outside the royal palace. But Hwa-yeon is already in love with a commoner named Kwon-yu (Kim Min-jun). Hwa-yeon and Kwon-yu try to escape, but meet with utterly tragic consequences as their plan fails. Hwa-yeon becomes a concubine at the royal palace, while Kwon-yu is punished with castration.

Five years later, Hwa-yeon has become the queen after producing a male heir. This breaks the hearts of both Prince Seong-won and Kwon-yu, who later joins the royal palace as a eunuch. The king is eventually poisoned to death by the queen mother, who is desperate to be in power.

She sits her son, Prince Seong-won, on the throne as a puppet king, while planning to assassinate Hwa-yeon and her son to secure her position in the palace. Upon finding out she and her son are in danger, Hwa-yeon gradually becomes monstrously ambitious, using everyone around her, including her castrated former lover Kwon-yu and Prince Seong-won ― as tools for her own survival.

While Jo gives a convincing portrayal of an innocent young woman transformed into a ruthless, manipulative mother to protect her son, actor Kim Dong-wook ― who plays Prince Seong-won ― offers a prolific performance throughout the running time.

Kim’s character, in many ways, shows the future of Hwa-yeon’s little son, who will eventually become king thanks to his mother’s blood-and-thunder battle in the royal palace. It is hard not to feel sorry for this timid character, helplessly torn between his first love and sister-in-law Hwa-yeon and his ruthless queen mother.

The new king, who must regularly have sex with his wife in the attendance of his queen mother and servants as it is his duty to ”properly“ produce an heir, gradually becomes a lunatic as he becomes desperate to prove his worth to Hwa-yeon, while struggling to break away from his mother’s control. In many ways. Kim’s character reminds one of the famous villain kings of Joseon, including Yeonsangun, Gwanghaegun, and King Yeongjo.

One of the movie’s highlights, an obvious recreation of the Christian image ”Pieta,“ summarizes Prince Seong-won’s character and his tragedy ― all stemming from the abusive relationship with his mother.

In spite of its too many subplots, the movie explores the theme of betrayal, revenge and obsessions, with much nuance and depth.

A Lotte Entertainment release, “The Concubine” opens in theaters on June 6.

By Claire Lee (