One of the most anticipated films this year was unveiled to the press last week: a tale about King Jeongjo, the well-known, hapless ruler of 18th-century Joseon.
The period blockbuster is a film debut by prominent TV drama director Lee Jae-gyu, who is best known for period drama “Damo” (2003) and “Beethoven Virus” (2008), and actor Hyun Bin’s latest film in three years. The 10 billion won project has been drawing attention even since preproduction for its star-studded cast including Han Ji-min, Jo Jung-suk (“The Face Reader”), Jeong Jae-young (“Our Sunhi,” “Moss”) and Jung Eun-chae (“Nobody’s Daughter Haewon”), as well as Hyun.
The finished product, however, ended up wasting the actors and actresses on their roles, owing much to overuse of subplots and flashbacks, and its spotty script. The film is inspired by Jeongyuyeokbyeon, the assassination attempt to kill Jeongjo by his political opponents in 1777, the king’s first year as the nation’s ruler. “The Fatal Encounter” follows the 24 hours in Jeongjo’s life, as well as the ones of those around him, preceding the event.
Hyun Bin. ( All That Cinema)
Hyun Bin offers an understated and controlled performance as the king, who is now regarded as one of the most successful rulers of Joseon. Jeongjo’s story has already been made into numerous films and TV drama series in the past, as few other kings of Joseon lived a life that is as dramatic as his.
When Jeongjo was 10, his father, Crown Prince Sado, died of starvation after his father ― Jeongjo’s grandfather ― King Yeongjo ordered him to be confined in a cramped wooden rice chest. Growing up, Jeongjo was often stigmatized as the “son of the sinner” by those who accused Prince Sado of raping and killing people in the palace, as well as organizing a political conspiracy against Yeongjo. Just in his first year as king, Jeongjo survived seven assassination attempts.
The film starts with the young Jeongjo working out alone in the palace, to prepare himself for possible attacks. Hyun’s Jeongjo is calm and considerate, but also afraid at times. The film spends much of its time on the story of Sang-chaek (Jeong Jae-young), a fictional character and Jeongjo’s loyal servant, who was sold to a cruel man named Gwang-baek (Cho Jae-hyun) as an orphan child.
Gwang-baek illegally and brutally trains orphan children to be professional killers. While staying with Gwang-baek and other children, Sang-chaek befriends Sal-soo (Jo Jung-suk), another orphan who is a few years his junior. When Gwang-baek is asked to give one of his children to become a court eunuch at the royal palace, he asks Sang-chaek and Sal-soo to play the rock-paper-scissors; the winner would be castrated and sent to the palace. Sang-chaek purposely loses the game in his effort to protect Sal-soo, and becomes a court servant. There he meets the little Jeongjo, who is still mourning his father’s death. Meanwhile, Sal-soo continues enduring harsh training and grows up as a merciless killer.
In spite of its highly stylized mise-en-scene and ambitious action stunts, the film has too many characters for a script that only reconstructs 24 hours. Most of the characters and their stories ― especially Sal-soo’s tragic romance with female court servant Wol-hye (Jung Eun-chae), and Jeongjo’s mother (Kim Sung-ryung) and her dangerous conflict with the late Yeongjo’s much younger wife Queen Jeongsun (Han Ji-min) ― are interesting, but never fully explored.
The film in general fails to be memorable; it would have been better if it solely focused on Jeongjo and his personal struggles, as well as his relationship with Sang-chaek. The bond between the king and the servant is convincing in the film; they both survived traumatic childhood, in spite of their class difference. But it needed to be developed more and given more space in the plot.
A Lotte Entertainment release, “The Fatal Encounter” opens in theaters on April 30.
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)