The Treacherous (2015) Korean Movie Review
Welcome to the mad king’s dungeon!
It is oppressive and tense but oddly beautiful at the same time.
Recently, I came out of a second viewing of “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) thinking that the Korean movie “The Treacherous” (2015) would actually make an interesting double feature with it.
Why? You may ask?
Aren’t they very different?
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) is an example of a B-genre movie distilled to its purest genre elements. And this approach is actually successful in providing a very special experience. This is the same case for “The Treacherous /간신” (2015) although, in this movie’s case, the genre is not distilled to the perfection of “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015).
In any case, the double feature idea is an interesting thought because the two movies are in drastically different genres.
What genre is The Treacherous?
It is basically a satirical morality tale warning of the excess and immorality of Kings with a Confucianist twist to it
Think the movie “Caligula” (1979) starring Malcolm McDowell!
The core elements of this genre are the display of sexual depravity, material and artistic excess, power, and the overbearing tension of being next to a king who is basically losing his mind. And that is what “The Treacherous /간신” (2015) brings to the table!
Or should I say brings to date since the movie is relentless as it “nails” the audience it their seats!
The movie is set during the15th century reign of “Prince Yeonsan” who was THEJoseon king known for being crazy and was the first of only two kings to be dethroned in a military coup. However, you do not really need to know about Korean royal history for this movie.
It is not a historical buffs’ movie.
It is terribly inaccurate regarding historical facts.
Just equate “Prince Yeonsan” to the assassinated Roman Empire “Caligula” and you will be totally fine!
Prince Yeonsan = Caligula
The plot follows the king’s left-hand vassal who is gathering up thousands of females to find the best one to be the king’s new sexual servant.
Because, if you have a despotic crazy ruler, that is what you do…?
Among the thousands, the vassal finds a woman who he ends up grooming to take the place of royal sex servant. However, he is not the only one with a horse in the race. Another vassal, who wants to gain favour from the king, finds another candidate with the support of the queen.
Now we have a race.
Off to the Races!
The Erotic Races.
Thus, the movie ends up being a mashup of “Caligula” (1979), My Fair Lady (1964), and… Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)?
Not really a Korean Movie…?
After the first act, the movie turns into a “sexual training and competition” historical fantasy movie which may be an odd niche genre for some westerners. However, if you have seen Hong Kong / Chinese movies of the late 80s and 90s, this type of erotic movie is rather common. A more comedic take on the erotic “basically softcore porn” fantasy movie is any of the “Sex and Zen” (1993) movies.
However, there is nothing comedic about “The Treacherous /간신” (2015)!
It goes in the opposite direction.
Since Hong Kong / Chinese movies came up, I want to say that, even though the movie is set in Korea, there is so much influence of Hong Kong / Chinese movies displayed in this movie that, 15 minutes in, the movie feels like a Hong Kong / Chinese movie.
This is an exaggeration but only a little.
A lot of the basic production and costume designs reminded me of Hong Kong / Chinese movies. Even the rather comically excessive exposure of cleavage in the royal court reminded me of “Curse of the Golden Flower” (2006) starring Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li.
“Curse of the Golden Flower” (2006)
That movie is interesting!
I recommend trying it out.
“The Treacherous /간신” (2015) even has a man and woman sword fight training in a bamboo forest that has become the cliché of Hong Kong / Chinese movies.
Why do you train what amounts to a sex slave in martial arts?
This is rather unthinkable in a Joseon / Korean setting,
The movie also uses some Hong Kong / Chinese sounding musical instruments in a martial art scene during the later parts of the movie.
The awfully familiar sounds hit you like a brick when you first notice them!
How a King should act!
This Chinese movie influence should not be surprising as the genre of a “Confucianist” King’s morality tale is not really a genre told in Korean cinema since it does not exactly fit into the culture.
First of all, the power base of Joseon / Korean Kings was delicate with the “Scholar” nobles having considerable control over the country. In fact, “Prince Yeonsan” was the only real Joseon king that tried to push his power base to its limits and beyond.
Well, he did it poorly but still…
And he got dethroned and later killed for this.
Second. Joseon / Korean Kings simply did not have the resources to act on the scale of a Chinese Emperor’s excess even if he wanted to debaucherous. The Joseon dynasty, for most of its existence, suffered from serious financial problems and the national economy was small and primitive. Thus, there were serious limitations to how much a Joseon / Korean King could do even if you went stir crazy.
There is a limit to how much money you could extort even for a king.
In fact, there was not even proper coinage, I mean money, being circulated during this period. Joseon / Korea was still on the barter system until the late 17th century.
Thus there was literally no money around!
So, you can see why this type of genre was not popular in Korean cinema and culture.
Let’s move on from what the movie is to how the movie does!
“The Treacherous /간신” (2015) is not an easy movie to watch. This is a blunt and relentless movie with its suspense, erotic, and blood. There is a not scene of comedic relief throughout the movie and no real sense of hope also.
There is the only buildup of both suspense and erotic pressures.
Plot-wise, there is not much to the movie beyond the basics you would expect for the setup.
There are people who want to kill the king.
The protagonist falls in love which is the My Fair Lady (1964) angle.
And the king is going mad!
And there is a lot of beautiful but also abusive nudity on screen.
The plot is thin and the characters and their motivations are thinner. And this is actually a good thing. “The Treacherous /간신” (2015), at its core, is about how being next to a crazy king makes everyone around him escalate into more crazy stuff themselves in order to just keep up.
It is oppressive!
It is stressful!
I would call “The Treacherous /간신” (2015) a psychological and erotic potboiler without a pressure valve. Anything that would interfere with the buildup of stress would hinder the objective of the movie. Even the nudity in the movie, which is plentiful, is not meant to be a sexual relief for the audience.
There is not as much actual sexual intercourse in the movie.
If you had sexual relief, the sense of sexual despair would lesson.
This is also the case for the portrayal of the characters. There is no place for subtlety here. In fact, most of the characters in this movie chew the scenery like they are at an all you can eat buffet. It is the characters who try to be subtle that are the liabilities in this movie.
Styles Saves Everything!
It is very difficult to manage the pressure being cooked up by movies like “The Treacherous /간신” (2015). At a point, the audience just reaches their limits. In the case of “The Treacherous /간신” (2015) the artistic style choices made in the movie help distract the audience in order to prolong the climax.
On a storytelling level, the movie uses the traditional Korean oral storytelling technique (판소리) to provide narration and thus regulates the pacing of the movie. This also creates a sense that this movie is a dark satirical folk tale being told by travelling Korean bards.
On the visual side, the production design and cinematography are very stimulating and varied while being dark and oppressive at the same time. I cannot say more to praise these elements. It is the reason why I think “The Treacherous /간신” (2015) is the most interesting Korean movie to come out this year.
It has not been a great period for Korean movies!
On the sound level, the soundtrack is not very obvious and subsides into the background except for one thing. There is a constant presence of traditional Korean drums that keep the pressure on the audience without being too manipulative. It is very effective.
The “Huge” Problems
“The Treacherous /간신” (2015) is not without its problems which are actually pretty serious. It suffers from issues that plague recent Korean movies such as “The Royal Tailor” (2014) and “Empire of Lust” (2015).
The first problem is not having a concise story structure. “The Treacherous /간신” (2015) is a5 act movie that runs for a 131-minute movie.
It has a similar story structure as “The Royal Tailor” (2014) which did not even work with that movie. It definitely does not work with the potboiler movie that is “The Treacherous /간신” (2015). At the 90 minute mark, 3 acts have past and the audience is ready to leave.
I was ready to leave!
If the movie just wrapped up then, I would have been totally satisfied with the streamlined story supported by beautiful visuals and designs. The movie was not perfect but the portrayal of excess and beauty felt operatic!
Let the fat lady sing!
There were storytelling and character issues even within the first 90 minutes but the building pressure and pure momentum of the movie were enough to hide those facts.
However, now there were 40 more minutes still left to go!
From then on, I felt trapped and it felt painful.
It is like having a fear erection for 90 minutes and not being able to release.
How much could a moviegoer take?
But…It was more than exhaustion. The movie is actually 1.5 movies in total. One type of movie had ended at the 90-minute point. Afterwards, the movie turned from being operatic to being the soap-operatic sequel movie that suffers from the sickness of “Sentimentalism” Korean movies and entertainment are plagued with. Up to that point, the movie tried really hard to bury all signs of Sentimentalism.
While being a soapy melodrama is not bad in itself, you cannot just turn anything into a tearjerker sappy melodrama on command. The proper legwork has to be done!
Even a Melodrama is a drama after all.
“The Treacherous /간신” (2015) is not a movie that can support this change because it did not lay out the proper character and plot development prior to this change. It just raced to this point without looking at anything else. As a result, the previously hidden problems rise to the surface during the last 40 minute to the movie.
Lastly, the movie gets over ambitious with the main protagonist, the vassal, and his motivations. Previous I mentioned that this is a satirical morality tale warning of the excess and immorality of Kings with a Confucianist twist. The problem is with the “Confucianist twist”.
There is no need for it!
Since the King is crazy, that is enough for what the story is. The character motivation doesn’t need anything more. The movie does not have enough development to get into the whole discussion of Confucianist virtue and kingship stuff. It would be like going into the republican virtue and empire talk when making “Caligula” (1979).
It could be interesting.
However, that is a movie onto itself!
It requires time and works put into this aspect that “The Treacherous /간신” (2015) does not have. In fact, the movie handles it very poorly as the “soap opera” take of the last 2 acts does not combine well with the whole Confucianist virtue and stuff thing. The result is that the last 2 acts are more tedious than it had to be.
The “tiny” Problems
In addition to the larger issues, there are some minor issues including a narrative framing issue caused by the less than rigid execution the oral narration technique (판소리) previously mentioned.
As the movie progresses, the time in-between narrations became longer and longer until the movie just stopped using it. The oral narration technique helps frame the events of the movie and control the pacing by providing punctuations. When it is less rigidly utilized, the pacing of the movie started to drag more and more.
This movie really needs punctuations!
In the area of acting, “The Treacherous /간신” (2015) is not a place for subduing actors.
I mean the movie has a grown man being breastfed by his older wife!
As an actor, you have to act larger than life to emerge from the scene-chewing going on. And, most of the actors are able to be loud while putting in some interesting nuances to their characters. Actors Ju Ji-Hoon / 주지훈 as the left-hand vassal and Kim Kang-Woo /김강우 as the King are very loud and leave a large presence on screen.
Especially I laud Kim Kang-Woo for his loud portrayal of a made king!
He can pull off crazy.
Cha Ji-Yeon / 차지연
Lee Yoo-Young / 이유영
Even the supporting actress Lee Yoo-Young / 이유영 playing the rival and Cha Ji-Yeon / 차지연 playing queen are notable. It is only the female main protagonist played by Lim Ji-Yeon / 임지연that isn’t.
She simply gets drowned out by the other actors.
Lim Ji-Yeon / 임지연 and Kim Kang-Woo /김강우
This is a huge problem especially in the 4th and final acts when the melodrama kicks into high grear. Before then, her character was more of a device.
Watching “The Treacherous /간신” (2015) feels like getting a “confusion” arousal that you never get a relief from. It is confusing because, while there is a lot of artistry in filming the nudity and there is a lot of it, the context of the nudity is oppressive and abusive. You are not sure whether you should be aroused by what you are seeing in the first place. At the same time, you cannot help being a little aroused because of the beauty on the screen.
It is just hugely stressful.
From the description of the movie, another Korean movie “The Concubine” (2012) comes to mind. In comparison, “The Treacherous /간신” (2015) is a far more watchable and streamlined movie even with its issues.
I was far less bore with “The Treacherous /간신” (2015)!
Overall “The Treacherous /간신” (2015) is an interesting but stressful watch and I am not even talking about the poor latter parts. However, since its objective is to be stressful, I cannot put blame on the movie for being successful. It is an interesting movie for a specific kind of moviegoers even with its faults. Considering its issues, I give it a B+ grade. If the movie stopped at the 90-minute point, it would have gotten an A-.
Score: B+ or 7.5/10