간신 (The Treacherous)

A Soo Film Production
Distribution: Lotte Entertainment
Rating: 18 and Over
Genre: Sageuk
Running Time: 131 Min
Shooting Time: 2014/09/01~2014/12/30 (63 Dates)
Release: 2015/May/21

WITH 주지훈 (Joo Ji-Hoon) as Im Soong-Jae; 김강우 (Kim Gang-Woo) as Yeonsan; 천호진 (Cheon Ho-Jin) as Im Sa-Hong; 임지연 (Im Ji-Yeon) as Dan-Hee; 이유영 (Lee Yoo-Young) as Seoljungmae; 송영창 (Song Young-Chang) as Yu Ja-Gwang; 조한철 (Jo Han-Cheol) as Park Won-Jong; 차지연 (Cha Ji-Yeon) as Jang Nok-Soo/Pansori Voiceover; 장광 (Jang Gwang) as Chief State Councilor; 기주봉 (Gi Ju-Bong) as Kim; 정인기 (Jung In-Gi) as Head of Sungkyunkwan;

CREW Director 민규동 (Min Gyu-Dong) Executive Producer 민진수 (Min Jin-Soo) | Screenplay 이윤성 (Lee Yoon-Seong) 민규동 (Min Gyu-Dong) | Director of Photography 박홍렬 (Park Hong-Ryeol) Lighting 정해지 (Jung Hae-Ji) Editor 김선민 (Kim Seon-Min) Music 김준성 (Kim Jun-Seong) Art Direction 김지오 (Kim Ji-Oh) Costumes 이진희 (Lee Jin-Hee) Action Choreography 신재명 (Shin Jae-Myeong) 이태영 (Lee Tae-Young) | Assistant Director 박선 (Park Seon)

KOFIC Nationwide
TOTAL REVENUE: 8,878,596,310 Won
BUDGET: 7,000,000,000 Won

Photo © Soo Film, Lotte Entertainment


The story of Joseon's tyrant king Yeonsan who exploits the populace for his own carnal pleasures, his seemingly loyal retainer who controls him and all court dealings, and a woman who seeks vengeance. [Wikipedia]


One of the most intriguing aspects of sageuk as a genre is how allegorical it can be. This is not just a result of our tendency to conveniently change our approach to history so that it will fit our agenda (the ultimate reason why historical revisionism exists), but a natural effect of eerily recurring trends in history. It's the age old mantra that keeps following us: our clothes and habits might have evolved over the centuries, but at the core we're still the same curious, mad little monsters, basking in the dark among demons of our own creation, in search of some light that will explain it all. Admittedly, the works capable of taking advantage of such tremendous potential for introspection are few and far between, for a simple reason: most people approaching this genre don't have the emotional latitude and period awareness to see history as more than a collection of random events where at the end of a chapter a winner is chosen (generally based on what we seek from said victory, shaping the way we judge the consequences of any event). Most sageuk are just content with either glorifying the winners to titillate the patriotic fervor of their purveyors, or exploiting any particular period or figure to indirectly say something about the present.

In that sense, the word 간신 (姦臣, treacherous subject) is perhaps the most deceptively intriguing of them all, because it embodies how history is a game of smoke and mirrors whose meaning can change based on the viewpoint, intellectual scope and ultimate purpose of its beholders. Especially when it comes to a subject as divisive as that of Yeonsan's rule, Joseon historiography's most controversial ruler. Ever since Shin Young-Gyun began playing the supposedly mad tyrant in 1962, both Chungmuro and the TV industry have exploited this tremendously fascinating figure in ways that ultimately did him very little justice – painting him as either an aberrant wastrel who should have never donned royal garbs or a misunderstood mamaboy who became victim of political machinations. Few have been able to give him an edge as an astute politician with a keen insight of the climate surrounding him – at this point just about everyone familiar with my writings will know I'll be mentioning Jung Ha-Yeon.

But even Jung, in his amazing displays of period awareness over the years, couldn't quite go as far as conveying the mood of an era through means that weren't characterization, dialogue and narrative – for obvious reasons. That's because while Yeonsan has been part of over a dozen TV dramas from the early 1970s onwards and a good half dozen films, the scope of all those works always seemed limited to a few central figures, forgetting that perhaps it was everything that surrounded them that shaped those days more than anything.

There is a brilliant line in Min Gyu-Dong's first sageuk that almost by itself tries to fulfill at least some of that untapped potential, regardless of the fact that the film itself only treats Yeonsan as a tangential means to convey its message: while taking part in the ritual Cheoyong dance, Yeonsan asks his subject Im Soong-Jae whether he, like everyone else in the court, thinks that he's crazy. Im almost dismisses his worries, saying that “who would be able to survive these derelict themes, if not for madness?” If you have even only a passing interest in that period of Joseon history, that kind of line would probably make you salivate with anticipation: it wasn't Yeonsan or Lady Yoon or the heads of the parties embroiled in some of the heaviest political strife Korean history had ever known that were “crazy,” depending on where your ideological compass points to. It was the era itself that tore ethics and humanism to shreds, producing harrowing results like the rule of Yeonsan.

And the smartest thing Min, an astute but depressingly uneven director, could do to represent that madness was stripping the characters of their party colors and the sageuk canon itself of all its factual technobabble and focus on visceral humanism (or the complete lack of it). This film pulsates with so much glorious decadence, nihilism, vitriol and negative energy that it helps you detach from the simple mechanics of approaching a historical period and its central figures in a vacuum and approach all of this with a more philosophical (and thus “humanistic”) slant. I don't think the madness and decadence of this period has ever been portrayed this unflinchingly well as this film does.

To achieve this, the young director needed a fine cast, but the amount of overachieving here is so overwhelming, I challenge anyone to have expected something of this quality: on paper he had someone who had a hard time delivering in contemporary dramas (Joo Ji-Hoon), a technically adept but overly mechanical underachiever (Kim Gang-Woo), two incredibly promising but raw youngsters (Lee Yoo-Young and Im Ji-Yeon), and the usual assorted array of talented but often inconsequential veterans. The result? Kim Gang-Woo delivers the most riveting portrayal of Yeonsan since Yoo In-Chon's deliriously charismatic antics in 임꺽정 (Im Kkeokjeong), for once using his technical aplomb to go all Shakespeare on us; Joo gives the performance of a lifetime, balancing poise, cadence and pathos that he never even hinted at before. And the two ladies are just buckets of fire, particularly an incensed Lee Yoo-Young – Im still struggles a bit technique-wise, but she's got so much screen presence that in a few years she'll potentially be one of the 5-6 best actresses of her generation. Great acting across the board, unexpectedly so.

Min achieves this overarching pathos by employing many a stylistic and narrative device: Von Trier-like super slow-mo with the infamous Phantom Camera, using voiceovers via pansori as the main narrative bridge of the film, and serving the viewer with the kind of scale, brutality and sexuality that rarely make their way to any big screen shores, let alone sageuk ones. This is one of the most sexually charged Korean films of all time, one that uses sexuality as pure energy – in a way that would make Lee Myung-Se and his obsessive visual storytelling proud. But for all the sex, the blood and guts spilled in what's a slightly overlong film (but one that never overstays its welcome), Min manages not only to effectively portray the madness of an era long gone by, but allegorically connect it to the present – conveying the loneliness of power in a way that is a lot less romantic than the sageuk canon has taught us to interpret it as.

We live in an era where “subjects” fear becoming treacherous only because it would impact their bottom line, not for its intrinsic implications. That ethical pragmatism is the same that created the era of decadence and extreme turmoil which could only produce a ruler like Yeonsan. Perhaps we've “evolved” to the point that the decadence isn't as obvious and explicit as it used to be back in that era, but don't think that the “blood” spilled today is any less harrowing. And there is nothing able to convey that connection, that constant dialogue between past and present as well as a fine sageuk can do.

This, as misinterpreted by critics as an empty erotic drama as it might have been, is one of the finest of recent memory.


85 김강우 (Kim Gang-Woo)
80 이유영 (Lee Yoo-Young)
78 천호진 (Cheo Ho-Jin)
76 주지훈 (Joo Ji-Hoon)
75 임지연 (Im Ji-Yeon)
74 송영창 (Song Young-Chang)
72 차지연 (Cha Ji-Yeon)
70 조한철 (Jo Han-Cheol)
70 장광 (Jang Gwang)
70 정인기 (Jung In-Gi)
64 기주봉 (Gi Ju-Bong)

~ Last Update: 2015/06/17

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