Story: A maid is found dead and hanging in her room in the royal palace. The court's female doctor,
Chun-ryung (Park Jin-hee) performs an autopsy on the body only to reveal that there are no inidications of suicide.
Quite to the contrary, she finds clues that strongly suggest murder. But the servant girls' supervisor will hear
nothing of it. A murder in the king's palace would amount to a scandal, so the official statement over the death
of the maid states a simple case of suicide to be the cause. Chun-ryung however discovers something even
more alarming. The deceased was mother to a child of which no record could be found. Servants are strictly forbidden
to have relationships with men because they are required to save their virginity for the king. Any digression is
punishable by death. Yet another reason why Chun-ryung encounters only deaf ears and closed mouths during her
investigations is that if anything were to become known, other maids would also be faced with dire consequences.
Chun-ryung comes to the conclusion that the murderer must be a person of high standing. If she truly wants to uncover
the truth she must first unravel the intrigue at court. But she's playing a very dangerous game...
Review: "Shadows in the Palace" is a very interesting mystery/thriller, even the more because of its accumilation
of female protagonists, its suspenseful intrigues and its setting during the Chosun dynasty. Sadly, the film doesn't
come close to what it could have been, especially due to the horror elements thrown into the mix later on.
For instance when the noticeable supernatural aspect finally comes into view on the screen in the form of a ghost with
long black hair, the atmosphere that "Shadows in the Palace" was able to build up until that point quickly dissipates
and the picture loses alot of its unique quality. Of course the film doesn't just build up suspense through intrigue,
but especially through the psychological horror that the servant girls have to endure. The view we are offered of the
life of a maid is definitely not a pretty one. Obediance and fear dominate this life.
Servant girls at court live exclusively for their masters and are subject to a strict system of hierarchy that is honored at all times. This is shown over and over with increasing impact. When a superior wants to speak to a servant girl, she must first state a reason to the girl's group supervisor, otherwise the girl will not even be called forward. Men and women are also housed in different wings of the palace. If someone strays into the opposite wing it may be considered close to a crime.
As if this weren't enough for them, the servant girls make each other's life into a living hell. And mere bullying is just the simplest form of this. These women are so afraid of being punished that they will stop at nothing to clear up uncomfortable incidents. The head of the servants repeatedly tortures her inferiors, locking them up in cramped dungeons and pushing them into mental exhaustion and unconsciousness. In an especially brutal scene, we see how red-hot needles are shoved under the fingers of one girl. This is just one of many moments when we have to turn away from the screen fighting a wave of disgust.
The professionalism with which the servant girls torture is also quite surprising. It's almost as if such methods are accepted as norm. The poor tortured soul is immediately shoved into a closet and all of the other girls return to their work, innocently stitching away as soon as one of the other heads walk past.
These moments, along with the dense atmosphere, are what makes "Shadows in the Palace" work so well. We are provided with a fascinating insider's look into the life of women in this time and it is also the first film set in the Chosun era that has been able to captivate me. This is mainly due to the beautiful sets, partly left over from the filming of "The King and the Clown", and the partially gloomy, somehow mysterious lighting. The wonderful costumes and make-up achieve the rest, pulling us into another time and place. A full score on the technical aspect can be rewarded Kim Mi-jeong on this, her debut film as a director.
Unfortunately this film has a few serious problems going into the second half. The story is pretty good but not enough to fill a full two hours. From the time when most of the entanglements of the plot have been unraveled, more and more ghost and horror themes are woven into it. This seems to be completely unnecessary and just fills gaps, because the real horror is actually developed in the intrigues at court and the relationships between the characters. Had the film continued on this level and been cut a little accordingly, lengths and confusing moments could have been avoided. It is also quite difficult to keep track of who holds what position and how they are addressed in the beginning. This seems to be a natural feature of movies about intrigues at court, but in this one they are unnaturally complicated by the supernatural component towards the end. At this point we also realize that the film feels a bit too constructed. This is compensated however by the last visually pleasing shot.
This picture is mainly about women and so there are only one or two men that appear in supporting roles in the entire length. This is exactly what makes "Shadows in the Palace" so interesting. Besides, all of the actresses show us a great performance, even though Park Jin-hee ("Love in Magic", "War of Money") isn't able to give the best one of all. However, it is enough for us to be able to identify ourselves with her character. Towards the end we do lose a bit of the emotional bond to her, which is unfortunate because in losing interest in her fate we also lose our connection to the emotional content of the film.
"Shadows in the Palace" is a mystery/thriller of a different kind, successful through its dense atmosphere and wonderful sets, as well as its toning lighting, but lacking in the end by throwing away its potential with the introduction of cliché horror effects. It becomes unnecessarily muddled and leaves a bit of a bitter aftertaste. Nevertheless, it remains one unique film that mystery/thriller fans shouldn't miss.