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Original Title:
Bangja jeon

South Korea 2010

Period Drama, Romance

Kim Dae-woo

Kim Joo-hyeok
Jo Yeo-jeong
Ryoo Seung-beom
Oh Dal-soo
Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong

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The Servant

Story: Bang-ja (Kim Joo-hyeok) is hired as a servant for the aristocrat Mong-ryeong (Ryoo Seung-beom). At a party the daughter of a gisaeng, Chun-hyang (Jo Yeo-jeong), gives a dancing performance and not only Bang-ja instantly succumbs to her charms. Mong-ryeong wants to get to know her better as well and sends his servant to arrange it. However, she is boorishly approached by another aristocrat and Bang-ja gives him a lesson for that. The servant has achieved his aim and could impress Chun-hyang and her servant Dan-hyang (Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong) with his actions. Bang-ja may be of a lower status but he still doesn't want to give up on Chun-hyang and asks Mr. Ma (Oh Dal-soo) for advice. Ma teaches him a few tricks how to win over a woman. But Mong-ryeong is also interested in the girl and being an aristocrat he also has a far better chance to get her, especially since Chun-hyang's mother wants to marry her daughter to a rich person. Despite all that Bang-ja still succeeds in conquering Chun-hyang's heart. He has to promise her to help arrange more meetings with Mong-ryeong, though. Nervertheless, the way it is the love triangle can't work out for long...

Review: Surprisingly "The Servant" became a box-office hit in Korea and this even though the film got the Category III rating, which somewhat equals a NC-17 rating, because of some more naked skin shown than usual. This is a bit strange since this is a period drama that gets by without any action and works exclusively because of its story and the dialogues. Maybe that's because the film takes a well-known story in Korea, which is that of the gisaeng daughter Chun-hyang, and puts the focus on one of the side characters and by doing so illuminates new aspects of the story. Most probably the movie's success, not only the commercial one, is based on director Kim Dae-woo's golden hand when it comes to such plots. Kim was also responsible for "The Forbidden Quest" and he also wrote the script to "The Scandal" and "An Affair". Kim is fond of stories that take place during the Joseon dynasty and make fun of the lives of aristocrats as well as highlight the drama that results from power games. This time he once again proves his skills in this respect.

With his former works Kim Dae-woo already managed to achieve what so many other directors before him didn't: They aroused my interest in the Joseon dynasty. While other works taking place in this epoch lack the necessary colors and brilliancy Kim can get all of this into his movies with a cleverly crafted screenplay. However, there is one problem right from the start. The way the director sheds light on the aristocrats, their attempts to sexual conquest and dangerous intrigues imbued with a bitter tone of sarcasm creates a certain distance to the events on screen and so there is no individual in "The Servant" that we can root for until the end. The story also toys with the fact that none of the protagonists is a really likeable character at any point in time. For that they show too many flaws. Chun-hyang is interested in her financial well-being, but she is also arrogant and almost simply for the sole purpose of self-affirmation she wants to know if she can win Mong-ryeong's heart as well.

Bang-ja poses a problem, too. He fights for his love but then there are moments when he surrenders before the boundaries his social status bestows on him. Moreover, there is always something inscrutable about him. But that's even the more the case with Mong-ryeong whose interest in the daughter of a gisaeng has to be questioned until the very end. Thus, even though it might not be easy to have full sympathy for the characters they are still a lot more complex than in your usual flick and therefore manage to keep us interested in them. "The Servant" works just because of the changing relationships of the different individuals after all. Furthermore, even the supporting characters are well drawn. Mr. Ma gives Bang-ja some lessons about how to conquer a woman and by doing so he is also responsible for some of the funniest scenes in the movie while Dan-hyang's love interest in Bang-ja also gets a few minutes of space in the film.

Despite the praise the story deserves for its complexity and the many twists it also has to be criticized that "The Servant" lacks a certain coherence concerning its tone. Apart from the at no point intrusive humor there is also a political power struggle added to the love story. This might already have worked out in Shakespeare's hands but "The Servant" somewhere throughout loses its focus. This especially catches the eye when it comes to the ending which doesn't manage to emotionally involve the viewer as it might have been intended. However, the bed scenes are surprisingly enough very well implemented into the movie. They always remain within the boundaries of what has to be called "erotic", main actress Jo Yeo-jeong cuts a fine figure (figuratively as well), but most importantly the actors can score on a dramatic level, of course. Even more important than that, though, is that director Kim never loses sight of what's aesthetic and this especially applies to the bed scenes.

The story around Chun-hyang is one of love and virtue. Director Kim Dae-woo gives the well-known story not only a new direction by shifting the focus from Chun-hyang to Bang-ja and therefore making it his story (just as the Korean original title suggests), but he also questions the role of virtue in the story with a keen eye on aristocracy and a good portion of cynism. None of the characters behaves virtuous all throughout. That's also what makes us keep an emotional distance to the drama, but on the other side this also was Kim's intention. So even if the drama's impact might be quite shallow there are still enough fascinating things to find in "The Servant". The excellent sets and great costumes make the story come to life as does the well-written script that only lacks a bit of coherence. At the end, "The Servant" is one of those well done historical dramas of Korea, however, and there aren't that many of them to be exactly...

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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