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Original Title:
Seukaendeul - Joseon namnyeo sangyeoljisa

South Korea 2003

Drama, Comedy

Lee Jae-yong

Bae Yong-jun
Lee Mi-suk
Jeon Do-yeon
Lee So-yeon
Jo Hyun-jae
Kim Ha-kyung
Bae Seong-woo
Lee Da-eun
Seo Bo-ik
Bong Joon-ho

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Untold Scandal

aka Scandal

Story: Jo-won (Bae Yong-jun) is a womanizer who likes to paint the women he conquered. Besides art and women there isn't much in life to do for him. One day his cousin Jo (Lee Mi-suk) calls for him and tells him of the 16-years old So-ok (Lee So-yeon), who is soon to become the concubine of an aristocrat. She asks Jo-won to conquer her and impregnate her so that she can escape her faith. However, Jo-won isn't interested in such an easy capture. He has more an eye for the virginal Suk (Jeon Do-yeon), who has vowed to live in abstinence since the death of her then soon-to-be husband. Jo thinks it's impossible for him to win her over and thus makes a bet with her cousin. If he should really conquer her she promises him one night with her as she knows that this is something he is dreaming about for a long time already. But Jo-won's charm doesn't seem to be enough to win Suk's sympathy. Soon he realizes that has to bring all his tricks and wrinkle to the game in order to have even the slightest of chances, but this fuels his interest in her even more. As things unfold, though, he gets more and more tangled up in a net of deception and betrayal so that his game starts to become a dangerous one and not just for him alone.

Review: The subject of the story should be familiar by now. Choderlos de Laclos' epistolary novel "Les Liaisons dangereuses" has already been the material for a well-known Hollywood adaption with the title "Dangerous Liaisons" but has also been the inspiration for other movies as well. Now Korean director Lee Jae-yong takes the subject into his hands and shifts his story to the Joseon dysnasty which is characterized by Confucianism. The plot fits there perfectly as we soon get to understand and after his successful directoral debut "An Affair" and "Asako in Ruby Shoes" Lee can deliver a very convinving costume drama, that balances drama and discreet comedy quite well. The beautiful pictures and sets, the outstanding actors and the consistently interesting story make "Untold Scandal" a movie that you can't do anything wrong with. A good portion of eroticism, the kind of you wouldn't expect from a Korean movie from the year 2003 gives the overall picture a cherry on the cake. Therefore, Lee Jae-yong delivers a costume drama two years before "The King and the Clown" which might not have gotten its kind of a hype, but nonetheless is working on at least the same level qualitywise.

Bae Yong-jun ("April Snow", "Winter Sonata") plays the lustful womanizer and he does so with such persuasive power that we think of him as despicable at the latest when he seduces a 16-years old, who he actually was supposed to show how to write an appealing love letter to her real truelove. From that moment on Jo-won has lost any good will that we might have had towards him at the beginning. The pure and innocent love of the 16-years old towards a naive/good-natured man of her age has no chance to persist in the abominable world of aristocracy. Jo-won destroys something when he introduces the young girl to the world of lust, which is only a means for him and every other aristocrat to fill out the inner void with at least something. That doesn't make us sympathize with Jo-won, though. This is also one of the film's problems, because there is no doubt, also because the story doesn't stray far from the original material, which path fate holds for Jo-won and the viewer is left with a feeling of satisfaction when Jo-won gets what he deserves.

Jeon Do-yeon ("Secret Sunshine", "My Dear Enemy") plays the hard to get and chastily Suk. She is avoiding men and seems to be an emotional ice cube. Even the more reason for Jo-won to seduce her. Finally, there actually seems to be a challenge! Suk is also living according to christian teachings and secluded from the rest of the world which naturally makes Jo-won's attempts of conquering her even more difficult. In fact, it even seems impossible for him to get access to Suk in any form, but of course Jo-won is a master of his art which is why he still has some subtle and mean tricks up his sleeve. He is a master manipulator and the women of Korea's Joseon dynasty don't seem to have much self-assertion which they could counter the attempts of a brash man with. Somehow this is annoying since the women in the movie really seem to be fair game waiting to be taken by anyone. Still, this impression is deceptive because as Jo tells her "protégé" So-ok women in aristocrat society also have their secret lovers. You just don't talk about it.

In Joseon dynasty, which is strongly influenced by Confucian thoughts, it's even frowned upon when a woman looks at a man. In this context the actions of the protagonists are even more scandalous. To the outside nice appearances are kept up but behind closed doors the real morally despicable life of aristocracy is revealed. Director Lee displays this fact especially effective by drawing the life of the aristocrats in every detail. The costumes, the food, the art and the beautiful gardens also add up to a perfect picture which stands in strong contrast to the foul core of these people. The wonderful sets and shots can't be praised enough and therefore "Untold Scandal" is even recommendable to those who are actually pretty familiar with the story. Apart from that the individual characters are interesting enough to be entertaining one way or the other the whole running time. Not to forget that the movie also has some hot erotic scenes in store. Almost every actress can be seen topless, but all these scenes don't seem to be unnecessary, on the contrary, they are adding to the impact of the story.

The historical frame and the great pictures of the movie give the story a well fitting exterior and the characters are all believable and compelling, every one in its own way. The movie's pacing is appealing at all times even though it is only natural for a drama to strike some more quiet chords most of the time. However, the drama is loosened up by some well done, unobtrusive humorous moments which give "Untold Scandal" a special touch. This is especially the case with the beginning when the light heartedness with which Jo-won handles his female conquests is in the film's focus. When Jo-won has chosen Suk as his sole target there is naturally more drama sneaking into the film, but the viewer isn't unprepared when it comes to that. Somehow you already know how the movie has to end, even if you aren't familiar with the original story, but that's not really that much of a problem as director Lee steers his movie to the inevitable finale with a steady hand. Therefore, "Untold Scandal" is a well done costume drama of which Korea actually hasn't that many. For this fact alone the movie is recommendable. The beautiful technical adaption and the great actors add to the positive overall picture, too.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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