[Starting with this installment, we'll feature some of the most interesting films to grace Korean shores from before the mid 1990s renaissance, which does have its roots (amongst a million other reasons) in late 80s social protest films, the "proto-blockbusters" of the early-to-mid 90s democratization and the VHS blank-filling impetus of chaebol groups, but symbolically started with the success of films like 은행나무 침대 (The Gingko Bed) in 1996. This is why our first "chapter" focuses on 1995's most underappreciated work, by putting it in context and taking a larger look at the historical drama genre from its very inception, and the way it evolved into today's enigmatic beast. As always, colorful rambling and endless digressions will ensue, so prepare yourself for a long read.
"Nunc ubi Regulus aut ubi Romulus aut ubi Remus? Stat Roma pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus (Now where is Regulus, Romulus, or Remus? Only in name stands the Rome of yore, empty names we behold."
- Bernard of Cluny
If history at its most fascinating is a dialogue between past and present, the ongoing, controversial and unpredictable dialogue between Chungmuro and 사극 (sageuk, historical dramas) is amongst the most intriguing subjects in all of Korean cinema discourse, regardless of whether you have any actual interest in history or not. Intriguing because it's never been a story of nearly unconditional love, like the industry's obsession with the dynamics of melodrama, but rather a fragmented and ambiguous affair made of betrayals, last minute reconciliations and long periods of indifference, making you wonder what is at the core of such peculiar love-hate legacy. It could very well be a by-product of the Korean psyche, so proud of its rich history yet never really mature enough to look back at those often bittersweet memories with a critical eye. Or it could be an inevitable sign that the love for cinema Koreans have often shown was and still is as fickle and elusive as it could be fervently passionate.
Consider, for instance, that two costume dramas (calling them sageuk would be a tad excessive) dealing with the same exact story marked two of the most important landmarks in the history of this medium: Lee Myung-Woo's 춘향전 (The Story of Chunhyang)
from 1935 was in fact Korea's very first talkie, while Lee Gyu-Hwan's 춘향전 (Chunhyang Story)
from 1955 was the spark which ignited the postwar renaissance of Korean cinema. The peculiarity of such occurrence ends when you consider that this is one of the staples of Korean folklore
, and that from 1923's version filmed by Hayakawa Kosyu down to Im Kwon-Taek's 2000 version, nearly two dozen installments have graced the big screen. Or, even better, you can consider it just one element of the bigger picture, that of Korean directors' suspiciously familiar choice of subjects when it comes to sageuk. No matter which stance you take vis-a-vis controversial kingdoms like Gojoseon and Goguryeo, the history of what is today known as Korea spans millennia, and is filled to the brim with fascinating figures, stories tailor made for a 24 frames per second treatment. Yet, a look at the annals of this genre, and you will only be graced with slim pickings, a few dozen names repeated over and over. What could be the reason?
Maybe the moniker itself is to blame: Koreans have always used sageuk (short for 역사극, yeoksageuk, word which combines history and drama), but plenty of genre offerings which dealt with famous historical figures were not much different from the quintessential Shaw Brothers costume extravaganza, like the films of Chor Yuen and Chang Cheh dealing with Gu Long or Jin Yong texts, often throwing historical accuracy out of the window at the altar of visceral catharsis. Yet, there might be something beyond visceral thrills at play here, explaining why Korean historical dramas (both on TV and on the big screen) tend to favor a very limited number of subjects. Perhaps it's the nature of how Koreans see history itself, particularly after decades of Japanese occupation and a fratricidal war whose ideological and cultural implications still linger on to this day. So, all of a sudden, the retelling of something as obvious as the maniacal and destructive thirst for power of Lady Jang (Jang Heebin) or Prince Yeonsan's tyranny
become all the more alluring for the average moviegoer, because it's familiar history with a familiar conclusion, without any burdensome variation on the main theme.
Set aside how the stories end (and here we actually are dealing with plenty of tragedies), the sense of security this generates can be a catharsis of its own, a very significant and somewhat enthralling variation on the tumultuous everyday life Koreans have had to endure for the last two hundred years, almost non-stop. That is the reason why many a Korean sageuk are less about history perse than they are about humanizing certain facets of important historical figures (or events), in turn achieving that "dialogue" between past and present, without the burden of actually observing history with a critical eye, and discerning what was mere fabrication written by the winners from what was more likely to be the truth (or the closest thing to it that can exist). It's in that light that one should analyze the legacy of this genre, as a medium for venting out the average Korean's relationship with certain social mores or trends, without actually sticking to facts (which contemporary dramas would more or less require), or offering any commentary on the matter (what sageuk, in theory, should be about).
1950s: THE FILLING IN THE BLANKS ERA
A good example is the kind of sageuk which graced screens during the postwar renaissance. Although the only true hits of 1955 were two costume dramas, the aforementioned Chunhyang Story
and Kim Ki-Young's curious 양산도 (Yangsan Province)
, and it would take until 1959 and Jeon Chang-Geun's 고종황제와 의사 안중근 (King Gojong and Martyr Ahn Jung-Geun)
to see another sageuk make a mark at the box office, the genre in the mid to late 1950s was dominated by romanticism. What's interesting about this period is that the majority of sageuk in the 1950s were about female figures, and it wasn't merely a matter of trying to appeal to female viewers: as Jung Ha-Yeon's masterful docudrama 명동백작 (The Count of Myeongdong)
suggested, female classical opera
was at the time the entertainment venue of choice for Koreans, led by pioneers like Im Chun-Aeng with a combination of pansori, flamboyant costumes and often madly overwrought melodramas with crowd-pleasing finales. What often happened is that you'd see such operas be moved to the big screen after a successful run, which is why many of those stories focus on the plight of princesses or queens.
This "female sensibility" which led the 1950s sageuk canon meant that the focus wouldn't be on war or political intrigue, but rather on how the individual coped with their surroundings, or what their status often took away from their lives as a person. That is why many examples from the period tend to to lack historical relevance, often finding refuge in the warm and ambiguous covers of the Three Kingdoms
period, which is still very obscure to the mainstream eye (unlike Joseon or, to a lesser extent, Goryeo), and hence less demanding in terms of realism and accuracy. It was in many ways the "filling in the blanks" era, filled with vague historical backgrounds and even more questionable storylines, such as Korean history's own take on the Romeo & Juliet canon, Kim So-Dong's 1956 film 왕자호동과 낙랑공주 (Prince Hodong and Princess Nakrang)
, the first of an almost interminable series of TV dramas and films based on the ancient legend, last in line being SBS' 자명고 (Princess Jamyung)
The influence female classical opera had on sageuk of the 1950s is actually relevant for another reason: it's something that didn't stop with sageuk alone, but when you look at the genesis of the genre both on TV and the big screen, you'll find similar patterns. TV dramas, for instance, started en masse in the 60s, by mostly gathering writers from the radio drama industry. Radio dramas themselves were largely influenced by novels of the 1920-30s - in the case of historical dramas, the work of people like Lee Gwang-Soo and Park Jong-Hwa, whose 금상의 피 (Blood on the Royal Garments)
pretty much influenced every Prince Yeonsan story told from the early 1960s up to Lee Joon-Ik's 왕의 남자 (The King and The Clown)
. In the evolutionary tree of big screen sageuk of the time you'd often find that a novel was at the core, story which was either turned into a female classical opera (at least up to the 1950s) or a radio drama, after which it would finally make its way to theaters.
This might very well be the secret behind the success of many big screen sageuk of the 1960s, from Jung Chang-Hwa's 장희빈 (Lady Jang)
in 1961 all the way to Shin Sang-Ok's 내시 (Eunuch)
in 1968: they already had proven their popularity on other venues before reaching the big screen, so even the larger budget wasn't much of a risk. But, after all, that's the same thing that happened to films like 자유부인 (Madame Freedom)
, which first started as a serialized (and furiously controversial) newspaper novel, was turned into one of the representative films of Chungmuro's mid 1950s renaissance, and a successful theater play by Myeongdong regular Lee Hae-Rang as well.1960s: GOOD GUYS FINISH LAST
Ironically, whereas 1950s sageuk focused on romance and humanism and were in many ways a lot more progressive and provocative than you'd think, the historical dramas which dominated the decade after were drenched in a rather pronounced conservative slant, in no small part because of the advent of Park Jung-Hee's junta. Films of the period were much more patriarchal, with men of honor and repute taking center stage (kings or national heroes, usually) and rarely deviating from the norm, which often made the so called "Golden Age" only a matter of quantity over quality, especially when it came to this genre, one of the most popular. One of the other reasons goes back to the aforementioned formula: a lot of what you'd see on the big screen had already been done to death through other media (classical opera, theater, radio dramas, and later TV), with stories more or less focusing on the same half dozen figures, from Prince Yeonsan (Joseon's most infamous tyrant) to Empress Myeongseong
(the shrewd political player assassinated by the Japanese), from King Sukjong
falling for enchantress Lady Jang (Joseon's quintessential femme fatale) to the palace war between Jung Nan-Jeong and Queen Munjeong
. You'll notice a pattern here, the fact that most of these figures had a very dramatic, in many ways flawed life. King Sejong is the most beloved ruler in all of Korean history, yet he barely got a few flicks out of decades of prosperity and ninety years of Korean films. But counting how many films dealt with Lady Jang's shenanigans or Prince Yeonsan's despotic fury would take quite some time. In the Korean cinema of the 60s, good guys always finished last.
This is not to say that diversity was not a factor, because with around two hundred films produced every year, you certainly would find a good number of curious works, from the Shaw Brothers-influenced sageuk of the Godfather of Korean action, Jung Chang-Hwa, to what would become the incipit of the folk horror series 전설의 고향 (Hometown of Legends)
canon, Shin Sang-Ok's 천년호 (Thousand Year Old Fox)
. But, again, the norm were trite melodramas with very little in the way of realism and historical accuracy, not to mention relevance. For instance, many postwar historical circles tend to view Lady Jang as a scapegoat, a political victim of King Sukjong's astute maneuvering, but you would never get that from a 1960s sageuk, particularly as it could suggest a connection with similar practices by the powers that be (go watch Im Sang-Soo's take on the matter, if you want to see what the president's last bang was really about); there is also a growing consensus amongst historians on Yeonsan and his mother Lady Yoon, turning them from the mad tyrant and despicable femme fatale of yore to two political players victims of their own time. But of course all we got from the several Yeonsan epics in Chungmuro was a just ruler who goes batty because of a bloody garment and his raging mother complex. Were it not for so many striking exceptions to the rule, the Sixties would have remained an era of shallow, repetitive and unimaginative copycats, extending a franchise which started elsewhere, and pestering theaters until they had run the genre dry.
Although when talking about censorship in Korean cinema the 1970s are usually mentioned, what happened in the 1960s was a sort of self-censorship in itself, with roots in the commercial sphere more than anything strictly ideological. "Different" films were indeed made, and some of them managed to achieve cult status even overseas - no need to introduce 오발탄 (The Aimless Bullet)
or 하녀 (The Housemaid)
. Yet, as it's often the case with mature film industries reaching the apex of their popularity, the overwhelming majority of what was produced consisted of star vehicles of little merit, often starring the same four-five faces - the scene with gangsters frantically carrying a film star from one set to the other in Im Kwon-Taek's 하류인생 (Raging Years)
is not exactly fiction, in that sense. What perhaps made this decade special was the passion shown by moviegoers, who - in contrast with the 50s and 70s - treated films as the foremost form of entertainment, and their favorite past time. This in turn galvanized the industry into producing more energetic, and in many ways more exciting films. Say what you will about Chungmuro's output in the 60s, but the often shallow spectacle and the roaring screen presence of the stars of the day often made up for any narrative shortcomings. Seen in that light, the sageuk of the 1960s weren't exactly intellectually stimulating, but as for being fun... there is little doubt about that.
1970s: THE FLAG OF OUR FATHERS
The general myth is that censorship and excessive government intervention is what killed Korean cinema in the 1970s, but that is a rather superficial take on the matter, only seen from the business end of things. Yes, a lot of films were literally mutilated by a revised motion picture law that the government introduced in 1973, but that didn't stop auteurs from making good films (hell, the stricter script reviewing process which cut anything objectionable forced them to get a lot more creative in pushing their message, on the contrary). What truly spelled Chungmuro's demise was something else: TV. Whereas TV sets had been relegated to a fancy toy for affluent families for a large part of the 60s, the television industry was one of the very first to benefit from Korea's rapid development, paving the way for cheaper TV sets and an increasingly significant market penetration already by the early 1970s. With more and more sets becoming the core entertainment venue of your average 1970s middle-class Korean, it was only inevitable that cinemas would suffer. If you add a troika of phenomenally popular TV dramas actually moving people to buy sets, then you'll see how the fate of Chungmuro's 1970s was decided even before Park Jung-Hee and his yes-men put the final nail in the coffin with their policies.
First was TBC's 아씨 (Milady)
in 1970, then KBS' 여로 (Journey)
the year after - modeled after the former, admittedly - and finally Kim Soo-Hyun's very first hit on TV, the influential 새엄마 (Stepmother)
in 1973. Millions of people bought TV sets to watch those shows as a cheap alternative to a date at the movies, something which could be enjoyed from the comfort of your living room. It seemed like the end would be near for Chungmuro, and historical dramas along with it, but sageuk reinvented themselves as a sort of government propaganda tool - much more so than contemporary dramas, because you could easily mask bleeding-heart patriotism and glamorize the junta's hegemony by bringing back triumphs of yore, giving them a new and improved luster. It wasn't the first time history was exploited for the sake of patriotism, but a lot of 1970s sageuk reflected this desire by the government to instill pride in the Korean people's hearts and foment the will to all work together for the sake of their country (even if that meant losing the individual freedom they so spuriously castrated). How they did so is kind of curious, as the figures this decade focused on were mostly "reinterpreted" by historians like Shin Chae-Ho
during the colonial period to foment a similar kind of patriotism, the only difference being that it was seen as a noble effort back then, and vile propaganda now.
Gone was the Shakespearean pathos of negative but dramatic figures like Yeonsan, now replaced by righteous national heroes like King Sejong or Admiral Lee Soon-Shin, who had been unjustly neglected by the annals of history before freedom fighters-cum-nationalist historians like Shin put the spotlight on him. The result were somber quasi-biopics with the subtlety of a North Korean ode to the Great Leader, films often ignored by the public, who favored much more diverse (yet equally "educative") fare on TV, often focusing on the same figures. Sure enough, with the exception of Lee Gyu-Woong's 1971 film 성웅 이순신 (Lee Soon-Shin, The Great General)
, the only historical drama registering a blip at the box office during the 1970s was the umpteenth installment of the Chunhyang saga, this time directed by Lee Seong-Gu. Sageuk were on the brink of demise as the industry approached the 1980s, right as the TV industry was ready to pave the way for a revolution which would change the genre forever. It sounds like the most obvious of developments, but after decades of covering the same subjects with little to no analysis and/or interpretation, real history was ready to knock at historical dramas' door.
1980s: BETWEEN THE KNEES
It's hard to blame or give merit to one single person when dealing with epochal changes, but when it comes to what happened to this genre in the 1980s, you certainly could make a case for it. We have so far discussed the reasons why Korean filmmakers' approach to the historical drama canon had been so limited (either fueling the average Korean's thirst for predictable and vicarious catharsis, or reenacting success stories from other media), but one really important explanation we left out is perhaps the simplest of them all: history is not exactly an easy subject to tackle, particularly if you want to do it right. Most pioneers writing historical dramas for the radio, like Lee Seo-Gu, were either history majors or had a (pardon the pun) long history of dealing with these subjects, as did the novelists who made the historical epic one of the most popular genres in all of Korean literature for decades. Without the benefit of such background, you were presented with a lone alternative: abandoning the impossibly long annals written in Chinese characters only, and plunging into much more predictable and colorful chronicles, one of the reasons why people like deluxe courtesan Hwang Jin-Yi
enjoyed more popularity than someone who almost single-handedly defeated the Japanese with his naval strategy like Admiral Lee Soon-Shin. A man named Shin Bong-Seung changed it all.
Shin had a long past on TV ever since the mid 1960s, when he and PD Kim Jae-Hyung created the basis for the development of the genre on TBC. But what he did twenty years later set the stage for a complete U-turn: he carefully read and transliterated the dozens and dozens of volumes the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty was made of, and created the landmark franchise 조선왕조500년 (500 Years of Joseon)
on MBC. Lasting eight years for a total of eleven separated series and over eight hundred episodes, this incredible achievement put the spotlight on all the major reigns of the five century long kingdom, with an eye to accuracy which the industry (both on the small and big screen) had never even dreamed of. Of course, in retrospect, some of the interpretations are a little suspicious, often trying to appease the government's stance on history a little too liberally. But if you consider that one of the shows' competitors, 개국 (The Foundation)
airing on KBS, pretty much treated Lee Seong-Gye's usurpation of the Goryeo throne like manna from heaven (in more than one way comparing it to Jeon Du-Hwan's rise to power in early 80s Korea), then there was actually very little to complain about. Yet, while authenticity and historical relevance dominated historical dramas on TV, something much simpler ruled the genre on the big screen. And that was.... boobs. Naked boobs.
One interesting - albeit flawed - explanation on why Chungmuro turned to coarse eroticism during the 80s was the idea that the Jeon Du-Hwan regime wanted to placate the viewers with sexual innuendo, the silly escapades of something like 애마부인 (Madame Aema)
releasing all the pent up frustration of the average Korean's everyday life in rather.... explosive fashion. But the most likely reason is much simpler, really: it was Chungmuro's only way out. TV was seriously reaching its golden age, both in terms of quality, quantity and diversity. You had truly something for everyone, from somber historical dramas to breezy wuxia adventures, from ultra-cool police procedurals like the 수사반장 (Chief Inspector)
referenced by 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder)
to Kim Soo-Hyun and Kim Jung-Soo's family dramas. Comedies for kids and youth dramas, rural dramas, short dramas shot with ENG cameras and a quasi-arthouse slant, works adapted from foreign masterpieces of literature, absurdist comedies and gangster thrillers... it truly was the best anyone could wish for. With a complete range of genres to choose from in the comfort of their living rooms, who would ever venture to a theater and spend their hard earned money to get their two hours of relax in such a cumbersome way? What Chungmuro did, then, was offering people what TV could never even think about: eroticism, sex and violence. And sageuk and period dramas were perhaps the biggest "offender" of the lot.
Think of Jung Jin-Woo's 자녀목 (The Hanging Tree)
and the fascinating 뻐꾸기도 밤에 우는가 (Does the Cuckoo Cry at Night)
, with one of Jung Yoon-Hee's most iconic performances; think of the sleazy 변강쇠 (Byeon Gang-Swe)
series, the precursor to things like 가루지기 (A Tale of Legendary Libido)
, which is actually a very rough retelling of a film with Lee Dae-Geun from 1988, exactly from this franchise. Some films of merit did manage to emerge, like Lee Du-Yong's 뽕 (Mulberry)
- in which Lee Mi-Sook's explosive charisma and the fact she spends half the film prancing about half naked might dominate the proceedings, but it still approached its historical background with eclectic verve - or Lee Jang-Ho's infamous 어우동 (Eoudong)
. But as far producing anything which could compete with TV's output, it was once again slim pickings. The sageuk erotica of the 80s did manage to make a mark at the box office, though. Along with Bae Chang-Ho's films, many of those erotic sageuk offerings managed to conquer the public's attention, but they also ended up bastardizing sageuk on the big screen to the point that people started associating them with coarse erotic fare. The 90s were approaching and Chungmuro was on its way to the most shocking revolution in its entire history, but big screen sageuk were a dying genre already.
1990s: THE ETERNAL EMPIRE
There is little use in looking at the list of sageuk on offer during the first half of the 1990s, because you're served with virtually nothing, unless films like 휘모리 (Hwimori)
and 서편제 (Seopyeonje)
can qualify. The last real sageuk of note Chungmuro gave us before 1995 was Bae Chang-Ho's fascinating 꿈 (Dream)
, with Ahn Sung-Gi starring as a monk falling for a provincial governor's daughter during the Unified Shilla dynasty. It's thus all the more surprising how 1995 gave us one of the first bonafide historical dramas in Korean cinema history - that is, where history counts just as much as drama - by at same time respecting old canons which colored the annals of this genre's fascinating and unnerving legacy. That is because, like many works of the 60s, 영원한 제국 (Eternal Empire)
was adapted from a novel by Ryu Cheol-Gyun, better know by his pen name Lee In-Hwa. The Daegu native had made a name for himself within literary circles with his phenomenal 1992 debut, the emphatically titled 내가 누구인지 말할 수 있는 자는 누구인가 (Who is it Who Can Say Who I Really Am)
Even before mentioning this film, talking about Lee In-Hwa would give us enough material to last a week: his Eternal Empire
was actually one of the first non-academic works to suggest that King Jeongjo of Joseon might indeed have been the victim of a politically-motivated poisoning, and so rich with allegory and that (here we go again) dialogue between past and present his second work was, some largely misguided media pundits said at the time that he was trying to glamorize Park Jung-Hee's rule by advocating for the kind of strengthening of the royal authority Jeongjo fought his entire life for. Of course, considering Park was the protagonist of his epic novel 인간의 길 (A Man's Road)
, such accusations are sort of par for the course, but his ideological slant came under the spotlight once again, in 2005, when he wrote the script for that jewel known as 청연 (Blue Swallow)
Explaining why Eternal Empire
was so revolutionary is not so easy without a lengthy introduction of its historical context, but let's just say that most historical novels dealing with the period (King Yeongjo and Jeongjo's reigns, covering the entire 18th century) would usually focus on the tragedy of Crown Prince Sado, the son whose death inside a wooden rice chest Yeongjo had to witness, for he allegedly went insane enough to jeopardize the future of the throne. What the novel (and later the film) did was actually focusing on the political consequences of the act, which drenched Jeongjo's entire rule and political motivations from day one. The history of Joseon's factional strife
began centuries earlier, but it was exactly Sado's death which ignited this diatribe, making it reach never seen before levels.
THE GOLDEN SCROLL
This tragic event ended up redesigning Korean politics from the core: the 남인 (Southerners Faction), 소론 (Soron, New Doctrine) and a small part of the 노론 (Noron, Old Doctrine) members who supported Yeongjo's policies of political equality formed the 시파 (Shipa, Party of Expediency), which suggested that Sado's alleged madness which led him to his death was concocted by the Noron party to eliminate someone who, once sitting on the throne, would have surely put them at a disadvantage, if not completely ousted them from any decision making process. On the other side of the fence was the 벽파 (Byeokpa, Party of Principle) made of the most powerful members of the Noron Party, which had always been against Yeongjo's equalization policies, and considered Sado's death a "painful" necessity to maintain the stability of the throne. Enter the new king, Jeongjo, who happened to be Sado's son, and who after witnessing his father's demise ascended to the throne with the intent of avenging this affront. Jeongjo and the Shipa against the Noron, the future of the Joseon Dynasty depending upon this fierce political war.
It's a madly complicated labyrinth of clan affiliations and old grudges, but the real brilliance behind this work is that it managed to get to the core issues of this historical period while at the same time offering you a madly intriguing mystery wrapped around it. Lee didn't merely characterize Jeongjo's actions as the vengeful whims of someone who was bearing a grudge, but as the astute machinations of a master strategist, using that alleged rancor as a pretext to justify his strengthening of royal authority, taking it from the hands of the same courtiers who had dominated Joseon politics for centuries. So you suddenly rid yourself of the drama queen histrionics which populated most sageuk of the 1960s (think of Shin Sang-Ok's two Yeonsan-related flicks, for instance), and not only gain new insight into the period's politics, but a much more intriguing story.
Perhaps the best way to describe Eternal Empire
(both the novel and film) would be by calling it Korea's own Il Nome Della Rosa (The Name of the Rose)
: in both cases we are dealing with postmodern theory (this time applied to late Joseon history), with murder mysteries solved through semiotics and rich symbolism, and that lovely aura of ambiguity pervading the entire story, down to its rather uncertain conclusion. If Eco's masterpiece dealt with Aristotle's Περὶ ποιητικῆς (Poetics)
, Lee's magnum opus deals with an imaginary book left behind by King Yeongjo, the 금등지사 (Golden Bind Manuscript). The name is rather cleverly taken from a real life manuscript, the Zhou Dynasty's Jinteng. This was a secret scroll secretly written by the Duke of Zhou, praying for King Wu's good health - this is only one of the many references to the Zhou Dynasty which appear in the book. In this case, Yeongjo's secret scroll contains words that could legitimize Jeongjo's vengeful whims: he regrets the passing of his son Sado, in effect confirming that it indeed was a conspiracy by the same Noron party which brought him to the throne, the party which rendered the king's supremacy a non-issue. This is the key behind the series of murders afflicting the court, murders which will surely enough point the finger back at political strife. And with admirable panache, the film charters this investigation in a wonderfully systematic way, from passages found in old chronicles to tiny details like what kind of charcoal was used at a victim's abode before he was murdered.
The fact a sageuk on the big screen could be drenched so deeply in historical relevance is not all that surprising, when you consider who was behind the camera. Director Park Jong-Won was in fact groomed by veteran Lee Du-Yong, and went on to adapt famous novels oozing realism: his fantastic debut 구로 아리랑 (Kuro Arirang)
in 1989 was based upon Lee Moon-Yeol's classic on the terrible conditions female labor forces in Korea were facing, and he came back three years later with one of the best films of the decade, 우리들의 일그러진 영웅 (Our Twisted Hero)
, once again adapted from a work by Lee Moon-Yeol, and starring Choi Min-Shik as a teacher in the provincial Korea of the late 50s. Those strong literary roots were perhaps Park's strongest asset, but also his most evident shortcoming, as once he removed himself from adaptations and started writing his own stories, the result wasn't as striking as his memorable first three works. His 1999 return 송어 (Rainbow Trout)
was an interesting take on the Deliverance
canon, but it's clearly showing its age despite the great ensemble cast and the fine script by 반칙왕 (The Foul King)
and 음란서생 (Forbidden Quest)
's Kim Dae-Woo, not to mention the fact it has since been topped by the similar (but much wilder and creative) 구타유발자들 (A Bloody Aria)
by Won Shin-Yeon. As for 파라다이스 빌라 (Paradise Villa)
, the least said, the better. Park has always been one of the most fascinating and underappreciated directors in Chungmuro - feeling which he confirmed in 2007, when he came back with the masterful TV sageuk 8일 (Eight Days)
, which is actually quite similar to this work. But Eternal Empire
remains his greatest achievement, despite everything it had going against it.
This was a blockbuster before the term meant anything to Koreans, spending 1.2 billion won over its nine month shoot, and boasting a cast of great veterans and talented, younger faces. Ahn Sung-Gi finally got the chance to play a king (Jeongjo), and although Ahn Nae-Sang in 한성별곡-正 (Conspiracy in the Court)
and Kim Sang-Joong in Park's own Eight Days
later improved upon his performance, he gives Jeongjo the badass gravitas only a great ruler could ooze. But set aside the fine acting of lead Jo Jae-Hyun and this film's own Sean Connery (vis-a-vis the Name of the Rose
comparisons) in Kim Myung-Gon (playing Jung Yak-Yong in a joyously energetic way), it's the amazing ensemble cast which really stands out, from Choi Jong-Won's grumpy and selfish tirades as Byeokpa head honcho Shim Hwan-Ji to the late Kim Il-Woo as a rather nefarious eunuch with a talent for conspiracy.
Looking at the way Koreans have reacted to sageuk breaking from form (that is, not moved by over the top histrionics and/or the same half dozen stories) over the decades, the abysmal box office failure of Eternal Empire
and its 46,000 tickets sold in Seoul should come as no surprise, but at least Park found his revenge at the Grand Bell Awards, where he brought home eight statuettes including best film and best director. Watching it over a decade after it was shown, and finally in its original aspect ratio (courtesy of the newly released DVD), Eternal Empire
reinforces its status as one of the very finest examples of what Korean historical dramas can do, when they truly respect their subject. What we're seeing today in terms of big screen sageuk is like a hodge-podge of the 1960s and 1980s, with empty star vehicles and films whose biggest attraction is sex dominating theaters, with very little in the way of historical relevance. And you wonder, should anyone manage to repeat the feats of this film down the line (I think someone like Kwak Jung-Hwan, if he ever decides to cross over at least once, might be able to), would people grace it with the same exact welcome?
Yes. The Jeongjo, the Yeonsan, the Lee Soon-Shin. They're now only empty names we behold, sacrificial lambs at the altar of the moviegoers' visceral whims, but sometimes you find the little gem that makes it all worth it. That reminds you what's so special about this genre. That makes it so.... well, eternal.
ON THE NEXT BACK IN THE DAY
December 29: From Gangster to Film Producer, the Lee Hwa-Ryong Story