Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: THE TREACHEROUS Sexes Up History In Convoluted King's Court Potboiler
History gets a savage makeover in The Treacherous, a new period offering from Korea detailing the tyrannical reign of King Yeonsan, long known as the most despotic ruler of the Joseon Era. High on provocation and low on historical accuracy, this new work from genre-hopping veteran Min Kyu-dong seeks both to titillate and to offer a serious examination of a notorious King's rule and the complicated machinations in his court.
The film begins when Yeonsan starts to show his insanity, as he instigates a brutal purge in the nobility of the kingdom as revenge for his mother's death. Following the swift carnage, he appoints his friend Soon-jae and his father to the position of retainer, and their duty is to round up beautiful women from across the country and shape them, through a gruelling series of degrading tests and competitions, into his personal horde of concubines. One day, Soon-jae is saved by a beguiling young butcher, but when she pleads him to include her in the group, he becomes conflicted. Meanwhile, a plot to overthrow the king brews.
Following his co-directing credit on Memento Mori (1999), the well-regarded second instalment in the Whispering Corridors series, director Min has made his bones with horror (the Horror Stories films), melodrama (All for Love, 2005) and most successfully romantic comedy (All About My Wife, 2012). From those, the jump to period ero proves not so large, and technically the film is polished and occasionally quite inventive, but the problem is one of tone rather than technique, as The Treacherous tries both to be over-the-top and somber, with each approach ultimately undermining the other.
Unlike a setting you might find in something like 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (2011), Min's film invites us to view the debauchery, which seeks to regale us with poor young woman performing exercises to make their vaginas more firm and moist, or being penetrated by dildos that presumably match the royal girth, as taking place within a serious historical context. It doesn't help that the two main actresses in the film (Lim Ji-yeon and Lee Yoo-young, both in sophomore feature roles) are each well known for doffing their clothes in their acting debuts (Obsessed and Late Spring, respectively).
As the king, Taste of Money (2012) star Kim Gang-woo laughs and screams maniacally and never threatens to bring any real shading to his character. Ju Ji-hoon, who impressed in Confession last year, effectively plays the shadow lead of the film as the younger retainer, but while his performance is more restrained, it quickly becomes lost in the convoluted nature of the narrative.
Largely ignoring modern research that discredits Yeonsan's standing as the ultimate tyrant of Korean royalty, The Treacherous is a slick affair, but one that runs foul of historical accuracy and takes a disturbing amount of pleasure in fantasizing the plight of sex slaves.