A ‘Scandal’ most sumptuousThe truth about the Joseon dynasty is that it is a two-sided coin. On one hand, the name suggests rich historical prestige, with merciful kings, courageous warriors and modest wives playing out their lives. Yet these figures exist separately from the other side of history ― the hidden anecdotes we have been given access to through chunhwa, or the erotic drawings of the period’s social elite.
Many of today’s historians believe that much of these works were merely artistic imagination. But what if their entangled couples were real? What if a pair of 18th-century Joseon aristocrats, waging a battle of sexual intrigue, actually existed?
Those historians would shake their heads, but that is how “Scandal,” the Korean remake of the 1782 French novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos, sees it.
Taking place in about the same time period as the French novel, the film begins with the premise that perhaps everything fabled European temptresses desired and cultivated was part of Eastern tradition, as well. Tales of seduction have never before been told in Korean movies in as much telling detail as in “Scandal.”
As a stark example, Madame Jo, a villainous figure in the film ― played by Glenn Close in the American adaptation, “Dangerous Liasons,” and here magnificently performed by Lee Mi-suk ― ridicules her husband’s young concubine by telling her, “there isn’t a single aristocrat’s wife in the capital of Hanyang who doesn’t have her secret lovers.” When the young girl asks in awe why, then, there have been so many books praising women’s chastity, Madame Jo responds, “because they are books.”
The major source of the film’s tension stems from Jowon, the charming yet debauched son of an aristocrat. Jowon laughs at the Joseon bureaucratic traditions, yet lives within the comforts they afford. His maneuvers to seduce Madame Suk, an aristocrat whose partner died just after the couple’s arranged engagement, are full of lies and disgrace. In the end, though, he finds that Madame Suk’s “uncompromising attitude toward worldly affairs” is not unlike his own.
In the meantime, Madame Jo discovers that her former lover is emotionally attached to Madame Suk and conspires to send her away to China by spreading a rumor that she is a Catholic, a religious practice strictly forbidden in Korea at the time and punishable by death.
More impressive than the storyline, though, is the film’s art production. “Scandal” is one of the first period costume films to be shot in Korea. Nearly 2 billion won ($1.75 million) of the film’s 5-billion-won budget was spent on art production alone, including costumes, props and set pieces.
Meticulous attention to detail indicates that the film’s style is more than just aesthetic ornamentation; it adds to the content of the film. The decor and colors of ancient Korea have been exaggerated in the film at times to suit modern sentiment, but it all works ― a striking visual spectacle giving pleasure as sinful and sumptuous as the sexual intrigue being played out by the characters.
The music, by Lee Byung-woo, a mix of orchestral music and traditional zither performance, helps ease the ponderousness sometimes felt when watching a period drama.
Indeed, the music isn’t the only thing being called an element of “fusion” by critics; the film on a whole has been called a faithless representation of the Joseon era, both in subject matter and style.
The question of authenticity, however, seems to be the least important element in this film, in which three handsome actors wear “ancient” Versace outfits and live in a Korean Taj Mahal.
Yet it’s possible that all of this intrigue could have existed. The 18th century was an unsettled time in Korea, when Catholicism and practical science began to creep in between the gaps in Confucian ideals, leading to what some saw as a collapse of social values beneath the weight of Western ideas.
Like the 1988 American film of the French novel, the greatest merit of “Scandal” lies in its sense of irony and humor, the main thing keeping it from being a typical cliched romance. Even in the midst of Jowon’s death ― the story’s climax ― the film courageously slips in a few humorous lines between Jowon and his servant, who begs his majesty to stay alive, saying, “You know how difficult it is to be born into the aristocratic caste!”
Yet the true irony of the film comes when Jowon’s servant steals his majesty’s secret drawing book, documenting his sexual exploits with many women, and sells its contents to local merchants. The book is then copied by calendar artists and spread to aristocrats’ wives as a sort of sexual Bible.
But it is the film’s visual art we remember long after the theater lights go up. We close our eyes and see Madame Suk, roaming the frozen land and ― as if to pay the price for her sinful desire ― attired in a flowing dress of deep burgundy, for the first and last time.
by Park Soo-mee
“Scandal” opens today in theaters nationwide. The film will be screened with English subtitles at the Pusan International Film Festival.