Reviewed By

Christopher Armstead
This point I'm about to make is probably neither here nor there, all things considered, in regards to director Dae-seung Kim's sprawling, beautiful, confusing epic 'The Concubine', but it didn't get past me.  There's quite a bit of nudity and sex in 'The Concubine', no issue there, but… some of the nude women had surgically enhanced breasts and while I hear Korea's Joseon Dynasty was quite advanced, I don't think they weren't that advanced.  Just saying it kind of brings one out of the time period of the drama when on sees these kinds of things.  That's all.

Prince Sung Won (Kim Dong Wook) is a little wimpy, kind of whiny and not much of man but then he sees her, a vision of beautiful perfection in Hwa Yeon (Jo Yeo Jeong), the daughter of a nobleman.  He would like to have this woman as his own, and as a prince you would think he'd have the inside track but there are a couple of things which will keep this from happening for the poor prince.  First is that Hwa Yeon loves hardass commoner Kwon Yoo (Kim Min Joon) and secondly, and most importantly, the prince's mom (Park Ji Young) won't allow it.  The Queen Mother, as they call her, is like a modern, oppressive stage mother the likes few have ever seen, and she has a plan for her son.

Hwa Yeon's love for Kwon Yoo cannot be either, as she has been slated to be the consort for the current king, as orchestrated by the Queen Mother, and while Kwon Yoo did everything in his limited power to keep this woman in his possession, he failed at this, and paid a steep price for his hubris.

A few years pass, Hwa Yeon has born the king a son, but the king falls suddenly ill.  He seems like a young enough and healthy guy, so why is he so sick?  Oh that Queen Mother, I tell you.  Now here's where things start to get a little convoluted.  The prince is elevated to King, as his mother
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apparently has the right to name the king, but he is king in name only as mom is completely running things.  This turn of events puts Hwa Yeon and her young son in grave danger, danger she thinks she might be able to avoid because her former lover Kwon Yoo has returned to the royal court… as a eunuch… but he's not a happy guy, as you might imagine, and he's looking to make some people pay for his missing penis.  It should also be in Hwa Yeon's favor that the new king is still sick in love with her, but he's still not much of a man and will be of little help.   Thus it is going to be up to Hwa Yeon to save herself.  While all of that sounds pretty straight forward, it's anything of the sort.  There are characters floating in and out of the scene, back stabbing, double crosses, double dealing, and all kinds of other plot elements which don't do a narrative that wasn't all that lucid to begin with, any favors. 

You have to admire Kim's 'The Concubine' because no matter what I might say after this point, it was an entertaining ride.  And to call 'The Concubine' a ride is an apt description as the director relentlessly drives his movie forward with intrigue and sex and action and violence and you can either stay on the ride, as bumpy as  it might be, or jump off early because it's just way too convoluted. 

On the positive side, 'The Concubine' is a feast for the eyes as a visual masterpiece.  The cinematography is outstanding, the costuming and settings are exemplary, the pacing for this two hour period piece is about as quick as a movie of this type can be and the acting, for the most part, is very good. 

Oh, but it is busy and confusing.  While the core of the movie is pretty clear, this being the Queen Mother's ambition and Hwa Yeon's quest for survival, there's so much going on in the periphery, not much of which is all that well developed or fleshed out, these side bars ultimately served the only purpose to confuse.  

We mentioned before that acting was largely very good, particularly Ji-Young Park who was mesmerizing as the Queen Mother, but Jo Yeo-jeong was a curious one, particularly how the character was written.  Now Ms. Jeong is so lovely that the director could possibly get away with filming her walking in circles for 90 minutes and that movie would still be marginally entertaining, but how her character in this movie traveled the distance from wide-eyed ingénue to chess playing mastermind was a bit conspicuous.  And the ending was completely confusing to me. 

This is a SPOILER but at the end, when it looks like the Prince who was manufactured into becoming King finally became the man he needed to be, he was killed.  The only good for thing for the King is that he was murdered in the middle of doing something he's wanted to do for the majority of his life, but still, I didn't understand it. 

But as I mentioned before, 'The Concubine' despite its narrative gaps, is still an entertaining ride and one of the better historical dramas we've seen in a while.  Despite the fake breasts.
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