Shadows in the Palace

Bottom Line: A theater of cruelty staged in the guise of a Korean palace murder mystery.

Pusan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea -- "Shadows in the Palace" (Goong-nyeo), directed by Kim Mi-jung, is a chilling murder mystery set within the royal harem of Korea's Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910). For a film about court intrigue, it raises the bar in creating a paranoid and ruthlessly competitive feminine space, revealing a medieval world of sadistic torture behind ornate interiors, rustling "Hanbok" gowns and elegant court decorum.

The film premiered at the San Sebastian International Film Festival and will attract art house audiences with an interest in Oriental period splendor and sumptuous visual images. Although the overall design of the mystery and how it is solved is quite intelligently conceived, it is not easy for foreign audiences to follow the intricate plot with subtitles. As well, there is an ambiguous supernatural element that is discordant with the overall tenor of the film, and certain scenes of cruelty may be disturbing to some.

The trigger of all events is the death of Wol-ryung, the court maid of royal concubine Hee-bin. Chun-ryung, the court nurse in charge of her autopsy, found clear evidence of murder made to resemble suicide. However, she is being silenced by other more influential court ladies. Determined to get to the bottom of things, Chun-ryung undertakes her own private investigations. She gradually learns about the corruption of the ruling class, first discovering the seduction and exploitation of court maids by an aristocrat, and finally, a shocking conspiracy that leads her all the way to Hee-bin -- the mother of the only royal heir, and therefore the subject of hatred and envy in the whole harem.

On the way to solving the murder, audiences are made to sit through some torture and ritual punishment that will make many wince, avert their eyes and maybe never have a manicure again.

There is also a very gruesome scene of self-inflicted pain, which reflects the extremity of court maids' longing for love, and the barbarity of a patriarchal system that forces lifelong chastity upon them. Human nature depicted in this film is unremittingly dark, and unmitigated by any legal or divine justice.

"Shadows in the Palace" looks expensive for its medium budget, and is painstakingly meticulous in period detail, especially the costumes. It succeeds in keeping up tension for the most part, with a forceful Korean drum score that enhances the taut rhythm. However, the film seems to rush to its climax, creating much narrative confusion as characters descend into histrionics.

CJ Entertainment Inc./Achim Pictures

Director-screenwriter: Kim Mi-jung
Screenwriter: Choi Sun-hwan
Producer: Jung Seung-hye
Director of photography: Lee Hyung-duk
Music: Hwang Sang-joon
Editors: Kim Sang-beom, Kim Jae-beom
Chun-ryung: Park Jin-hee

Running time -- 113 minutes
No MPAA rating