'Empire Of Lust': Film Review
Writer-director Ahn Sang-Hoon makes a lush and historically detailed debut starring Shin Ha-Kyun
Ever so loosely based on the first (allegedly) inter-monarchy conflict over who becomes heir to the Joseon throne, Empire of Lust largely jettisons historical accuracy in favor of sumptuous production design, costumes and keenly choreographed violence. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the actors and storytelling were more compelling than they are. Too much plot, a lack of focus and a disturbing reliance on sexual assault to generate momentum (and “define” characters) will make the film a hard sell, even within Asia where the strong cast is made up of uniformly familiar faces. Overseas interest will be limited but not non-existent, as the CJ brand carries weight and lushly mounted martial epics with decent action and strong production values regularly generate some curiosity. Still, Empire’s reach should be restricted to Asian-focused festivals and perhaps targeted release in urban markets.
It’s late in the 14th century, the Joseon Dynasty is still in its nascent stage, and Korea is in chaos. Foreign armies are invading and palace intrigue is brewing at home under King Taejo (Song Byung-Ho). Two of the king’s finest generals return from battlefield victory, one being rising star Kim Min-Jae (Shin Ha-Kyun, Thirst, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), the other an ambitious rival Jo Young-Kyu (Choi Moo-Sung). The two appear, on the surface, to be on opposite sides of the power struggle led by Lee Bang-Won (Jang Hyuk, The Flu), a prince who has been passed over for the throne by a younger sibling. Elsewhere, Kim has an entitled dirtball of a son, Jin (Kim Ha-Neul, Twenty) who spends his spare time luring unknowing young women to tucked away shacks and hosting gang rapes with his equally entitled friends. Charming.
Strange as it may be, the royal politicking is not, in fact, Empire’s narrative engine. During a banquet in his honor, Kim comes to the defense of a courtesan, Gahee (Kang Han-Na), who’s being harassed by Jo. One thing leads to another and Kim winds up taking Gahee as his mistress. Palace intrigue being what it is, Gahee has an ulterior motive—one that stems from yet another rape by Jin—and she’s very carefully and deliberately inserted herself into Kim’s life. Alert the media: she develops genuine feelings for him.
As stately and richly produced as it is, Empire of Lust is a period soap opera, and though the title hints at a post-50 Shades welcome bit of bodice-ripping (or han-bok ripping) erotica, that’s not what it is in execution. It would be easy to expect something reminiscent of E J-Yong's reserved but fairly, ahem, lusty Untold Scandal (a Korean spin on Dangerous Liaisons) but Empire has a decidedly nasty edge to it that gives the considerable sex scenes a bitter taste. Even still, following an info-dump opening fight sequence and a debate at court led by the king’s conniving counsel Jeong Do-Jeon (Lee Jae-Yong)—complete with titles identifying the players and their positions—the film settles down into serviceable melodrama territory.
Empire of Lust’s biggest flaw is in trying to cram a grand romance as well as complex royal intrigue into one film when each story would have been better served by getting more attention in construction. The sheer amount of story leaves little time for Shin, one of the Korean industry’s strongest actors who deserves more recognition, and Kang, saddled with yet another role where a woman is defined by rape, to create characters we can connect with. Similarly Jang’s politically ambitious brother is reduced to standard conniver and Kim Ha-Neul plays the misogynistic Jin as a 14th century bro. By the time Kim’s last desperate stand arrives, it becomes a matter of how beautifully photographed the doomed lovers’ demise will be, not if there will be a demise. Empire of Lust isn’t inept, or even particularly dull, it’s just familiar.
Production company: Fineworks Film, Keymaker
Cast: Shin Ha-Kyun, Jang Hyuk, Kang Han-Na, Kim Ha-Neul, Song Byung-Ho, Lee Jae-Yong, Choi Moo-Sung
Director: Ahn Sang-Hoon
Screenwriter: Kim Se-Hee
Producer: Kim Min-Ki, Nam Hwa-Jung
Executive producer: Jeong Tae-Sung
Director of photography: Son Won-Ho
Production designer: Kim Sung-Kyu
Costume designer: Shim Hyun-Seob
Editor: Shin Min-Kyung
Music: Park Ki-Heon
World sales: CJ Entertainment
No rating, 113 minutes