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Scandal – Joseon namnyeo sangyeoljisa (2003)

Untold Scandal, The Scandal

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 124 minutes

Korea, towards the end of the eighteenth century. The manipulative Lady Cho (Lee Mi-Sook) challenges her louche cousin Master Cho-Won (Bae Yong-Jun) to impregnate young ingenue So-ok (Lee Soh-Yeon) before she becomes concubine to Cho’s aristocratic husband. Cho-Won prefers the far greater challenge of pursuing Lady Chung (Jeon Do-Yeon), an older Christian woman renowned for her chastity and “practically a brick wall” – and agrees to Cho’s wager that if he succeeds he can sleep with Cho, and if he fails he must become a monk. Soon he is wooing both Chung and So-ok, while Cho takes So-ok’s young admirer In-Ho (Cho Hyeon-Jae) into her own hands – but when Cho-Won’s pretended love for Chung turns into something real, Cho decides to play a heartless endgame, with tragic consequences for all.

“Should anyone sense similarities between this tale and actual historical events,” states a beautifully handwritten text at the beginning of E J-Yong’s ‘Untold Scandal’, “be reminded that it is only fiction written for personal enjoyment”. Far from being merely an arch eighteenth century variation on the kind of disclaimer typically found in a film’s closing credits, these words are a sophisticated allusion to the great similarity between ‘Untold Scandal’ and Choderlos de Laclos’ French novel from 1782 ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’. For at a time when the cinema of the East has become rich pickings for the West, and recent Korean films like A Tale of Two Sisters, Phone and Oldboy (not to mention countless Japanese films) are being reimagined by Hollywood, it is worth remembering that this trafficking in ideas can go both ways.

There have already been several Western adaptations of Laclos’ novel for the big screen – not only period pieces like Stephen Frears’ ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ (1988) and Milos Forman’s ‘Valmont’ (1989), but also modernised revamps like Roger Vadim’s Paris-based ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960’ (1959) and Roger Kumble’s ‘Cruel Intentions’ (1999), set amidst New York’s pampered élite. ‘Untold Scandal’ is in many ways a very close rendering of Laclos’ original – it is set in the same period, it unfolds to the Western strains of baroque chamber music, and it clings to Laclos’ epistolary structure more than any of the other film versions – and even if Korea under the Chosun dynasty is further, both geographically and culturally, than this story has ever been made to travel before, the ensuing convergence of East and West is, like the relationship between (Confucian) Cho-Won and (Christian) Chung, more than merely the shallow flirtation it might at first seem. Laclos’ French plot fits perfectly into its new Korean costume, exposing similarities in the cloistered rigidity and decorous hypocrisy of these two courtly societies that might otherwise have gone unnoticed amidst more obvious differences of language and religion – and it also allows E J-Yong to break out of the highly conventionalised ways in which the Chosun Dynasty had previously been dramatised, offering a new perspective on Korea’s past (much as in one scene Cho is able to spy on the distant Chung using the imported novelty of a telescope).

‘Untold Scandal’ is a feast of visual sumptuousness, with a third of its considerable budget spent on the traditional ‘Hanbok’ costumes – all layers, curves and ties designed both to show off, and to confine, the body within. The aloof, painterly cinematography of Kim Byung-Il imposes a similar sense of order on the characters’ raging desires and passions – as do the restrained performances, so that the slightest nods, gestures and glances speak far louder than the irony-laced edifice of verbal innuendo and deceit that Cho-Won and Cho have erected to avoid the expression of true love.

More stylised, and far fleshier, than previous Laclos adaptations, this is a well-known scandal of sadism and repression as it has never been told before.

It's Got: A protagonist with a fine line in tall hats; dangerous liaisons, constrained desires and cruel pursuits.

It Needs: It could be shorter - the plot is already familiar enough not to require quite so much explanation.


In fact this old French scandal has often been told, but it looks exquisite in its perfectly fitting Korean costume.