Dir: Kim Mi-jung. South Korea 2007. 111 mins.
To get a handle on Kim Mi-jung's impressive debut, imagine The Name of the Rose set it in a Korean royal court of the Joseon dynasty. The big difference, apart from the cultural transposition, is that this historical murder mystery takes place in a closed, secretive, hierachical society of women, rather than men: fitting for one of the first Korean films to boast a female director, producer, and executive producer. There are so many switchbacks in the dense plot that some viewers will get lost along the way, but it's a riveting ride nevertheless: Kim has a sure grasp of plot tension and thriller atmosphere. And if you thought a woman might have a softer take on the cloistered-detective genre, think again: some of the difficult-to-watch scenes of girl-on-girl violence in Shadows in the Palace make the adventures of The Name of the Rose's William of Baskerville look like a monks' tea party.
Released in Korea in October, the film has the potential to be one of the country's strongest autumn performers, and should stir up some pan-Asian action with its fresh take on the non-martial-arts court epic.
Asian genre fans in the rest of the world will lap it up, but Shadows in the Palace has some crossover potential too: despite its lack of name stars, this is a sumptuous production that is more likely to strike a chord with Western audiences than some other recent Asian costume dramas, such as the disappointing The Banquet.
The film is entirely set in the cloistered world of the Joseon court, with its rigid social strata and ossified rituals. Though the King is ostensibly in charge, it's the women who are shown to wield the real power, starting with the fearsome Queen Mother.
We see this world from the bottom up, through the eyes of Chun-ryung, a senior nurse in the infirmary of the Queen's quarters - a whole city within the larger metropolis of the court. In this claustrophobic class system, the maids are at the bottom of the pecking order, and when one is found hanging from the neck it seems an obvious case of suicide.
But during the autopsy, Chun-ryung discovers that Wol-ryung has been murdered. She begins an investigation, calling witnesses from among the other maids. The maids are virtual slaves of the king's concubines - to the extent that, when a concubine steps out of line, it is the maid who is punished in her stead.
Though it seems unlikely that a lowly nurse would be given such unfettered access to the quarters of her court superiors, a small suspension of disbelief is repaid by a rich portrait of this secretive, highly ritualised and often extremely cruel society of women, where even a suspected theft merits some excruciating fingernail torture (shot in unforgiving detail) and the penalty for losing one's chastity is beheading. (Women's bodies are the battlefield here - but in an entirely believable, undogmatic way).
Chun-ryung is soon caught up in the power struggle between the King's favourite concubine Hee-bin - the only one to have borne him a son - and the Queen Mother, who is keen to adopt the infant prince as her own. There is little tenderness or solidarity here, even in the maids' quarters, where the weak are picked on and humiliated.
With so many characters and plot twists to keep track of, it's inevitable that we will drop a few threads: this is one of those films that would benefit from a second viewing or a pause and rewind option.
But director Kim has a real feel for suspense rhythm, alternating tense stand-offs with quieter investigative bridging scenes - though a rather flat, slugglishly-edited foot-chase suggests she was wise not to attempt Hong-Kong-style action scenes.
Shot with great attention to detail, Shadows in the Palace is a chromatic feast. Stylised, colour-coded costumes underline both the social divisions within the court and its ancient ceremonial traditions.
There's a supernatural vein in the film, expressed in some CGI effects sequences reminiscent of certain J-horror titles, but they're kept on a tight leash. In the end it's realism that interests the director more than fantasy - something that comes through in the film's unexpected but well-judged ending.
Achim Pictures (Kor)
CJ Entertainment (Kor)
(82) 2 2017 1114