Review: Untold Scandal (2003)

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Well, it had to happen: Bae Yong-joon (‘Yongsama’ to some), star of TV dramas like the phenomenally successful ‘Winter Sonata’, has graduated to the big screen. And what has he brought with him? Charm? Magnetism? Sex appeal? “No!” I hear you roar, it can’t be! And perhaps it is not, but E J-yong’s Untold Scandal, a revision of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liasions Dangereuses set during Korea’s Chosun Dynasty in the late-1880s, demands all those qualities from its leading stud (the Valmont/Jo-won role). The question on everyone’s lips, of course, is “Does Bae deliver the package, err, goods?”

Here’s where that particular question is left to dangle. To me, Yongsama is a likeable lad, a somewhat goofy chap with a big smile who excels at selling … selling, well, just about anything. Sporting a watch, wearing aftershave, holding a bottle of shampoo… Bae’s mug is on the front, back, and inside covers of every magazine in Korea (sometimes all in the same issue). I’m told the same happens elsewhere in Asia. The Korean government may as well go ahead and put his face on the 10,000 won note, such is the equation that Yongsama = money.

Untold Scandal is a gorgeous, very sexy, not very romantic (but, hey), expertly crafted feature from the director who gave us An Affair (also starring Lee Mi-sook) and Asako in Ruby Shoes. Performances are all superb (Bae included), the music, colourful set design, and bulky costumes faithfully recreate the period, and Laclos’ revamped story of love, lust and revenge is as good as ever. The eroticism feels very immediate in this film: because sex is never overtly shown, and yet given the very obvious sexuality brimming beneath the surface of the characters, you always have the feeling that an insatiable bout of love making is just around the next frame of celluloid. Just thinking about it gives me the feeling that … I was ripped off! No, just kidding: it’s a fine accomplishment that such a high degree of tension and frustration is progressively contained within each of the film’s suggestive scenes.

Lee Mi-sook, whose body (I kid you not) has been compared to “a delicate, slim and captivating Goryeo porcelain, and a well-cut and sophisticated diamond” by Korean film critic Kim Kyoung, is suitably magnificent in the Merteuil/Lady Cho role. She is completely believable at the end of the film when, in a touching final scene, her riches are turned to rags and her true feelings are bared to the audience. I also loved the palanquin seduction scene, where with only the slightest of actions she really heats up the claustrophobic box. She’s a great actress, and she relishes this role more than any other I’ve seen. Jeon Do-yeon rounds out a powerful trio of stars.

An approachable, entertaining work with few slow moments or hiccups, Untold Scandal is a treat for the senses. Jokes aside, Bae is fine in his first leading role (maybe not quite as convincingly smug as someone like John Malkovich, but I think somewhat more believable as a ladies man!), and E J-yong has thankfully and graciously proven that good screenplays are still important to some Korean filmmakers.

9 stirrings, but not of the heart, out of 10.
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