"I've set the bait... and even if I'm not interested, I'm still curious."
Set in the Joseon period, The Servant begins as Bang-ja (Kim Ju-hyeok), a gangster, tells the story of his past to a fawning writer, who plans to document and publish the memoirs for the world to read. As Bang-ja recounts his tale, the story switches (via extended flashback) to his former life as a servant to Lee Mong-ryeong (Ryu Seung-beom), and to his repeated efforts to win the heart of singer Chun-hyang (Jo Yeo-jeong), with whom he falls in love at first sight. However, at almost the same moment as Bang-ja falls head over heels in love, Chun-hyang's beauty also catches the eye of his master, Mong-ryeong, and, combined with Chun-hyang's own plans and desires (both to find love and to climb the social ladder) an ever-increasing love triangle quickly begins to develop between the three. Thus, the question of who will become the eventual winner of the situation and, more importantly, who (and why) the loser is destined to be, ultimately becomes the focus of this multi-layered tale...
The Servant is loosely based on a famous Korean folklore tale (The Tale of Chun-hyang), with the premise changed from Chun-hyang falling in love with her master, to falling for a servant.
Written and directed by Kim Dae-woo, the fact that he also wrote the script for Untold Scandal really does show throughout, with large sections of the film having a very similar feel. In fact, for any of you who have seen Untold Scandal (and, if you haven't, you really should), if you imagine that film reworked as a slightly more innocent, romantic comedy, you'll have a pretty good idea of what, for the most part, to expect here. However, therein lies the main problem with The Servant:
It feels like Untold Scandal, it largely plays like Untold Scandal but, sadly, the plot doesn't come even close to being as intelligent or nuanced, and though the multitude of layers created within the actions and motivations (some altruistic, others utterly self-serving) of the main characters will keep audiences engaged throughout, it is rather at the expense of true character depth.
I'm not particularly fond of constantly referencing, or making repeated comparisons to, earlier films within a review, but in the case of The Servant it is totally unavoidable, as even the cinematography and the level of sex and nudity portrayed (The Servant is billed as an "erotic rom-com"), are virtually carbon copies. That said, the humour (largely sexual and innuendo based, while playing as an intelligent commentary on the comedy of manners), largely led by Bang-ja's instruction in the secrets and techniques to successfully seduce women, by an older lifelong womaniser (played by Oh Dal-su) - and Chun-hyang's reactions to Bang-ja's implementation of his newly found knowledge - is routinely well thought out, fits proceedings to a tee, and is perfectly placed, and while it works noticeably better within the early stages of The Servant, it is, at all times, improved by its understated, almost passing, nature.
The many layers within The Servant are deftly stated and interwoven - speaking not only of ideas personal to each of the characters, but also of the class etiquette, constraints and restrictions of the period. However, the attempted character studies contained within do somewhat suffer as a result of the time taken to weave these many and varied layers, only managing to reach a kind of no-man's land middle ground, within a plot which neither allows the characters to be despicable enough to revel in the pursuit of their self-serving goals, nor pure enough to be seen simply as innocent victims of circumstance, or the actions of others.
I really wanted to feel for the characters as The Servant progressed, but repeatedly felt as though I was watching a well acted, engaging play from a distance, rather than being immersed in a story of a set of characters who elicit true viewer empathy.
The conclusion of Bang-ja and Chun-hyang's tale will almost certainly come as a complete surprise to all, and while there is a definate poignancy to it, the aforementioned flaws do diminish it to a degree.
As stated earlier, the cinematography of The Servant is akin to that of Untold Scandal and, as such, the film is a sumptuous and polished affair throughout. From the sets and framing right through to the stunning costume design, the film is a visual feast from start to finish and has "big budget" written all over it.
Billed as an "erotic rom-com", The Servant serves its purpose as a sensual and funny romance relatively well, especially in the early stages of the film, but character depth and audience empathy suffer as the myriad of layers begin to build, and even the sumptuous visuals cannot rescue The Servant from ultimately failing to live up to its early promise.
Produced and distributed by: CJ Entertainment, Barunson and Sio Films
Duration: 125 minutes
The acting, from the entire main cast, is accomplished, with each taking their character to the very limit that the plot allows. Most noteworthy among the portrayals is Oh Dal-su’s portrayal of the older, serial seducer, who takes it upon himself to instruct Bang-ja in the secrets of success with women; and Jo Yeo-jeong's role of Chun-hyang herself:
Oh Dal-su clearly enjoyed playing the role of the lifelong womaniser/seducer, and it shows. Always adding a noticeable feeling of fun and pride in his characters success with women, he gives a polished performance throughout.
Jo Yeo-jeong, as Chun-hyang gives an impassioned performance, deftly appearing as a chaste and pure lady one minute and switching to a willing, and wanton, conquest the next, while all the while giving teasing glimpses into her character's true goals without overly bringing attention to them too early. She, of all the cast, is also required to provide the most nudity in the film and, in these situations too, she treads with confidence and positively exudes sensuality from the screen.
Cast (Actor... Character):
Kim Ju-hyeok... Bang-ja
Ryu Seung-beom... Lee Mong-ryeong
Jo Yeo-jeong... Chun-hyang
Ryu Hyeon-gyeong... Chun-hyang's mother
Oh Dal-su... An older, serial womaniser