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Shadows in the Palace
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by Jay Seaver

"Murder most fine."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Ah, murder. It's been around since time immemorial, among the rich and the poor, whenever someone stood to gain from having another person not be around. The modern police force which methodically investigates these crimes is a relatively modern invention, although detective fiction tells us that no matter what the time and place, there's an amateur sleuth ahead of her time. Even in the maid's quarters of a Chosun Dynasty king.

A body is discovered: Wol-ryung (Seo Yeong-hie), a personal maid to the king's concubine, is found hanged in her quarters. The court nurse, Choi Chun-ryun (Park Jin-hie), starts the autopsy, and finds that this was no suicide - the lack of brusing on the neck says she was dead beforehand. Aside from that, the girl was lactating, clearly showing that she had broken the oath of celibacy taken by the entire staff. The head maid, Kam-cheol (Kim Sung-ryeong), tells Chun-ryun to report it as a suicide, since the consequences of a murder would be terrible for everyone: Masters' and servants' behavior reflects on each other, and royal concubine Hee-bin (Yun Se-ah) is battling the queen mother to have her child recognized as the royal heir, and implicating the household could weaken her position. Chun-ryun isn't about to let the matter go, especially once she's gained Hee-bin's tacit approval for the investigation. But who will tell her what she needs to know? Queen's maid Jung-ryul (Jeon Hye-jin), who found the body? Bullied mute Ok-jin (Lim Jeong-eun), the dead girl's roommate? What of Lee Hyung-ik (Kim Nam-jin), the king's nephew, who has taken Wol-ryung's medical records? Or the hints that there may be a supernatural explanation?

There's no type of story quite so engrossing as a good murder mystery, although no genre is more unforgiving when it fails. The audience knows early on to pay careful attention to details, since anything could be a clue, so any weakness in story, performance, direction, and even continuity will be thrown into sharper relief. Director Kim Mee-Jeung and her co-writer Choi Seok-Hwan create a film that holds up to such scrutiny; though it may not be a classically solvable mystery per se, the details all fit together perfectly and each scene seems to contain at least one bit of information that not only helps the viewer create a more complete picture but whets the appetite for what is going to come next.

The filmmakers are no strangers to palace intrigue; Kim worked on The King and the Clown, and her co-writer Choi wrote that critical and box office hit (they also re-used some of the same sets). For Shadows in the Palace, they focus almost entirely on the women within the palace, and they can be a cutthroat bunch. There is only so far a woman can advance in this world, after all, and they've had to swear off love and family to enter it. The upcoming "maids' ritual" promises executions for thieves, and Kam-cheol is fine with using torture to get a maid to confess to a theft of gold and silver thread. Even Chun-ryun has her secrets.

She remains quite the likable heroine, though. Chun-ryun is intelligent and honest, although never overbearingly so, and Park Jin-hie does very well in letting us know just how risky each act of defiance is throughout the movie; we always know when she has the perfect right to be somewhere and when she's bluffing because she needs to solve her case. Yun Se-ah is frequently a mirror to her - she is just as interested in having the murder of her loyal maid solved, but she recognizes her situation and much more precarious and always holds back. Kim Sung-ryeong is also note-perfect as what seems like the obvious villainess, although it's not hard to read her as simply being pragmatic, looking out for Hee-bin's future (and those whose fortunes are attached to hers) in a dog-eat-dog world.

There is a tendency for cinematic mysteries to go a bit over the top - the genre arguably works better in television and print because a writer can afford to work small or turn out the occasional sub-par work, since they'll have the ability to rebound next month - and Shadows isn't completely an exception to that rule. The plot is more complicated than it really needs to be, and while the supernatural elements create some great atmospheric moments, they probably work best when seen as the hallucinations of panicked minds. The film is also, at times, a little more gruesome than strictly necessary.

Those don't wind up being major problems, though. "Shadows in the Palace" is a pretty great historical mystery - sumptuous, exciting, and thoroughly engrossing.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17402&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/12/08 10:59:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival For more in the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Kim Meejeung

Written by
  Kim Meejeung
  Choi Sun-hwan

  Park Jin-hee
  Seo Young-hee
  Lim Jung-eun
  Jun Hae-jin

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