JUST A WHIFF OF THAT COFFEE SMELL
At the time of watching this movie, I hadn’t yet read the novel to make a comparison as I’m so backlogged on my reading. Hoping to get to the book sometime this summer and I’ll try to update the review when I do with a short comment about how it compares with the film.
The film takes place at the end of the 19th Century when King Gojong (Park Hee Soon) moves from his residence at Gyeongbok Palace to the Russian consulate in Seoul. The Japanese had taken bold moves to gain control of the Korean government and had even assassinated Gojong’s wife, Empress Myeongseong. Danya (Kim So Yeon) is hired by the king to be his personal barista but she has an ulterior motive. She and Ilyich (Joo Jin Mo) are captured by the Japanese for stealing. A mysterious woman named Sadako (Yoo Sun) promises to let them live if they help a plot to assassinate the king. It’s a spy drama about where your true loyalties lie.
The movie has this epic feel and it’s aiming to be compared with Hollywood action and period pieces. Actually Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows comes to mind at first glance. While you’re not going to get the Hollywood standard of CGI effects here because the budget just isn’t there, it does okay.
However, the costumes and sets are lush and really do the film justice. (Click on the photos for a larger look at the illustrations.)
I almost think Colleen Atwood would smile at the costuming here.
Costumes may complete the look but it’s certainly not the end all, be all. The film’s got a great cast of actors so I wasn’t worried on that front. What’s troubling is the plot and editing of the film. Someone I know who did read the book told me that it was a little shallow on substance. Judging by the length of the book itself, it is pretty thin. So if that was the only basis for the film then I can see where the problem originated.
The film moves swiftly from scene to scene without much fluidity. From Danya and Ilyich’s childhood when she witnesses her father’s murder, they grow up as gypsies making their living by thieving, but they get caught by the Japanese in Russia for robbing a train, then they’re tortured and forced to agree to a plot to assassinate King Gojong by poisoning him through his coffee. I’m all for fast moving plots but I feel like we sprinted through all these events just to put Danya next to the king.
Perhaps it’s because there are so many players in this movie. You’ve got the Joseon people, the Japanese loyalists, the Russian diplomats, Danya and Ilyich, all with their own motives. Since there’s not much time to delve into the intentions of all these groups, we’re just given exposition as to why Russia needs to aid the king and why Japan just needs to get rid of him. If Ilyich completes his task, then he and Danya can live happily ever after as Japanese citizens.
I just didn’t end up caring enough about the fate of Danya and Ilyich as it seemed obvious what their ending would be.
Interesting historic tidbit, Actor Kim Eung Soo (The Moon that Embraces the Sun, Tree with Deep Roots) plays Miura Goro, Japan’s resident minister in Korea, who played a critical role in the assassination of Empress Myeongseong. He was tried by a Japanese court and eventually acquitted due to lack of evidence. If I didn’t know him as a Korean actor, I would have mistaken him for a Japanese actor because he plays the role so convincingly.
Sadako is also an interesting character as she was originally a Joseon woman named Bae Yoo Jung whose father married her off to a Japanese man. Thereafter, her loyalty was firmly aligned with the Japanese. I would have liked to have seen more of her and what made her tick but she remained a 2-dimensional character.
All the exposition diminished the suspense factor of the movie. What is a spy drama without the suspense?
While I cared more about the fate of the Joseon Dynasty (which eventually becomes the Korean Empire shortly thereafter) and the well-being of the royal family more than anything else, I could have just read that in a history book.
The movie comes in at just under 2 hours but it could have been longer. The film could have slowly unraveled the politics that embroiled this period of history and relied on the viewing audience to be apt enough to pick up on the details. It’s a shame because I think this was such a rich time in history.