There were numerous 'fatal encounters' around King Jeong-jo's first year in office; his reign (1776-1800) was riddled with factional rot and close-quarters corruption, and his accession was both immediate and threatening. It was a transitional period twisted by royal bloodshed and unruliness, the perfect personal and political storm for a visionary leader to stand steadfast and serve, or else risk becoming a feeble footnote to fortitude in Joseon's journals.
Lee Jae-gyoo's "The Fatal Encounter" recounts the chaotic genesis of the 'King of Misfortune', and depicts a resolute (real-world dreamy) ruler determined to settle the sins and debts of his father(s). In particular, the film centres on one assassination attempt, that of Jeongyuyeokbyeon, and starts its story hours before a preordained bloodshed occurs under ominously stormy skies. Our king is introduced as reclusive and prudent, expectedly mindful in his own castle as plotters and malignant masses watch the clock on their current king. To distract from this disturbing passage of time, our cautious king sleeps little and reads late into the night (King Jeong-jo actually founded Kyujanggak in Changdeokgung Palace; a knowledge bank that has since been looted, repatriated, and later digitised as part of the National treasures of South Korea), and secretly hones his body and mind in preparation for the next knife in the night; for that split second his enemies might choose to strike. He's a king with gritty garb few will admit to seeing, let alone admire or follow en masse.
King Jeong-jo's reign may have caused a few overzealous historians to heighten his fitness (an end Jae-gyoo has no problem imagining as Hyun Bin makes a timely comeback as this righteously ripped royal), but despite the glamour and han-hardened stoicism on display, the film contextualises events well and humanises him, perhaps not directly, through various conflicting relationships. Around the king's curious, but understandable, scepticism and political idealism, lies a host of historically significant characters that, mostly by proxy and pointed interaction, reflect (with relief) the king's compassionate core. The Queen (the king's widowed mother played by Han Ji-min), Lady Hyegyeong (Kim Sung-ryung), and Gap-soo (the King's long-trusted clerk, Jung Jae-young) are some of the closest to our troubled king and, along with a deluge of pretty palace placeholders, they help sooth the high-priced valour vexing Lee's king. Love, desire, sleep, and sex are all sacrificed on the altar of a hero's history, and so without his flawed followers this particular king might have become a monolith right before our eyes.
The film's 135 minutes suggest an epic, but instead unfolds more like an extended drama than a sustained cinematic event. Hiccups of hype are scattered throughout, and like serial highs its favours intermittent excitement over any divine dénouement. The film also plays like an ornate origin story of sorts; a moot coming-of-age period piece that was perhaps tainted somewhat by its retrospective narrative style and sequencing. In this way the film probes the royal records for more of the 'how' the king came to be etched during this trying epoch, and less of the 'why' (that would've demanded a more hamartia-harbouring highness).
"The Fatal Encounter" opened in first and spent the first two of its five weeks in the top ten as the country's film of choice; over which it attracted the attention of more than 3.8M filmgoers (and is currently the seventh-highest grossing film of 2014). And so, like many in recent times, the film casts a contemporary eye on Joseon and its hermitic hold on han and history: another popular period yarn suturing modern Korea's break with its precious past. It's a film that pleases to a point (repeatedly), but too often drudges through the borderlands between serialised storytelling and the blockbuster's emboldened brevity. Lee's period piece does drag its high heels in parts, but be it by hype or history most will delight in Lee's timely king in a cage.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from YESASIA
Blu-ray HK (En Sub)
DVD HK (En Sub)
DVD (2-Disc) (First Press Limited Edition) (En Sub)
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