“Shadows in the Palace” is a terrific fast paced conspiratorial page turner that refuses to take a breath. Occurring in the period of the Joseon Dynasty, this palace potboiler is full of enough twists, turns and red herrings to keep most viewers off balance and perplexed. What makes it especially fascinating is the feminist milieu in which the plot unfolds – a secret world behind the gates of the royal palace in which ambitious women grasp desperately for power and for survival and murder is only one of many options available to them. In fact, nearly the entire cast is female with only a few small roles for the opposite sex. The director is female as well, but her debut entry is not a delicate tale of polite manners and subtle intrigue – it is historical pulp with mangled bodies piling up like a layer cake and stocked with gruesome torture scenes that are not for the squeamish. In a disappointing year so far for Korean film, this is one of the more enjoyable films that is let down only by the unnecessary introduction of some supernatural elements towards the end.
The palace is simmering dangerously as a sly power play develops between the Queen and one of the King’s concubines. As the queen has been unable to bear the King an heir, he is on the verge of naming the son of one of his concubines, Hee-bin (Yoon Se-ah), to be his successor. This would of course greatly elevate Hee-bin’s influence and prestige within the court and the Queen and the Queen Mother are pulling various levers to be sure this doesn’t happen. Other women on the side of Hee-bin though are doing everything they can to make sure it does happen. Into this unsettled atmosphere the body of a maid is found hanging from a rope in her room. Everyone wants it to be called a suicide, but the female nurse Chun-ryung (Park Jin-hee) who performs the autopsy isn’t so sure.
Like an historical Kay Scarpetta (the character from the Patricia Cornwell series), Chun-ryung notices various forensic clues that seem to indicate that this was murder – but who would want to murder a maid. As she stubbornly investigates it turns out that many people in fact might have reason to do so and it somehow seems tied to the contest for succession. As Chun-ryung frantically claws through the evidence and avoids attempts on her life (and is tortured to boot), she realizes that menstrual cycles may reveal the answers. Surrounding all of this is the fascinating and at times astonishingly cruel workings of the palace in which the female help must keep their virtue or be harshly disciplined and everyone is in fear for their standing and their lives. Production values are excellent with great period detail and apparently (according to Variety) many of the sets from King and Clown were used. It is interesting that a film like this went to a female director – hard to imagine that happening in the states these days.
My rating for this film: 7.5