[This was originally posted as part of our coverage of the New York Korean Film Festival. It is being reposted due to its screening tomorrow evening as part of the next series of the New York Korean Movie Night series. For more information on that, click here.]
The Servant is a combination of a lot of things that I’m really not a fan of. It’s a period piece; it’s a “romance” film; it has a weirdly framed narrative; and it’s got a lot of rather explicit sex. None of those things are inherently bad, but I often find all of them on their own to be at least somewhat alienating. To put all of them together into one movie sounds like something I would really, really hate.
But I didn’t hate The Servant. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it, which, quite frankly, is probably some kind of miracle.
The Servant (Bang Ja Jeon)
Director: Kim Dae-Woo
Country: South Korea
The Servant is presented as a series of stories being recounted by a former servant named Bang Ja Jeon (Kim Ju-Hyeok). For whatever reason, his life story has been deemed interesting enough that a writer has come to him, hoping to turn it into a book. So Bang Ja begins to tell the stories and then the film turns into a flashback of the scene. And that’s how the film works. There are scenes in the past, then in the present, then back in the past.
The problem is that the entire thing is unnecessary. Even the director seemed to realize it, because even though there are time skips and other significant changes within the flashbacks, it only cuts back to reality a few times. It serves mostly to bookend the film, as well as add a momentary change of scenery every once in a while. I never once felt that the story needed to be presented that way, nor did I feel like it benefited the story in any way. I will acknowledge that the ending would not have worked particularly well without it, but I’m not so sure it worked particularly well with it either.
Where things really go wrong, though, is when The Servant tries to be dramatic, because it really doesn’t fit in with everything else. There are (serious) beatings and imprisonings and other things that, while perhaps not surprising to see in a Korean film, don’t work in the context of a romance or a comedy. It seemed like the story kind of meandered into whatever mood the scene called for, but nobody ever took a step back to see the big picture. The romantic scenes are fine, so are the comedic ones and the dramatic ones, but they’re not cohesive enough.
The only thing that is consistent is the sexualization of pretty much everything. While nothing sexual takes place outside of the flashbacks, the rest of The Servant has a hugely sexual undercurrent. For better or worse, there is a lot of sex in the film, and it’s rather explicit as well. Although there is no on-screen penetration, there is everything but, and some of what is shown seems like it would have been difficult to fake.
I think part of my problem with the film might stem from a translational error that takes place at the beginning of the film. I don’t actually know if it’s a translation thing or if it’s a cultural thing and I misunderstood. Regardless, at the beginning of the film, the writer refers to Bang Ja as a “gangster,” and Bang Ja agrees with him. I assumed this meant that throughout the story, he would rise in the ranks of some big gang and end up at the helm. I was wrong, and that is not even close to what happens. He is a gangster in the sense that he did something that was kind of illegal (I think). He eloped with a Royal Inspector’s wife. That was his crime. It took me more than half of the film realize that there wasn’t going to be anything more than that.
It doesn’t help that Bang Ja smashes a man’s head into a table (twice!) early in the film. I was convinced that was going to be the proof that was needed to get him to go off and join a gang, but it wasn’t. It was simply a moment to show that he was a strong guy, and that he was caring or something to that effect. After that moment of strength though, we never see anything like that again. When he should have been fighting, he spent most of his time on his knees begging for forgiveness. It makes sense that he would do that, given his lower status (something very important to the film), but it’s frustrating to see.
The thing is, and I’ve already mentioned this, The Servant is not my kind of movie. Even so, I still found myself enjoying it, especially during the comedic scenes. When it wants to be, the film is very funny, and that makes it worth at least checking out. It may not change your life, but you’ll still find something to like.