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Fatal Encounter, The
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by Jay Seaver

"If you've ever wondered what '24' would be like in Joseon-era Korea..."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Palace intrigue stories, no matter what the culture, tend to develop over time, playing out in subtle ways requiring either inner monologues or exposition that doesn't necessarily fit well into a movie. There are good ones, but it's a little curious that more don't take the tack that writer Choi Sung-hyun and director Lee Jae-kyu take with "The Fatal Encounter": It dramatizes what could be the final day in a young king's reign, as all the plans are coming to a head.

The time is 1777, and King Jeong-jo (Hyun-bin) is in the first year of his reign. He's progressive, as kings go, aiming to improve things for the lower classes and favoring his young advisers over the older ones, paying particular attention to his chief of the guards Hong Kook-young (Park Sung-woong) and Gap-soo (Jung Jae-young), a eunuch clerk. Naturally, this displeases the powerful Noron Faction, who were behind his father's death and have the support of Queen Dowager Jung-soon (Han Ji-min) and General Koo Sun-bok (Song Young-chang). The Norons plan to kill another king this day, but who knows if it will come from inside the palace or at the hands of Eul-soo (Cho Jung-seok), an assassin being blackmailed with the safety of his girlfriend Wol-hye (Jung Eun-chae), a palace maid?

It's a fiendishly complex plot with elements that stretch back up to fourteen years as both sides put agents in place, including children, just in case they might become useful in the future, and where different agents of the Noron Faction are unaware of the entire plan - heck, Jeong-jo doesn't know what his mother, Duchess Hae-kyeung (Kim Sung-ryoung) is doing to protect him. In fact, The Fatal Encounter plays as much as a spy story as it does a tale of tangled relationships, and it's impressive how well the filmmakers establish all of what's going on at the point when the story has begun accelerating, especially since they mostly use the flashbacks that reach into earlier years to establish relationships rather than events.

The only time the movie trips up on that account, a bit, is as things approach the 11:15pm encounter that director Lee teased the audience with at the beginning; captions will pop up saying "three hours earlier" and "ninety minutes earlier" without breaks to re-establish just which time it's earlier than. It's a minor complaint that an attentive audience should figure out quickly enough. Lee works his ticking clock quite well, letting some subplots play out within hours while others stretch over the whole day. Things happen quickly without ever seeming rushed and flashbacks showing potential reversals come early enough that it never seems like the movie is pulling them out unfairly.

Eventually, the swords, arrows, and muskets come out, and the showdown that has been promised throughout the movie does not disappoint. It's not just that the fight choreography is excellent and the people who have to know what they are doing can handle themselves, although that's great; it's that Lee and his action crew have some great skills at making the terrain important. It's raining during the big fight, which leads to problems both in moving along rooftops or lighting a musket's fuse when out from under cover. The architecture makes it believable that the king could conceivably pick off enemy soldiers while avoiding the hail of arrows coming his way. And throughout, Lee never has to slow down to highlight the more personal layers of the fight.

Heck, in some ways it's when Hyun-bin does his best work as the king; making him both regal and not to be messed with. What goes on during the last act is in many ways the answer to the question the movie has been asking throughout - is it possible to survive as a good-hearted king, or does being relatively liberal necessarily mark one as weak in this environment? Byun-hin encapsulates that in nearly every scene. Jung Jae-young is a good foil for him, showing how Gap-soo is both the king's most trusted friend but also distant as a common servant, while Han Ji-min makes Queen Jung-soon a formidable opponent; there's no doubt that this young dowager (obviously not the first wife Jeong-jo's grandfather had) has probably been training for this since birth. Jung Eun-chae has some great moments as a laundry maid who becomes unexpectedly central to everything, and young Yoo Eun-mi is pretty terrific as a mere ten-year-old caught up in things far above her understanding.

It's mostly a nice-looking period piece as well, even if it is somewhat dark during the crucial moments. It's also missing a little bit of wanted resolution even after running a bit long. Still, it's a fun palace thriller, one that has a tendency to move when others may bog down.

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originally posted: 07/24/14 16:14:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 23-May-2014



Directed by
  Jae-kyoo Lee

Written by
  Sung-Hyun Choi

  Bin Hyun
  Jae-young Jung
  Jung-sook Cho
  Jae-Hyeon Cho
  Ji-min Han

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