Thursday, August 30, 2018

Review: OWNERLESS FLOWER UHWUDONG Can't Choose Between Erotica And Drama

By Pierce Conran

Thirty years after Lee Jang-ho's landmark film Eoh Wu-dong (available to watch for free on the Korean Film Archive's Youtube channel), a period ero that became a surprise critical and commercial hit in 1985, Lee Soo-sung offers up his own version of the tale, called Ownerless Flower Uhwudong (different spelling, same name), which had a limited theatrical run earlier after its festival premiere at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in 2015.

A soft-spoken woman of noble birth is in love with her retainer but is forced into an abusive marriage. Extricating herself from it following her husband's unfaithfulness, she recasts herself as the beguiling courtesan Uhwudong and exacts her revenge on the lecherous men of the noble ranks, eventually making her way to her former spouse and the King.

Period dramas are expensive, so for an indie film like Ownerless Flower to look as good as it does is no small feat. With solid set and costume design as well as fluid camerawork, Lee's film evokes the familiar air of its more well-funded commercial brethren, though it is understandably limited in terms of its scale.

Yet despite the effort put into the film's craft, it isn't immediately clear if the narrative unfolding before us is supposed to be a serious drama or an elevated exercise in cheap titillation. Nude female bodies writhe for the pleasure of a male audience in the opening scene and Uhwudong finds herself in a number of sexual scenarios, but the narrative doesn't merely flit from one flash of skin to the next. The result is an uneven balance between tragic drama and softcore erotica, peppered with a flurry of revenge tropes, but the film is neither as emotional or seductive as it wants to be.

Another issue that arises from this uncomfortable mix is one of gender politics. Just as she was in the original film, Uhwudong is a tragic figure who empowers herself through her sexuality, using it as a tool in her quest for vengeance. But when we are invited to gaze upon her form in protracted sex scenes, the filmmakers delve into exploitation, rather than offer a hint of erotica which might have made the viewer complicit in the film's depiction of patriarchy.

In the title role, Song Eun-chae ably handles herself as the vulnerable young woman, but her soft features don't lend themselves quite so well to the more sinister character she becomes in the film's latter half. Then again, the role was previously played by 80s siren Lee Bo-hee, an almost impossible act to follow. Meanwhile, Baek Do-bin and Yeo Wook-hwan, as the husband and love interest, respectively, are passable but instantly forgettable, which does offer the benefit of placing more emphasis on Uhwudong.

Ownerless Flower comes about at a time when period dramas are all the rage at the Korean box office, stretching from Masquerade to Roaring Currents and beyond. Indeed, it was one of three Joseon Era erotic dramas in 2015, alongside the drab Empire of Lust and the ill-conceived The Treacherous.

Lee's film may be on par with the aforementioned titles, but it's also a slog. The plot is bare bones and the direction it eventually takes is easy to suss out early on. Whereas in erotica connecting scenes are normally just filler, here they are played very seriously but they lack the substance to carry a feature-length narrative. Unsure of how to frame its story, Ownerless Flower never quite gets going, though it will quickly fade from memory.


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