Never step out of your boundaries

On Eunuch, by Julia Martos

News category: General

In our second screening of TRAPPED! THE CINEMA OF CONFINEMENT we bring you a court melodrama that reflects the subjugation of the body in an imperial and patriarchal society. Located in a dazzling setting within the place of the Yi Dynasty, the plot tackles the coexistence of two communities who live incarcerated within the walls of a palace: eunuchs and concubines. The castrated males are the King's guards, and their loyalty is directly linked with their inability to generate offspring and to seduce women. Similarly, the harem comprises women slaves longing to give birth to the King’s heir to elevate their status through his favour. When a secret relationship between the young eunuch Jong-ho and the royal concubine Jo-ak is revealed, the foundations of a system based on the repression of the physical body will be shaken, changing the fate of all the inhabitants of the palace.

The film Eunuch belongs to a specific women-centred period of the director known as ‘Prince of South Korean Cinema’, Shin Sang-Ok. During this period, and not without controversy, women are the conduit to reflect on the repression of a Confucian society. The female characters in Eunuch are ashamed of their sexual desire (normative and non-normative), accused of greed and lust, and eventually punished because of their transgressions. Revisiting this invaluable part of Sang-Ok 's legacy, although his perspective leaves no room for insurrection, allows us to envision the extent of this highly oppressive tradition.

The inclusion of this film within the season corresponds to our intention to look at other ways of incarceration and being in lockdown that transcend the walls of a prison. In doing so, the restraint of female desire insistently depicted in Eunuch demands our attention. Particularly eloquent is the moment when a concubine of the King is forced to spend the night with him, with her behaviour being permanently monitored by two "allies" –usually a maid and a eunuch- from the antechamber of the King’s room. Curiously, this antechamber becomes a place for control and secret desire; especially when we observe the maid Lady Lin expressing her desire for the concubine sitting with her, Jo-ak. Equally, as voyeur-spectators, we are reproducing this antechamber when silently witnessing their drama imposing our expectations and desires on the small screens in our living rooms.

To conclude this brief reflection around Eunuch, we would like to recommend a couple of references for your interest. For those who want to expand on the topic of women in feudal societies, in 1969 Shin Sang-Ok  produced Women on Yi-Dynasty,  also available to watch online as part of the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel. And last but not least, we would like to suggest the enlightening short film Reclaiming the Negative, that provides a contemporary look of the experience of North Korean refugees living in Seoul. These stories intentionally echo the tragic kidnapping of the Eunuch’s director Shin Sang-Ok by the North Korean government (1978-1986).

You can watch Eunuch (courtesy of the Korean Film Archive) with a recorded introduction from KFN programmer Julia Martos in a specially created playlist on the KCCUK YouTube channel.