New ‘Yi Bang-won’ film focuses on love for a change

Actor Jang Hyuk in a scene from the period film "Empire of Lust" / Courtesy of Fine Works

The pressure is on for actor Jang Hyuk as the release date for his new period film approaches.

Jang will star as Yi Bang-won (King Taejong, 1367–1422) in “Empire of Lust,” but the film’s success will ride substantially on whether he has pulled off a convincing Yi, the unyielding prince who goes on to serve as the third king of the Joseon Kingdom (1392–1910).

Because the ruthless prince’s rise to the throne is a motif that has frequented broadcasters and local theaters, Jang has robust and heavy-footed veteran actors to outperform, including Yoo Dong-geun, in the 1996 KBS drama “Tears of Dragon,” and Ahn Jae-mo, in the state-run broadcaster’s 2014 hit “Jeong Do-jeon.”

The film, which also stars actors Shin Ha-kyun and Kang Ha-neul, begins when the kingdom’s founder Yi Seong-gye (1335–1408) refuses to abdicate the throne to Bang-won, his fifth son who assisted him in founding the new kingdom.

"Empire of Lust" actors speak at a press conference in southern Seoul on Feb. 3. From left are Kang Ha-neul, Jang Hyuk and Shin Ha-kyun. / Courtesy of Fine Works

The hot-tempered Bang-won seeks revenge — he plans revolts against his political rivals and, in 1398, kills his two half-brothers, including the crown prince, in a coup that came to be known as the “First Strife of Princes.” Yi later served as king from 1400 to 1418.

Jang, at a recent press conference, stressed that Bang-won was undoubtedly ambitious, but at times swayed by emotion.

“When people think of Yi Bang-won, they picture an unrelenting and headstrong figure, and this is because history tells us so,” Jang said. “But he was a person, after all. I wanted to keep that frame but differentiate by highlighting his temperamental changes.”

But the film, more fiction than fact, uses the above mentioned historical events more as a backdrop — instead, it keys on the characters’ desires and ambitions as they suffer from losses and deprivations.

Actor Shin joins Jang in “Empire” as Kim Min-jae, a fearless general who clashes with Lee. Kim is a fictional character.

“I wanted to illustrate the character’s tenacity, and his unchanging and pure love for one woman,” Shin said in a recent interview. “Empire” marks Shin’s first period film. “I hope audiences will be able to identify with Min-jae’s tragic love story.”

“It was difficult, but I was attracted to the desire and love played up in this film,” Shin said.

Kang’s presence in the film is second only to that of seasoned actors like Jang and Shin. Kang, who rose to fame after starring in tvN drama “Misaeng,” will be acting “Jin,” the corrupt son of Kim Min-jae whose inferiority complex leaves in him only desires for sexual satisfaction.

“He is the king’s son-in-law, but he doesn’t have what it takes to carry that weight,” Kang said.

“The gap between reality and what he believes is ideal was appealing to me. But acting ‘Jin’ was lonely, and depicting a character with no guilty conscience was a challenge.

“Yes, ‘Jin’ represents evil to most people, but I believe he has his reasons,” he added. “This is the ‘Jin’ I want audiences to get to know.”

The missing pieces in historical records were what prompted director Ahn Sang-hoon to conceive the film.

“For instance, I wondered why Jeong Mong-ju (1337–1392), an influential diplomat of the late Goryeo Kingdom, was killed during the day, not during the night,” Ahn said. “This curiosity laid the groundwork for the film.”

Yi Bang-won ordered Jeong be killed because the scholar refused to betray his loyalty to the Goryeo Kingdom.

He added that his version will shed light on what life was really like during that time.

“I can’t help but think most period films are based on today’s prejudices,” Ahn said. “I wanted to show audiences what really happened, with no moderations.”

“Empire of Lust” opens in theaters on Thursday.

By Kwon Ji-youn

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