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Untold ScandalUntold Scandal

Directed by Je-yong Lee

(South Korea, 2003, 124 minutes, color, 35mm)


Mi-suk Lee……….Madam Jo
Do-yeon Jeon……….Suk
Yong-jun Bae.......... Jo-won
Hyeon-jae Jo .... Kwon In-ho
So-yeon Lee .... So-ok

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

By some measures the most economically successful Korean film released to that point, 2003's Untold Scandal was an unlikely blockbuster. Untold Scandal is sly and subtle, a chamber drama of sexual intrigue. It is set in the late Chosun period in 19th century Korea, in what film critic Ed Park evocatively calls "the lacquered mansions and flowering pleasure grounds" of the well-to-do. Lady Cho, a sexual adventuress, is busying herself with the pleasure of the hunt. She dispatches her handsome cousin Jo-won to bring down a virginal 16 year-old beauty, Soh-ok. Soh-ok is set to be married, and her conquest will be a matter of revenge for Lady Cho. Jo-won, a sleekly endearing cad, needs little encouragement, but Lady Cho sweetens the purse in a vaguely incestuous way. Meanwhile, Jo-won is after an even more remarkable prize: the elegant and devout widow Lady Sook. Jo-won is nominally an artist, but his real canvas is lust, and his paintbrush - well, let's not strain the metaphor. Nearly everyone in the closed world of Untold Scandal is a connoisseur of sex. In this fantastic place, largely without material wants, the only need is simply to be had, slowly, and deliciously.

posterIf it sounds like you've seen it before, if you go to the movies, you have: this is the 10th screen adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. There's Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons, there's Cruel Intentions, there's Milos Forman's Valmont, there's Roger Vadim's Les Liaisons Dangereuses… Laclos' story seems easily detached from its original pre-French Revolution setting. Any class-bound society that generates a class of romantic idlers draws Laclos' sexual gamesmanship like iron filings to a magnet. This is a world in which romance is like chess or jai alai, diversions which reward style more than victory. Here is a ritual entertainment in which the languorous, embroidered joys of seduction vastly overmatch in enjoyment the routine moment of consummation.

Untold Scandal's allusions are as cosmopolitan as its elaborate system of sexual exchange. Director/screenwriter E. J-yong melds Korean and 18th century French music in the film's underscore, and the introduction of missionary Catholicism adds a light touch of social criticism to the film, a moment of political sincerity in a film which is otherwise gorgeously jaded. The real politics of Untold Scandal, however, are in its geometric patterns of multiple deflowerings and deceits. And in these cloisters, the sacred devotions are to the pleasures of the body. It is a society whose mores are as baroque as its music. Untold Scandal is a well-tended garden of eros where lust purrs from under every green vine.

When Jo-won says, "The world is so full of vice and men are beasts," he isn't editorializing, merely stating a fact, though his beastliness is strangely mesmerizing, like the bright colors and silken, stiff-collared cinematography of Untold Scandal.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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