There is one thing that pulled me into watching this film, and that one thing delivered. In this quiet conspiracy thriller, Kim So Yeon battles her conscience as a spy who’s ordered to assassinate Emperor Gojong in the late 1890s. Also starring Joo Jin Mo and Yoo Sun, this film was certainly not what I expected in more ways than one. A short recap of the film follows with some spoilers, so skip down to the review portion if you don’t wish to know what happens.
Danya (Kim So Yeon) is the daughter of an official translator for King Gojong (Park Hee Soon), who heads up to the border between Korea and Russia in order to speak to foreign envoys. It’s a time of great political upheaval, and Korea must find its place between Russia and Japan. Coffee beans are a commodity in high demand, and the Japanese have recently assassinated the king’s wife, Empress Myeongseong. Danya’s father is killed when she is but a child, and his last request is for Illychi (Joo Jin Mo), the servant boy, to take care of his Danya. It’s only fitting that Illychi also has a crush on her.
Years later, Danya and Illychi have become the Bonnie and Clyde of 1890s Korea, known for stealing coffee beans and gold bars from the Russians right at the border. They make fools out of the Russian military, since they so easily robbed their train, but eventually get caught. They’re both to be executed upon sight, but they miraculously live – thanks to Sadako (Yoo Sun), a former Korean slave who was sold to Japan at a young age. She is now a Japanese spy, working as part of Miura Gora (Kim Eung Soo)’s delegation. Miura, for the record, is the Japanese lieutenant who ended up being the minister who plotted the assassination of Empress Myeongseong. Wanted Japanese rule over Korea, that fella’.
So Sadako makes a deal with the two of them. She had to pay Russia a hefty amount of gold to use them for her purposes, and to convince Illychi to agree to their conditions, she threatens to torture Danya through a long, painful death through opium addiction. At this point, Danya and Illychi are lovers, so to spare her life, Illychi agrees to Sadako’s terms. Danya would become a Russian citizen and head to Korea to poison Gojong. Illychi will become a Japanese citizen named Sakamoto Yusuke and be a military officer who gets sent to Korea. Of course, neither are to acknowledge each other when “Operation Coffee” begins.
Danya gets her start by being placed in a Russian cafe by the border, and she spies on the Russian and Korean legation that meet there often. She introduces herself to Min Yeong Hwan, a minister for the king, by informing him about Russia and Japan’s secret treaty not to help Korea in any way. She also reveals to Min that her father was a translating official who was killed by the Korean army when he was accused of stealing gold from the king. She has been unable to prove his innocence since. Taking pity on her and realizing her usefulness in knowing both Russian and Korean, he takes her under his wing. Step 1: Infiltrate the Korean legation complete.
Illychi arrives at this same cafe and sees Danya for the first time. They recognize each other, but they don’t let their looks linger as they’re not supposed to know each other. He is being sent to Korea for his own mission, but his one condition is for Danya to be made a Japanese citizen after all of this.
Min has one task for Danya to do in order to help Korea (since he thinks she’s on his side) – to work for the Russian embassy. He introduces her to Minister Weber and Lady Sontak and their translator. Lady Sontak is in charge of making the king’s coffee, and her access into King Gojong’s private rooms allows her to listen in and spy on the king’s plans. When it becomes clear that Danya’s coffee brewing skills surpass Sontak’s, Minister Weber hopes that Danya can be his informant on the king’s activities. So now the spy has become a double agent.
Meanwhile, Illychi is making his own plans, and we find out that he was helping the Japanese even at a young age. He best knew how to brew the coffee that Danya likes, and so when he was a young servant, he’d do anything to get extra money in order to buy coffee beans. One of his “side tasks” was to make sure the door to Danya and her father’s hotel room was left unlocked for the Japanese. It was actually the Japanese who killed her father, and framed it on the Koreans. Okay, so tortured hero alert.
The Japanese discover that the king has been purchasing more modern rifles from the Russians, and they need Danya’s information to help figure out which Russian is helping the Koreans. Illychi and Danya meet in a small general shop in the back room, where they are left alone. He tells her that he needs a map of the interior of the embassy, as it is likely that the king’s contacts are using a secret passageway. But first, she must earn the trust of the king.
Gojong mistrusts everyone and understandably so, as his wife was murdered and he doesn’t know who could want to poison him. Despite Danya’s efforts, the only way she can get close to him (and thus give the Russians some useful information) is to promise to be the king’s “person,” even choosing to be a court lady. She reveals the flaw in the Russian embassy’s translation skills as she tells the king – during a meeting with the Russians and Japanese – that they mistranslated what the king said. Instead of relaying the message from the king that he wants to know where the weapons are (and the Russians are withholding it), the translator merely said that the king was hoping for stronger protection from the Russians.
In fact, the king knows a lot more than he lets on, and already knew that the translator was not conveying his message clearly to the Russian embassy. He just wanted to test Danya. He even knew about Danya’s father, and he reveals that her father used to be his “person.” Working on the side of the king is very dangerous though, and that’s why her father was murdered. The shock of this revelation – that the king never ordered the death of her father – changes Danya’s view of the king.
Illychi finds out where the Russian weapons are being held, and he pays off the dealers to make sure they don’t sell them to the revolutionaries, the righteous army. Meanwhile, the king wants to take advantage of Japan’s war with Taiwan to develop his righteous armies to fight the Japanese. But Illychi locates the righteous army’s base and he shoots each revolutionary until the captain steps forth and admits where the secret passageway to the embassy is.
At the same time, Gojong gives Danya a message for her to send through the secret passageway out of the embassy and into the palace. Illychi is already there, waiting, and he follows her as she heads to the palace alone. Once far enough, she opens the letter and reads it herself, and then gets rid of it. She returns to the hotel, and tells Gojong that she delivered the letter, but he knows that she has read it. He tells her never to read the letter because it’ll be too dangerous for her, and he doesn’t want to lose her.
Danya may not love the king, but she certainly is touched by his gesture. She still hopes she can return to a life with Illychi though, indicated by how she holds on to the ring he gave her.
Lady Sontak goes forth with a banquet held in honor of the king, with Miura and Sadako in attendance as well. Danya must administer the poison then, and the blame would then fall on Sontak. However, a last moment’s hesitation stops her, and Danya does not administer the poison. It’s a tense moment as Illychi, Sadako, and Miura watch the king take a sip of his coffee, but not fall down dead, as planned. Sadako knocks her cup aside, rejecting Danya’s offer of coffee.
Later, Danya says she never agreed to kill him; rather, she was to arrange for it to happen, but she was not going to be blamed for the king’s death. But Illychi takes it the wrong way and interprets her actions as her love for the king; the fact that she no longer wears his ring seems to confirm that thought. He feels like he’s lost her already, considering all he’s done to try and protect her. He pushes her on the bed in her room, and rips her clothes apart… Only to find the ring hanging around her neck. He backs off, and she tells him that she’ll arrange for him to escape to Russia. She’ll never get out of Japan’s clutches alive, but hopefully he can.
Though Operation Coffee failed, Miura and Illychi have another plan. They’ll organize the weapon delivery to the righteous army, but instead the Japanese army will be waiting for them. Gojong sends Danya to the location of the transaction with his righteous army, since they’ll need someone who can speak Russian. However, the Russian embassy translator is surprised to find out that Danya has left the palace, and thinks that the king sent her somewhere different than was planned. Sadako gives him the poison to kill the king; if he doesn’t succeed, he’ll die. He heads to the kitchen, sends out one of the court ladies preparing the coffee instead, and tips the poison into the coffee she was preparing.
As Danya rides through the woods with the king’s guards, he orders two of them to guide her to the port; she’s not going to the rendezvous for the weapons exchange. She arrives at the port, and one of the king’s bribed officials attacks her. One of the guards she was traveling with protects her, and it becomes clear that the Japanese have arranged for her death. She learns of the plan to kill the king, and rushes back to the embassy.
The coffee is brought into the king’s room, and poured into his cup… Danya runs through the embassy halls – will she make it in time? The Head Court Lady pours a drink for herself, drinking it as well to check for poison, as the king raises the cup to his lips.
Danya bursts into the room, warning him not to drink it – and at that moment the court lady falls, dead.
The king reveals to Danya that he met with Illychi. He had come in the dead of the night to make a deal with the king. Though he claims no loyalty to a country, he is loyal to Danya, and informs the king of her position as a spy. He wants to ensure that she will be protected, as she actually betrayed the Japanese to protect him. In return, he will betray the Japanese and fight on the Koreans’ side.
The love that Illychi has for her, and his desire to protect a loved one touches Gojong, as he himself could not protect his own wife. He agrees to Illychi’s terms and has Danya hurry back to the port – there she can earn her freedom.
At that same moment, the Japanese troops are expecting to catch the righteous army making the weapons deal. The righteous army runs to the hills, and the Japanese find a surprise: instead of weapons in the trunks, there is dynamite. It’s a trap for the Japanese! Just over the hill, Illychi stands up and he aims his rifle at the chest of dynamite. It explodes, and the righteous army rises from over the hill and attacks the Japanese. The Japanese think they can overpower them, but then from behind, they are attacked by more Koreans. The Japanese lose.
Illychi hurries off to the port, where he is to meet Danya and escape together. Unfortunately, just before they can sail off into the sunset together, Sadako has already sent her men after them. They shoot at Illychi, and he throws his bag of dynamite at them. They shoot him down, and get Danya in the leg as she hurries to the boat. Illychi knows he’s going to give himself up, so he shoots at the dynamite, making the entire port blow to smithereens. The Japanese are blown back, but then Illychi’s body is riddled with more bullets. It’s Sadako, aiming her gun directly at Illychi’s fallen body.
Years later, a railroad that connects Russia to Korea has already been built, and Danya reminisces about recent events. Gojong is now the emperor of Korea, and has created a pavilion solely for enjoying coffee behind the palace. We take a glimpse of modern day Seoul, Gyeongbok Palace, where the monarchy is no more, but the pavilion and the love of coffee lives on.
I think this film had a lot of potential, and it ended up being not quite what I expected. For one, I went in thinking I was going to watch a conspiracy thriller with a pulsating soundtrack, twists, and ingenious misdirections as Kim So Yeon and Joo Jin Mo’s characters plotted against the king. Instead, I got a conspiracy thriller that focused on the romance, and that for me killed the pace of the film.
The film was quite slow-moving, and so it didn’t give me quite the satisfaction of a thriller. Instead, it was more of a love story than a spy thriller. It dwelled upon the fact that Danya and Illychi’s undying love for each other, and desire to protect each other, was the driving force behind the conspiracy. Neither were particularly loyal to any country (Russia, Japan or Korea), so they didn’t have to follow these countries’ plans. The whole operation rested on the fact that their love for each other would ensure successful completion of the assassination. However, to me, the fact that they were in love indicates they were the sentimental sort, and therefore could easily be swayed. That’s what happened with Danya, and that’s why she couldn’t go along with the murder. (Barring the fact that doing so would have changed history.)
Gabi became a little ridiculous towards the end when Danya and Illychi planned to escape together. It was overly dramatic, and the final scenes were much too cliched. I felt it detracted from the overall feel of the movie and made it something totally commercialized and generic. It was a disappointing end. Even though I knew that Danya and Illychi could not be together in the end after all they had done, I was hoping it was not going to involve Illychi going to the king and begging for forgiveness, and then betraying Japan to work with the Koreans.
The actors themselves gave a stunning performance despite my problems with the script and the execution of it. I am impressed with how much they practiced their languages, and Kim So Yeon blew me away with her Russian skills. I found Park Hee Soon to be compelling because he gave a portrayal that reminded me a bit of Ryu Deok Hwan‘s portrayal of King Gongmin in Faith: Both are men who appear to be staid in public, but inside they are breaking to pieces, knowing that many men are risking their lives to serve him and help him get out of the shadow of a stronger neighboring country. Joo Jin Mo was strong and convincing as the man who would not listen to superiors, but I felt his character was not as compelling as the other two. He did have excellent chemistry with Kim So Yeon, but that’s about it. Maybe I’m just biased towards Kim So Yeon, because if there’s any woman who can seduce me and still be vulnerable, and then kick ass the next second, it’s her.
I enjoyed the cinematography in this piece. The camera lingered a lot on the characters’ faces so you could really understand their emotions and their personalities. I love the way they showed off Yoo Sun; she was beautiful and yet completely sinister, and it’s a testament to both her acting, and the lighting and framing of her face. The close-ups on the actors (whether it be a face or a part of their body) just emphasized how this film was more of a character film than it was a conspiracy thriller.
Overall, this film was atmospheric and compelling, but more so because of the acting than for the story. I felt the story was a bit convoluted at times, and certainly not completely linear. I may have missed the subtleties in the piece, but I also felt that the film was not about the plot. It was about the characters, and how each character’s individual choices affected the future of an empire. A simple message of how powerful love is, to be able to conquer nations.
A watch if you like Kim So Yeon or character pieces. A skip if you are in for a thriller – because this really isn’t one.