Review: “The Fatal Encounter”: One Friend to Kill the King, One to Save the King

The Fatal Encounter” is a film about an assassination attempt on King Jeongjo (played by Hyun Bin), the twenty-second ruler of the Joseon Dynasty who ruled from 1776-1800. King Jeongjo was preceded by his grandfather Yeongjo, who put Jeongjo’s father, the Crown Prince Sado, to death by royal decree. History states that the reason for this was Sado’s madness, which turned him into an alleged murderer and serial rapist. The setup for “The Fatal Encounter,” however, is that the Noron faction, the ruling political party at the time, had Sado executed for taking the side of the opposing political party. The film drops in in 1777, King Jeongjo’s second year of rule. Now, with Sado’s son on the throne, in the midst of political strife between the Noron and Soron factions, the Noron faction is at the king’s throat once again.

“The Fatal Encounter” is based on a real assassination attempt made on King Jeongjo on the night of July 28, 1777. History records that King Jeongjo was unable to sleep and was reading late into the night when he heard a sound in the ceiling. He called his servants to investigate, and to their surprise, they found an assassin hiding in the eaves. This became one of the most infamous assassination attempts in the history of the Joseon Dynasty.

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The major players in “The Fatal Encounter” are:

King Jeongjo (Hyun Bin): In the crosshairs of the Noron faction, he can trust no one but those closest to him: clerk Sang Chaek, and the Chief of Guards, Hong.

Sang Chaek (Jung Jae Young): Sent to the castle as a child in order to eventually assassinate the king, he realizes Jeongjo’s worth as a king and does everything he can to save him.

Sal Soo (Jo Jung Suk): Like a little brother to Sang Chaek, and raised by the same organization as the clerk, Sal Soo takes on a mission to kill the king in order to save his girlfriend, who is a palace maid.

Queen Jeongsun (Han Ji Min): Yeongjo’s wife and Jeongjo’s grandmother, Queen Jeongsun had a hand in the execution of Crown Prince Sado, and is one of the conspirators behind the assassination of Jeongjo.

“The Fatal Encounter” starts off showing a ground littered with dead bodies garbed in black, and then shoots to 20 hours and 15 minutes earlier, following the events of the day leading up to the assassination.

The film is a visually appealing one, made apparent right from the start with Hyun Bin’s topless entrance. With an overall dark, almost noir-like theme and the beautiful historic royal dress, the film is full of stunning visuals and aesthetics. If nothing else, the beautiful scenery in the film is something to see.

the fatal encounter

King Jeongjo (Hyun Bin)

the fatal encounter

the fatal encounter

Right away you’ll notice the extensive use of flashbacks to develop the characters. In “The Fatal Encounter,” we especially get a close look into the relationship between the king’s clerk Sang Chaek (Jung Jae Young), who is Jeongjo’s most trusted servant, and the assassin Sal Soo (Jo Jung Suk), depicted upon entrance into the film as a ruthless killer whose impromptu weapon of choice is chopsticks. Very early on we learn that these two characters knew each other as children, and were quite close, Sang Chaek looking after Sal Soo like a little brother. Raised in a dog-eat-dog environment by an organization of assassins, it’s possible Sal Soo would not have survived if it was not for the older Sang Chaek. Before long, Sang Chaek is sent into the palace as a sleeper assassin and King Jeongjo’s servant, and Sal Soo is left to fend for himself. Years later, when Sal Soo is assigned to kill the king, he and his old friend and guardian Sang Chaek are fated to meet again.

the fatal encounter

Sang Chaek (Jung Jae Young)

the fatal encounter

Sal Soo (Jo Jung Suk)

Another relationship that is explored in the film is that of King Jeongjo and Sang Chaek. In their interactions, we can see their high regard and respect for each other. Even when Sang Chaek is found out as an assassin, the king’s trust remains intact and what we see is sadness at the thought of their childhood friendship as a lie. 

This is one aspect of the film that I wish they had shown more of. I felt that the process of Sang Chaek’s shift of allegiance and transition of identity from the king’s assassin to the king’s most loyal protector was an important facet of the film that was left behind and covered too briefly. Seeing more of the king and the clerk’s childhood relationship would have lent much to the emotion evoked in the king’s confrontation of his most trusted friend, and was an important missed aspect of the film.

Queen Jeongsun (Han Ji Min), the king’s grandmother, was also a bit underrepresented in the film, especially for being such a crucial force behind the assassination. While her entrance on-screen is charismatic and immediately builds tension with the king, this is lost through the progression of the film and exploration of other characters.

the fatal encounter

Queen Jeongsun (Han Ji Min)

What’s interesting about “The Fatal Encounter” is its emphasis on the supporting characters, namely Sang Chaek and Sal Soo: the one closest to the king, and the one to kill the king. Their story is explored much more than that of the king, and has the potential to make for a fresh take on these types of historical films where a larger portion of the screen time is occupied by the obvious lead. In fact, a majority of the story is about the relationships of different people.

The film may take a route unexpected by viewers, and initially it may seem hard to relate to the king, as in its focus on relationships, we learn little about the historical and political background of Jeongjo. However, if one goes in armed with knowledge of King Jeongjo’s reign and ready for a story of relationships, love, trust, and friendship, rather than political drama and betrayal, “The Fatal Encounter” will be a rewarding film for those who want something new.


the fatal encounter

King Jeongjo (Hyun Bin)

Title: The Fatal Encounter (Yeokrin)

Genre: Drama

Language: Korean with English subtitles

Running Time: 135 minutes

Rating: NR

Director: Lee Jae Kyoo

All images courtesy of CJ E&M

Watch the trailer here: 

“The Fatal Encounter” is playing in select North American theaters.