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For someone who publicly claimed to have retired from filmmaking back in 2011, director Lee Joon-ik, sure has been busy.  Not only has he continued making movies, but Lee seems have hit a stride after his purported break, creating pictures that aren’t only entertaining, but often deeply affecting.  2013’s Hope, based on a real incident of an eight-year-old girl brutally raped on her way to school, achieved a virtually inconceivable balance between being nearly too intense to watch (while restrained in its explicitness) with heartfelt and unvarnished emotion that made the heavy subject matter somehow life-affirming. 

Whether the viewer is aware of this particular incident of Korean history, it becomes clear early on in The Throne what we’re in for when a captured, panicked young man faces an elderly king who directs his guards to “put him in the box.”  Seeing the wooden crate, approximately the size of a standard washing machine turned on its back, we know this cannot end well.   One of the most scandalous episodes of Korean antiquity, The Throne is the story of King Yeongjo, whose contentious relationship with his son and heir to the throne, Prince Sado, deteriorated into public displays of the father’s continued disappointment in his child, then into abject, constant cruelty, and finally perceived treason.  The price of his sire’s displeasure was meeting the hereafter locked inside a rice crate, where the prince was given neither food nor water until he expired.  There’s lots of opportunity for drama, particularly when many historical renderings make Sado out to have been completely degenerate; possibly with the motive of making this Korean king’s solution to a wayward son seem less monstrous to future generations, but Lee’s take on the tale shifts the blame at least in part from the possibly maligned royal and paints a portrait of competition, jealousy and neuroses taken to the extreme.

The chosen one; that’s the young prince in the nutshell.  The scion of the king of Korea and one of his concubines, Sado is elevated to ascend the throne after his father dies or abdicates.  His training for the future starts early and is intense, with special lessons and tests devised and administered by his imposing dad.  A sweet child with many admirers in the court, his teachers are apt to let small mistakes go in the interest of encouraging the small boy, but this coddling doesn’t fly with His Majesty.  Thundering and fiercely berating his child before the entire court, the king’s harsh approach instills a strong aversion to the day full of studying expected of Sado, who would much rather be playing with the other court children or practicing archery.  While knowing his responsibilities and living up to them as best as he can, whether as a child, or later as an adult, nothing Sado does seems to please the king.

The push-pull nature of their relationship is another source of tension.  The king privately tells his only living son how happy his birth made him while humiliating his decision-making skills once the king decides to try Sado out as regent; ruling, but never really ruling in Yeongjo’s place.  The classic clashes of one generation versus another become clear as Sado sees things in the light of innocence and logic of his youth, while the king who had negotiated and networked his way onto the throne derides his son for not being aware of the intricate (and semi-corrupt) web of tradition, graft, expediency and blatant party politics that secured his reign.  The son’s clear, wide-eyed dream of a Korea that cares for its poorest citizens and balances the entitlements of the wealthy is a threat to everything his father’s worked for.

The Throne is a story of the innate competition that sometimes occurs between fathers and sons gone supernova.  Song Kang-ho creates a king infested with insecurities.  Like his son, Yeongjo ascended despite being born of a concubine, itself a position of derision in the status-obsessed court.  The king’s common roots are a permanent chip on his shoulder, while Sado hasn’t let his birth constrain his identity and exalts his mother rather than obscure her, forming just one of many spears of envy the father aims toward his son.  The king seems to resent Sado’s comfortable existence with the world; the general good feeling his retainers have toward the boy and his agreeable nature.  Even Sado’s happy marriage and open devotion to his own son, which makes the king’s own continually wandering eye and intentionally prickly relationship with Sado seem tawdry and small. 

As presented here, the king is a superstitious petty despot, more concerned with image and position than with substance or actual leadership.  His tantrums and threats of abdication in the face of adversity are like clockwork, until his own mother tells him, ‘go ahead leave the throne,’ partly in aid of taking some of the king’s pressure off of Sado.  Unfortunately, her agreement causes Yeongjo to make all sorts of dramatic and overwrought gestures, which then force Sado to be the filial son and fall even further under his father’s thumb.  Yeongjo is stung at the thought that his abdication wasn’t exactly met with the unanimous protest he’d expected.  Insecurity is this man’s entire motivation; there is nothing regal about his manner, no matter how much weight he unjustly throws around.  If he has any notion of how lacking his grace is, he buries it under ego, selfishness and continued bullying of Sado.  Yeongjo’s recollection of his joy at Sado’s birth is immediately negated by his further relating how he was taught that all kings must hate their sons, as brothers have historically betrayed and destroyed their own kin for generations.  To his shame, it’s yet another pointless and harmful tradition he feels no need to discard and employs it as an excuse for his horrid behaviour against his child. 

Paradoxically, the same man, who, in a fit of pique refused to receive his grandchild when Sado proudly presented the newborn, makes that child the apple of his eye; indulging and coddling the young Jeongjo in a way he refused to do with Sado.  Perhaps this is because with such an age gap, Jeongjo presents no threat of supplanting his grandfather in his old age, as Sado did whilst the king was still in his prime.  No one will say, ‘Boy, the young king is great, too bad we didn’t get rid of the old king quicker.’  The progression is more natural and comfortable for the egotist king and he showers the child with all the care and affection he never saw fit to impart to Sado.  Ironically, the Jeongjo possesses much of the same early intelligence and sense of justice and service to the kingdom that Yeongjo excoriated the boy’s father for.  Song captures Yeongjo with vanity and pathos, while never shedding the ruler’s brutal and avaricious might that grasped the crown of the nation.

As the troubled Prince, Yoo Ah-in gives us a young man crumbling to pieces inside.  The normal pressure of a son trying to make his father proud in any walk of life is magnified times infinity against the weight of Sado’s being groomed to rule an entire nation while being choked by his demanding father’s lead.  From earliest childhood, Sado can do nothing right.  While a naturally bright and thoughtful child, his father’s strict adherence to form fails to see the son’s natural talents, which to the king, simply don’t exist.  Yeongjo disparages Sado at every opportunity - he demands a wash bowl to rinse his ears and mouth out every time the prince even speaks with him - tearing the boy’s self-esteem to shreds and eventually turning him away from the path of righteousness Sado tried so hard to walk.  It becomes a case of ‘you keep thinking the worst of me, then I might as well live down to it.’ 

Sado’s stress takes a huge mental and physical toll, which is then perceived by his father as weakness and met with neither pity nor compassion.  Sado’s self-medication for his ills finds him mixing with all the rough elements of society.  His behaviour descends from erratic to downright terrifying; including the murder of court personnel whist in the throes of madness.  His unfitness is magnified a thousand times in the eyes of his father, who finds personal offence in his son’s self-pitying gestures and declares Sado’s actions as treason.  Prohibited by law and tradition not to dispense with his boy by his own hand, and either unable or unwilling to simply depose and exile him, King Yeongjo breaks out the rice chest. 

Watching Yoo pitch from rage and defiance at his sentence, to claustrophobic terror as days pass without food or water in the box too small to sit up in, to the final acceptance that no reprieve is coming is a marvel.  The actor’s own sweet, open, baby-faced looks degenerate to gaunt, wild-eyed mania as Sado plummets into insanity.  The psychic blows he suffers from his father’s constant - often inexplicable - barrages of cruelty and rejection reflect in Yoo’s eyes like a dog that’s been beaten over and over, possibly making Prince Sado more sympathetic than he might’ve been in actuality.  Yoo, already receiving praise for his performance as a very different type of spoiled, debauched, wealthy murderer in this year’s Veteran, mesmerises as the once-brilliant, sensitive Sado, whose very soul is torn apart by his own father.

A special note must go to veteran actress Kim Hae-sook {The Thieves, Pinocchio} as the Queen Mother.  The older lady’s steely veneer and scathing disapproval is the only thing protecting her adored grandchild from his father’s continual wrath.  Watching Kim and Song face off in a battle of nerves practically makes the screen crackle.

The nuances that director Lee gives to this infamous story are in details like both Sado’s wife and mother essentially giving up on the prince for their own ends.  His wife thinks to protect their young son, Jeongjo, who stands to be murdered along with his father.  His mother chooses to show loyalty to the king and keep the status of what remains of her family.  The only one who acts with any actual care for Sado’s fate is his little boy, who defies his grandfather to try to give some measure of comfort to his imprisoned dad. 

The production itself is a gorgeous thing, with the lush silks, gold and jewels that provide a stunning front for a rotten interior.  The grandiose image is an important key to Yeongjo and his underlying sense of unworthiness, which is in part a motivation for his treatment of Sado.

But for a small dose of overwrought sentiment at the film’s end, The Throne pretty perfect.  Tense, enthralling and beautifully acted, I wish all history lessons were as engaging as this.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

December 4th, 2015


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