The Throne Movie Review
Written by Angry Scholar
Directed by Joon-ik Lee
Written by Chul-Hyun Cho, Song-Won Lee, and Seung-hyeon Oh
2015, 125 minutes, Not Rated
Showed at Fantasia 2016 on July 19th, 2016
Kang-ho Song as King Yeongjo
Ah In Yoo as Crown Prince Sado
Geun-young Moon as Lady Hyegyeong
Hae-suk Kim as Queen Inwon
Won-sang Park as Hong Bong-han
The Throne is based on the true story of Korea’s Crown Prince Sado, who was executed by his own father after being deemed too crazy for the kingdom’s good. Not knowing his story beyond what Wikipedia relates, I can’t comment on the film’s historical accuracy; but like many period pieces, it offers visual spectacle and melodrama aplenty.
Young Sado is a promising lad, at first able to recite Confucian dictums with ease, and the king has high hopes for the boy. But as he grows up, the boy loses interest in studying and adhering to the strict protocol of the Joseon court. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s just not interested. Of course this doesn’t fly with the king, who comes increasingly to resent his son’s lack of motivation and respect for the throne which he will one day occupy. The king’s growing disdain for his son drives Sado further away, until the emotional distress apparently drives him mad. Sado murders a court eunuch over a formal robe, then threatens to kill his whole family. Somewhat later Sado goes as far as to grab a sword and charge toward the king’s chambers as if to assassinate him. He has a change of heart and doesn’t go through with it, but this aggression, as it were, won’t stand. The king orders that Sado be locked in a rice chest and left in the palace courtyard to die in the summer heat. The name “Sado” is bestowed by the king after the prince’s death; “Sa” means “to think” and “Do” means “to mourn.”
Visually this is an impressive film, with fascinating depictions of Joseon material culture and customs that make it worth a watch if you have even a passing interest in history (again with the caveat that I can’t speak to the film’s accuracy). The cast does what actors in such films generally do: they weep and rage and emote as hard they can, and all the melodrama wears thin very quickly. It spans a considerable time period, from Sado’s childhood up to fourteen years after his death; as a result we see people age, and unfortunately the “old” makeup is generally awful (in fairness, though, it usually is). With that notable exception, the film looks fantastic.
But as a Westerner with little at stake here, it’s hard for me to know how to react to the story. Certainly it’s sad, and I understand the tragedy of father and son driven apart by obligation and rigid Confucian ethics. But the king is cruel to his son, and Sado for his part beheads a guy for no good reason. So it’s difficult, on a certain level, to feel sad for the characters as individuals: their choices brought them here. As always, though, it’s important to take the vast differences in Korean and Western cultures and histories into account. A person familiar with the story and the larger history of Korea (not to mention the language) would undoubtedly respond differently to the prince’s sad tale.
The Throne offers an interesting version of a story which is probably unknown to a large majority of Westerners. The forced emotions, frequent Confucian-sounding proclamations about duty and honor, and overall bleak tone may put some viewers off, but there’s enough here in terms of culture, music and history to interest audiences looking for something different.