“Freshly anointed South Korea’s flag-bearer in the race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar next year, The Throne is palace-intrigue period drama par excellence. Revolving around the real-life case of an 18th century king’s decision to lock up his son in a rice chest — in which the royal heir died after eight days — Lee Joon-ik’s film offers lavish production values and an acting master class from its stellar cast. What propels the film beyond heritage-cinema territory is its transcendence beyond its own setting, as the screenplay challenges the Confucian social norms still going strong three centuries after the death of Crown Prince Sado in 1762.
Opening on Sept. 16, The Throne marks Lee’s return to the monarch-in-meltdown territory on which he triumphed a decade ago with the record-breaking King and the Clown. With its controversial historical subject and the presence of multiple award-winning Song Kang-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), newly minted blockbuster star Yoo Ah-in (Veteran) as well as the national sweetheart of Moon Geun-young, the film is bound for the box-office stratosphere. While overlooked by Toronto — where King and the Clown bowed in 2005 — the film should attract bookings on the festival circuit beyond releases in the Asian markets.
A master class in technique and social critique.
The story at the center of The Throne, a struggle between the long-ruling King Yeongjo and his son, Sado,has been revisited several times via TV series during the past two decades. Some followed the long-accepted line of a father’s forced filicide of an unhinged or usurping scion, while “revisionist” versions see the son as falling foul of his own ambitions in pushing for social reforms. The Throne is neither, as everyone in the royal household is a walking contradiction — with no caricatured villain or tragic hero in sight.
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In the latest of his long line of morally ambivalent characters, Song is majestic in delivering King Yeongjo as a sovereign swinging wildly between simple paternalism and outright paranoia, leading to a thoroughly incoherent (and thus very human) behavior towards his son. When his character says how he is “not sure what it means to be king,” his confusion is convincing, as he brings to the screen a very complex inner struggle of his divergent trains of thought.
Meanwhile, Yoo matches Song with his anguished portrayal of Sado, a young man driven increasingly into wretched despair as he struggles to come to terms with his father’s stringent demands and brutal demeanor. The handsome visionary soon morphs into the mad man the annals had him down for as his father’s mind games go overboard, leading to death and mayhem in the palace.
The framing device here is the rundown to Sado’s suffering and death, starting from the time when Yeongjo ordered him to be locked up and left without food, water and air. As each of the eight days passes, the relationship between Yeongjo and Sado is gradually revealed through flashbacks — the king’s joy of discovering his son’s talents, then a premature convictions of the boy’s candid streak as a fatal flaw, and finally the young man’s banishment from grace and the shock of seeing his own son abiding with the old king’s conservative ethos.
Lee certainly has previous experience bringing flawed kings on screen with the tyrannical (and ousted) Yeongsan in King and the Clown. But the representation of Yeongjo as an angst-ridden creature is itself audacious, given it runs against the monarch’s established reputation as a decisive, tactful thinker who ruled Korea for 52 years. But The Throne is more an ideological bombshell because it reaches beyond the parameters of political intrigue. The film actually questions political and social norms in general, as visual emphases are placed on the endless laws, codes and rituals in place — observing them is, as Sado describes, the learning of etiquette over humanity.”
It’s a pursuit which renders everyone a helpless cog fearing for (or struggling to conserve) their places in the machine. That includes Sado’s wife (Moon) or his young son San, who manages to secure Yeongjo’s trust while Sado is estranged from the clan. And he confesses to his father how he “hates myself for making grandfather happy” — a loathed task he vindicates afterwards as he rehabilitates his father while ascending the throne as King Jeongjo after Yeongjo’s death.
Such a visible (and protracted) righting of wrongs in the film’s final ten-minute stretch — involving the adult Jeongjo (So Ji-sub) mourning his father by decree and dance — offers a closure at odds with the cynicism that goes before. But taking it as a coda — and So’s role is credited as a cameo — it’s s small puncture in a vast canvas dripping with taut, fatalist tension.
Production Company: Tiger Pictures in a Showbox presentation
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Yoo Ah-in, Moon Geun-young
Director: Lee Joon-ik
Screenwriters: Cho Chul-hyun, Song Lee, Oh Sung-hyeon
Producer: Oh Sung-hyeon
Executive producers: You Jeong-hun
Director of photography: Kim Tae-kyung
Production designer: Kang Seung-yong
Costume designer: Shim Hyun-seob
Music: Bang Jun-seok
Editors: Kim Sang-beom, Kim Jae-beom
International Sales: Showbox
No rating; 123 minutes