Starring Kang-ho Song, Ah In Yoo, Geun-young Moon, Hae-suk Kim, Won-sang Park
Both The Assassin (China) director Hsiao-Hsien Hou and Joon-ik Lee, director of The Throne (South Korea), have spent eight years on the sidelines before returning to film. Both directors are also vying for one of the five spots in The Academy Awards foreign language category. The similarities between the two films end there however. The Throne is an outright emotional story that focuses as much on its characters relationships as it does the customs and laws of 18th Century Korea. Based on a true story, The Throne reminded me of the dysfunctional family in August Osage County, only with politics and rulers at the head of the household. It’s a gripping story told with vivid flashback sequences allowing the viewer to understand attitudes and expectations of the era.
Controversy has surrounded King Yeongjo (Song) since his accession to the throne following the death of his brother. Ruling in an intermediate fashion until his son, Crown Prince Sado (Yoo), comes of age. The superstitious ruler enacts great pressure on the Crown Prince from youth, always feeling the disapproval of both a king and father. Once the Crown Prince produces an heir, his son begins to receive the love from a grandfather that Sado never experienced. Abandoning studies, falling into depression and alcohol abuse, Sado becomes a disgrace to family and country. After 37 years on the throne, King Yeongjo orders his son imprisoned inside a wood rice crate for days as the entire kingdom witnesses the deterioration of an empire.
Despite the subject matter it’s a beautiful film that sells every corner of the screen with authentic wardrobe and location.
While The Throne is dressed up in Korean culture concerning rules and heirs, what makes this story so compelling is the familiarity of disappointment, expectations and family drama in our own lives and across other stories. In one of the most powerful uses of flashback all year, Hou introduces us originally to a seemingly lazy and stubborn Crown Prince, yet once we get flashbacks of his childhood we find great sympathy for him and explanation of his behavior. It’s heartbreaking seeing the vivacious characters in their youth become former shells of themselves by adulthood and old age. You could argue its soap opera storytelling yet nothing feels cheap or contrived simply for dramatic effect.
“I’ll do whatever he couldn’t” the young grandchild cries and pleads with the king to release his father from inside the box. We see the drama play out over nearly four generations as each ruler struggles to overcome the detractors from the previous. Despite the subject matter it’s a beautiful film that sells every corner of the screen with authentic wardrobe and location. Unlike The Assassin, The Throne moves at a very quick pace with the vast amount of information and time it must cover. The editing is both very important with concern to the heavy use of flashback and painting a clear and distinct portrait for the audience to follow. If the viewer gives undivided attention there is never confusion on who is who.
A visceral and sweeping epic of Korean monarchy.