I just watched the beautifully made and moving film The Throne (Sado 사도) directed by Lee Joon ik. (he also directed one of the most popular Korean films King and the Clown 2005)
The film is set in the late 18th century of the Joseon Royal Court during the final 8 days of Crown Prince Sado’s life which he spent dying in a rice chest with no food or drink and little air. The film stars Song Kang Ho as the strict King Yeongjo and Yoo Ah In as the Crown Prince whose fate was to die on the command of his own father. The film was one of the top films in Korea in 2015 and was the country’s submission for best foreign film at this year’s Oscars.
This is one of the most famous (infamous) episodes in Korean history. But there are different opinions as to why King Yeongjo decided that he must prevent his son from becoming King. Some believe that Sado was mentally ill which led him to become a violent murderer and rapist. (the memoirs of Lady Hyegyong, Sado’s wife back this up) Others believe he was the victim of a conspiracy by government officials who framed him as a traitor. (see the drama Yi San where Sado is presented as an innocent victim of politics). But the question remains why did the king choose such a slow and horrific way for his son to die? Here’s a scene from the trailer where the rice chest is brought out…
In this film, we certainly see a prince who becomes gradually deranged. Everyone is afraid of the angry, volatile young man who storms around the palace wielding his sword and sleeps in a tomb! But he was not always like this and flashbacks reveal how his increasingly violent irrational behaviour corresponds with the gradual breakdown of the relationship with his father.
The film’s focus is on the father and son relationship. And it suggests that if Sado had been mentally ill, he was driven there (at least partly) by excessively high expectations and a lack of love and understanding from his father. Despite the royal setting, the story feels intimate, relatable, and it deals with modern issues. Who can’t feel Crown Prince Sado’s frustration when the king nags him about studying – “when I was your age, bla bla bla”. The relationship is intense. The frustration real. The acting fab.
And the cinematography is a visual extravaganza. I found myself experiencing both delight and horror at the same time – delight at the the glorious colours of the robes and setting and horror at the gruesomeness of the tragedy. There’s great work from the makeup department too who create smooth transitions forward and back transforming the characters youthful and old.
Although the characters wear the traditional Joseon palace robes, the way they move and speak feels less formal, more modern than traditional palace sageuk. And the soundtrack is a mix of contemporary and traditional – from sombre pipes for poignant moments to hectic Shamanic chants used to expel evil spirits. Here the percussion becomes more and more manic for Sado in his moments of madness and despair.
It’s quite a long film though (over 2 hours) and I was starting to wilt a little towards the end – it’s a harrowing tale after all. But the ending is powerful. And even though it is not a shock, everyone knows what is going to happen, it is still moving when it inevitably does.