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Film Review: ‘The Throne’ – Variety

The throne movie review

“There are kings who have killed their own brothers and nephews to preserve the dynasty”. these words are spoken by the sixteenth-century Korean monarch yeongjo, unaware of the grave irony that one day he will have his own son executed on “the throne,” an extraordinarily elaborate period drama recounting a famous historical outrage with a sense of empathy as powerful and measured as his anger. Led by a commanding performance from Song Kang-ho, but summed up well in The Last Courtier and Concubine, this is a gripping return to Joseon dynasty intrigue for director Lee Joon-ik a decade after “King and the Clown.” 2005. And just like that previous hit, “The Throne” has already been crowned a box office sensation and Korea’s Oscar nomination for best foreign language film; with a strong critical response, it could expand its reach to arthouse theaters outside of Asian markets.

The densely layered script (credited to Cho Chul-hyun, Lee Song and Oh Sung-hyeon) centers on a notorious 1762 incident in which King Yeongjo ordered his 27-year-old son Crown Prince Sado , outside locked inside a large wooden rice chest; deprived of food and water in the merciless summer heat, the prince finally expired after eight days. While it was long assumed that Sado was mentally ill and committed numerous murders and rapes, subsequent rumors suggested that he was, in fact, the victim of a political conspiracy. In any event, the reasons for his agonizing and prolonged execution, which Yeongjo was barred from carrying out more directly, remain a matter of dispute, with little consensus among the many television series that have dramatized the events in question ( including last year). “secret door”).

Since its Korean title is “sado,” it’s no surprise that “the throne” offers a decidedly sympathetic view of the crown prince and, in many ways, represents a belated attempt at vindication. yet the film’s compassion flows boldly in all directions, as it reads extends a full measure of human complexity to each figure in the tragedy, all of them trapped in one way or another by a rigid social order that regularly turns family members into enemies. Certainly there seems to be no love lost when we first see sado (yoo ah-in) take sword in hand one night and storm into the palace of his father yeongjo (song), stopping just short of fulfilling the murderous intentions of him. but news of his actions quickly reaches the king, and a furious public confrontation ensues, ending with the prince placed in the rice chest and left to rot in the open courtyard.

While the reasons for all this royal rancor have yet to be fully fleshed out, director lee orchestrates the showdown in a way that makes it clear how publicly the king and his family have been forced to live out their lives, and the degree that their most private feelings and exchanges could be subjected to the scrutiny of the entire kingdom. From there, the image counts down the days of extreme sado confinement (which plays out as the longest and most fatal time-out session ever given to a child) while the father’s backstory unfolds. -son in sharply edited and precisely drawn flashbacks.

Initially beaming with pride at his son’s intelligence and willpower, Yeongjo slowly sinks into deep disappointment as he realizes how far the apple seems to have fallen from the tree. A lover of art and fencing, sado does not show his father’s interest in studying or memorizing the Confucian verses that represent the pillars of the kingdom. when the prince turns 25, the king installs him as regent, hoping that the responsibility to weigh in on judicial matters will give him more royal stature. but sado responds by issuing idealistic and anti-realistic decrees that go against his father’s long-standing policies, which have generally helped the wealthy nobles at the expense of the poor. Things don’t get much better when sado’s wife, Lady Hyegyeong (Moon Geun-young), gives birth to a son, Jeongjo; on the contrary, the presence of a new heir simply complicates the already complicated ties between the king and the crown prince.

The filmmakers divide their focus evenly throughout this vivid historical panorama, deftly keeping several threads aloft (including the all-too-relevant rumor that this was not the first time Yeongjo had beaten up one of his loved ones). If only for a moment, “The Throne” illuminates the many factions and individuals who fit into the central conflict, from courtiers seeking to influence proceedings by throwing themselves before yeongjo in supplication, to royal concubines, including sado’s mother, lady yi (jeon hye-jin), who attempt their own subtle negotiations behind the scenes. In a context where women are given a small but significant measure of power, the path taken by the Dowager Queen (an extremely majestic Kim Hae-suk), who goes to great lengths to protect sado, is especially intriguing. , though the unexpected result of their actions merely serves to underscore the cruel inflexibility of the prevailing order.

That order is reflected in every ornate detail of kang seung-yong’s lavish production design and magnificent period costumes, while d.p. kim tae-kyung’s beautiful widescreen compositions emphasize the intensely formal, almost ritualized elegance of palace life. the image of a young servant girl shivering as she presents yeongjo with a glass of water tells us everything we need to know about a world where a single wrong word or misplaced gesture can produce genuinely lethal consequences, and it is this world that the lee’s movie explicitly calls question.

On one level, it is possible to interpret “the throne” as an attack on social hypocrisy and old-fashioned conservative values, as well as a refutation of the strict Confucian principles by which the king has always lived. but as the film itself points out, his main statement, that “men are above all laws and decorum”, is one that Confucius himself would have praised. The film’s sharpest and most resonant subtext lies in what it has to say about parents who pressure and abuse their children for not achieving enough or meeting expectations – a lesson that has obvious applicability not just in Korea. of 1700, but in present-day asia. and beyond.

Above all else, “The Throne” is a harrowing slow-motion tragedy, leaving two men trapped on opposite sides of an emotional and ideological divide that will ultimately demand payment in blood. yoo undergoes an amazing on-screen transformation; Presented as a good-natured and eager-to-please young man, by the end of the film he has become a figure of utter misery and despair, clawing at the inside of his wooden prison like a rabid dog trying to escape. and the reliably superb song casts a no less haunted figure, boldly spurning audience sympathy (but winning it nonetheless) as a king who, despite his obsession with duty and protocol, has never wanted the crown and all. the power and responsibility that this implies. confers.

the epilogue, set 14 years after the rice chest incident, goes a bit overboard with the harrowing flashbacks and old-age makeup (moon, as a 60-year-old hyegyeong woman, it looks like her eyelids can barely support the weight of that whole pancake). But such is the dramatic rigor and focus of “The Throne” that it more than earns its cathartic ending, set to the emerging theme song of Bang Jun-Seok’s memorable score, and hinged on a brief but deeply moving performance by so ji-seob as the adult jeongjo. That the young king became one of the most beloved rulers of the Joseon dynasty allows this otherwise grim and uncompromising family chronicle to end not just with tears, but with a tentative spirit of hope.

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