This year’s two biggest hits at the box office, “Assassination” by director Choi Dong-hoon and “Veteran” by auteur Ryoo Seung-wan, share two key elements: action and comedy. Korean moviegoers are responding to movies that help them escape their time and place and enjoy an experience filled with palm-sweating action and easy laughs.
Lee Joon-ik’s historical drama “The Throne” may be the film to prove that there is another key to the formula for success: empathy.
Set during the reign of the Joseon era’s 21st king Yeongjo, the story portrays the monarch’s stormy relationship with the crown prince Sado that eventually led to the young heir’s gruesome death, a result of being locked in a rice chest for eight days by his father. Armed with high-flying credits that include Song Kang-ho (“The Attorney,” “Snowpiercer”) as the perfectionist King Yeongjo and the rapidly rising Yoo Ah-in (“Veteran”) as Sado, the film manages to recast a story of kings into the common tale of an overbearing father and rebellious son.
Yoo Ah-in (left) and Song Kang-ho in “The Throne” (Showbox)
“The film focuses on the death of Sado, but I filled the movie with the universal emotions that come from relationships,” said director Lee at a press preview. “There are countless arguments, conflicts and wounds. Everyone tries to overcome that pain in the best way, but when you cannot overcome your limits, it turns tragic.”
Lee brings that tragedy front and center through the structure of the film, using flashbacks spaced throughout Sado’s eight final days in the rice chest to develop the two lead characters’ irreconcilable strife, fostering their relationship with the audience.
Yoo Ah-in’s Sado is a talented and free-spirited soul who is taught to repress his personality and hobbies in the name of grooming himself for the throne.
“Sado didn’t blindly accept the responsibility of becoming a king,” explained Yoo. “He continuously asked himself who he truly was, and that is what drove him to a tragic end.”
Yoo Ah-in in “The Throne” (Showbox)
Watching the crown prince grow up on the screen makes it difficult to point fingers when the pressure of his lineage finally drives him mad.
Meanwhile, Song Kang-ho’s Yeongjo is driven to perfection in his academic and moral upstanding to justify his place on the throne, despite his background as the son of a concubine and rumors that he assassinated his brother to usurp power.
“Yeongjo’s obsession with legitimacy is what led to an extreme expression of love toward Sado,” said Song. “That was the seed that led to tragedy.”
However, he is also a man of flaws, comically superstitious and prone to easy irritation, giving him plausibility as a real character.
The laughs come from familiarity, the sense that the audience has seen those characters somewhere in personal experience or heard of them from someone close -- and that familiarity breeds a jarring contrast to the grotesque eight-day sequence unfolding in slow motion throughout the 125-minute running time. The emotional horror is enough to drown out the historical background of the story, instead bringing into focus the tragic accident of royal birth that cursed the two men to become each other’s enemy.
The movie pushes the limits of drama and patience near the end, but overall “The Throne” is a well-paced and beautifully shot film that gently tugs on the heartstrings to breathe modern life into a story of 18th-century Joseon royalty.
Lee Joon-ik’s “The Throne,” Korea’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, opened in local theaters Wednesday.
By Won Ho-jung (firstname.lastname@example.org