A fatal conflict of filial love and tradition set in the lost chapter of Korean history.
The Throne, South Korean entry for 2016 Oscars, had its international premiere during the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia, where it also won the Grand Prix. With its majestic cinematography and a timelessly tragic story, this film may even surpass director Lee Joon-Ik's other acclaimed historical epic, The King And The Clown from 2005.
Like any good historical drama, The Throne transcends its role of a nation's chronicler. The story of Crown Prince Sado, who was erased from historical records by his father, is one of the mysteries of the Korean royal heritage. Based on the memoirs of Sado's wife (The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng) this film uses the backdrop of intricate court politics to tell a poignant story of a son's yearning for his father's love.
The Throne starts at the end of Sado's life, in the summer of 1762. In a powerful opening scene Sado (Yoo Ah-in) attempts to kill his father, King Yeongjo (Song Kang-ho). As a punishment, the king has him locked in a rice chest without food or water, left to die in the middle of a sun-drenched courtyard. The full extent of the historical Sado's crimes has been subject to speculation for centuries. However, if we go by the sole account of Sado's wife, the film takes major liberties with portraying the real Crown Prince's mental condition.
By taking said liberties, The Throne becomes a story of rigid traditionalism tearing apart family ties. King Yeongjo was a proud father who stayed up all night transcribing a book for his son to study from. But when Sado, the royal heir, refused to master even a Classic of Filial Piety, the very basics of Joseon tradition, and followed his heart instead of decorum, King Yeongjo began to lose faith in him.
Sado's story is full of tragic irony and undeserved scorn. He was a man born in the wrong time and place. His natural ingenuity didn't go well with what was expected of a future king - diligent study of rituals and Confucian tradition. We watch Sado try to live up to his father's expectations and be punished for independent thinking. We watch him try to fix injustice and hit the wall of class structure and court politics. We watch him slide into insanity as an ultimate act of filial obedience.
Sado's father needs to be seen through the lens of history. His right to the throne has always been questioned (he was a son of a concubine and implicated in a regicide) and every misstep was scrutinized by his opponents. He was a gifted king who brought harmony among the warring governing factions - a harmony that needed to be carefully maintained and which Sado's willfulness and deteriorating sanity threatened.
The King never had the luxury of being just a father; the duty to his kingdom could never suffer because of family loyalty. He was a faithful follower of the Neo-Confucian teachings which were inseparable from the Joseon king's very right to rule. To compromise that tradition would have been on par with treason. To not punish a criminally insane man would have been irresponsible. To love a criminally insane son would have been difficult even for a father with a heart bigger than Yeongjo's.
It's easy to judge the King from our Western perspective and perhaps at times The Throne lets the political and practical nuance be overshadowed by the emotional side of the story.
The film is heart-wrenching in a way that's universal and doesn't feel derivative or trite. The music composed by Bang Jun-suk amplifies emotions and harmonizes the moments scattered across time. The acting is at times startlingly dramatic, but that's only befitting this story and its epic historical setting.
The film downplays both historical Sado's insanity and Yeongjo's spite, making this story universal and relatable in the 21st century. For this is a film made for those who today still find themselves on Sado's side of the conflict with traditional parents.
Name: Marta Bogacz
"The Throne" by Lee Joon-Ik (South Korea)
Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival - Main Competition