THE THRONE. (SADO 사도 思悼) South Korea, 2015. 2 hours 5 minutes. A Showbox-Mediaplex Production. Director: Lee Jun-ik. Screenplay: Cho Chul-hyun, Oh Seung-hyun, Lee Song-won. Cinematography: Kim Tae-gyeong. Music: Bang Jun-seok.
CAST: Song Kang-ho (Yeongjo), Yu Ah-in (Crown Prince Sado), Moon Geun-young (Lady Hong Hyegyoung), Kim Hae-sook (Dowager Queen Inwon), Pak Won-sang (Hong Bong-han, Sado's fathe-in-law), Jin Ji-hee (Princess Hwahwan), Park So-dam (Lady Moon).
When Lee Jun-ik, an acknowledged hitmaker with the innovative historical comedy Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield (2003) and its sequel Battlefield Heroes (2010) as well as historical dramas The King and the Clown (2005) and Blades of Blood (2010) under his belt, had announced that he will make a dramatization of one of the most disturbing and tragic episodes of the Joseon dynasty history, King Yeongjo’s (reign date 1724-1776) execution/murder of his own son, Crown Prince Sado, in a utterly confounding and cruel method of shutting him in a rice chest until the latter died from dehydration and exhaustion, my honest reaction was apprehension. While few could doubt Lee’s ability to put together superbly entertaining set-pieces— both spectacular and dramatic— and to extract vibrant performances from the newcomers as well as the industry veterans, the attitude he has shown in terms of approaching Korean history had been disappointingly “presentist,” all the more frustrating because his artistic visions anchored in the defense of the performing artists against the movers and shakers of the “big wheel” history had shown great potentials for challenging and destabilizing the monarch- and national-hero-centered historical narratives fed to the Korean public.
Blades of Blood, for instance, makes a wholly unnecessary revision on the timeline of Hideyoshi’s invasion and Lee Mong-hak’s rebellion (1596), in order to seemingly maximize the incompetence and poor governance of King Seonjo (r.d. 1567-1608), missing a chance to delve into the massive socio-economic contradictions brewing under the surface of the Joseon political system exposed by the Japanese invasions. The King and the Clown does a better job of humanizing the “depraved king” Yeonsangun than many previous media treatments of him, yet it also misses a chance to bring to the foreground more than a few dramatically and even cinematically fascinating aspects of the deposed monarch’s life and the supporting characters surrounding him (to be sure, such a film would have looked a lot more like a Pier Paolo Pasolini film than a Ridley Scott one— possibly too bizarre and grotesque for public consumption, even though such bizarreness and grotesquery are unavoidable features of the existing historical documents regarding his life).
Moreover, the popular opinion in Korea toward Prince Sado had been greatly influenced by those pseudo-historians indulging in conspiracy theories disguised as innovative interpretations of Korean history and proffering them as sound alternatives to the ideas disseminated from within the “academia proper” (whom they often denounce as spiritual descendants of the “pro-Japanese collaborators”). One of the most popular among them, Lee Deok-il, argued in numerous occasions that Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong (Hanjungnok, 閑中錄 ) possess little value as a historical source, since it merely reflects the political position of Lady Hyegyeong’s own Hong family and the Soron faction among the yangban literati. This did not sit well with both historians and Korean literature scholars who had spent many years scrupulously examining the Memoirs as a credible source of historical information as well as a valuable work of early modern literature. Scholars such as Jeong Byeong-seol have critiqued in detail Lee’s lopsided interpretation (by some accounts, baseless denunciation) of the Memoirs and its author, yet Lee’s arguments have remained extremely popular among the South Korean reading public (Writers such as the now disgraced Yi In-hwa presented a similar anti-Lady Hyegyeong reading of Sado’s death in his novel Yeongwon-han jeguk [The Eternal Empire, 1993]).
Given these circumstances, I was concerned that Lee Jun-ik would wholeheartedly embrace the proliferating conspiracy theories and portray Prince Sado as a very much sane, reformist hero destroyed by the scheming yangban hyenas, who had managed to delude the aging king Yeongjo into mistrusting his allegedly brilliant son. Thankfully, despite casting of Yoo Ah-in (The Burning), a young star (although he is not exactly a liberal icon, especially among certain feminists) in the role of Prince Sado, Lee does not go so far as to embrace this “radical” interpretation. He accepts at face value several key information derived from the Memoirs: that Prince Sado indeed beheaded his servants and committed other outrageous and violent acts: that the primary motivation of Yeongjo (played by Song Kang-ho, The Parasite) for executing his son was not political capitulation to the factional hegemony of certain yangban officials, but his own complex feelings toward the prince, no doubt including more than some measure of disappointment, righteous anger and hatred: and that the psychological trauma resulting from Yeongjo’s perhaps unfair treatment of Sado was at least one factor in ultimately turning the latter into a “madman.”
The Throne employs a complex flashback structure to go back and forth between the gruesome death throes of Crown Prince Sado over six days and the happier days of his childhood, marriage, and the narrative of his gradual alienation from his father Yeongjo. Many episodes of the film are indeed directly culled from the Memoirs, especially Yeongjo's interaction with his son and other family members. In the climax of the film, the movie also quotes from Yeongjo's epitaph written for Prince Sado, uncovered by historians and publicized only in 1990s (although Sado's final response to Yeongjo's statements in the film is entirely fictional... and rather trite in my opinion).
The Throne is admirably well-made, anchored by a grizzled yet amazingly nuanced performance by Song Kang-ho as Yeongjo and an energetic but (for me) not quite an authentic one by Yoo Ah-in as Sado. Crown Prince Sado, Prince Hwahwan and a couple of other characters are too “contemporized,” not just their dialogue but also their characterization, which is a chronic problem with Lee’s historical films (but certainly not a problem limited to his works). One can question whether Sado would have expressed his anger and sadness toward his father in quite such dramatic ways, or through caustic statements Yoo rather stylistically spits out in the manner of a contemporary youth rebel. It is also clear that Lee’s directorial decision is to make Sado as played by Yoo a sympathetic figure without denying the historical reality of his horrendous acts. The director downplays Sado's disturbing qualities and tries underhandedly to make his anger and resentment understandable to the viewers. There are areas in which the narrative or character interactions are obviously meant to draw parallels to the social or political situations in contemporary Korea, but they mostly fall flat, as evidenced by, for instance, Lee’s portrayal of Prince Sado’s obsession with the military affairs. Sado indeed enjoyed military games as a youngster, but I doubt that this would have led to his concern with the equitable distribution of military duties as was shown in the film (the resentment resulting from the inequities involving who gets to go to the military and who does not, of course, has very much been an issue in contemporary South Korea). The Throne (or any other Korean sageuk, for that matter) does not really need this kind of the insertions of “contemporary relevance.” I also did not find Yeongjo’s “I did this to avoid you making a traitor” rationalization tacked on to the movie's ending particularly convincing, although Song Kang-ho's great performance makes the sequence emotionally work.
As Korean historical melodramas go, The Throne charts a prudent middle ground, rejecting the shallow presentism of Blades of Blood (or comic ironies of the Battlefield series) but also the potentially alienating historicism of such films as Jacques Rivette’s Jean la purcelle (1994). It is an emotionally powerful mainstream motion picture, and while its heightened melodrama does weaken its professed respect for its historical sources (and most notably consigns all female characters, including Lady Hyegyeong herself, to the hoary role of the tearfully emoting “stand-by maidens”), I would rank it above average in terms of its concern for historical truths (and certainly above Lee’s much-praised Anarchist from Colony , most of the power of which is ironically derived from Choi Hee-seo’s performance as Kaneko Fumiko, unjustly put into a supportive position to the Korean anarchist Pak Yeol), if not a truly great historical film.
Some brief comments on the English subtitles: The subs translate “Hojo panseo 戸曹判書" as “Defense Minister” but as those who have learned about six ministries in the history class should know, it is “Census Minister.” “Dangpa” is also translated as “segregation” at one point but it should be “factions” or “parties.” “Yo 堯 and Sun 舜 ”which Yeongjo mentions while testing his grandson’s academic ability (later King Jeongjo) are mythical Chinese emperors Yao and Shun from the Chinese classics, mistranslated as “Yaw and Sun.”
Can It Be Used in Class?:
The Throne is an excellent example to be shown alongside Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong as a form of the digest version of the story of Prince Sado, but of course, it loses much of the intriguing details regarding interpersonal complexities of the court life and even the latter’s rich characterizations of the personages populating her narratives. I think the film could claim an advantage in urging the students to counter-imagine the alternatives to the “familiar (familiarly melodramatic),” contemporaneous aspects of the film, including the characterizations of major figures such as Yeongjo, Crown Prince Sado, Lady Hyegyeong, and others, and thereby compel them to reach into the “strange and unfamiliar” territories of the actual Joseon dynasty history. We can ask the students: where do you believe the film becomes excessively melodramatic in relation to the accounts presented in the Memoirs? What aspects do you believe were “accurately” rendered or visualized, from the historical accounts given in the Memoirs?
From there, we could also explore the presentation of the Memoirs as a series of overlapping narratives, and as a form of confessional literary genre. If you were to launch into a radically different adaptation of the Memoirs for a motion picture, how would you, or how would you not, modify the characterizations of Yeongjo, Crown Prince Sado, Lady Hyegyeong and other personages? How would you address the subdued presence of female characters in the movie version? Would you have made it a lot darker, almost a horror film, about the madness of Prince Sado, in which Yeongjo’s action would have been morally understandable, if not entirely justified? Or into a political thriller about the inter-palace conflicts in which Crown Prince Sado and Yeongjo were actually schemers attempting to outmaneuver the other? There could be many other variations. Ultimately, if the students could learn a good lesson about the mysteries of human intentions and emotions from this tragic episode, including the impossibility of illuminating them to our complete satisfaction, that might be more worthwhile than them learning some factoids about the court politics of Joseon dynasty or about the powerful kings Yeongjo and (Prince Sado’s son) Jeongjo.
Jahyun Kim Haboush, ed., and trans. The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Prince of Eighteenth-Century Korea . Second Edition, with a new Foreword by Dorothy Ko (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
Jeong Byeong-seol [Chŏng Pyŏ ng-sŏl], “Kil ireun yeoksa daejunghwa [The Popularization of History Which Lost Its Way],” Yeoksa Bipyeong, no. 94, Spring 2011.