There hasn’t been a single moment when I was left disappointed by Lee Joon-ik’s work; every one of his films is truly exceptional. Well-known for his period drama films and still associated with his 2005 King and The Clown – which brought him an international recognition – Lee Joon-ik cleverly balances historical events with a real life drama (Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet, The Throne) as well as with humorous occurrences (Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield, Battlefield Heroes). Ten years after the King and The Clown’s premiere, Lee decided to make another period film: The Throne. The film is a drama in its most purest, most classic form; and without any additional historical themes, it is a tragic story of Crown Prince Sado, the 27-year-old royal who was condemned to death by his own father. The tale, delineated in The Throne, has been repeatedly adapted to the small and big screens; nevertheless, Lee Joon-ik’s version tackles not only the complex relationship between the King Jeongjo and the Prince, but it also perfectly depicts a calamitous correlation between father and son.
In XVIII century, King Jeongjo, after losing his son, longs for another male heir; the Queen So Chongsong is childless, while the King’s favourite concubine, Lady Sonhul, has daughters. It all changes when in 1735, Sonhul gives birth to a baby boy, Prince Sado. At the age of 3 months, the infant Sado is assigned a governess, maids and security; away from the palace and parents, he is growing up doing just as he pleases. Without caring much for education and palace life, he manages to provoke his father’s anger even without realizing it. Whenever they meet, the King’s resentment against his son usually predominates over his affection. Years pass by and Sado becomes a handsome man, marries Lady Hong and has a son. From time to time, the Crown Prince acts on behalf of the King; however, there are always issues between them, and the Prince seems like he is not able to do any good. Sadly, the lack of support from King Jeongjo leads the Prince to lose himself in a whirlwind of amusement, drinking and violence, which only worsens the relationship between the father and son. After receiving disturbing information about the Crown Prince’s behaviour, with a heavy heart, the King summons Sado, deposes him as the Prince, and sentences him to death. He orders to put his son in a heavy wooden rice chest without water and food, and keep him in the palace yard in the scorching sun. It takes 8 days for Sado to die and the King suffers terribly after losing him; he then allows for his son to be buried in the Royal Tomb and restores his Prince title, with Sado’s son thus becoming the next heir.
It is said that Sado was a brutal and mentally unstable young man; however, some sources say that he was a victim of a political conspiracy. What is great about The Throne is that the film does not lean on any of the theories; Lee shows the lives of a king and a prince and then elaborates more on the relationship between a father and son. The most visible issue is the confusion and lack of communication between the two, which over the years only increasingly impaired their relationship. The film jumps between the present, in which the audience sees Sado in the rice chest, and flashbacks, which like recurrent memories show the various stages of King Jeongjo’s and Prince Sado’s catastrophic relationship. Lee’s excellent storytelling techniques make The Throne into an extraordinary production. He definitely drew on the great acting talent of Yoo Ah-in as Prince Sado and the phenomenal Song Kang-ho as Yeongjo; with their impeccable performances, they dominate the big screen. The film may not be flamboyant in technical terms, but the cinematography by Tae-kyung Kim is spotless, and the costumes by Lee Ji-yeon and Shim Hyun-seob are astonishing. The film will bring you to tears and might even drain you emotionally, but it is a must-see production.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © Tiger Pictures Inc.