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Lee Joon-ik’s The Throne: a familiar tale made a believable tragedy

The first of the KCCUK’s “Teaser Screenings” for the London Korean Film Festival 2016 took place on Monday in the presence of Director Lee Joon-ik and the recently-arrived Korean ambassador. The chosen film was The Throne (사도) – a movie which was #5 in the 2015 Korean box office and deals with an incident in Joseon dynasty history which is familiar to every Korean: how Crown Prince Sado was put to death by his own father King Yeongjo.

King Yeongjo (Song Kang-ho) looks on as the rice chest is opened
King Yeongjo (Song Kang-ho) looks on as the rice chest is opened at the start of the movie

While the story is familiar, the reasons behind the execution itself and its extraordinary method (death by suffocation / starvation / dehydration though being locked in a rice chest) are less established. What would normally be our prime source of information, the official Diaries of the Royal Secretariat (승정원 일기) which recorded the daily palace events in detail, were erased at the crucial point at the request of Sado’s son, King Jeongjo (r 1776–1800) as soon as he got to the throne. But there was another contemporary witness: Sado’s wife Lady Hyegyong. She produced four separate memoirs of her life over a ten year period, of which the final account, written in 1805, over 40 years after her husband’s death, was designed to lay out the truth of the story for the benefit of Sado’s grandson, King Sunjo (r 1800-1834).

Moon Geun-young makes a welcome return to the big screen as Lady Hyegyong
Moon Geun-young makes a welcome return to the big screen as Lady Hyegyong, but her part is small

But Hyegyong’s account is not taken at face value by Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration. Some details of her account – for example concerning Sado’s early years before she became his consort – could only have been gathered second-hand, maybe through the gossip of palace serving women; and her final unfolding of the story which focuses on the father-son relationship has a personal perspective that maybe official historians think lack objectivity. When LKL visited Prince Sado’s tomb outside Suwon in 2009, the the official version of the cause of death that was posted at the entrance read: “a plot by Yeongjo’s concubine and vassals”.

Outside the Yunggolleung, July 2009
Outside the Yunggolleung, July 2009

Nothing here of the slaughtered eunuchs and serving maids and impulsive plans for regicide. But a palace plot is unremarkable, while a Crown Prince running amok is shameful. One can perhaps see the dilemma faced by the official historians. Lee Joon-ik’s version of the tale is much closer to Hyegyong’s but he wisely moves Hyegyong to the sidelines: while she is an important witness, she is not really a major character in the story itself. Lee deviates from her account in matters of detail, but mostly only to make the plot and motivations clearer within the framework of a 2-hour movie. Lee’s is a coherent and believable account of the conflicting elements of a father-son relationship that led to the tragedy. Yeongjo was a demanding father. He had come to the throne in controversial circumstances and wanted there to be no doubt about his son’s ability to rule. He wanted his son to be perfect, and his high expectations, reinforced by the strong Confucian framework of father-son, king-subject relationship all led to the tensions between Yeongjo and the young prince. It clearly did not help that he himself had some bizarre superstitions and felt unable to show his son normal paternal warmth and indulgence.

Lee Joon-ik with Tony Rayns and interpreter Rho Seh-hyun
Lee Joon-ik with Tony Rayns and interpreter Rho Seh-hyun at the Regent Street Cinema

In the Q&A that followed the screening, Director Lee made the obvious point that parents with destructively high expectations of their children are still around today. In Lee’s version of Sado’s childhood, he was more motivated by play and by painting than by the Confucian Classics – as is perhaps understandable for any child. Forcing a child along a path to which he is not suited can be counterproductive, but when that child is destined to be king it is nevertheless necessary that he achieve a proper grounding in the texts that underpin the state’s workings.

Do that robe up properly!
Do that robe up properly! Lee Joon-ik suggests that Yeongjo’s punctilious attention to details of dress contributed to Sado’s clothing phobia

One thing that is captured very well in the film is the difficult position in which Yeongjo placed Sado by making him Regent – giving him power to make decisions without actually being King. As Hyegyong’s memoirs record, this gave the King the opportunity to distance himself from tedious administration while still being able to criticise the decisions made by his son. Lee Joon-ik embellishes the situation well, giving Sado the beginnings of an ability to make statesmanlike decisions only to be undermined by his father because such decisions inadvertently went against something that Yeongjo had decided many years previously.

Perhaps less successful is Director Lee’s management of the minor characters. We are not always clear whose side a particular official is on. Maybe in part that is true to life, because in Hyegyong’s view one or two of them were definitely two-faced in their dealings with father and son. But when one bearded official (who looks identical to all the other bearded officials) bewails that his clan will be exterminated if the Prince dies you don’t have as much sympathy as you should because you haven’t got to know him very well. This is a minor point, however, because the main driver of the drama is not the individual shifts in political balance but the structural problem with the father-son relationship.

Crown Prince Sado (Yoo Ah-in, left) is berated by his father King Yeongjo.
Crown Prince Sado (Yoo Ah-in, left) is berated by his father King Yeongjo. Again.

As the King has a silent conversation with his now dead son on the eighth day of his confinement in the rice chest we get a summing up of the relationship: it’s a rare open display of emotion by Yeongjo which certainly brings emotional closure for the audience too. Lee would have done well to end the film then, but instead we get what feels like an unnecessary coda of about ten minutes in which various members of the family express their grief at what has happened, followed by a dramatically superfluous flash-forward to Hyegyong’s 60th birthday at which her son King Jeongjo tries not terribly successfully to make her laugh.

Yes, the film would have felt more satisfying had it ended, as it begins, with the rice chest. But nevertheless Lee produces a moving and beautiful-looking tragedy that brings to life this familiar story for a new generation.

Lee Joon-ik (이준익) The Throne (사도, 2015) score-2score-2score-2score-2score-0


3 thoughts on “Lee Joon-ik’s The Throne: a familiar tale made a believable tragedy

  1. I thought the film took a somewhat sympathetic view of Sado, though I’m inclined to feel sympathetic towards anyone who suffered such a gruesome fate. Margaret Drabble’s novel The Red Queen covers the same ground and is a good read, though it contains at least one blooper that would (or should?) have been spotted by a Korean reader.
    And yes, the world should be seeing more of Moon Geun-young.

  2. I was at the screening as well and thought that this film was very well-made. It was much better than “The Fatal Encounter” (역린) which continues the story of King Jeongjo.

    Btw, the Korean title of this movie is 사도.

    1. Thanks for spotting the typo. I have absolutely no clue how that happened! Now corrected.

      Haven’t yet tried Fatal Encounter. Probably in the DVD pile somewhere, but I shan’t prioritise it then.

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