Friday, February 12, 2016

Movie Review: 'The Throne' (2015) is a Cautionary Tale of Unfortunate Parenting

The lives of royalty has been a subject of both admiration and pity for many and tales of tragedy has always gone hand in hand with the people living within the palace walls. None more so than Crown Prince Sado, the misunderstood crown prince of King Yeongjo whose life and death has become a sort of legend. His tragic tale has been inspiration for numerous adaptations. Among them is the 2015 movie Sado also known as The Throne, helmed by Lee Joon-ik returning to sageuk 10 years after the hit The King and the Clown and lead by magnificent performances of Song Kang-ho and Yoo Ah-in as the king and his crown prince respectively.

Crown Prince Sado was born to an old King Yeongjo who longs for a successor. While others see his status as a crown prince as a blessing, Sado feels his life is nothing but a curse. Despite showing great intelligence, he has no interest in studying the classics which is very important to his father. Sado would rather spend his time painting and learning martial arts, a common interest of a young boy. But common is not a word known to the royalty, and the strict King Yeongjo insists on Sado becoming the perfect heir. Alas the firmer King Yeongjo's grip on Sado, the more defiant the crown prince becomes. The clash of the father and son is climaxed when Sado, who by the end of his life became highly delusional due to his mental illness, attempted to murder his own father, a man whom he sees as the source of all his sufferings. The king didn't end up being killed by his son, but their fate soon turned around. Sado's attempt to kill the king is seen as an act of treason to the country, so the king must punish the crown prince accordingly. Since killing by poisoning will make the king the father of a traitor (according to complicated rules of the nation), the king decided to lock the crown prince in a rice chest to starve and die.

The story is somewhat divided between the seven days it took for Sado to die of starvation in his wooden confinement, chronicling the ill-fated life of the crown prince. It begins when Sado was very young, showing promise as a bright future king. It continues guiding us through the pivotal moments in their crumbling relationship, from the king's disdain in the crown prince's personal interests, to the crown prince's humiliation as the king's representation during a royal court meeting. The scenes are weaved between Sado's agonizing experience in such a small box in the dead of summer with no food nor water. The king gives no mercy to his son throughout his life, and so the same happens to his death.

The father and son dynamic becomes the central and most important feature of this movie. While one of the main characteristics of a typical sageuk is its strong presence of politics and its court members, The Throne gives the court minor contribution to the main story. It's been debated by some historians over the royal court's actual involvement in Crown Prince Sado's death sentence, some even argued that it's all part of a conspiracy against the crown prince's political views which were deemed overly idealistic by many. But the movie doesn't give the court much of a say over the war between these two men. I think this is a well done decision in order to focus more energy on the two central characters and their complicated relationship, rather than wasting time on people whose who has little emotional investment in the story.

The Throne does take a very sympathetic view on Sado, considering he's the titular character. We don't see much of his more negative traits such as the depths of his mental illness or the more brutal side of his personality such as random killings or rapings which were much more rampant than the movie would suggest. The movie places him as the ultimate victim of the scenario, a son whose only wish is a kind word from his father. But King Yeongjo isn't exactly cornered as the automatic villain in this case. He is only a man who is responsible for a nation, a role he didn't even want in the first place. The movie ends with an imaginary heart-to-heart between, not a king and a crown prince, but a father and a son. It's a way to show that neither hated each other, rather they both expected different things and that the circumstances prevented them from fulfilling them.

The brilliant performances by Song Kang-ho and Yoo Ah-in just highlights the tormented relationship of these two men. Everyone knows how amazing of an actor Song Kang-ho is, with many, many awards under his difficult to tighten belt. He showed King Yeongjo as a man full of burden and doesn't hesitate to take the best action for his country. But the real show-stopper is Yoo Ah-in who is utterly breathtaking as Crown Prince Sado battling both inner and outer demons and losing. He portrayed Sado perfectly in various times of his life, from the innocent young man who bows down to his father until eventually becoming the broken man in the rice chest absolutely let down by his own family. It's the best performance of his I've seen yet and the industry also agrees. He earned his first Best Actor award at last year's Blue Dragon Film Awards.

Although Joseon is a man's world, The Throne let us take a brief glimpse into the lives of women behind the scenes. It's quite fascinating to see their own little world of politics, officially separate from that of the men's but extremely influential on the other side of the fence. The lives of these women revolve mostly around the men in their lives, who happen to be a king and a couple of kings-in-waiting, but without a doubt do they have a place in the palace. Queen Dowager In-won is everyone's boss and Kim Hae-sook's crazy charisma further intensifies that standing. Young-bin (Jeon Hye-jin) is the quintessential loving mother whose duties get controlled due to living as a concubine with a crown prince son. Crown Princess Hye-gyeong (Moon Geun-young) is a protective young mother brought in the mix of her husband's and father-in-law's feuds. While their roles are restricted to wives and mothers, they deserve a shout out mostly for their dedication and sheer tenacity through the whirlwind going around them and still keeping their cool.

Looking away from the sad tale of the royal family, this movie is simply a sight to be seen. Sageuk movies and dramas have the advantage of the colorful adornments of the people in that era. While the movie is depressing and the colors are mostly muted for that effect, it's still a beautiful movie to look at. Sweeping views of the palace shows how grand yet isolating the palace is. The costumes are outstanding and amazingly detailed. There's a bit of make up magic, aging various actors into their days of gray. It's not the greatest makeup job ever, but the little details like aging spots were a nice touch.

The best thing about The Throne is that it tackles the story with humanity. It showed the individuals whom we see in textbooks as these great and legendary beings are in fact just ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances trying to survive. One thing I didn't expect from the movie though was how devastating it is. I knew it was a tragedy, but I didn't think I'd spend so many tissues over it. So word of warning, bring lots of tissues. This is not a fun story in the least. Not to make it better, the following is Jo Seung-woo's beautiful song for the movie, a melancholic number entitled 'Flowers Bloom and Fall'.

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