What drove them to such an extreme circumstance like that? South Korean period drama “The Throne”, which was recently chosen as South Korea’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in the next year, attempts to understand both sides while humanizing its two opposing main characters, but it never gives us a plausible explanation on the insanity of the tragic outcome of their messy conflict. After all, how many fathers can force their sons to be incarcerated and starved for days in front of others, unless either of them are driven by power and madness?
I and most of South Koreans are very familiar with its subject mainly through “The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong”, which was written by Lady Hyegyeong herself during 1795-1805. In July 1762, the long personal conflict between her husband Crown Prince Sado (Yoo Ah-In) and his father King Yeongjo of the Joseon dynasty (Song Kang-ho) became far more serious than ever, so the king eventually decided to take a very drastic measure for solving his meddling domestic problem once for all, and its devastating consequence affected not only themselves but also many others who unfortunately happened to be around them.
The movie begins around the point when the King Yeongjo made that fateful decision on the crown prince. After learning of how far his troubling son has gone, the king calls for his son on the next day, and then he sternly accuses his son of treason. As one of the king’s ministers cynically points out to his colleague, the king is not allowed to execute his son according to the law of his kingdom, so he instead gets his son imprisoned inside a rice chest in the middle of the palace courtyard, while forbidding everyone to help the crown prince.
The movie goes back and forth between the slow, grueling process of this cruel punishment and a number of flashback sequences showing the long past between the king and the crown prince. At the beginning, everything seemed to be all right for them; the crown prince already showed his brightness even when he was a little kid, and his father could not be prouder of his son – especially when the young crown prince answered well to his teachers in front of the king and his ministers.
Like many Asian parents, the king begins to expect more from his bright son as he grows up. Besides personally preparing the textbooks for his son, he also demands a higher standard during his son’s next test. He sincerely wants his son to be wholly prepared for sitting on the throne someday, and he frequently reminds his son that he should study and learn more everyday.
After the crown prince finally enters adulthood, King Yeongjo thinks it is the time for his son to start the succession process. He has his son take the role of regency at first, but the process turns out to be not as smooth as he thought. Although the crown prince is able to hold his place with his father sitting right behind him, some of his decisions cause troubles among the competing political factions in the court, and he also feels pressured a lot whenever his father points out his errors during the court meetings.
We see their relationship being deteriorated in one way or another as their failure to communicate with each other is worsened. As they conflict more with each other, King Yeongjo comes to change his mind about his son’s succession, and now he begins to dote on his young grandson, who begins to show lots of potentials just like the crown prince did. As cornered by his stressful situation, the crown prince begins to show unhinged behaviors, and his wife Lady Hyegyeong (Moon Geun-yong) and others near him are disturbed to watch him going more out of control day by day.
Meanwhile, we also see how that horrifying ordeal of the crown prince is approaching to the point of no return as he continues to cry for help inside the rice chest for several days. No one dares to help him because of the king’s decree, and even the tearful plea from the crown prince’s son cannot change the king’s adamant position.
While this unbelievably ghastly incident really happened as recorded in historical documents, it is somehow not really connected well with what has been built up during the rest of the film. The lead actors Song Gang-ho and Yoo Ah-In give engaging performances as a father and a son struggling in their strained relationship, but the movie is not very convincing in the depiction of their characters’ shocking eventual descent into madness. There is a sentimental scene around the finale where the king and the crown prince finally seem to have an honest conversation between them, and this is rather distracting if you objectively consider the sheer horror and madness of their circumstance, which also reminds us of many other horrendous incidents associated with royal families throughout the human history.
“The Throne” is directed by Lee Jook-ik, who previously made several notable South Korean period drama films including “Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield” (2003), “King and the Clown” (2005), “Blades of Blood” (2010), and “Battlefield Heroes” (2011). While the movie is a well-made one with solid performances and commendable production quality, I observed the story and characters from the distance without enough emotional involvement, and its long epilogue is particularly unnecessary because it exists only for drawing more tears from the audiences. I cannot wholly recommend it, but it might interest you as an interesting attempt to dramatize one of the infamous incidents in the 18th century Korean history.