South Korean poet-turned-filmmaker Yoo Ha essays his first costumer with “A Frozen Flower,” a dramatically involving love triangle between a king, his queen and his chief bodyguard that puts fresh juice into an often stodgy genre. Though Yoo’s fifth feature isn’t quite at the level of his last outing — the masterly gangster saga “A Deadly Carnival” (2006) — it shows the same qualities that have made him one of the country’s finest (but internationally least-known) writer-directors, with compelling perfs, strong emotional textures and effortlessly fluid storytelling. It’s time more festivals, and specialty webs too, recognized Yoo’s career.
Released locally late last December, “Flower” blossomed with almost 4 million admissions, partly thanks to the appeal of male leads Jo In-seong (the cocky wannabe in “Carnival”) and Ju Jin-mo (from fatty comedy “200 Pounds Beauty”). Because of the film’s gay element, comparisons were made to 2005 superhit “King and the Clown,” but on every level, “Flower” is a superior product.
Though some gay fests will no doubt give it some space, the pic is much more interested in desire in general and the heterosexual love story between the bodyguard and the queen in particular. Only one sequence explicitly (though visually discreetly) shows the king and the bodyguard getting it on; there’s much more passionate action on the other side of the triangle.
The setting is the late 14th century, when the declining Goryeo dynasty was almost a vassal state to China’s Yuan dynasty. The story is complete fiction — the king and queen aren’t even named — and the period seems to have been chosen merely for the convenience of the plot, with the shifting sands of desire among the three principals paralleling the court intrigues of a fading dynasty.
The opening shows the king training a royal guard of 36 boys, one of whom he takes a special liking to. Ten years later, the king (Ju) is married to a Yuan princess (Song Ji-hyo), but sharing his bed, and most of his spare time, with the chief of the guards, Hong Lim (Jo).
With the Yuan getting impatient over the lack of any royal issue, and some nobles plotting to install someone else in his place, the king proposes to Hong that he should inseminate the queen. When Hong takes a liking to his assignment, and the queen likewise, the king feels emotionally betrayed. Complications of duty, love and simple lust lead to a bloody finale.
Pic has a pristine look in design and costuming that’s not particularly realistic but (in contrast with many Korean costumers) never becomes starchy. There’s an elegance to the mounting and editing — paralleled by Yoo’s typically succinct, classy dialogue — that draws the viewer in as the performances ripen, making the two-hour-plus running time hardly a stretch. Action, when it erupts, is tightly choreographed and highly visceral.
Ju is magnetic as the cultured, emotionally controlled monarch who finally shows his ruthless side, and largely out-acts Jo, rather bland as the bodyguard. Velvety-voiced Song (from mystery-thriller “Some”) impressively marries queenly composure with flashes of pure carnality.
Kim Jun-seok’s sensuous scoring completes the tony tech package, though to Western ears, the occasional use of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” symphony seems corny.