“There are kings who have killed their own brothers and nephews to preserve the dynasty.” These words are spoken by the 16th-century Korean monarch Yeongjo, unaware of the grave irony that he will one day have his own son put to death in “The Throne,” an outstandingly crafted period drama that recounts a famous historical outrage with a sense of empathy as potent and measured as its anger. Led by a towering performance from Song Kang-ho, but well cast down to the last courtier and concubine, this is a gripping return to Joseon-dynasty intrigue for director Lee Joon-ik a decade after 2005’s “King and the Clown.” And like that earlier hit, “The Throne” has already been crowned a box office sensation and Korea’s Oscar submission for best foreign-language film; with strong critical response, it could expand its reach into arthouses outside Asian markets.
The densely layered screenplay (credited to Cho Chul-hyun, Lee Song and Oh Sung-hyeon) centers around a notorious 1762 incident in which King Yeongjo ordered that his son, the 27-year-old Crown Prince Sado, be locked inside a large wooden rice chest; deprived of food and water in the merciless summer heat, the prince finally expired after eight days. While it has long been assumed that Sado suffered from mental illness and committed numerous murders and rapes, subsequent rumors have suggested that he was in fact the victim of a political conspiracy. In any event, the reasons for his agonizingly protracted execution — which Yeongjo was forbidden to carry out in more direct fashion — remain a matter of some dispute, with little consensus among the numerous TV series that have dramatized the events in question (including last year’s “Secret Door”).
Given that its Korean title is “Sado,” it’s no surprise that “The Throne” offers a decidedly sympathetic view of the crown prince, and in many ways represents a belated attempt at vindication. Yet the film’s compassion flows audaciously in all directions, as Lee extends a full measure of human complexity to every figure in the tragedy, all of them trapped in one way or another by a rigid social order that regularly turned family members into enemies. Certainly there seems to be no love lost when we first see Sado (Yoo Ah-in) take sword in hand one night and storm toward the palace of his father, Yeongjo (Song), stopping just short of following through on his murderous intentions. But word of his actions swiftly reaches the king, and a furious public confrontation follows, ending with the prince being placed into the rice chest and left to rot in the open courtyard.
While the reasons for all this royal rancor have yet to be fleshed out, director Lee stages the showdown in a way that makes sweepingly clear just how publicly the king and his family have been forced to live their lives, and the degree to which their most private feelings and exchanges could be held up to kingdom-wide scrutiny. From there, the picture counts down the days of Sado’s extreme confinement (which play out like the longest, most fatal time-out session ever given to a child) while unfolding the father-son backstory in precisely drawn, sharply edited flashbacks.
Initially beaming with pride at his son’s intelligence and strength of will, Yeongjo slowly sinks into deep disappointment as he realizes how far the apple seems to have fallen from the tree. A lover of art and swordplay, Sado shows none of his father’s interest in studying, or in memorizing the Confucian verses that represent the pillars of the kingdom. When the prince turns 25, the king installs him as regent, hoping that the responsibility of weighing in on judicial matters will lend him a more kingly stature. But Sado responds by issuing idealistic, anti-royalist decrees that fly in the face of his father’s longtime policies, which have generally aided wealthy nobleman at the expense of the poor. Things don’t improve much when Sado’s wife, Lady Hyegyeong (Moon Geun-young), gives birth to a son, Jeongjo; on the contrary, the presence of a new heir merely complicates the already tricky ties between the king and the crown prince.
The filmmakers divide their focus evenly across this vivid historical panorama, deftly keeping the various threads aloft (including the highly relevant rumor that this wasn’t the first time Yeongjo struck down one of his own loved ones). Even if only for a moment, “The Throne” illuminates the numerous factions and individuals that dovetail with the central conflict, from the courtiers who seek to influence the proceedings by throwing themselves before Yeongjo in supplication, to the royal concubines — including Sado’s mother, Lady Yi (Jeon Hye-jin) — who attempt their own subtle negotiations behind the scenes. In a context where women are accorded a small but significant measure of power, the course taken by the Queen Dowager (a supremely regal Kim Hae-suk), doing her utmost to protect Sado, proves especially intriguing — though the unexpected outcome of her actions serves merely to underscore the cruel inflexibility of the prevailing order.
That order is reflected in every ornate detail of Kang Seung-yong’s lavish production design and the magnificent period costumes, while d.p. Kim Tae-kyung’s beauteous widescreen compositions emphasize the intensely formal, almost ritualized elegance of palace life. The image of a young maid trembling as she presents Yeongjo with a cup of water tells us everything we need to know about a world where a single wrong word or misplaced gesture can produce genuinely lethal consequences, and it’s this world that Lee’s movie explicitly calls into question.
On one level, it’s possible to interpret “The Throne” as an attack on social hypocrisy and outmoded conservative values, as well as a refutation of the strict Confucian principles by which the king has always lived. But as the film itself points out, its primary assertion — that “men come before all laws and decorum” — is one Confucius himself would have commended. The film’s more pointed and resonant subtext lies in what it has to say about parents who pressure and abuse their children for not achieving enough or living up to expectations — a lesson that has obvious applicability not just in 1700s Korea, but in present-day Asia and beyond.
Above all, “The Throne” is a wrenching slow-motion tragedy, stranding two men on opposite sides of an emotional and ideological divide that will ultimately exact payment in blood. Yoo undergoes an astonishing onscreen transformation; introduced as a soft-hearted, eager-to-please young man, he has by film’s end become a figure of utter wretchedness and despair, clawing at the inside of his wooden prison like a rabid dog trying to escape. And the reliably superb Song cuts a no less anguished figure, boldly spurning the audience’s sympathy (yet somehow earning it anyway) as a king who, for all his obsession with duty and protocol, has never wanted the crown and all the power and responsibility that it confers.
The epilogue, set 14 years after the rice-chest incident, goes slightly overboard with the tearjerking flashbacks and old-age makeup (Moon, as a 60-year-old Lady Hyegyeong, looks as though her eyelids can barely support the weight of all that pancake). But such is the dramatic rigor and concentration of “The Throne” that it more than earns its cathartic finale — set to the surging main theme of Bang Jun-seok’s memorable score, and hinging on a brief but deeply moving performance from So Ji-seob as the grown-up Jeongjo. That the young king would go on to become one of the Joseon dynasty’s most beloved rulers allows this otherwise grim, unyielding family chronicle to end not just in tears, but in a tentative spirit of hope.