The Throne is based on a fairly well-known and controversial true event from the Joseon dynasty set during the reign of King Yeongjo. The King (Song Kang-ho) becomes displeased with his son, the Crown Prince (Yoo Ah-in), and deems him unfit to rule based on the prince’s increasingly unstable behavior. Being unfit to rule, the Crown Prince is ordered to take his own life in order to pass the royal succession to the King’s grandson. With the court being uneasy about the decision and the King unable to kill his son himself due to court rules, he orders the Crown Prince to be locked inside a rice box for eight days to starve and suffocate to death.
Being one of those films whose story is already widely known (at least among Koreans), The Throne relies on powerful performances from the leading actors and dramatic storytelling. The film succeeds on both parts and slams home one of the best period pieces in recent years.
If you’ve seen any Korean period piece set during the Joseon dynasty you’ll know to expect colorful court attire and large open palaces for the royal family and court officials. Almost every scene of The Throne takes place inside or just outside the royal palace where the King and his courtesans live. Spending most of their lives in such close quarters and being predominantly closed off from commoners, you can only imagine the kind of drama and in-fighting that could arise, even among all the courtesies and formalities one would expect of nobility. This is one of those, but it’s not your typical family dispute.
At it’s core, The Throne is about a father and son’s relationship gone horribly wrong. The father in this case is a King and his son the Crown Prince, which makes everything so interesting as their positions in the court directly affect the deterioration of their relationship. Being the King, King Yeongjo has extremely high expectations of his son to study hard and become worthy of taking his father’s position one day. However, studying makes the Crown Prince sleepy and he would rather paint pictures of his dog, which causes the King to take an ultra “tough-love” approach to his son’s upbringing. Over time, this approach leaves a lasting and damaging toll on his son’s mental state which only further drives the two apart.
The film begins the day the King orders his son inside the rice box and is set over the eight days Prince Sado remained inside, while flashing back to the events that lead up to the incredible situation. The flashbacks go as far back as to when the Crown Prince was a toddler learning to write, then go through his teen years when he was appointed to act as regent by his father, and eventually cover the initial years of his son’s birth. Slowly, we learn the details of Prince Sado’s decent into madness.
Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder) (The Host) (Snowpiercer) is in top form as the King and hard-lined father. His raspy voice is off-putting at first and takes a while to get used to, but by the end you wouldn’t have it any other way as he fully embodies his character and is able to bring a ton of emotional weight to lines with even only a few words. Yoo Ah-in (Punch) (Veteran) also delivers another fine performance as the Crown Prince, Sado. His arch from young promising future King and fall to near madman in his failure to earn his father’s approval is a force to be reckoned with. The women in the film including Sado’s wife (Moon Geun-young) and courtesan mother (Jeon Hye-jin) are all supporting characters and get little screen time. However, when the women do take the screen they have some big moments and deliver some heart-breaking performances.
The Throne delivers the drama in a big way. Moments between father and son are tense and always progressing the story. A powerful musical score that includes some traditional instruments is another highlight that give the film even more emotional weight. The Throne comes highly recommended as one of the best purely dramatic features to come out of Korea recently. It is also Korea’s selection as their entry for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Academy Awards.
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