It is a hard fact of royal life that a family member has to die before the next prospective king can take his “rightful” place on the throne. Sure, kings have abdicated, but it is generally a bad idea to leave loose ends cluttering up your divine authority. The cutthroat nature of royal families drives the tragedy of Lee Joon-ik’s The Throne (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.
Known for prizing scholarship, particularly Confucian ethics, King Yeongjo was slightly disappointed in his ne’er do well, possibly psychotic son Prince Sado. At least that is Team Yeongjo’s side of the story. Of course, Team Sado argues the Prince was not really mad per se, just rattled by the King’s constant belittling. For years a cold war rages between them, but both are restricted from taking direct action by decorum and courtly law. However, Prince Sado finally raises arms against his father in the opening scene, only to be betrayed by his wife, for the sake of their son, the anointed heir.
Sealed in a rice chest as a means of indirect, technically-not-an-execution-by-the-letter-of-the-law, Prince Sado slowly and agonizingly wastes away, as the film revisits their tempestuous history through flashbacks. Frankly, Lee and co-screenwriters Jo Chul-Hyun and Oh Seung-hyun do not favor either the father or the son. Instead, their sympathies lie with the grandson and the various royal family members and court officials caught in the crossfire of their intrigues.
In America, The Throne is notable as Korea’s foreign language Oscar submission, but on its home turf, it was eagerly anticipated as “Little Sister” Moon Geun-young’s return to film after an eight-year hiatus at college and on television. As Lady Hyegyeong, the potential Queen Mum, she is quite a compelling picture of conflicted loyalties and motherly anxiety. Lee Hyo-je is also surprisingly effective as the anointed grandson. Aside from Thirst, most fans know Song Kang-ho for his more affable, schlubby characters in films like The Face Reader and The Attorney. While not exactly a heavy, the severe King Yeongjo is a bit of a departure, but Song sort of humanizes him with some weird fussbudgetry. Yoo Ah-in similarly plays Prince Sado with such off-putting clamminess, it is only because of Lee Hyo-je that viewers come to sympathize with Team Sado.
Regardless, The Throne is a rich period production and its machinations are fascinating even if we often lack a strong rooting interest. Yet, Lee Joon-ik and company ultimately make a case for the sort of tragically Machiavellian sacrifices nobility requires. Arguably, it shares a distant kinship with Mike Bartlett’s West End hit, King Charles III. Recommended for its wealth of first rate performances and a provocative examination of the costs of attaining and maintaining power, The Throne screens this Thursday (6/30) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.