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Throne, The
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by Jay Seaver

"The travails of dealing with a father who is demanding, even for a king."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There is a line in "The Throne" about how royal families are unique in that one must think of one's children as enemies far sooner than one would like. That's probably true in other circumstances as well, but it's far from the essential tragedy of this (South Korea's submission for consideration as "Best Foreign Language Film" at the last Academy Awards), where the Crown Prince's greatest weakness may be that he is incapable of being that sort of enemy.

The frame of the film takes place over the course of a week, starting as a furious Crown Prince (Yoo Ah-in) marches toward the palace of his father, King Yeongjo (Song Kang-ho), sword in hand. Recognizing the potential for disaster - by law, a traitor's punishment also falls upon his son- the prince's wife Hyegyeong Hong (Moon Geun-young) alerts Royal Consort Yi (Jeon Hye-jin), the prince's birth mother, in hopes that quick action may save her own son, the "Grand Heir". The prince is caught, stripped of his rank, and locked in a box to die, giving everyone in the royal family the better part of a week to ponder how it got to this point.

The filmmakers throw a lot of specifics about the various complicated relationships and power centers in the Joseon Dynasty, and while it is undoubtedly interesting and important in terms of why certain things happen the way they do, none is more central than the fact that the Crown Prince is an artist at heart. He wants to do little more than read, write, and paint since about the age of ten, and the King simply cannot comprehend that his son is not like him; he grew from a boy who truly loved studying practical things to a man who took to politics naturally, and that his son hasn't just doesn't make sense to him. It is, despite the stakes, a story that a great many people should have no trouble connecting to.

On a certain practical level, we understand the King; if his son leaves the family business to write poetry, it's bad for an awful lot of people. Still, there's no denying that Yeongjo strikes a terrifying figure as Song Kang-ho reaches down to find an almost bestial amount of anger and scorn when his character's son performs below expectations, a level of ferocity that is almost shocking when contrasted with his early delight in having a son and the weary sort of wisdom he displays when showing his son the shrines of their ancestors. He plays the character's superstition just right, on the line between amusing and frightening, and as a thing that's enough a part of who the King is that it can be pointed later on.

Yoo Ah-in doesn't have quite so flashy a role as the Crown Prince, but his grounded performance in contrast to Song's makes it all the more poignant. His eagerness to please and raw admiration for his father comes through to the extent that he's almost immature, but Yoo succeeds in diverting the audience's thoughts from how he might be an unfit king (or even regent) to seeing him as a good man breaking under more pressure than he can bear; by the time the flashbacks catch up to the start of the film, the Crown Prince has become a truly tragic figure for the audience. His breakdown is reflected by a number of actors doing fine work in other roles, most notably the women: Moon Geun-young (as the Crown Prince's wife), Jeon Hye-jin (as his mother), and Kim Hae-sook (as the actual queen) all do well to reflect that, for women in this situation, while the marriages are often political, loyalty to their children is not. Even though it's seldom in the forefront, the respect between the Queen and the Royal Consort is often fascinating, and Moon Geun-young impresses in running hot and cold where her husband is concerned.

For all that the formality of the rules these people must obey proves a compelling engine, in part because director Lee Joon-ik and his three screenwriters portray a king's rule as a potentially fragile thing, the formal structuring of the film can be a mixed bag: It's built so that each day the Crown Prince is in the box is a chapter with flashbacks visually presented as that of one person but in practice being somewhat omniscient, leading to a lot of moving back and forth in time. It's less confusing than it could be, though more than it needs to be. I suspect that some subplots may be included more for the sake of historical accuracy rather than how they impact this story, and it will certainly play better to an audience that knows a little about South Korean history than a general American audience.

It's also not a lush period piece, as these things often are, but that's fine, even desirable: That might have overwhelmed the properly intimate scale of the film, and as the Crown Prince would testify, it's a story with the potential to be overwhelming already.

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originally posted: 07/23/16 03:08:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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