Another transatlantic flight, another film review.
I was very surprised by The Throne. What I saw did not correspond to what I thought I would see. I was unintentionally riveted.
The film, a 2015 South Korean historical period drama set in the Joseon period and directed by Lee Joon-ik, won the Blue Dragon Film Award for Best Leading actor and could be described as a fascinating and disturbing psychological essay into understanding mental illness.
The movie is about King Yeongjo (Song Kang-ho) and his son, Crown Prince Sado (Yoo Ah-in).
The Crown Prince is depicted as a child who, instead of studying, prefers drawing and playing with his dog. From the beginning, it is obvious that his inability or unwillingness to learn, mood swings and artistic temperament displease his father and that he is not deemed fit to reign in his father’s eyes. The prince prefers freedom to disciplined obedience, necessary to rule a kingdom.
The story isn’t immediately related but shown in layers, degrees and flashbacks. The richness of the period costumes, décor, makeup and symbolism make watching this film fascinating yet emotionally taxing without offering the viewer the luxury to stop watching. In many ways, it is almost as if we become voyeurs into the private lives of a deeply dysfunctional royal household.
As he grows older, Crown Prince Sado, who is made Prince Regent by his father, displays more and more erratic and violent behavior to the point of committing frivolous murder. He displays what today would be termed signs of mental illness.
The king displays odd behaviors as well such as washing his ears upon hearing things that displease him or, superstitiously using a different door from the one used by someone who displeased him.
The depth of court intrigue and psychological nuances led me to, as a spectator, wonder whether the king’s behavior was cruelly and calculatingly deliberate (to ensure that he remain in power) or, whether he suffered from mental illness himself, or both. Although I had one opinion at the beginning of the film, the revelations that kept surfacing made me change my mind at the end.
Although it might be tempting to judge a man who, after an assassination attempt, places his son in a rice cage on a hot summer day in the middle of the palace court and leaves him there to suffocate and die as a “child abusing murderer,” when we see this very man kneeling next to the smashed, open cage, his hand inside the cage caressing and then resting on the face of his now dead son, weeping and asking, “Why did you make me do this,” we are left with serious and troubling questions.
King Yeongjo | Image credit: Variety.com
The scene immediately prior to King Yeongjo smashing the rice cage is even more poignant. It depicts a nonverbal conversation between the king and his semi-conscious son, now bordering on death, in which the king essentially says that he was trying to help him become a good monarch and his son replying that all he wanted was a father’s love.
There is hope in this story and it lies in the king’s grandson. He is wise beyond his years and quotes Confucius. With great psychological acuity, this wonder child is able to navigate between his outwardly austere, decorum-bent grandfather and erratic, violent and unpredictable father responding diplomatically yet with elements of truth and soothing words. He embodies the learnedness and sagacity that King Yeongjo desires in an heir, qualities that his father did not have.
At the end of the film, when his grandfather the king dies and he is made king, the grandson honors his mother by performing a type of ritualistic “dance” with a folding hand fan, a fan that belonged to his father. He wants to make his mother smile and she does. Yet even then, there is a moment of remembering the tragedy of his father’s death and he abruptly covers his face with the fan. It’s possible to move forward, but one must remember and respect the dead.
I recommend this film for its treatment of the subject, mental illness and power struggles in a royal household, and its ability to hold in tension and elegantly carry forward diametrically opposed viewpoints. The film also shows that mental illness does not discriminate in the sense of whom it touches and at what point in time in history.