Hello. This is Mangesh with “The Throne” (2015), a new Korean movie “based” on a real historical event and starring Song Kang-Ho of “The Face Reader” (2013), Yoo Ah-In of “The Veteran” (2015), and Moon Geun-Young of “My Little Bride” (2004).
My reviews tend to go into details for those who are new rather than vague impressions for several reasons. One of which would be my inability to compose very articulate prose. So, I go for the “show your work” approach instead.
“Show Your Work” Reviews!
If you are familiar with my writings, you know I liked to discuss the sociological and cultural context a lot.
Well, a lot!
Thus, I’ll try to focus on the movie itself for this review, which may make you think that the review would end up short. However, this is me, Prof. AKIA! I didn’t choose the handle of “Professor” for nothing.
I like to go on a bit.
On and On…
So, you’ll have to wait to see how long this review will end up as. Or you can just scroll down.
Let’s get to the movie.
“The Throne” (2015) portrays a rather popular royal scandal of the Joseon dynasty that ruled the Korean region for half a millennia. It is commonly referred to as the “tragedy of crown prince Sado /사도” or “The prince in a box,” which I prefer. Besides adding some pizzazz, it is pretty descriptive of the events that unfolded hundreds of years ago.
A Prince! There was a prince.
A Box! There was a box.
More accurately, it was a wooden grain storage container or “뒤주“ in Korean used during the time period.
No one uses it today.
But, I’ll not go into the specifics about the scandal here since I wrote about them in a featurette. Let’s just say there was a box, and the prince was put into the box.
By whom you ask?
His father, the King, put him in the box.
Why do you ask?
Well… the long answer is… you’ll have to wait! That is the story this movie is telling, after all, to find out why the prince ended up in a box.
The short answer is to kill him!
First, this is a historical event. So, one should not be surprised where this story is going. Second, this tale is basically one of the most famous royal scandals in Korean history. “The Throne” (2015) is really made under the assumption that you know the story well. I’ll go over this in more detail later, but you really need to have a pre-established relationship with the tale before seeing this movie. Thus, knowing as much as possible about the historical event is recommended rather than discouraged.
While “The Throne” (2015) covers a specific historical event that happened over about 8 days, these 8 days are the story’s climax rather than the main story itself.
The tale of “The prince in a box” is basically about a lifelong relationship of abuse and resentment between a father and a son, which cumulated tragically in the father putting his son in a box so he would starve to death.
As a result, there is a strong biopic characteristic of the story. You have to really talk about the “history” of the relationship since that is where the story’s meat lies.
Biopics are not easy to do!
Straight Outta Joseon!
How does one handle this in a movie? There are several ways.
At one end, there is the “traditional” linear biopic approach in which one starts from birth and ends with death with a minor framing device if one feels like it.
At the opposite end, there is the “Lincoln” (2012) approach in which you just focus on one specific event, which is then used to reflect on the whole life of a person. The movie “Lincoln” (2012) recently used this approach.
There is a compromise approach in the middle, which is basically enlarging the framing device to almost equal the linear story narrative. This means that you basically have 2 or more different narratives about a person separated by time portrayed in parallel with each other. I like to call it the “Iron Lady” (2011) approach.
“The Throne” (2015) goes with the “Iron Lady” approach since it has two different narratives shown in parallel. The enlarged framing device narrative becomes the prince’s 8 days of prolonged death stuck in a box while the linear narrative spans the time period from the prince’s birth to the moment just before the other narrative starting.
“In the box” narrative
These two narratives are told using what I would call extended flashbacks as the “In the box” narrative is treated as the present time of the movie, which is counting down one day at a time. Throughout those 8 days, the movie cuts to “past” narrative in snippets, albeit rather long ones making the balance between the narratives rather equal. In fact, I remember the “past” narrative to be longer in total, but it may be just that I was bored. I didn’t time it.
Once the “past” narrative catches up with the “In the box” narrative, the movie climaxes with the prince’s death. However, the movie does not end there as then it goes into a rather long extended epilogue about the fates of the surviving characters. Some say that this epilogue is used to justify the series of events as a whole. I get that in theory, but I think it doesn’t work in practice.
The Return of the King (2003)
So, in fact, there are 3 different narrative parts within “The Throne” (2015). And there is nothing wrong with the structural choices of the movie. It is perfectly suitable for the type of story it is telling. However, the movie fails in its execution, resulting in me stuck in a box for 8 days. I might actually prefer that one!
“The Throne” (2015) is one of those movies that are baffling because, for a Top A level production, one or two elements alone are so lacking in comparison. It is like one or two armatures somehow snuck into a “professionals” team because of some wacky comedy shenanigans.
Is there some quirky music playing in the background?
In the case of “The Throne” (2015), the problem lies with storytelling. It is clunky! It is as if an alien directed and wrote this movie with only a superficial knowledge of how humans act. So, you would think that this may be the first movie of an inexperienced director.
That makes sense.
However, Lee Joon-Ik, the director, is a pretty well-known director with a filmography that includes movies such as “Battlefield Heroes” (2011) and “Blades of Blood” (2010). Going through his work, I notice that I do not love most of his movies, but I do recall them at least being far more competently told then “The Throne” (2015).
What is so bad, you ask?
There are several aspects to the answer. First, the direction is played so straight and serious, which contradicts some silly aspects of the script. Second, the acting is barely tolerable on average, although some reach the level of adequate.
Child Actor Warning!
Third, the old-age makeup is horrendous. It is like being old equals having a face made of suede ruined by water.
I have nightmares!
However, the blame should be really put heavily on the screenplay, which seems very incompetently written. It doesn’t grasp the basics of having characters who actually have personalities and functions within the story. Most of the characters in “The Throne” (2015) have no personalities or story functions!
The Overall Screenplay
If you were to look at the screenplay with a magnifying glass, you’d have to talk about it in two different sections as the “Past” and “In the box” narratives have different functions.
“In the box” narrative
In general, the screenplays are significantly lacking in character development, character interaction, subplots, or even basic mechanics of character dialogue to the degree it is very puzzling.
I would describe the screenplay for “The Throne” (2015) as feeling like a screenplay for a musical but cut out with all of the music part pages. In a normal musical, character scenes and dialogue without music are used for setup, followed by a musical number. If a musical screenplay had all of its music scenes ripped out, you are just left with awkward moments of characters setting up scenes that would never be followed upon. That is how the screenplay for “The Throne” (2015) comes off as.
The “In the box” narrative rather quickly gets the prince in the box. It wastes no time with introducing his character or anyone else’s character. In this movie, that is the job of the other narrative; to provide context.
With this narrative, what we get other than the event itself is mostly the many characters of this movie, reacting to the fact that the prince is in the box.
Some people cry out.
Some find it fitting to the crime.
Some see this as just an opportunity.
And none of them really matter in terms of the story as there is no follow up to them.
In terms of the story, their reactions are nothing more than just filler since it is not like we know the characters enough to care how they react yet since the “Past” section has not yet caught up to actually introducing and fleshing out those characters.
Do you want to know a secret?
That never actually happens!
Except for the king and prince, the movie characters serve utterly no purpose to the degree that you do not need to remember who they are.
Well, there is the prince’s mother who plays a slight role…
So, what is the purpose of them in the “In the box” narrative? They are basically there to be the visual version of background noise to set the mood for the main event. You know the father and son stuff!
Isn’t that why you are here?
Do you really care about any of the characters?
You are here just to watch the train wreck after all!
Once everyone gets their say out, including the prince’s son, who is played by a kid actor who shames that title, this narrative settles into a “confined in the small space” movie where the prince is not just stuck in a box but his coffin; he will never get out alive. As a result, the movie ends up feeling somewhat like a PG-level torture voyeur movie as you just watch him slowly waste away like the characters in the movie.
Even with its problems, the “In the Box” narrative could still work with a solid “Past” narrative supporting it.
Is that too much to ask?
Between The Past and Present..ish
The first but not the most serious problem with the “Past” narrative is that it doesn’t really cooperate with the “In the Box” narrative. If you are intercutting the present (the past to us but the present to the characters in the movie) and the past constantly every 10 minutes or so, there should be a strong reason why one cuts to the past at that specific moment.
However, for this movie, it is more the case that the movie cuts to the “Past” narrative whenever there is a lull in the “In the Box” narrative. There is no real consideration of the scene that came just prior. Thus, the “Past” narrative doesn’t really directly support the “In the Box” narrative until it catches up in the present.
On a more personal note, I dislike the editing choice made for the flashbacks. The movie fades to white before fading back into another narrative. This is a fundamental transition that no one with any skill nowadays uses. For myself, this very Amateuristic editing style got irritating really fast. I cannot see any artistic reason for this choice to have been made by the director!
While the “In the Box” narrative is problematic, it is relatively cohesive since it has the momentum of the events itself driving the narrative. In contrast, the “Past” narrative suffers from common issues with biopics in which they end up feeling very fragmented and are full of exposition. This is because there is a lot of material to cover and there is nothing really driving the narrative.
When doing a biopic or something facsimileing a biopic like “The Throne” (2015), you have to have a specific interpretation of the events you cover so that the movie just doesn’t end up a loose collection of exposition scenes. No one wants to watch a clip notes version of events in movie form!
With the “Past” narrative, this is what you get, basically just exposition. There are no real characters or plot developments. It is just a series of exposition scenes filed with characters monologuing. There are two things I like about this. First, at least, there are not many voice-overs. Second…
Well… that’s it actually. I only have one thing I like about the exposition delivered via monologue. For a movie filled with expositions, it is not even very informative. Not only is the movie very superficial in terms of its understanding of the subject matter, the movie basically feels like bullet points awkwardly stringed together.
If you do not know about the subject material before watching this movie, the only thing you will get is that the King is a micro-managing weirdo abusive father. The son is a mentally tormented emo wreck.
Is this enough?
If this was a movie focused on characters, you could get away with it. However, the characters in this movie are treated nothing more than bullet points also. A large chunk of the “Past” narrative is composed of awkward introductions of characters that play no function within the story, and more or less will not be seen again.
For example, actress Moon Geun-Young is given a high bill in the movie as the prince’s wife, but she gets less than 5 minute screen time and about 1 minute worth of dialogue. Other characters get even less. Other than the king and prince, all other characters are essentially extended cameos or mere cameos without their own purpose, subplots, or personalities. They are just there because history says they were there.
What do you want to say?
Ultimately, “The Throne” (2015) has no interest in historical facts, political context, or even characters. The only thing it is interested in is the melodramatically dysfunctional dynamic between father and son or King and his heir. However, it simply cannot drill down to what it wants to talk about and is left going through a huge amount of filler scenes and characters.
This inability costs the movie a lot as the father and son relationship is never really portrayed beyond the very superficial. If I think about it, considering that this dysfunctional dynamic is the key point to the movie, it is just weird that the father and son only have about 5 scenes together in total.
Compared to the first half of the movie, the second half is relatively better, albeit only slightly. This is because a lot of the filler has come and gone. With the “In the box” narrative, the movie is well into the prince’s slowing dying part of the story. With the “Past” narrative, we see the prince acting out in very over the top melodramatic ways. Thus, we are just waiting to see when the bottom falls out.
Even for a badly made movie, it is difficult to totally fail to build up some suspense when we, the audience, are only left with watching a man slowly dying in a box via one eye and also waiting to see when he will be put in the box in the first place via another eye.
It is an improvement, but, in the end, why would we actually care beyond the superficial level? Yes, we can sympathize with a son with a terrible father! However, is that enough for this movie to justify its existence? Is it enough to spend more than 2 hours of your life watching exposition?
We do not really know who the King and prince are, after all.
Movies are interesting because, when a director treats characters as mere filler like in the case of “The Throne” (2015), this is somehow reflected in the acting. Even veteran actors, who have shown to do better, range from barely adequate to bad. And I’m not even mentioning the child actors in this movie who are noticeably terrible and given more screen time than even Moon Geun-Young.
Let’s talk about her for a moment.
If Moon Geun-young wanted this movie to start her more adult roles in movies, she chose wrong as her role is basically an extended cameo and nothing more. And also, she is bad in the movie. But I cannot really blame her because everyone is bad and she was not given much to do.
In terms of the lead actors, we have Song Kang-Ho of “The Face Reader” (2013), Yoo Ah-In of “The Veteran” (2015). As mentioned before, “The Throne” (2015) only cares about the characters these two actors play, if you can even describe it as caring. There is nothing more to the movie in terms of character to the degree that I think this would have made a far better two-person stage play. The use of expositions and monologues would work better in that medium.
How are these two in these key roles?
Problematic! First, there is Song Kang-Ho as the King. Song Kang-Ho is a well-known talented actor. However, all of his better roles have a tinge of at least black humor to them. The mixture of darkness and humor is where he thrives as an actor.
In this vein, I think he is miscast in this movie. His role in “The Throne” (2015) lacks any kind of humor. Well… it would be more accurate to say that the direction has utterly no humor to it. The script inserts some rumor into his part to slip in and out of modern and period speak. Also, there are a few wacky characters in the movie. But the movie’s direction is so serious that the humor comes off as just weird and out of place. This is not an environment where Song Kang-Ho can do his best work.
Second, we have Yoo Ah-In as the prince. As an actor, he is okay but nowhere near the level of Song Kang-Ho. Recently, he has developed a bad habit of either underplaying or over-playing roles. In this movie, he does both. He is not the worst part of the movie. However, He is still rather underwhelming as his character becomes nothing really more than an emo-teenager of the modern superficial ilk in a period movie.
What’s the point?
All movies have to justify their existence with a purpose. It does not need to be a high-minded one. You just need to have one. Watching “The Throne” (2015), for me, was a puzzling experience. I couldn’t put the finger on what the movie wanted to be.
It is not interested in examining the historical background surrounding the scandal.
It is not interested in doing a character biopic.
I couldn’t really call it a “teenage rebellion” movie as the movie cops out and tries to eat its cake too. In addition to asking the audience to feel sympathy for the dead prince, the movie also tries to justify the king’s actions by going with the whole “it was unavoidable” route.
It is even difficult to say the movie is aiming for the sheer exploitative melodramatics regarding the conflicts between father and son. There is simply not enough interaction between the father and son for that purpose.
Walking out of the theater, I concluded that the movie is not meant to stand on its own as a movie with its own viewpoint and something to say. Thus, there is no reason for there to be well-rounded characters and interesting dialogue.
“The Throne” (2015) is one of those Korean movies that just meant pander to the Korean audience’s preexisting thoughts on historical events and Korean society. In this movie, the specific hot button topic it is touching on is Korea’s immature feelings about the relationship between father and son and as an extension society and a member of that society. On the one hand, you are a helpless victim wanting sympathy. On the other hand, you are an abuser of power who wants to justify one’s own actions by claiming one is helpless because it was society’s fault. So, it is not surprising that the movie smells like both stale angst and impotent denial.
Don’t ask me how angst smells like!
“The Throne” (2015) is not a very good or even an interesting movie. Not only is it shallow and rather pointless, but it just fails to follow the basics of storytelling. The best I could say is that the production quality is pretty good, and the cinematography is decent, albeit rather stale overall.
“The Throne” (2015) is a movie just meant to pander to a specific audience. That audience is expected to do the work for the movie instead of the other way around. If you are not a member of that audience, I do not know if you would get much out of it. You will just see two rather over the top cardboard cutouts characters either abuse or be abused until one is dead, and the other ends up telling himself it had to be done. However, it was really his fault from the start because he is just a huge dick! For those viewers outside of the Korean audience, you may likely not even fully understand what is going on.
Overall, I give “The Throne” (2015) a D+!
Score: D+ or 3/10