“The Throne” (2015) Featurette #3: The Father –Son ties…the one that strangles you

“The Throne” (2015) is a Korean movie (#Kmovie) about Tragedy of Crown Prince Sado / 사도세자” starring Song Kang-Ho and Yoo Ah-In.

Hi. This is Prof. AKIA! This is the third  and final installment of the Featurette series for the Korean movie “The Throne” (2015) before I get to the actual review. Yes, I know I’m late.

We had Korean Thanksgiving and our equivalent of the Turkey coma makes it hard to sit down and write.

The stories a culture tells are interesting windows into that culture. The ones that are repeatedly told with shifting interpretations are even more interesting. However, sometimes you wonder whether those windows are crystal clear; letting the light in without any distortions. Is what you are shown a true reflection of the culture or just how the culture or a subset of the culture perceives itself to be? Those two are actually very different things. Life would be far less confusing if what we perceive to be reality was actually reality. However, that is actually never the case.

That is life for you!

Through the previous Featurettes, I tried to provide a sense of what Tragedy of Crown Prince Sado / 사도세자 represents for the modern Korean audience. Considering that this tale has continued to captivate the Korean audiences, we cannot totally dismiss the possibility that it touches on a raw truth of the Korean experience. It is a window on at least how we perceive the relationship between father and son to be. But, is this perception close to reality?

With that question in mind, let’s get into the story a bit more.

Story…Not about history!
The actually historical events surrounding the death of Crown Prince Sado is rather complicated since it is intertwined with the politics of the realm spanning at least 3 kings. It is not easy to understand the causes attributing to the final outcome in which a prince is put inside a box to starve to death.

Isn’t that really theatric in a way.

There are far easier and quieter ways of dispatching unwanted royal family members. It was quite common for nobles to “suddenly” from illnesses on exile.

The fact that the historical evidence tend to be biased in contradicting fashions lends to somewhat wild interpretations of the events. However, I’m not trying to discuss history here. I’m here to talk about the story “based” on history which has been rewritten by people over and over again over the last few hundred years.

Yes, the tragedy of Crown Prince Sado is a story about politics. However, it is, for Koreans, foremost a story about terribly flawed people and a very dysfunctional family spanning multiple generations messing with each subsequence one that cumulated until this father and son. The politics are rather an afterthought to most. They just get in the way of imposing oneself on the characters and story.

Imagine a Kingdom in turmoil which has been on a not so steady decline for more than a hundred years. It has also experienced a continued increase in political infighting which has not been helped by the libido fueled shenanigans of the prior King who I call the “Henry VIII” of Korea. The lowborn son of that King, the father in the tale, ascended to the throne after the rather suspicious early death of his brother, the previous king.

The kingdom he inherited would have been a pain for any king. This King was in a disadvantage from the start because of the situation surrounding the coronation and his low birth. His mother was a low born concubine of the philandering Henry VIII” of Korea. Still this king managed to endure. In fact, he is the longest reigning monarch of his dynasty with a long 52 year reign. Not only did he endure but he is judged to be one of the few competent kings of the dynasty. He is credited now as a king that at least paused the decline the dynasty has been experiencing for a while.

How he did this is open to many debates. But none of those claim that it was because he was a morla or even nice person even for a monarch of the day. If he was a billionaire businessman now, you would describe him as being “eccentric” where he might hear you and something more colorful when you know he couldn’t. In other words, I’m trying to say he is a weird bastard. He most likely remained in power via cunning, pitting the nobles against each other and sheer personality.

So, Steve Jobs!

One of the many issue that consistently plagued his reign was his lack of a male heir. He had no one to succeed him even into his 40s. This is the point where Prince Sado comes into the story. Considering the average life expectancy for King of the dynasty was 40, this was really late in the game. 

Oh and Sado was not his real name. It was given to him posthumously.

Since we have the major characters in place, let’s talk about the plot points.

Plot Points!
The bullet points of the plot are the following.
·       A father with a “questionable” personality obsessing over his new born heir.
·       A father who micromanages everything. This tend to be a recipe for disaster. You want to be under the radar for those people.
·       A son who could not particularly keep up with his father’s expectations.
·       A father who is not hesitant to criticize and demean.
·       A father who acts erratic in general to the degree that some think he may have been bipolar.
·       A son who develops behavioral and psychological issues that fester over the years. On the question of how serious, the answer depends on what source you are referring to. Some say that he was a raving lunatic. Other say, it was mild.
·       A father who consistently used him as political bait and shield in the machinations of the court during his son’s teenage years.
·       A son who acted out in his 20s in various ways including the murder spree and rabid paranoia depending on the source you are reading from.
·       A king and father who imprisons his son in a box in front of the main palace building for everyone to see until the son died after 8 days.

What is this Story to Koreans?
Stepping away from the juicy melodramatics of the tragedy, what does tale represent for Koreans?


It is not about the politics! Barely anyone knows more than there were infighting in the court behind much of the events. But, that is typical of the Joseon dynasty. For most, the story boils down to the family dynamic between parent and off-striping and, as an extension, society and the individual within that society. It is the quintessential “The conflict with the patriarchy” story for Koreans with a twist.

The prince and, as an extension, us are victims!
He and we suffer from the unreasonable and inhuman hands of the father and as an extension society.

It is not a unique tale. All society has their own versions. Stories like “Romeo and Juliet” can be seen in this vein also. However, there is a twist with this Korean tragedy. Not only is the “private” events of the tale very public and theatric in nature, the many forces behind the development of the story over the years has taken it in interesting directions where two drastic different views cohabitate. On one hand, there is the basic youth perspective with its rage against the “Man”.

Rage against the man!

On the other, there is the patriarchy side of the story with its justifications. Depending on the times and political climate, the interpretations of the characters differ somewhat in order to provide a certain degree of justification. The King is sometimes viewed as being slightly senile and thus reflecting the blame. Other times, the prince is seen as a fail revolutionist or a raving lunatic which all lead to the reflecting of blame. However, the story keeps coming back to one basic idea.

It is sad but we had to do it!
It was fate…

As a result of this history behind the development of the story, there is something for everyone.

This aspect makes the story morally flexible in a way. A better word maybe insidious. Not only is there something for everyone, but it is actually very accommodating to shifts in perspectives in relation to one’s own situation. When you are young and helpless, you can stand on one side. When you get older and get some power at least over your off-spring and develop a taste for it, you can cross over the line to stand on the other side with ease.

You never really have to examine closely one perspective to transition over to another. You can be angry against authority when you’re young. You can also be defensive and conservative when you get older with no real need to reevaluate your past perspective. You can just slip into one mode whenever the situation suits you and thus maintain the view that one is a victim. This means that there is no self-reflection and learning being conducted. Just image what “Romeo and Juliet” would be like if the same could be applied to it?

Is it relevant to Koreans now?
When I started this article, I asked the question of how relevant this tale is to Koreans of the present. The answer would be….
But far less than the years gone by!

If you ask anyone over the age of 30 in Korea, they would say that times have been changing. Compared to most places in the world, Korean is one of the more rapidly changing places I’ve seen. While the replies may be different when asked if this is a good thing, no one would say that the patriarchy is the same as it used to be. The youth of the present is far freer than any time in the history of the region.  

The oppression is far less visible and physically looming!

So, you would expect that the tale of the “Prince in a box” would carry less weight. It is a story of how the off-springs are at the beck and call of the terrible whims and demands of the patriarchy after all. Where does it fit in the age of Kpop and ipods?

However, this does not seem to be the case. For one, with freedom, there is a lot of uncertainty creeping into the cultural psyche that no one seems to understand how to deal with. Korea feels like the late 80s and early 90s in USA but with far less cocaine and more well designed stuff. Also, “relative” freedom does not mean you are free even in the superficial interpretation of the word. The Korean youth are still forced through a very narrow meat grinder. What is different is that the process has become ill-defined, less abrasive, and more apathetic and tedious.

Even beyond all of the cultural stuff, just being young is a rather horrible thing which we block out as adults with rosy filters and nostalgia goggle. I have a theory that, the better we remember our youth, the more terrible it was. Koreans’ obsession with our days of youth suddenly comes into focus. This means that…

You can still rage against your parents!
The internal and external confusion of youth combined with general apathy of the Korean situation is still a very potent breeding ground for resentment but the more meandering and conceptual kind rather than the visceral kind of their forefathers.

뒤주… this word indicates a small wooden box used to store grain. If it was not for this historical event I am talking about, no one now other than historians would have heard this word.  I am not sure how the King in this tale knew this word in the first place as he would have never been in contact with one. However, it is one of the most popular word indicating an object from antiquity for Koreans of the present.

Everyone knows it.

Even into the present, the “Prince in a box” lives on in the hearts of Koreans! Is this a good thing? I am not sure about that. But that is a discussion for another time.

This was prof. AKIA. Next time I will finally get to the review of “The Throne” (2015) starring Song Kang-Ho and Yoo Ah-In.


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