“The Throne” (2015) Featurette #1: Dominance of Royal Tales Within Korean Culture



The first Feature Editorial for the new Korean movie "The Throne / 사도” starring Song Kang-Ho and Yoo Ah-In.


Personal Notes:
Hello. This is Prof. AKIA and I’m shaking up the way I do reviews a little. Most of the time, I end up with long ass essays about movies going through stuff step by step. It is the “show your work” type of approach. This is partially because that is more of my process. Another part is that I’m not confident as a writer of prose to try to do the concise but meaningful approach to movie reviewing that actually works better in the spoken form rather than on paper.

However, I do want to improve and become better at writing. Also, the long form writing approach can be rather painful to execute at times. Thus, as a process of working through stuff before getting to the review itself, I have decided to do some Featurettes prior to writing the review itself. They will focus more on the contextual aspects surrounding the movie. It will be informative.


Introduction
It is said that there are only a few stories floating around at one time. It is just that people tell them slightly differently. And this is true for Western cultures as it is for eastern ones. However, what those stories are may differ from place to place. The stories Hollywood tells are different from those told by Korean cinema. Even if one side tries to copy from another, it usually does not come off well without some serious efforts at adaptation. You could see many examples of this in Hollywood.

However, since we are talking about Korean movies, let’s ask the following question. What kind of stories do Koreans tell over and over again? The answer would be… Royal Tales! Tales of royal intrigue, sex, violence, infighting, and fortunes. This should not be a surprise as most cultures enjoy a good royal yarn.

What is unique about Korean culture is that these royal tales tend to form the foundation for over 90% the stories being told. The character dynamics and themes of these royal tales are translated and adapted for the modern setting whether it is set in a rich family or a poor family. We are just repeating the Royal Tales.

I know that the British love their Kings and Queen but their stories do not form the template for most of British fiction. Okay, you have William Shakespeare but that is more of an exception. I’m not even talking about new stories. Just those that were not based on royal shenanigans. You have myths, legends, themes that are the concerns are commoners. Why does those not play much of a role in Korean fiction?

Why Royal Tales?
The simple answer would be that those are the only stories we’ve got. The more complex one would be that…more complex.

1st!
Fictional literature is the key to stories having a long cultural life span. Once stories floating around are interpreted and put to the page, it is much easier for those who follow to continuously reinterpret the stories and thus provide them with a certain degree of immortally. Part of the reason for the dominance of royal stories within Korean culture is that those were the only stories that were put to the page.

Contrary to the portrayals in recent Korean historical dramas, Koreans never had much of a thriving fictional literature market in the past. When I say past, I’m indicating the period before the 20th century especially the Joseon Dynasty. The highly regulated Confucianist scholar dominated society looked down on fiction itself.  There was no substantial middle class who could either read or fund the creation of popular fictional literature. It is not that fictional literature was totally absent but very few in number.

2nd!
When Korea transitioned to the modern age and started to create fiction across mediums, many of the existing old tales on the commoner level either got lost in the shuffle or became irrelevant. What was the value of old folk tales steeped deep in bygone and in fact obsolete traditions and cultures? If more work was done prior to the modern age on finding the answer to this question, it would have been easier to find the answer now. But Koreans didn’t. In many ways, the British was very lucky to have William Shakespeare.

Since Koreans had not put much work into this question, a lot of the myths and stories were just forgotten. The few that survived into the modern age like “the tale of Kongjui and Patjui” and “Sim Chung, The dutiful daughter” were heavily utilized even till now. “The tale of Kongjui and Patjui” combined with the imported Cinderella story is the foundation of many Korean dramas with the themes of evil stepmothers and step sisters. On the other hand, “Sim Chung, The dutiful daughter” with its theme of blind sacrifice to family and the patriarchy is becoming irrelevant now. However, it was popular until the turn of the century.

Royal Tales…Just a story about screwed up family?
The only things which seem to endure without drastic efforts were the royal tales. This should not be a surprise because they are the more glamorous, flashy, and sexy stories after all. And, to a degree, they have some universality to them once you strip away the royal regalia. For a dynasty like Joseon with such a low profile on the global or even regional scale, its royal tales just becomes tales about a screwed family/clan over generations.  You have a patriarch, a wife, his sons and daughters, and etc. Since there is not much glory, grand designs to deal with, it is not that hard to import those royal tales to the modern family.

Among the output of this endeavor, the Jaebul subgenre is the most obvious. They are basically retelling royal tales with more emphasis on romance which is an imported foreign concept. If you know Korean dramas, you have seen the same themes and stories being told over and over in the Jaebul shows. Those are all elements of the royal tales. So, you get an idea why those Jaebul stories are so ubiquitous. However, even stories set in more moderate family settings are not free from the influence of the royal tales.

Top Royal Tales…
Within the reign of the Joseon dynasty spanning about a half a millennia, many stuff happened. Many stories were told. However, in term of public notoriety at the present, you can boil the 500 years dynasty into about 7 Top stories. In terms of cultural influence especially in terms of fiction, I would say that there is a TOP 3. The tale of “Crown Prince Sado” in which the Korean movie “The Throne” (2015) starring Song Kang-Ho and Yoo Ah-In is based on falls into this TOP 3.


I’ll talk about the “Crown Prince Sado / 사도 세자" tale in my next Featurette!


“The Throne” (2015) Featurette #2[ Link]

“The Throne” (2015) Featurette #3[ Link]

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