South Korea’s foreign-language Oscar entry, Lee Joon-Ik’s film THE THRONE was the Opening Night Gala selection for the 35th Annual Hawaii International Film Festival, screening on Thursday, November 12. The story of an infamous moment during the Joseon Dynasty when King Yeongjo had his son, Crown Prince Sado, put to death by having him enclosed in a wooden rice box has been dramatized more than a few times before. However, Joon-Ik’s telling of what transpired is rife with social and moral complexities, making the film a richer and much more emotional ride than is routinely found in Asian historical costume epics. If ever there was an even-handed look at court intrigue and the frustrations of living within the confines of social protocol when being scrutinized by your public, this film does it.
Why did you return to this subject (the reign of King Yeongjo) ten years after KING AND THE CLOWN (2005)?
This is the seventh film after KING AND THE CLOWN, so between them there have been six films. During that time I wanted to do something kind of different, but this time – I don’t know why – I wanted to go back. Also, KING AND THE CLOWN was set about 500 years ago in Korea’s history, and this film is actually set about 250 years ago. The next film, which I’ve actually already finished, takes place 70 years ago.
The film does a wonderful job, I believe, in showing the nuance and conflict within each character – specifically King Yeongjo and Sado, the Crown Prince. In the past, films that have addressed these historical figures have made one or the other out to be a villain in one way or another. This film takes a middle road approach, and I’m curious as to why you took that direction with the film.
First of all, in real life there are so many various perspectives and I personally am very interested in all of the emotions and how people’s minds work. Traditionally, a commercial movie would focus on one main character and go with that. For me, especially with the Joseon Dynasty, there are a lot of people around the king and I wanted to show the audience what kind of characters these people were – what kind of emotions and minds that these people had. Because, during this period of time, a lot of people had to not show their emotions. They had to hide their emotions and what they were feeling. It was taboo TO show your emotions. I wanted to open that up to the audience and connect with what we have today in the modern world – so we could see that and see how WE react to these emotions around us.
We are at the Hawaii Film Festival and you’ve been to many film festivals. What is the difference in reaction this particular film has received in Korea as opposed to here where we don’t have a longstanding history of films dealing with the Joseon Dynasty?
This is my first time attending the Hawaii International Film Festival and next week I’m actually flying out to Estonia to attend another film festival, but I think with KING AND THE CLOWN, if you are familiar with the drama of Shakespeare I think someone could understand the film because it had similar elements and with this movie I was focusing on a lot of Greek mythology. I believe if you are a lover of either Shakespeare or Greek mythology then you would be ale to access them because there are universal concepts that people can relate too. Also, there was some Oedipus Complex emphasis – so I think I can connect with people utilizing these ideas.
I also believe that before Hawaii became a part of America that Hawaii was a royal kingdom and they maintained that kingdom for about a thousand years and I believe that Hawaiians may have a similar story associated with that kingdom and they may be able to access my film somewhat through that as well.
I also heard in Europe – in Spain and Austria, stories in which the king killed their own sons.
I often like to explore with filmmakers what their “in” is for a particular film. We make movies for different reasons – maybe we want to work in a certain country or setting, sometimes we want to address a particular subject, sometimes it’s our own personal story, etc. What was your “in” to make THE THRONE?
For me, I focus on the “now” and in order to have the “now” there was a past that created this moment. I’m very interested in the existence of the past and I like to analyze that – to look into how the past was. And for the future to be established and in order to predict the future, you still have to look into the past and research it. Through my films, I like to try to connect all three periods (past, present and future) to kind of see how the future would work.
I wanted to conclude by looking at the film festival and how it benefits filmmakers – beyond simply accepting a film and screening it for an audience. That is wonderful. of course – but there are other benefits that filmmakers receive. You are a veteran filmmaker, someone who could teach master classes to some of our younger filmmakers here at this festival. So, for someone like yourself, what are the benefits of going to a film festival, that is not a “market” film festival?
This is actually my first time at the Hawaii Film Festival, but so far what I have experienced has been – with my historical films – I’m not like a commercial director where you focus on a hero, I’m always interested in the non-hero and focusing on that character. I think for HIFF I wanted to give them an opportunity to enjoy a non-commercial film (so-to-speak). Doing a Q&A or an interview or attending an event at the festival, I think my goal is to participate in those events and help the audience understand these films better – that’s how I look at my role here and what I can bring to the festival experience.
But to follow on that, because that is wonderful for the film festival and its audience, but for you, as the filmmaker, is there a different satisfaction in seeing how your film is received by an audience that is not a Korean audience? Do you relish the opportunity to meet and speak with other filmmakers – and not just at this film festival, but any film festival you attend?
First of all, because of the language barrier, I do wish I could talk to more filmmakers but I don’t have the ability to do that as much. As a director representing my movie, and when I see that I can connect with the audience… Yesterday, when I was doing the Q&A and I see these sad eyes in the audience and they are asking me questions and I want to hold their hands and tell them “thank you so much” and we have this connection through my movie and that experience is what gives me a lot of satisfaction.