I just saw the movie I’ve been waiting years to see: a biopic about the infamous Crown Prince known as Sado Seja.
I’ll be honest: I found it disappointing, and for a reason I think those who’ve read my reviews of other Korean historical dramas will find familiar.
The story of Sado Seja is a fascinating one. I first heard of it during my second or third year in Korea, when a bandmate (a Korean-Australian) told me the rough highlights: some crown prince in the Joseon Dynasty went crazy, and was confined to a rice chest to die, two and a half centuries ago.
In the intervening years, I’ve read Jahyun Kim Haboush’s translation of that Crown Prince’s widow’s writings on the subject, The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea (and recommended the book to friends), so I am at least a little more familiar now with her side of the story. I also remember the news reports (from about 2005) of letters that had been unconvered, wherein Crown Prince Sado begged an uncle to get him rare, difficult-to-obtain Chinese medicines because, as he was well aware, he was mentally ill.
I’ve also written a (so-far unpublished) novelette about Crown Prince Sado’s dreadful fate, something I originally finished drafting in 2007, though it got reworked a few times since (such as in 2008, and also last year in Vietnam when I finally figured out what it’s really about; it’s now one of a series of Lovecraftian Korean history pieces I’m slowly assembling.) So when I say I’m interested in the story of Sado Seja, I really mean it.
(And I’m not the only non-Korean inspired by the story. Though I haven’t read it—and suspect it’s not for me—Margaret Drabble’s The Red Queen is, in part, inspired by Lady Hyegyŏng’s narrative. Plenty of other TV shows and films made in Korea have also delved into this moment in history, or the lives of other characters involved in the story.)
But, well, I already let the cat out of the bag—I was disappointed by the film—so I’ll go ahead and try explain why I felt so let down, with the caveat that I did watch the film without subtitles, and certainly must have missed whatever more subtle points, if any, where to be found.
Why didn’t I like it?
1. It’s another bloody melodrama. Seriously, the last thing Korean cinema needs now is yet another tear-soaked melodrama. A better title for this film would have been 우리 풀상한 우는 아들 사도 (Our Poor Crying Son Sado). Seriously, I think every major character cries at least three times in the film.I’d wager tears of some kind or another are visible onscreen for maybe half the running time. (Maybe a little bit less than that.) Yes, the story of Sado Seja is sad. It’s really sad. It doesn’t have to be only sad.
2. It doesn’t do anything interesting with the narrative. I mean, there are a lot of interesting angles to take here:
- The hereditary madness of rulers: Crown Prince Sado’s craziness is underplayed. Lady Hyegyŏng’s memoirs make it clear that the Crown Prince was bananas from a young age, whereas in the film he’s just kind of eccentric, given to (forbidden) drinking and Buddhist ceremony, and pained by his father’s emotional abusiveness. But she also makes clear that his father, [King] Yeongjo, was a complete fucking asshole… at least, she makes that as clear as possible given that he was still on the throne while she was writing. Yeongjo’s behaviour sounds way more like obsessive compulsive disorder in Lady Hyegyŏng’s account than we see on the screen. Likewise, by her account—the most sympathetic account of the time—there seems to have been something off about Sado Seja even in childhood, and certainly he was mentally ill for years on end before things came to a head… yet the film structures things so that while the causal pressures Lady Hyegyŏng cites are presented, the resulting madness doesn’t seem to manifest until much later. Likewise, instead of doing much in terms of exploring how compliant underlings allow horrendous states of affairs to become the status quo, it sort of naturalizes that compliance.
- A critique of paternalistic abuse. Sado Seja’s father was not only crazy, he was also very, very nasty to his children, at least from the one detailed (albeit hostile) contemporary account we have. The film didn’t need to go all the way into mustache-twirling to explore the theme of unkind fatherhood. One suspects, however, that Korea’s not really ready for a film that attacks bad fathers, because attacking any sort of father is a step too far… and of course, because when you attack an abusive father, you’re only one step away from attacking the abusive father-figure of a whole generation. (And that abusive father-figure of a generation now has a daughter on the Iron Throne, so…)
- It doesn’t explore the study pressure angle seriously. I mean, if you were looking for a story in Korean history that epitomizes everything wrong with child-rearing in Korea today, you couldn’t do better than this one in terms of fit and timeliness. There’s a certain amount of “study, study, study!” pressure exerted on Crown Prince Sado, and the examination scenes (which went over my head) possibly fill it in more, but the whole mythology of Crown Prince Sado’s scholarly gifts as a child is glossed over. Sado is sad because his dad is mean, more than because his father’s pressure to study is abusive.
3. It edits out all the weird stuff. Not that I expected the film to do what I do with the story—that is, take all the weird stuff and crank it up to 11—but this account leaves it all out. Sado Seja complained of visions in his letters, but we only ever glimpse one, and it’s when he’s already in the rice chest. Lady Hyegyŏng describes his fanatical studies of The Jade Spine Scripture, a Taoist magical text she believed partly responsible for his insanity, but it never seems to come up: instead, Sado Seja has a stifled artistic impulse. The rumors of him having been driven mad by the remnants of evil, necromantic magic practiced in the palace by an executed lady from a generation earlier? I didn’t catch a reference to that, either, and while I might have missed the part where Crown Prince Sado’s son Yi San is believed by the king to be the reincarnation of Sado’s sister Hwap’yŏng (lost to the measles), we certainly don’t see Hwap’yŏng or any of the other sisters Sado Seja had. (Yes, it’s necessary to cut things to maintain narrative focus, but you can still establish minor characters, especially those whose death could humanize your primary antagonist.) It’s not that I expected this to be a horror film—though I’ve always thought the story of Crown Prince Sado would make an outstanding one—but that even the supernaturalistic stuff that was part of 18th century Joseon culture seemed to be completely evacuated from the story. (I have theories about why this would end up happening, but nothing so solid I’d venture them in public.)
4. It also heavily sanitizes the characters, to the point of being revisionist. I mean, Sado Seja’s wife tells us about his trip up to Pyongyang, about his getting hammered constantly, and reputedly having sex with a corrupt female monk whom he dared even to bring back to the palace. (I think we glance the monk briefly, early on, but she’s never really a character.) There’s also this whole scandal where Sado hooked up with a supposedly manipulative maid in waiting from his grandmother’s retinue (who was thus forbidden to him by palace rules), took her as a concubine, and then had a baby with her. Yeongjo’s bizarre obsession with cleaning his ears and mouth after any “unpleasant business” makes it in, but not his lifelong—from childhood—use of his children to “cleanse” himself after the same sort of unpleasantness. As Lady Hyegyŏng tells it, he would drop by his son’s and daughter’s palaces and have them greet him in a friendly, polite way; having thus cleansed himself, he left without even replying to their greeting, something Lady Hyegyeong describes as if it were obviously weird for the time. Unfortunately, the film seems more concerned with decorum, so most of the weirdness of the palace—let alone how the underlings reconciled themselves with shutting up and keeping the machinery going—is omitted. There are hints, here and there, but it’s not just subtle… it seems purposefully soft-pedaled. The bloodiest scene is soft-pedaled compared to the utter mayhem described by Lady Hyegyŏng.
Which is to say, where the film could have either had fun with the story, or said something pertinent to Korea today, or at least given us a glimpse of history in a more accurate fashion than your usual Joseon historical drama. Instead, it took the easy route: it went for the tears and the heartstrings. This seems to always be the path of least resistance, in Korean cinema, but it also ends up cheapening any story it’s used on.
What’s particularly disappointing is that the film was well-cast, (mostly) well-shot, and well-acted. Song Kang-Ho is as always a great performer, but so were most of the other cast members on screen. Some weird makeup issues at the end aside (somehow Lady Hyegyŏng seems to age 30-40 years instead of 14 or 15, and I’m doubtful even the amount of grief she sustained could do that to a person), the film looks pretty good. But the writing is just sub-par. It’s not intellectually lazy: it’s detailed and nuanced, the pacing is bad.
No, it’s emotionally lazy. When I watch a film like this, I end up thinking of something I was once told John Cage said 1 about listening to Beethoven and disliking being “told what to feel” about things. Especially by people whose inner lives are so drab they can make a story like Sado Seja’s boring. (Because, yes, I admit I found myself checking the time more than once.)
I can say this, though: they were at least thoughtful about the structure, which matches my own novelette: The story is told with the eight days in the rice chest forming a kind of frame-and-interstice story—well, okay, seven days 2—while the backstory is filled in with flashbacks that explore Sado Seja’s relationship with different characters as well as his painful childhood and experiences growing up. Ultimately, I found myself wondering what the point of this story was: I mean, besides doing a big-budget biopic. This was the (correct) question posed to me about my own fantastical reimaging of the story: “Why not just tell people to read the JaHyun Kim Haboush instead?” That led me to try do something different with the story.
Anyway, if you have a stomach for melodrama, and/or don’t know enough to be annoyed by the omissions, this might entertain you. But for me, it was a big disappointment.
Possibly the quote was apocryphal, but Cage complained about Beethoven as often as he could, so I imagine there’s some truth to it. And the person who told the story was someone who’d known Cage personally: he was a composition prof with a reference letter from Cage, in fact.↩
I’m not sure why they changed that detail: as far as I remember, it took eight days and he died in the middle of a thunderstorm, where he dies after seven days in the film.↩