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[FICTION VS. HISTORY] Crown Prince Sado’s difficult history: While ‘The Throne’ is accurate, it misses complexities of a complicated relationship

Feb 11,2019
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Scenes from the movie “The Throne” (2015), above, show King Yeongjo, played by Song Kang-ho, approaching the wooden rice box in which he locked his son Crown Prince Sado; left, Sado, played by Yoo Ah-in, kneeling before his father to beg for forgiveness; and right, Prince Jeongjo standing before the box where his father is locked in. [SHOWBOX]
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Top: Historical record “Hanjungrok,” right, is written by Lady Hyegyeong, Sado’s wife. She is played go Moon Geun-young, left, in “The Throne.” Above: Young Crown Prince Sado’s handwriting. [JOONGANG ILBO]
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In film and television, historical dramas have never gone out of style. Fans of period dramas, both in Korea and abroad, like to be transported to a different time and learn about the stories that swept up - or were put in motion by - our ancestors. Some watch to see how the present compares with the past. Others watch to see progress. Foreign Korea-philes can get a crash course in Korean history while watching historical films. But all historical dramas create characters, add romantic plots and conflate or invent events to make sure viewers don’t lose interest. With Fiction vs. History, the Korea JoongAng Daily attempts to distinguish fact from fiction in popular period dramas and films for clarification and to dispel misunderstandings.

Crown Prince Sado (1735-62) is probably one of the most controversial figures in the history of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and his death still continues to be a point of contention. He was the second son of King Yeongjo (1694-1776), and the probable heir to the throne due to the early death of his older brother.

However, the prince is remembered as a tragic royal heir because he was put to death by his father by being locked in a wooden rice chest after a number of violent outbursts. This incident in itself was so dramatic that it has been turned into a number of movies, including “The Throne” (2015) by director Lee Joon-ik, starring Song Kang-ho as King Yeongjo and Yoo Ah-in as Prince Sado. The film was released in September 2015, and sold more than six million tickets just a few months after its release.

Sado’s life itself is dramatic enough that the director did not have to conflate historical events to make the film interesting. However, since the film is not a documentary, the director did not include the controversies or different theories surrounding the death of the prince that many historians continue to argue about.

There are many historical records illustrating Prince Sado’s death, including the “Hanjungrok,” also known as the “Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong,” the “Annals of the Joseon Dynasty” or more recent revelations of Sado’s tomb stone text known as myojimun, which were buried with the corpse as well as historical records left by the two opposing political parties Noron and Soron that all seem to describe the story of Prince Sado based on truth, but from their own perspectives. The sad reality of Sado’s life is that historians still can not come to a consensus about the prince’s tragic death.

The film “The Throne,” however, focuses on the cause of the prince’s death being the result of a deteriorated father-son relationship and the sensitive emotions of the two characters, barely touching on the political background that got them there in the first place.

For example, the film starts off with what could be a climax, when King Yeongjo summons his son after hearing that the prince stomped into the Gyeonghui Palace with a sword in hand to kill the king. The king asks if the prince is wearing mourning clothes and made a casket to murder him, and the prince cries that the casket is for himself because “the father treats me like a dead man.”

When Yeongjo tosses a sword to Sado, telling him to kill himself, Sado refuses, saying that there’s no such punishment as killing oneself under this country’s law. Then the king tells his son that “this is not a matter of the nation but a domestic affair,” and that he is “trying to punish a son who attempted to kill his father.”

The director stays true to historical facts, but historians insist that there is more to the real story than an angry father attempting to punish his son who disappointed him. The film also has several scenes showing the king’s anger and discontentment with every decision Sado made during his daerichungjeong, or regency, - when the king leaves the task of running the country to a dependable son to train him on the art of politics from an early age. These scenes can’t be simply explained as a conflict between a father with high expectations and his defiant son.

Yeongjo, who many say had an inferiority complex because he was born into the lowest social class, became the king when his half-brother King Gyeongjong died after eating food served to him by Yeongjo. Despite ascending to the throne, King Yeongjo suffered from rumors that he assassinated his brother to become the king. Many people believed this at the time and the Noron and Soron factions fought fiercely against each other for power. The Noron faction pressured King Gyeongjong to step down, attempting to put Yeongjo in the throne so they could get power.

Therefore, when Crown Prince Sado was being trained, it is said that the Noron faction did not approve of many of the policies that the prince was coming up with, such as taxing yangban, or aristocrats. Yeongjo, who became the king with the help of the Noron faction, would have been at his wits’ end about what to do each time Sado argued with the Noron faction. Of course, a two-hour movie is too short to show all of the context of this complex history and, indeed, the complex history of conflict between a father and son, but it should be understood with a historical background.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]