Is love reduced to nothing more than just really settling for what is there before you as would princes and princesses in a fairy tale? Are we as human beings foolishly conditioned to love what is before us in fear of receiving no other love? Or are we mere slaves to our passions that it clouds our very reason, much to our own demise?
These were but the first few questions left for me to ponder after having seen ‘Ssanghwajeom’ [A Frozen Flower]; a Korean period drama that director Yoo Ha describes as “a love story between men”. No, this isn’t about two Korean cowboys “eating pudding” as the South Park character of Cartmann put it when describing gay movies -I've read from The Man of the Rose that ‘Ssanghwajeom’ [A Frozen Flower] is Korea’s answer to Brokeback Mountain but since I don’t really find the gay cowboy movie remotely entertaining, let’s leave it at that.
‘Ssanghwajeom’ [A Frozen Flower] borrows its title from a song taken from the Goryeo Period of Korean history which poeticized the sexual relationships between men and women. Set during that same era, it tells of a late dynasty Goryeo King [Joo Jin-Moo] who has to contend with the virtual imperial rule of the Yuan Dynasty of China over his kingdom. With his sovereignty under threat for having produced no male heir, the king turns to his chief royal bodyguard, Hong Lim [played by the ever handsome Jo In-sung], to impregnate the Queen [Song Ji-Hyo]. The sexual entanglement ensues to much chaotic result; for the King himself has his own affair with Hong Lim [Jo In-Sung] and would trust no one but him to impregnate the Queen [Song Ji-Hyo], who is nothing more than a trophy wife he has no attachment nor attraction to.
At first, Hong Lim [Jo In-Sung] is hesitant to touch the Queen. She herself, after experiencing years of unaffection and being neglected by the King would soon find herself liberated and enslaved after the veil of sexual intercourse for duty and country is lifted and sex for carnal passion bares its visage, as well as Hong Lim [Jo In-Sung] who has not known any other love but the King’s.
On closer inspection, Hong Lim [Jo In-Sung] may have entered into an affair with the King as a result of his consequences of servitude and loyalty. Becoming the King’s lover and chief bodyguard after being reared by the King himself while still a teenage Prince, and him an adolescent boy-in-training, seems more or less the victim of circumstance here.
Guilt is brushed aside for unbridled passion as the Queen [Song Ji-Hyo] and Hong Lim [Jo In-Sung] continue their secret trysts much to the unraveling of the King’s [Joo Jin-Moo] jealousy. Finding it a bit too much, the film is replete with such explicit sexual scenes between the two that it would not be long until the secret lovers are caught enflagrante delicto by the King himself and a tragic and violent end of Shakespearean proportions comes upon the characters. [Trust me when I say heads will roll, for that will be an understatement when you see one type of ‘head‘ that will roll]
Give or take the complex dynamic of Hong Lim’s [Jo In-Sung] love for both of them, he chooses to turn his head towards the King that perished by his hand meeting his eyes as he took his dying breath with the King’s sword pierced in his heart. The last thing he would see in this world would be the dead frozen eyes of his King.
Was this in any form, his statement of remorse, for having hurt the man who showed him the first kind of love he had ever known? That if he had stood by the King’s love, however one-sided and consequential it was, they would not meet this bloody end? Did he realize, after all this, who he truly loved?
Even I am confused…
But stirring the mist in my crazy head let me just muddle out a few ideas… Hong Lim’s [Jo In-sung] rampage seems to me nothing more than a lover’s quarrel gone wrong. Such a bloody and violent display to show the King that all of it was of the King’s doing and that if he had not pushed him too far, they would not be caught in all this -call it- drama. Then of course, like some of those in pretentious denial about themselves, one could argue that the chief bodyguard is ‘bisexual’ and the King would just have to live with sharing him with the queen.
In the spirit of symbolism expected of Asiatic movies, the filmmakers seem to have chosen a vision or longing of true happiness in a painting made by the King himself. It is of a dream of his about him and his chief bodyguard off on a hunt -the promise of which filled his heart with joy. This very painting was ripped apart by Hong Lim’s sword in his violent rage when he went after the King. And by some cinematic choice, after their tragic deaths, this image of the happy hunt is presented to us: the King and Hong Lim riding on horseback with bows on hand ready to strike. The smile on their faces display no care of the world that had bound them once before -something that strikes me as a last minute predictable attempt at the promise of being reincarnated with the one you love or too much heaven in the head. I can say this much for the other elements of the film: the production values were quite excellent. The production design was very detailed yet fairly streamlined, the musical score kept at the appropriate pace, and the editing is as expected considering some action scenes. Except for the rather lengthy displays of sex scenes, it was a movie that stimulates the senses without doing it too much.
Well, I can’t really say if I’m impressed with Jo In-Sung’s acting on this one. Much as I love the guy, the performance seemed mechanical and studied. While Joo Jin-Moo as the King displayed such gentle nuances that displayed his hidden sexuality above the royal refinement. And Song Ji-Hyo’s Queen is the acting centerpiece of the film worthy of praise.
As I type the last few sentences of this review, A Frozen Flower seems to be leaving more questions than it can answer. Some people can take the plainly obvious unraveling while some can dig deeper into it. Either way, it is one not to be missed.