2009 CIFF: A Frozen Flower (Ssang-hwa-jeom, 2008)

Director: Yu Ha

2009 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Movie buffs with any sense at all don’t expect historical dramas to offer much in the way of, well, history. An overwhelming number of historical dramas offer audiences an escape from the drab and dreary present into the pageantry and intrigues of defunct monarchies, the noble battles of knights in armor, and the bucolic gentility of country living. A Frozen Flower, a King Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle set in 13th century Korea, provides a little of everything typical to the historical drama, plus something a little more intriguing—graphic sex and lots of it. Sadly, not even the absence of bodices to rip can save this fitfully boring hit from South Korea.

The film opens with a cadre of young boys being schooled in the code of the Goryeo king’s guard. “What is the greatest way to show one’s patriotism?” they are asked. Several answers are given, the last of which is “To die for the king.” The boys are trained in combat and other military arts. At night, as they sleep, a young crown prince walks with his retainers among them. He looks tenderly at one boy, whose foot is exposed, and folds the boy’s blanket over it.

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The film moves forward. The boys of the guard are now men, and one, Hong Lim (Jo In-seong), is both the chief of the guards and the king’s (Joo Jin-mo) lover. He holds such sway over the king that he persuades the king to spare the life of a guardsman who has been caught fleeing with a woman he is forbidden to wed. It seems nothing can upset this relationship, not even when the king makes a political marriage with a princess (Song Ji-hyo) from the neighboring Yuan kingdom. The queen suffers in virginal silence as we watch Hong and the king share a night of passion, which amounts to little more than frenzied French kissing.

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After 10 years with no heir to the throne in sight, the nobles of Yuan smell a chance to conquer Goryeo. A band of assassins pounces upon the royal party as the king and queen enjoy an afternoon of al fresco dining. Desperate to produce an heir to solidify his position, the king asks the only man he trusts, Hong, to impregnate the queen. Hong protests strenuously, but complies. The first attempt is awkward for all three principals, as Hong kisses a stiff and silently weeping queen. During their second encounter, however, both the queen and Hong awaken to passion. After that, the pair finds themselves in the midst of a grand love affair that the king soon discerns. His jealousy for Hong aroused, the king becomes mad to avenge his honor and assuage his hurt at being replaced in Hong’s affections. Much tragedy ensues at the very moment that the queen learns she is pregnant.

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Director Yu and his crew of art directors and costume designers lay a lavish visual feast for the eyes. The opulence and glamor are indeed royal down to the smallest detail—at least, to begin with. Much is made of a perfume sachet the queen wore when she first came to Goryeo and which she loses in the outdoor attack. During a trip to Yuan to uncover those plotting against the Goryeon king, Hong finds a similar sachet in a street market. It couldn’t look cheaper, but he gives it to the queen as a love token. The king notices it and admires it. Why? Because it is a plot device. During the climactic sword fight between the king and Hong, the latter of whom seeks to avenge the queen’s apparent execution signaled, incidentally, by the sachet hanging around the neck of a head on a pike in front of the king’s palace, the king’s chambers are completely trashed. The flimsy set pieces and cheap pottery ruin the illusion that we are in a real palace and sap the deadly battle of some of its poignancy.

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The film’s much-publicized sex scenes—and there are a lot of them—are a bit more graphic than a generic softcore porn film. They’re artfully photographed so we can be sure to see Hong squeeze the queen’s perfect breast, and a variety of positions are offered. But perish the thought of showing a penis. (Even in an innocent scene where the guardsmen are bathing nude in a nearby pond, nothing but ass cheeks are revealed.) The sex is stimulating to watch, but devoid of any real feeling.

All the battle scenes are hopelessly unreal; it’s not the flying swordsmen I object to, but rather the cheap gore (though I thought a servant who gets an arrow through his head to kick off the outdoor ambush was a clever and surprising touch in an otherwise pastorally peaceful scene). Regardless, the film could have done with a little more action of this type to liven up the lackadaisical love story. The injection of musical interludes lavishly sound-produced seems aimed at the Bollywood market. If you’re getting the idea that A Frozen Flower is a pastiche of styles that miss more than they hit, then I’ve done my job.

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The performances are good on the whole. Song as the sweet and suffering queen and Ho Shim-ji as the subchief, whose role grows in importance as Hong falls further out of the king’s favor, are mesmerizing. I also enjoyed Joo as the king, though he started flailing a bit as the king loses his senses to his jealousy; one scene in which he is torturing a guardsman who helped Hong escape is laughingly sadistic. Still, the worst flaw in this film is the casting of Jo In-seong as Hong. A blander actor I haven’t seen in many a year, and this really wrecks the film because Hong is in so many scenes. In the closing scene, Hong’s choice of the queen over the king, it is suggested, was the wrong choice, a message laughable unless you consider that dozens of people might have lived had he denied his own feelings. The love between the three principals isn’t the only thing frozen about the wrong-headed A Frozen Flower. l

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    6th/10/2009 to 6:44 am

    I’m probably going to see this if it makes it way to a R1 DVD. I was lucky to get the catalogue of films shown at the last Udine Far East Film Festival, and was intrigued to read that Ha is also a published poet. His previous film, the well regarded Dirty Carnival, has been on my rental queue.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/10/2009 to 8:23 am

    Well, Peter, it held my interest, but it’s not a very good movie. Just keep that in mind.

  • Mykal Banta spoke:
    6th/10/2009 to 9:58 am

    Marilyn: Great review. It sounds splashy and superficial, and I think I’ll take a pass. The line that really clued me in that this film wasn’t my cup of tea was “All the battle scenes are hopelessly unreal; it’s not the flying swordsmen I object to, but rather the cheap gore . . .”
    I hate that flying, air-peddling, spinning and flipping crap (whew, sorry for the rant). don’t care for gore for gore’s sake, either, which is what this sounds like.
    Good job as usual. — Mykal

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/10/2009 to 10:23 am

    Thanks, Mykal. The gore isn’t really gory; it’s like cartoon gore. Actually, I wish there had been more fighting. It would have relieved the tedium of the love triangle. Even though I like Keanu Reeves in some things, I will say for the sake of clarity for FonF readers, that Jo is the Keanu Reeves of South Korea.

  • Tricia spoke:
    25th/10/2010 to 6:27 pm

    I have to disagree about the quality of this video, and I have watched it many times plus have my own copy right beside me. What starts out as a sweet story in the beginning gets very deep quickly. Yes not everyone is going to enjoy the whole love triangle between 2 males and a female but again this is more a period piece set in Yuan Dynasty.

    The movie is not over crowded with any one aspect. You have a King who raised orphans as his guards, and becomes very close with these children. You have a Queen which is provided by Yuan rulers as a Queen fit for the King’s bride, both in a bid to gain his lands and secure their alliances. Then there is the Chief Bodyguard who has only really known the love of his King since a young age. The battle scenes add to the story and show the depth of feelings that have developed during the scenes which are skimmed over while they grow together and by the end you are very much a part of the story. Although I would love to give a full representation of the video I think this one is more a need to see kind of film then to take any one person’s word for it but if in doubt, see if you can find some clips online … if those hold your interest then it is definitely a movie for you to watch.

  • martin fennell spoke:
    22nd/09/2011 to 7:59 pm

    I just finished watching this, and found it to be an excellent movie. I was completely enthralled by it. I’m certainly glad I didn’t read the owner of this site’s review of it first. But hey, it would be rather boring if everyone had the same opinions.

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