Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: A Frozen Flower / 쌍화점 (2008)

A packed audience for A FROZEN FLOWER
The Korean Culture Office kicked off its 2013 Cinema on the Park lineup with a figurative bang this week with the showing of the 2008 movie ‘A Frozen Flower / 쌍화점’. I remember the movie opening in Korea five years ago under a hailstorm of hype, as movie internet sites buzzed about “graphic gay sex scenes”, “forced castration”, & “full frontal nudity”. ‘A Frozen Flower’ was controversial before it had even hit the cinema screen, and the KCO was clearly looking to match that controversy by showing it at 6:30pm on a pleasant Thursday evening in January.

As much as I would have loved to have been there for the screening, my first few months of the year find myself temporarily based in Brisbane for a new job, so I had to sit this one out. In retrospect though, I’m actually a little glad. One of the great things about the Cinema on the Park program is the diversity of the audience it attracts, from university students to senior citizens, it gives the Sydney population great exposure to the many joys of Korean cinema. I have to draw the line though and say ‘A Frozen Flower’ is not a movie I’d want to watch sitting next to someone old enough to be my grandmother, I feel uncomfortable enough watching a pair of animals mating on a wildlife documentary if somebody is in the same room as me.

Thankfully though I do have the movie on DVD, so was happy to give it a re-watch for the sake of this review. Of course after those initial paragraphs, you’re probably wondering if there's anything else to it except two hours of debauchery and graphic images, and thankfully there is, a lot more. ‘A Frozen Flower’ is a period piece, and revolves around the love triangle that develops between the king, played by Joo Jin-mo (‘A Better Tomorrow / 무적자’, ‘200 Pounds Beauty / 미녀는 괴로워’), his chief bodyguard, played by Jo In-seong (‘A Dirty Carnival / 비열한 거리’, ‘The Classic / 클래식’), and the queen, played by Song Ji-hyo (‘The New World /신세계’, ‘Wishing Stairs /여고괴담 3 - 여우 계단’) . So far, so standard Korean drama storyline, but here it takes a unique twist.

The king’s bodyguard has actually been raised in the palace as the lover to the king, and has never known any different. When pressure starts to mount to produce royal offspring, the king creates a plan in which he asks the bodyguard to have sex with the queen in order for her to become pregnant. Ever the loyal servant, the bodyguard reluctantly agrees to do it, as does a severely sexually frustrated queen. However what’s supposed to be an act of reproduction, and nothing more, ends up igniting the flames of distinctly heterosexual passion within the bodyguard, and the same thing happens for the queen, who finally experiences a mans touch after years of loneliness. The bodyguard and the queen embark on a secret affair, meeting at midnight in the library whenever they can to unleash their lustfulness on each other, but when the king begins to suspect that something is going on between them, things can only go in one direction.

Upon release a lot of western reviews drew inevitable comparisons to ‘Brokeback Mountain’, which doesn’t really do it justice based on the fact that outside of the gay theme, the two movies bare no resemblance to each other. If any comparison can be made, then perhaps it should be to Ang Lee’s follow up movie to ‘Brokeback Mountain’, ‘Lust, Caution’. Like in ‘Lust, Caution’, the sex scenes are essentially the equivalent of action scenes in an action movie, they’re there to serve as dramatic punctuation points in the narrative, and more importantly, to progress the narrative forward. To that end, just like in ‘Lust, Caution’, no matter how graphic or explicit things get, they never feel exploitative, with each one being both physically intense as well as emotionally. It slowly reveals the explosive power of lust to be as much a force of destruction as it can be one of passion.

If you haven’t seen the movie already, then it’s probably safe for you to deduct that most of the hype turned out to be just that. With the exception of a passionate kiss between Jin-mo & In-seong, much of the raunchiness belongs to scenes between In-seong & Ji-hyo, with everybody acting their roles exceptionally well. Directed by former poet Yoo Ha, who also directed In-seong before in ‘A Dirty Carnival / 비열한 거리’, & was responsible for Song Kang-ho’s recent mis-fire ‘Howling / 하울링’, the movie moves along at a good pace, cranking up the tension to almost unbearable levels in some scenes, as well as throwing in a smattering of wuxia influenced action to top it all off.

Underlying everything is the theme of what it means to be loved, and perhaps even more to be able to distinguish the often fine line between love and lust. By the time the credits role all three of the main characters are no longer the people they were at the beginning, dragged through jealousy, bitterness, rage, and regret, with no one coming out the winner. Perhaps more than any of the scenes of passion, it’s the reaction of In-seong to the final question the king asks as the movie comes to it’s close that will remain with people the most, as maybe the difference between love and lust is realized. ‘A Frozen Flower’ might be known more for its controversial scenes, but its powerful storyline should be the real selling point.

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