A Frozen Flower: Movie recap and review
Just a word of warning – the movie does deal with adult content, so I would like to respectfully ask people to stay away if they cannot be mature about the discussion. Thank you!
SONG OF THE DAY
Rufus Wainwright – “Hallelujah” [ Download ]
Frozen Flower, a Review
In which Joo Jin-mo plays the king, Jo In-sung plays his loyal guard Hong Lim, and Song Ji-hyo plays the queen.
In short, the story takes place during the Goryeo dynasty, and the king portrayed in the movie formed his own group of elite bodyguards called the Kunryongwe. Hong Lim is the captain of these guards. The queen is a princess of Mongolian Yuan, and the movie revolves around the love triangle that forms around the three of them.
From the time of his introduction as a little boy in training to become one of the Kunryongwe, Hong Lim is shown as loyal and dedicated to a fault. He may not be the best swordsman, but he would always be the one to practice the longest. His devotion soon caught the notice of the king, who cherished him as a close companion.
Of course, this companionship comes with a price, and the first foreshadowing hints of trouble to come when the princess of Yuan arrives and is summarily ignored by the king. Hong Lim seems vaguely disturbed at this, but his king doesn’t care at all.
Fast-forward 10 years, to the present, when a group of the Kunryongwe is in hot pursuit of a runaway member. Han-baek, a junior guard, has decided to elope with a palace maid, which is obviously against the rules.
This carries a death sentence for both the maid and the guard, but Hong Lim is close enough to the king to be able to persuade him otherwise. The king treats Hong Lim with an abundance of affection and allows him the sort of freedom rarely given to even the queen.
Of course this incites jealousy from multiple quarters, one of them being that of the vice-captain. He taunts Hong Lim with using pillow-talk to distract the king from vital affairs, though Hong Lim’s skill with a sword usually puts an end to all the idle talk. He certainly isn’t ostracized and even seems beloved and well-respected by the other guards.
Anyway, the king and the captain of his guard are close. I think we get that by now, but just in case anyone has lingering doubts, there you go.
The queen comes to visit the king occasionally, but he just doesn’t give her the same kind of attention he does for Hong Lim, and everyone knows this as sort of an open secret in the palace. Unfortunately, her relatives are also coming to visit, and the continual lack of a royal heir is bound to come up as an issue. The problem isn’t the queen – the king has an abundance of concubines – it’s just that he’s gay.
However, the lack of an heir leaves the king open to deposition from the Yuan dynasty and treachery from his own nobles. The queen understands this, and in a secluded corner of the royal gardens, frigidly thanks Hong Lim for ‘taking care of something I should have done’. It’s a double-edged dagger kind of remark, because she’s referring to both his rescue of the palace maiden and (presumably) his place in the king’s bed every night. However, the queen reminds Hong Lim that in light of the royal heir problem, his devotion to the king may not be tolerated for much longer. Oh, the resentment, you can cut cubes of it and make stew.
On a rare outing from the palace, the king and queen relax and do their version of ‘kicking back’, but then assassins attack.
The Kunryongwe have been well-trained, and fight back relatively well. It’s just that the king, in defiance of all common-sense and self-preservation, refuses to leave with the queen. He wants to stay and make sure Hong Lim is alright. (Geez.)
Surprisingly, the king is much better at swordsmanship than any of his guards, which means he ends up rescuing Hong Lim a couple of times. As the fighting goes on, though, the two are outnumbered in the pavilion. Of course, narrative demands that the king gets hurt in trying to save Hong Lim. (Seriously, in this aspect he’s really the worst kind of ruler possible – doesn’t do anything to further the line and breaks all the rules for one person.)
The king survives being stabbed in the chest, and the first thing he does after waking up is to ask for Hong Lim and see if he‘s okay. If anyone needs me, I’ll be in my corner, facepalming.
The investigation into the assassination points the finger at Lord Cho, who’s influential enough that even the Kunryongwe don’t dare to accuse without more proof. So for the moment the bodyguard are going with the ‘random Japanese pirates’ story, though Hong Lim commands further undercover investigating.
Meanwhile, back at court the Yuan ambassador is welcomed with open arms if not exactly smiles. In the absence of a royal heir, the Yuan emperor has decided to enthrone a distant cousin, the lord Kyungwon, as crown prince, thereby robbing the king of autonomy in his own country. (It’s all a little too ‘big brother is watching you’ for me.)
In addition, the Yuan dynasty also demands that Goryeo send soldiers and maidens to help in the fight against insurgents ‘enemies of the empire’. (If it’s fighting, what the hell do they need maidens for?) The attitude of the emissary, while not calculated to be humiliating, views the king as just another pawn of the Yuan empire. And to add injury to insult Lord Cho and presumably the new heir is fully prepared to agree with all the demands.
The queen is really angry at this, however, and rather unrealistically lashes out at the assembled lords for their lack of loyalty towards the rightful king. It’s nice that she’s willing to take the blame for not having an heir, and even defending the man who pretty much treats her as just another part of his kingship.
Later at night, the king urges her to go home before he becomes only a puppet king controlled by the Yuan. However, the queen has firmly settled her loyalty on her husband, and refuses to go. (Either she has feelings for him at this point, or I’m blind.)
Then the king mentions ‘another option’.
Fertility rituals and preparations begin, as the king and queen formally set aside a night to try for the heir. Hong Lim is somewhat dismayed at the king’s request while the queen is just plain unhappy at literally being used as a brood mare.
The first attempt between Hong Lim and the queen don’t, ah, yield fruit, but that just means he has to try again. Hong Lim somewhat confusedly asks the king why he even considers doing something like this, and the king only answers that his heir must be a fair child, like Hong Lim.
The second and third nights are more successful, but all parties involved experience mixed feelings about the event. Hong Lim enjoys himself, the queen slightly less so, and the king is jealous of his lover and his wife spending nights together. The fractures in each relationship begin to show and Hong Lim gets totally confused about his attachment to the king. He uses the ongoing investigation as an excuse and runs away.
The king rushes out of the palace in plainclothes to greet Hong Lim’s return, but the latter had just returned from visiting the queen. (That’s terminally silly, but then I don’t write scripts and cautious people make bad stories.)
Meeting the king and being reminded of how loved he is brings out all the guilt again, because why miss a chance to angst?
Hong Lim continually oversteps his bounds by paying too much attention to the queen. By now they are both fatally attracted to each other and have trouble staying away for long periods of time. Hong Lim’s frequent absences and wandering mind irritate the king, who suspects the truth but is willing to believe in Hong Lim’s (weak) denials.
The Kunryongwe uncover that a merchant named Ma Young-il was recently killed after smuggling lots of Japanese weaponry. Being able to trace him back to Cho provides the king with proof to pursue and execute those who are disloyal. One of the co-conspirators include the queen’s older brother, the visiting emissary from Yuan. His special status means that he doesn’t get killed at the same time the treasonous nobles – but he can’t escape death.
Hong Lim is ordered to kill him, but a subordinate later reveals to the king that he was let go for the sake of the queen. (He’s still dead by someone else’s hand, though, as the head in the box attests.)
Things go rapidly downhill from there, as the queen attempts suicide after hearing the news. The king loses faith in Hong Lim while the latter is full of self-doubt at his own betrayal. He does promise the king that he was acting out of mistaken lust. (Yeah, you wish.)
They all try to return to life as it was, but it only makes things worse. The shape of the inevitable is obvious, and the tension is only waiting for the next disaster to break.
The king decides to send Hong Lim away to the border to clear his mind. However, the queen sends for Hong Lim, with the news that she is pregnant. They meet in their usual place, the library, and are caught in the act by the king and a retinue of servants and guards.
Incensed, the king orders that Hong Lim be castrated and imprisons him. He manages an escape, with the help of his friends remaining in the guard. The five of them seek refuge at an old temple.
However, the king has a bargaining chip in the queen, who is now alone to protect both herself and her child.
Naturally, when Hong Lim realizes this, he abandons his friends to ride off to the queen’s rescue. Halfway, he realizes the futility of actually going against the king. Unfortunately for Hong Lim’s former subordinates, when he returns, the king has already caught up with them. They are brutally tortured for news of Hong Lim’s whereabouts.
I think we all agree that the king has stepped off the deep end by now, and kudos to Joo Jin-mo for doing such a good job. He’s so desperate to have Hong Lim back that he won’t hesitate to commit more atrocities.
Defeated and alone, Hong Lim returns to the capital in time to see the heads of four men staked on the wall – he recognizes them, and also the pendant of the queen hanging from the fifth head.
Now solely aiming for revenge, Hong Lim disguises himself as a returning soldier and enters the palace during the celebratory feast. The king leaves while the celebration is still going on, and we find out two things: the queen (as expected) is still alive, and Hong Lim still retains his title as captain.
The king has killed everyone involved in the adultery case, with the exception of the vice captain. Now he tells everyone in the guard of what has happened, as a safeguard for his own life and the future of the Kunryongwe guards.
While the discussion is going on, Hong Lim has entered the king’s chambers and forced a fight. He intends to kill the king, though the latter is mostly yielding to him. The prolonged fight destroys most of the king’s furniture and suite. When Hong Lim cuts through a treasured painting of the two of them hunting, the duel becomes serious.
Multitudes of guards arrive, but are kept back by both the king’s command and the vice captain’s restraining hand.
As always, the king is the better swordsman, and when Hong Lim asks for death, the king stabs him through the shoulder, pinning him to a pillar. The king asks if Hong Lim had ever loved him, and he denies it. Then he walks forward, impaling himself further and stabbing the king in the stomach.
The king dies pretty quickly, but Hong Lim’s shoulder wound isn’t immediately fatal, so it’s up to Seung-ki, the vice captain, to kill him as an assassin. (It’s almost a matter of personal revenge, as Seung-ki seems to have been in love with the king this whole time.) The queen finally pushes her way past the guards in time to see Hong Lim in his death throes on the floor.
He hears her voice, and with the (er, hopefully) last effort of a dying man, lifts himself up so that he dies looking at the body of the king.
The bustle of dealing with the bodies fades into a flashback from happier times, when the two had just met:
Hong Lim: Wow! Everything looks really great from up here.
King: My home is right there.
Hong Lim: It’s beautiful. I’d love to live there.
King: Then how about spending our entire lives there?
Hong Lim: Yes, of course!
And the movie ends on the dream sequence of the two of them hunting in the Northern Plains, exactly as the destroyed painting depicted.
– Okay, first of all, I have to say, outstanding job on the scenery and choreography. Gorgeous doesn’t begin to cover it. I also really like the music used here – it doesn’t drown out the story, and the music follows the movie, not the other way around.
– Joo Jin-mo did a great job portraying all the turmoil and angst inherent in a role like his. His character felt so real, in fact, that I was totally on his side during the entire movie – even when he went crazy and killed so many people. I had expected it of Joo Jin-mo, as he’s a charismatic veteran actor with lots of films under his belt, but I had also hoped Jo In-sung would move past just being a pretty face. Oh well, he has plenty of time to develop when he comes back from military service. As for Song Ji-hyo, her performance here is a step up from what she did in Goong – understated, but she gets the message across. In terms of chemistry, however, it’s all on Joo Jin-mo.
– The actor for young Hong Lim deserves a special mention, I think, not just for his creditable performance here but in other dramas as well. For his age, Yeo Jin-goo shows pretty good depth and manages to retain the childlike vitality that underscores Hong Lim’s earlier relationship with the king.
– The costumes are a little too gaudy, but then historical movies always contain an element for dress-up. What I really didn’t like was the fact that the movie felt bloated with prettiness. More editing and tightening would have prevented fatigue during the second half – flashy is nice, but not at the expense of the plot. At the end, I just wanted all of them to die.
– Despite the presence of the queen and all the declarations of love running around, this movie is still very much about Hong Lim and his king. Their tragedy lies in the fact that they both feel too much (as opposed to feeling too little). Their emotions run to extremes all the time: they love too hard, they hate too hard, and they tied themselves together far too tightly for the break up to end well.
– There’s a tired joke I always trot out with friends unfamiliar with epic wuxia movies – namely, that the couple trying to find love against all odds will die (well, everyone dies, but their deaths have that special 30 minute prismacolour surround-sound touch). And while Frozen Flower doesn’t have much in common with the average wuxia movie (except teh sageuk pretteh, I suppose), I think it’s significant that the king and Hong Lim are the ones to die together.
– What’s your take?