The dynasties within Korean history are captivating periods for epic, romantic storytelling. As well as the threat of war from without and the corruption seemingly endemic within, the beautiful clothing and rigid social hierarchy allow for wonderfully passionate tales of forbidden love and scandal, of desperate lovers defying duty for intense moments of lust.
A Frozen Flower, written and directed by Yoo Ha, fits such a mold perfectly. With issues ranging from coerced tributes to foreign lands to the lack of a royal heir, the drama attempts to provide a grand, sweeping story of love and intrigue during the Goryeo period. The inclusion of gay lovers – in the form of the King and his bodyguard – is somewhat of an extension of the themes present within the prior The King and the Clown, yet the relationship takes on new life due to the love triangle with the Queen and the explicit sexual scenes that occur. As such the film is wonderfully passionate tale of love and jealousy in old Korea, but one that ultimately feels like a high-budgeted TV drama.
At a young age, the King of Goryeo (Joo Jin-mo (주진모) initiated training for a select group of boys who would grow to become his elite bodyguards. Such soldiers are desperately required given the assassination attempts on his life by outsiders and corrupt officials. Yet in adulthood, the King has taken the chief of the elite force, Hong-rim (Jo In-Seong (조인성) as his lover. The relationship is something of an open secret within the court, which only serves to compound an important issue – the lack of an heir. Despite his marriage to a princess of neigbouring Yuan, the country threatens to remove the King’s power should an heir not be produced. Unable to bring himself to bed the Queen (Song Ji-hyo (송지효), the King orders Hong-rim to impregnate her on his behalf as he’s the only person that can be trusted. Yet in complying with the King’s demands, a chain of events begin to unfold that none could foresee.
A Frozen Flower ticks many of the boxes that make Korean period dramas so attractive and romantic. Director Yoo Ha captures the beauty of the era well as the actors gracefully go about their lives at court, whether through ornate ceremonies or simply resting at the palace and indulging in traditional Korean pastimes. The most prominent feature of the film are the relationships between the central protagonists, and the director wastes no time in establishing the connection that exists between the King and Hong-rim. The affection and love expressed is palpable, as Hong-rim’s concern over the King’s health is wonderfully conveyed through actions and mannerisms, while the King refuses to leave his lovers side even when faced with mortal danger. Director Yoo plays with the notion of gender incredibly well with all the cast but especially in regards to the King and Hong-rim, emphasizing their feminine attributes through colour, costume and particularly hair. The passionate sex scene between them is skillfully framed and conveys their gender as meaningless, as both men embody masculine and feminine qualities through their performance so that only their passion and devotion is of importance. Such androgyny is also ascribed to the Queen who is conveyed as the most stoic and ‘masculine’ of the three. In each case, the actors wonderfully express the fluid notion of gender and sexuality that they embody, making the concept of gender one of the more fascinating aspects of the film.
The sexual scenes between the Queen and Hong-rim are arguably the most renowned feature of A Frozen Flower, and director Yoo captures the raw passion of their physical encounters with effective close ups and vibrant red tones. Yet the repetition of such scenes are undoubtedly a rather cynical attempt to offset the gay context that exists within the narrative, whilst the male fantasy of justified sexual exploitation makes for rather uncomfortable viewing initially. Both Song Ji-hyo and Jo In-seong perform the sex scenes with incredible intensity and sincerity, although the idea that the couple could fall in love purely through sexual encounters is one of the weaker aspects of the story, especially when the cold stoicism of Song Ji-hyo’s performance suggests manipulation and desperation rather than love.
Due to the great focus on the evolving relationships between the central protagonists, the political sub-plot of corruption in the court is rather superfluous. The inclusion of such issues are generally an excuse to include action within the narrative, yet this in turn highlights the TV drama quality that perpetuates the film. The choreography is bland and uninspired, while surface wounds seem to cause instantaneous death to miscellaneous enemies that don’t really serve any purpose. Action is also director Yoo’s weakest area as he often steps back from the confrontations, and as such tension and danger don’t really build effectively. The camerawork throughout A Frozen Flower further contributes to the TV drama sensibilities as there is little flair on display that evokes the sweeping romantic epic that the film intends to be. Additionally the mise-en-scene, while featuring attractive decor and props, don’t contain the beauty and vibrancy that has come to be expected from such period dramas.
However despite such criticisms, A Frozen Flower is very much a film centered on the love and lust of the three central figures and in this regard is captivating and enthralling. The exploration of sexuality, gender, lust and love are executed wonderfully giving the film a potent emotional core, while the passion and vibrancy conveyed through the sexual scenes, particularly between the Queen and Hong-rim, are beautifully produced.
A Frozen Flower is a wonderfully sexy tale of love and lust during the Goryeo dynasty. Through skilled use of costume, colour and appearance, director Yoo Ha plays with the notion of gender while exploring the relationships between the King, Queen and Chief bodyguard which are central to the film, conveying palpable passion through confrontational and sexual scenes. Yet the limited scale of the directing, as well as the uninspired action and court scenes, exude a TV drama sensibility throughout the running time. Despite this, A Frozen Flower is a highly enjoyable and racy story of debauchery.