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Although perhaps not as widely recognised as his contemporaries, former poet Yoo Ha is unquestionably one of the most talented directors working in Korea today. Known for never taking the easy or genre approved route, he has yet to make a bad film, and his track record speaks for itself, including the likes of “Once Upon a Time in High School”, “Marriage is a Crazy Thing” and “Dirty Carnival”. His latest work, the historical drama “Frozen Flower” was highly controversial on its release thanks to its graphic sex scenes and for tackling the taboo subject of homosexuality in an even more frank manner than “The King and The Clown”. This did not prevent it for setting a box office record for adult rated films, or Ju Jin Mo from winning Best Actor at the 45th Baeksang Arts Awards for his powerful performance.
The film is set during the last days of the Goryeo Dynasty, with the king (Ju Jin Mo, also in “200 Pounds Beauty”) under pressure to produce an heir. This seems unlikely, since he is in love with his chief bodyguard Hong Lim (Jo In Sung, in his last role before going for military service), leaving the queen (Song Ji Hyo, recently in “Sex is Zero 2”) untouched and frustrated. The king comes up with a solution, telling Hong to sleep with the queen in order to produce a son. However, the two fall for each other, setting up a dangerous triangle of love and lust that threatens to consume them all.
“Frozen Flower” is a masterful piece of storytelling, with Yoo sowing the seeds of betrayal gradually and allowing them to grow subtly into jealousy, obsession and rage. The three lead characters are fascinating, all struggling with identity, sexuality and duty, and although a villain of sorts does emerge, the film is deeply humanistic and sympathetic. Yoo balances emotional intrigue with court machinations, working in plenty of conspiracies and plotting involving enemies both inside and outside the palace, and the narrative is rewardingly complex. Although there is a certain inevitability as to the conclusion, the film is tense and gripping throughout, with a number of twists along the way. As a result film works on many levels, and since the viewer actually cares for the characters it has a genuine sense of danger, not least since Yoo makes it clear early on that he intends to pull no punches. Indeed, things get very grim during the final act, and the film is all the more moving for its harshness.
As publicised, the film features a number of graphic sex scenes, both heterosexual and homosexual, and a great deal of nudity. As such it is a very adult film in every sense of the word, and is really only for open minded viewers, though these scenes are never gratuitous, playing a vital role in the story. Yoo uses the act of physical love as a means for the characters to connect with each other, and to an extent as a battleground, exploring themes of love as ownership and how affection can be twisted. The sex scenes are beautifully shot and artistic, with the three leads all giving committed and brave performances, especially Jo In Sung, who is excellent as the increasingly tormented Hong in a very difficult role.
Yoo’s direction is elegant throughout, and he shows a keen eye for period detail. The production values are excellent, and the film is gorgeously ornate, with sumptuous sets and costumes. He works in a lot of music, song and dance, which lends the proceedings an almost lyrical feel. Although the film is long, coming in at nearly two and a half hours, it is well paced and could easily have been longer. The film is also a bloody, visceral affair, with scenes of battles, violent swordplay and shocking torture, which further adds to the tension and helps to keep things entertaining.
However, it is the characters and their emotional journeys that really drive the film and make “Frozen Flower” so memorable. Deserving to be known for more than just its sexual content, it sees Yoo Ha continuing his impeccable run of form and delivering one the most challenging and engaging films of recent years.
Yoo Ha (director) / Yoo Ha (screenplay)
CAST: Jo In-Seong, Song Ji-hyo, Shim Ji-ho, Im Joo-hwan, Yeo Wook-hwan, Song Joong-ki, Kim Choon-gi, Lee Jong-goo