The King’s Letters

The Koreans? They don’t appreciate what they got, frankly. The Boy (and His Girl) and I had carted The Flower down to the OC for a day-long artistic boot camp, and we trundled over to the Orange County version of Koreatown (which I guess is, uh, Buena Park?) to see this historical drama—and a wildly entertaining action film, Exit, that trounced this one at the box office. We saw this one first because we figured Exit would be more light and fun (it was) but I came out of this thinking: Why can’t we get movies like this in America?

It's a mystery!
15th Century Korean King Sejong tries to figure out why modern American movies suck.

This is a historical drama based on a theory of how Korea got its alphabet. The premise is that Korea is under China’s thumb. The Confucian ministers are speaking Chinese in court (until the King corrects them) and presenting documents in Chinese. But the King, who is the literate type, is frustrated because the books he has written—writing books is a kingly thing in Korea if the movies are to be believed—are in Chinese and (therefore) impossible for his own people to read.

He wants to create a Korean alphabet but he’s stymied because all he has to go on are Chinese phonetics. While he’s fretting over this, a Japanese contingent comes and says, “Hey, give us your tripitaka.” The tripitaka is the Buddhist scriptures, carved in wooden blocks, and the King is astounded. “You want our national treasure?” he asks disbelievingly. They say, “Yeah, you guys are Confucians anyway, so either hand ’em over or just kill us ’cause we can’t go back without them.”

The king demurs to do either and is told by one of his counselors that the only one who can help him solve is alphabet problem is a pig-headed Buddhist monk named Shinmi.

Speaking as a smart jerk.
He’s smart. He’s a jerk. Smart jerks are the worst.

The backstory appears to be that the country had had a caste of Buddhist clerics who ran everything and became rich and powerful and neglectful of their duty. Some bloody fights and accusations of (and convictions for) treason later, the Buddhists have all been replaced by Confucian monks—who have become rich and powerful and neglectful of their duty. (All Korean historical dramas—and, actually, most Korean movies we see—are essentially about The Swamp.) Anyway, the Confucians are seriously no help because: a) they’re colluding with the Chinese; b) as long as reading and writing is hard, they can maintain their power.

So, the King meets with Shinmi, who is pissed off—his father was killed as a traitor—but sees in the opportunity a way to restore Buddhism to the country. And so he helps the process by informing the King that the answer to his troubles is in the tripitaka—written in Sanskrit, a phonetic language.

What proceeds from there is essentially an ensemble movie, where each member of the team—the monks, the king, the queen, the courtiers, and the ladies—all work together to create an elegant alphabet while undergoing the various dramas of their lives. One of the monks is a young man, for example, and one of the ladies of the court is quite taken with him, and the two end up exchanging notes drawn into the courtyard dirt (in the new Korean alphabet). One of the monks has a vow of silence, which makes the fact that he has considerable insight into things the others are missing very frustrating for him. The Queen, a Buddhist whose father was killed by the King’s father, is challenged by Shinmi who seems to completely miss the fact that the King and Queen, for all their families’ political struggles, are genuinely in love. Which doesn’t mean that their son doesn’t have to act as an intermediary between them during the occasional quarrel.

Sad.
The late Jeon-Mi Soon plays The Queen.

The King is a rich character himself. Suffering from diabetes and going blind (and dying) during the process, he is determined to have a Korea where every peasant can read and write, so the damned clergy can’t take advantage of them any more. Humiliated on the one hand by having to kowtow to China, and exasperated on the other because he’d rather be a scholar than a king, he has to navigate the moods of his Confucian monks—who apparently can impeach him!

Everyone contributes to the process, with egos and pride and political intrigue working against them the whole time. And the message is constant throughout: Korea is its people. The mistake of all the ruling class is forgetting that. And the thing is, this is more or less a fantasy. I don’t mean it’s not well-researched. But it’s legendary, mythical and nationalistic. No “other side” is presented here: We don’t get the Japanese POV or the Chinese POV. It’s Joeson or Joehome. (Heh. Korean pun. Joeson = longest running Korean dynasty.)

Not to sound like a broken record but America needs stories like that and we used to have them. Walt Disney used to trade in this sort of American legendry with Things like Johnny Tremain and “Elfego Baca: Attorney At Law”. Hollywood did generally, too: Young Mr. Lincoln, Plymouth Rock, and even things like Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation. Wait, strike that last one.

But then again, maybe don’t: Maybe the case against these kinds of movies is that they can whitewash (no pun or social relevance intended) history. This excuse is uncompelling to me. The fact that something can be done poorly, naively or maliciously should not dissuade us from doing those things. It just means we should be competent, canny and approach the task with a good heart. The only real argument for eliminating patriotism is the belief that a country shouldn’t exist. Which, I’m afraid, is where we stand after decades of internalized anti-American propaganda.

Slickly produced, and perfectly acted (even if the characters are somewhat stock), including the final performance by Jeon Mi-Sun (as the Queen), the movie is controversial in Korea because it was accused of plagiarism and almost prevented from release. But also—more interestingly—because some people feel that the movie downplays the King’s actual contributions in favor of the fictitious Buddhist monk. I don’t have a horse in this race, obviously, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were fighting in America over whether or not a recent movie on (say) the making of the Constitution downplayed Madison in favor of Jefferson?

And it barely cracked the top 10 in Korea behind #1 (EXIT) and #2 (The Divine Fury, which also looks great). Also behind, #6 Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs, which is a story about a girl whose magic shoes make her slender, and therefore beautiful, the trailer for which is making heads explode here in the U.S. Tell me Korea doesn’t have a far more interesting movie machine than ours.

"Ey" not "ayyyeee"!
I’m just trying to imagine this scene in “My Fair Lady”.

 

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