Seen in Jeonju

The Reluctant Prince (1963)

10th October 2009

reluctant princeOriginally posted October 20, 2007–Last night I sat down and watched yet another Shin Sang-ok film.  Unlike his other films that I have reviewed here, this one has a strong element of comedy involved–mostly in the form of sight gags.  I now know why Shin did not make many comedies…  The movie itself is not bad but the comic scenes are poorly timed and executed–though much of the fault may lie with the lead actor Shin Yeong-gyun who is also not know as being a comic actor. (The KMDB generously overlooks the fact that the film is at least in part a comedy and opts to list the movie as a historical melodrama).

It is the story of Byeong who, at the beginning of the film, we assume is a country bumpkin living in the mountains of Ganghwa Province.  From the term people use to address him, we know that he is from nobility, but there is clearly nothing left of the fortune his ancestors might have had as Byeong lives in a clay and straw hovel with barely enough to eat.  He gets by though with his knowledge of what plants and roots are edible in the hillsides where he gathers straw and assisted by a man he addresses as brother.

However, when the king of the nation falls ill, life changes dramatically for Byeong. It turns out that he is closely related to the ruling house and he is thought out by the Queen Mother to be groomed as the heir. For a man raised in the mountains where he could wander freely, living in the confines of the palace surrounded by servants and attendants is equal to living in prison. He is not used to the rich food, palace etiquette nor sitting still and he longs to run free. He also longs for his friend, Bok-nyeo, a girl that he grew up with and whom he had always treated as an equal.

He misses her so much that the Queen Mother agrees to fetch her and allow her to live at the palace as one of the attendants. Their happy reunion is short-lived however as not long afterwards, Byeong is married to a woman of royal blood.  On his wedding night, the new prince escapes from his bride and joins Bok-nyeo on a secret visit into town where they meet with Bok-nyeo’s mother who has opened a shop their selling food and drink. Enjoying the country-style food, the prince has soon forgotten all protocol and is litterally frolicking with people of all classes. 

But princes do not frolic. The Queen Mother soon discovers what is going on and puts an immediate stop to it.  And while Byeong is bemoaning his fate and the fact that he is not allowed to do anything fun, Bok-nyeo is taken before the Queen to face punishment for being a bad influence on the future monarch. 

The plot synopsis does sound like a melodrama the way I have described it, and it gets to be even moreso from the point after the Queen finishes with Bok-nyeo, but it is the comedy that stands out most clearly in my mind.  The first bit is handled very well. Byeong has fallen while in the mountains and his clothes are severly torn in the most unlikely way.  He goes to Bok-nyeo who sneaks away to sew it for him. She manages to mend his shirt easily without him having to take it off but she faces a problem with the pants because the right leg has torn all the way up to the crotch. The pair come up with a solution where Byeong can take off his pants behind a bush. Because Bok-nyeo is wearing pantaloons under her hanbok, she allows Byeong to wear her skirt so he will not be bare.  Of course, the pair is discovered and a comic chase with the two looking like they are in drag occurs.  What makes this scene work is not so much the situation, it is how the characters relate to each other.  It shows that they are very comfortable in their treatment of one another very much like equals or true friends.

Later comedy does not work quite so well. Some parts of the princes education like how to walk without letting the tassles on the crown swing are fine, but others like the diarrhea scene or the antics on the grass when first reunited with Bok-nyeo just go on forever.  A liberal use of scissors in the editing room was required.

Had Shin decided to cut out the comedy in the film, I would be more than happy to recommend it. The story and acting are good. But the poor execution of the comedy makes me reluctant to do so. There are much better examples of Shin’s work out there.

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