Eclectic director Yu Ha’s fifth feature explores yet a new generic territory. After drama in Marriage Is a Crazy Thing (2002), high school angst in Once Upon a Time in High School (2004), and the gangster saga of A Dirty Carnival (2006), A Frozen Flower is period gay romantic thriller, set during the Koryo dynasty. Only a Korean film could embody all of these elements and still be called a success, which A Frozen Flower is, but it does create a narrative which can be difficult to know what to make of. Yu Ha was initially reluctant to embrace the period genre, which he felt uncomfortable with, but he decided to embrace it as he sought a change from his previous work. Given how versatile he has been, this comes as no surprise, but I hardly would have thought he felt he was doing the same thing with his previous films, which are each very different works. Yu strikes me as a potential modern Korean equivalent of Howard Hawks as he deftly navigates his way through multiple genres. Like Hawks, he leaves his own mark, but his films do not feature a uniform style or mise-en-scene, a feature commonly associated with auteurs which Hawks was and Yu is fast becoming.
Hong Lim (Jo In-seong) is the head of a troop of 40 strapping well-trained bodyguards to the king (Ju Jin-mo) who loves him. They have an ongoing relationship that is not particularly well hidden from the other members of the king’s court, including the queen (Song Jie-hyo). Due to pressure from the Yuan kingdom and the possibility of being forced out of his throne because he has no heir, the king hatches a plane, which is to have Hong Lim impregnate his wife as he can’t do it himself. Naturally the queen and Hong fall in love and the king finds out, bringing tensions to a head in the court.
A Frozen Flower has an engaging story filled with taboos and erotica supported by a big budget ($10 million) and high-quality production values, although Darcy Paquet of koreanfilm.org in his review notes that local audiences felt some of the production design seemed a little cheap and I would tend to agree. It isn’t the first period Korean film with overt homosexual themes, that would be the wildly successful The King and the Clown (2005), but it is the first one to be so explicit about it. Nudity has not featured prominently in Korean cinema, save for a few short scenes from more risqué directors such Park Chan-wook, but this seems to be changing as sex scenes are now more frequent and far more explicit than they were even five years ago. Most films still refrain from explicit eroticism and for the moment this phenomenon seems nearly confined to period films, like A Frozen Flower and The Servant (2010), a twist on the famed pansori tale Chunhyang, then there’s Natalie (2010), supposedly the world’s first 3D porn film, which tanked at the box office.
The film suffers sometimes because of its uneven tone, its self-seriousness can often come off as amusing which undermines the passion of the intimate scenes between the protagonists in the love triangle. The swordplay scenes are very effective, although the numerous fights between Hong Lim and the king are again a little difficult to take seriously as they parade around with massive swords. These phallic symbols bring a new meaning to the term “crossing swords.” The climactic battle, which features dynamic sound effects and props and walls being sliced and smashed, is wonderful, but it’s just too bad the end seems so silly. All in all, an intriguing story with lots of momentum will pull you in and despite a few missteps, this is one journey worth taking.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.