The last we saw of King Sejong, he had completed a map of the stars with the help of former slave Jang Yeong-sil. Given that King Sejong is one of the most commonly portrayed historical figures in Korean cinema, I wonder if there is anything left of his illustrious life that hasn’t been interrogated, but, as the title indicates, The King’s Letters caps his career with perhaps his greatest accomplishment, which was helping create the unique script called Hunminjungeum, now better known to the outside world as Hangul, thus giving the hoi polloi a tool to communicate and participate more readily in society.
Sejong this time is played by Song Kang-ho, whose inherent gruff style highlights the king’s less-than-regal background and points to his identifying with the people rather than the court, who are in thrall to China and thus can read and write Chinese characters, which they intend to keep to themselves. This fealty also results in the outlawing of Buddhism in favor of Confucianism, and when Sejong goes to a local Buddhist monk, Shinmi (Park Hae-il), to help him with devising an alphabet, the court is enraged to the edge of insurrection. At first, Shinmi, who is unusually proud for a Buddhist, seems unimpressed with the king’s request, but eventually sees the task as a means of helping to bring Buddhism back into some kind of favor. (It helps that the queen is a closet Buddhist.) He and his assistants, aided by the king’s two sons, work in secrecy, basing their research and development on Sanskrit, which uses phonetic characters rather than ideographs.
Though Jo Chul-hyun’s direction lacks tension and dramatic momentum, he makes the scenes where the writing system emerges compelling. He does this by directly conveying the idea of a world where there is no writing system based on phonemes, and then working from there through a series of small but potent Eureka moments that bring home just how phenomenal the process was. Obviously, much of the humor and pathos attendant to such a process is lost on someone who isn’t Korean, but the ingenuity of the writing system itself is ably extrapolated.
I have no idea if the movie is historically accurate, and the final scenes feel as if Jo is trying to make up for lost emotional traction with something a bit too sentimental, but, then, I’m not a Buddhist, so maybe it means something profound to viewers of a certain sensibility.
In Korean, Japanese and Sanskrit. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).
The King’s Letters home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2019 Megabox Joong Ang PLUS M. Doodong Pictures