You've got to at least give writer-director Yoo Ha credit that A Frozen Flower is a rather unconventional movie: a lush period epic whose drama springs from homosexuality and a most bizarre kind of adultery isn't necessarily the kind of thing you expect to see around every corner; although it is a South Korean film, and despite some definite conservatism on LGBT issues, South Korea boasts one of the more sexually kinked national cinemas in the world today. Maybe this is part of what makes A Frozen Flower seem as bland as it does: it's almost as if Yoo was obliged to add in some spice of sexual exoticism, but it's not nearly interesting enough to keep a film that dearly needed about 30 minutes snipped out from gently crashing under its own weight.

Here is the main thrust of the movie: at the end of the Goryeo Dynasty in Korea (that sets it around 1392, if this Westerner is to trust Wikipedia), the king of that country (Ju Jin-Mo) is in love with Hong-Lim (Jo In-Sung), the head of his private guards, the Kunryongwe. These feelings stem from the moment that Hong-Lim entered training as a mere boy to serve and protect his liege, and it would appear that he reciprocates the king's feelings; certainly, the two men spend every night together, and it would appear to be an open secret in the court. Ah, but politics do not stop for love, and the king is forced to marry the daughter (Song Ji-Hyo) of the Yuan emperor of China. This alliance is a double-edged sword: it is a stop-gap measure to keep Korea free - for now - from Chinese military conquest, but at the same time it gives the emperor a reasonably free hand to muck about with the Korean government as he sees fit. The latest crisis, when the film really starts to rev up its plot, is that without an heir, the Goryeo throne will be taken over by the Yuan rulers upon the current king's death. This is intolerable to the Koreans, but the king just can't bring himself to even think of having sex with his wife, and so he asks Hong-Lim, the only man in the kingdom he knows he can trust absolutely, to do the deed for him. Neither the queen nor the guard is terribly keen on this idea, but hey, what can you do when the king puts out an order like that? After a few tries, they find that they're falling in love a little bit, and the king feels doubly betrayed: first, because his loyal subject is so eager to fool around with his queen, and second - and more importantly - because he only now finds that Hong-Lim apparently does not share his love, at least not with anything like the same passion.

If the essential details of that plot appeals to you - gay king forces his lover to fuck the queen, then gets jealous - you might just about be able to make it all the way through A Frozen Flower without checking your watch, but be forewarned: that fairly straightforward plot spools out over 133 minutes. That's a whole lot of time for not much drama, and it doesn't help that after the one-hour mark, or thereabouts, we get the same two or three scenes repeated over and over again. I am of course sympathetic to the fact that a Korean movie about queer issues is by its very nature making a fairly brave stand, but there's political activism and there's good storytelling, and A Frozen Flower only succeeds at one of them.

Of course, mere repetition would be no particular sin if only the film made up for it with the kind of heaving emotionality that you'd expect from a melodramatic scenario like this, and that's not really the case either. Only Ju Jin-Mo gives any kind of truly inspired performance as the tortured, lustful king; Jo In-Sung is a bit of a wet fish most of the time (it's a bit hard to see why the king bothers, really), and Song Ji-Hyo flounders about with the trio's least-developed role - though even as far as it's written, it ought to inspire more passion than Song displays. It is perhaps not the case that any of this would be improved if the film were shorter; but these observations really only grew out of my boredom with the narrative, and if it buzzed along a bit more, maybe I wouldn't have minded so much.

The film has this much at least going for it: it's gorgeous to look at. The costumes and sets are beautifully designed (by whom, I cannot say; this nicety was not subtitled), and beyond that, the use of color in the film's design is nothing less than brilliant. Like a simpler version of Ran, the conflict is coded by who is wearing what at any given moment, and the steady gold and brown backgrounds of the palace walls provide a nice stage for the reds and blues, purples and greens to pop out and make themselves felt. I know nothing of Yoo's work, but if he has this kind of eye for color and composition, I feel like it might be worth seeking some of those other films out. Certainly, moving the action out of the mists of history and into the present day could only help his cause; if A Frozen Flower wasn't so taken up with the proper rhythms of courtly drama, it might have worked as a melodramatic epic. Instead, it just sits there: exuding nothing and taking its damn sweet time about it.