Title: The King and the Clown
Director: Lee Jun-Ik
Starring: Kam Woo-Seong, Lee Jun-Ki, Jeong Jin-Yeong, Kang Sung-Yeon
Distributers: Art Service
Country of Origin/Language: South Korea/Korean
Rating: Not rated – probably PG13
Length: 119 minutes
Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Summary: Powerful, heart-wrenching, beautifully shot, with great acting… one of South Korea’s most surprising hit films and a must-see for viewers who enjoy period dramas.
Two clowns living in the Chosun Dynasty get arrested for staging a play that satirizes the king. They are dragged to the palace and threatened with execution, but are given a chance to save their lives if they can make the king laugh.
Jang-Saeng (Kam Woo-Seong) and Gong-Gil (Lee Jun-Ki) are tightrope acrobats and clowns in a provincial troupe, performing for a local dignitary. The lord takes a fancy to the beautiful female-role actor Gong-Gil, who’s expected to prostitute himself so the rest of the troupe can eat. Jang-Saeng tries to prevent Gong-Gil from going to the lord and is beaten up by their master. Undeterred, Jang-Saeng breaks into the lord’s house and drags Gong-Gil away. The lord calls for guards, and in the chaos, Gong-Gil kills their master and the two men flee.
They seek their fortunes in Seoul and soon find another troupe to join. Jang-Saeng’s ready wit and quick-thinking elevate him to the position of leader of the motley group of clowns, and after listening to gossip about the tyrannical king, Yeonsan (Jeong Jin-Yeong) and his consort, the former whore Nok-Su (Kang Sung-Yeon), Jang-Saeng decides the troupe’s act should mock the King.
Their irreverent and raunchy performance attracts huge crowds and brings in plenty of money, but it also draws the attention of palace official Cheo-Seon. The troupe is arrested and flogged, but Jang-Saeng demands that they be given the chance to perform in front of the King. Cheo-Seon agrees—if they can make the King laugh, they’ll go free. If he doesn’t laugh, they’ll die.
The royal performance is almost a disaster, with the clowns terrified and sure that they’re about to be executed. Even Jang-Saeng’s audacious humour fails him. The situation is saved by Gong-Gil, cross-dressed as Nok-Su, who succeeds in making the King laugh. The King finds them so entertaining that he gives the troupe rooms at the palace and commands them to play for him again.
The ministers are uneasy about the clowns’ presence and beg the King to dismiss them. Sick of being treated like a wayward child by advisers who once served his father, to whom he is compared at every turn, the King insists on keeping the clowns. Their role becomes more politicised when Cheo-Seon sees an opportunity to manipulate the court through the mouthpiece of the clowns. He instructs Jang-Saeng to satirise the ministers, and the clowns perform their new piece showing the corruption of high officials.
The King loves the show, but several ministers are visibly uncomfortable. Things become awkward when the King bows to Jang-Saeng and Gong-Gil and offers them his crown. Jang-Saeng thinks quickly and averts a potential disaster, but the King then uses the skit as a way of attacking his greediest official—he orders the minister’s property to be seized and has his fingers cut off.
With the ministers in turmoil, the King orders Gong-Gil to be brought to him. Jang-Saeng is horrified at the thought of
Gong-Gil once again being taken as a rich man’s plaything, but the night he spends with the King seems innocent enough—Gong-Gil amuses the King with a puppet show.
The ministers again demand the removal of the clowns, but the more they insist upon it, the more the King keeps the troupe close. One evening he performs a shadow play for Gong-Gil telling the story of his mother’s forced suicide, an act that very much damaged the King and is the cause of his outbursts of cruelty and madness.
Cheo-Seon orders the clowns to perform a Beijing Opera-type play about the death of the King’s mother. Jang-Saeng is uneasy and wants to leave. Gong-Gil, who feels sorry for the King, agrees on the condition that they perform the play before they go. The performance takes place in front of the King’s grandmother and the former king’s concubines, all of whom were implicated in the forced suicide of the King’s mother. The King is so distraught by the play that he goes mad with grief and takes his revenge, murdering the concubines and causing the death of his own grandmother.
Jang-Saeng has had enough of being manipulated, and even Cheo-Seon is appalled by what’s happening. But the King has developed an obsession with Gong-Gil and refuses to let him leave the palace. Nok-Su realises she has a serious rival in Gong-Gil and tries to humiliate him, but the King throws her out and elevates Gong-Gil to ministerial rank. During a mock hunt to celebrate Gong-Gil’s rise in status, some of the ministers attempt to assassinate him, but he’s saved by Jang-Saeng. Furious at the rebellion, the King kills the ministers. Revelling in his power, he finally takes an exhausted and terrified Gong-Gil as his lover.
Nok-Su refuses to be cast aside and arranges for posters to be put up all over the city, the writing copied from Gong-Gil’s hand, mocking the King for his depravities. Sensing trouble, the troupe begins to leave the palace, but a distraught Gong-Gil begs Jang-Saeng to stay. Nok-Su and the King test Gong-Gil and find that the slanderous posters match his handwriting. Jang-Saeng, who learned how to write by copying Gong-Gil, takes the blame instead and is condemned to death.
Cheo-Seon tells the King he brought the clowns into the palace to expose the corruption of the ministers, but now,
because of the King’s lust for Gong-Gil, things are out of control. The situation has become so bad that the ministers are planning to dethrone the tyrannical king.
Based on the real-life events of the early 16th century rule of King Yeonsan (he really did slaughter his grandmother and his father’s concubines because of his mother’s forced suicide), this period drama dealing with traditional arts, with strong gay themes and without a big-name cast was probably the most unlikely box-office smash ever to come out of South Korea. It made an instant and massive star out of Lee Jun-Ki and brought about the rise of the ‘pretty boy’ aesthetic in the cultural mainstream. It’s also a very moving and accessible film that’s an absolute visual feast.
This little skit is pretty much the underlying theme of the whole film, and the clowns return to the same piece at the very end after their lives have been turned upside-down by their inadvertent involvement in palace politics. A common whore becomes the King’s consort, a common clown becomes the King’s minister and lover, while nobles and royal women are slaughtered as the King, who rules with the mandate of Heaven, gradually goes insane. Who is the biggest fool—Jang-Saeng, Gong-Gil, the King? Or is it Cheo-Seon, who attempts to manipulate the situation at court only to end up causing a catastrophe?
Kam Woo-Seong gives a magisterial performance as the prickly and audacious Jang-Saeng, whose smart mouth and honesty (as befits a true clown) gets him into trouble. The perfect foil to this rough and ready masculine man is Lee Jun-Ki’s shy, feminine, and rather naive Gong-Gil, who finds courage at unexpected moments and feels far too much, taking on the burden of suffering of both the King and Jang-Saeng.
But it’s Jeong Jin-Yeong’s portrayal of the King that really makes this film shine for me. The King’s descent into madness,
unleashed first by the well-meaning Cheo-Seon and then by his desire for Gong-Gil, is almost painful to watch, particularly when the hapless Gong-Gil is drawn in, first as a pitying spectator and then as a reluctant lover. Some of the best scenes in the film are between these two as Gong-Gil struggles to understand what it is the King wants from him.
Although he’s given himself to men before, Gong-Gil knows that the King is emotionally complex, and their first nights together are innocent, filled with childish play rather than sexual games. We see that Nok-Su’s rise to power and control over the King was partly achieved through her ability to role-play and assume masks to hide her true feelings. But Gong-Gil only wears masks during a performance (masks and puppets are another big theme, visually and metaphorically, throughout the film), and although his honesty is part of his attraction for the jaded King, such openness and truth of emotion can be dangerous for everyone involved.
The big question of the film is – are they or aren’t they? When The King and the Clown (titled The King’s Man in Korean, with all the implications that carries) was released, critics couldn’t decide whether Jang-Saeng and Gong-Gil were lovers or just very good friends. Part of the film’s emotional resonance would perhaps have been lost if their relationship was made clear, but for what it’s worth there’s no doubt in my mind that they’re in love, even if it’s not physically expressed (we do see them sleeping side by side but nothing more than that). The things they do for one another, the anguish and jealousy they suffer—these are two men very much in love even if they don’t say it, and their silence on the matter makes this film so very powerful.
And seriously, if you can watch the heart-wrenching and very oblique declaration of love between Jang-Saeng and Gong-Gil at the end of the film without sniffling and tearing up, then you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.
Very much recommended.
(with English subtitles)