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[HanCinema's Hall of Fame Review] "The King and the Clown"

2013/09/14 | Permalink

In the Spotlight this Week: "The King and the Clown" (2005) by Lee Joon-ik

Before Bong Joon-ho's "The Host" in 2006, "The King and the Clown" was Korea's highest grossing film and was the country's official submission for the 2006 Academy Awards. Lee's feature was showered with the support of 12.3 million local viewers back in 2005, and remains Lee Joon-ik's most successful film to date. Set during South Korea's rich and fascinating Joseon dynasty, "The King and the Clown" is a classic period yarn that challenges contemporary issues such as homosexuality, personal freedom, and one's socio-economic status; themes that can be tracked in subsequent historical features such as Yoo Ha's controversial "A Frozen Flower" (2008) and Choo Chang-min's blockbuster "Masquerade" (2012). Gorgeously presented and swimming in symbols and performance motifs, Lee Joon-ik "The King and the Clown" is nostalgic spectacle the successfully bridges the divide between the constrictions of days past and a romantic hope for those still to come.

Jang-seung (Kam Woo-sung) and Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi) are a duo of performing fools forced to head to the country's capital to avoid persecution. Talented and inseparable, the pair takes no time at all in attracting hungry crowds with their acrobatic talents and daredevil comedy. Jang-seung and Gong-gil's performances are romantic and sexual in nature, questionable content that ultimately caused them to flee from their small town in the first place. After hearing rumours about the tyrannical king's (Jung Jin-young) bedroom escapades and fancies, the pair team up with three other local performers to entertain the peasants with their comic interpretation of him and his wanting consort. Their shows are an instant hit, but their light-hearted antics soon catch the unwanted attention of the city's officials who are less assumed by their disrespectful take on the king's love life. The group manages to convince officials that the king would actually appreciate their efforts and, after successfully amusing his highness, they all get invited to stay at the palace as his official entertainment. With their bellies full and coffers comforted, these fools seem to have made it for themselves, however the neurotic and cruel king's behaviour becomes a cause for concern, and things soon get too much for Jang-seung as his love for Gong-gil is royally threatened.

The film contains some gorgeous costumes and a number of stunning set pieces as Lee paints a captivating spectacle that is both rich and vibrant. From the shabby peasants in the city's hub to king's own glorious dragon-themed attire, the film beautifully captures the texture and fashion of the time with a crisp contemporary veneer that modern audiences can appreciate and admire. Social ascension and homosexuality are the predominant themes found within the film, underscoring the narrative's progression as these poor fools and the disturbed king collide. The issue of homosexuality in Korean cultural is a particularly contested area, and its inclusion here is somewhat muted but by no means subtle. Jang-seung and the extremely effeminate Gong-gil never engage each other directly, but their close relationship and mutual love for one another is undeniable. The neurotic king's increasing fancy for Gong-gil is handled in much the same manner. As the impulsive king continues to seek Gong-gil's company, Jang-seung's finds himself unable to subdue his own feelings and love for him – an inconsolable jealousy that bubbles to a defying boil as the film's climax draws nearer.

The film is bookmarked with the fools' staple act of lovers flirting on and around a tightrope. It is a compelling and telling metaphor that is carried throughout the film as the pair continuously find themselves in precariously situations with the lusting king. Here Lee subtly represents their relationship as a consequential balancing act, one that has the potential to claim both of them at any moment. As Jang-seung and Gong-gil rise above their previously disadvantaged circumstances, their ability to keep from falling becomes threatened. In the film's final moments the mad king's wild pursuit of pleasure eventually has them performing their staple act once again. However this time what is at stake are not laughs, food to fill their stomachs, or even their own livelihood, but something much greater and worth defying whatever power his highness assumes to hold over the lovers' heads.

- C.J. Wheeler (chriscjw@gmail.com; @KoreaOnTheCouch)

 

Available on DVD from YESASIA and Amazon

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