By Kim Ki-tae
When "The King and the Clown" was released last December, few expected it would be a big hit. Its production cost, around 4.4 billion won ($4.4 million), was around one third of the Korean film "Blue Swallow" and around one fiftieth of "The Chronicles of Narnia", both opening the same day.
Far from being a blockbuster, "The King and the Clown" did not feature any top stars. The film also belongs to the period piece genre, traditionally unpopular among young audiences, and touches on the sensitive issue of homosexuality. Unlike other record-breaking hit films including "Silmido" or "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War", it does not address the issues of division on the peninsula, either. Considering all these handicaps, its filmmakers hoped it could bring in 3 million if they were "lucky".
The new record of the period piece is viewed as having demolished most of the entertainment industry formulas. With no big star, no big budget, no big promotion, no action scenes, no romance, with a seemingly boring traditional background and with homosexuality, it has rewritten the history of Korea's film industry.
What made one in four Koreans see the film? Here is a rough analysis of the 10 reasons behind its unexpected success.
Comeback of the Middle-aged
In 2004, two Korean films "Silmido" and "TaeGukGi" succeeded in capturing middle-aged audiences, a group not traditionally accustomed to theatergoing. These mega hits are regarded as having created the new culture. However, few Korean films have attracted significantly large audiences since then.
According to Jeong Jin-wan
, head of Eagle Pictures, "The King and the Clown" successfully meets the new demand and has drawn older audiences back to theaters. "Here came finally a film they find worth seeing", he said. Film promoters say 18 percent of the audience is over 40.
Right: Fans of the film voluntarily copy the images of their favorite characters in the film and spread them online. The images made by Internet users are posted on the film's official fan site (cafe.daum.net/kingsman).
President Roh Moo-hyun made a rare theater visit to see the film on Jan. 21, and politicians love to refer to the period piece in their public comments. The opposition party compared Roh with the dethroned tyrant King Yonsan, the film's main character, while the governing party commented that the public seemed to associate the monarch with Korea's past authoritarian leaders, hinting at Park Chung-hee, the late father of Park Geun-hye, leader of the opposition Grand National Party. After seeing the film President Roh reportedly commented it was "imaginative". Political implications aside, the fuss ultimately promoted the film.
"The King and the Clown" saw fans coming back for repeated viewings. A group of fans call themselves "pyein", a Korean word roughly meaning "the addicted", proudly say they have seen it a double-digit number of times. On the film's official fan page (cafe.daum.net/kingsman), there are numerous messages posted by people saying they have seen the film more than 10 times. According to Youngfine, the film's promoter, female jobseeker Kim Pan-ya saw the film 45 times. "There is always a group of fervent fans, but this film has an exceptionally large fan base who saw it multiple times", Park Ji-hye, an official of Creative Film Promotion Agency stated. "They say whenever they see the film, they see it from a different character's perspective".
As is well known, the film is an adaptation of a play named "Yi". The play, which won wide public and critical acclaim after its release in 2000, was staged again last December, about three weeks before the film's opening. Fans of the well-made play raised expectations about the new film and, in turn, the explosive popularity of the film channeled its fans to the play. The synergetic effect also contributes to fattening the fan base for the two. The performance of traditional "clowns" called "namsadangpae" also drew larger audiences thanks to the film's popularity.
New Tolerance for Homosexuality
Open to various interpretations, the hit movie could be branded a homosexual movie, as it shows two love triangles surrounding the monarch, his concubine and two male clowns. Actually, the movie's Korean title can be translated into "King's Man", which could have homosexual implications.
If the attractive story had flopped, it could have been because of the homosexual scenes, albeit mostly implied, in this still highly Confucian society. However, society _ seemingly more open to minority groups_ showed little aversion to the narrative.
Associated Press recently reported that the Korean society showed "a sign of new tolerance" to the minority culture. Korea's gay men's group "Chingusai", during its conference last week suggested the film contributes to the enhancement of human rights,
Some believe the film has been lucky as there have been few rival films since it opened. However, a glance at the list of competitors would tell otherwise. In fact, "The King and the Clown" could have been dwarfed by big-budget competitors including "King Kong", "Narnia", "The Polar Express", "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Munich", from the U.S., as well as other Korean and Chinese movies. It is fair to say that the Goliaths were unlucky in competing with David, rather than to say the period piece was lucky. However, it is true that the film has had a relatively free run since February, a traditionally slack season for the entertainment industry, with few blockbusters released.
With production costs around 2.3 billion won ($2.3 million), "The King and the Clown" is not a low-budget film considering Korea's film market size. However, what triggered the film's unexpected popularity is not the filmmakers' promotion but rather personal promotions among moviegoers. Most of all, having the world's highest Internet penetration rate helped the film's reputation spread like wildfire. After its release, Internet users posted over 20,000 comments on the film on a portal Naver ( Open the link
), breaking the previous record of some 8,000 comments on last year's hit film "Welcome to Dongmakgol". Increasingly fast circulation of information on films is considered a main factor in "The King and the Clown's" success over other blockbuster films. In this respect, it could be seen as a victory of word-of-mouth communication (in a highly wired society) over top-down promotion.
Entertainment industry insiders say a film needs a star to become a hit or vise versa. "The King and the Clown" is the latter case with no top stars featured, instead, it debuts Lee Joon-gi
. Lee plays the effeminate male clown '`Kong-gil", who became a phenomenon among teenagers and people in their 20s, boosting the film's box office sales. He received favorable reviews for his acting skills and a critic praised the film weekly "Cine21" for finding this talented new face.
Despite its limited budget, the film received acclamation for its eye-pleasing visual effects. The film shows a colorful mix of traditional attire and property.
Last But Not the Least: An Attractive Storyline
Fans of "The King and the Clown" love the multifaceted narrative. Youngfine, the film's promoter says teenagers and 20-somethings were attracted to the close ties between the two clowns, Kong-gil and Jang-saeng, portrayed through a plot centered around the love triangle between the clowns and the monarch. People in their 30s identified with the lonesome character of the monarch, King Yonsan, who longs for his mother who was killed in the whirl of court politics. Meanwhile, the over 40s age group understand the plot as a power struggle within the palace. "Each viewer saw the film from his own perspective and sympathizes with different characters", said director Lee Joon-ik
Fans of the film voluntarily copy the images of their favorite characters in the film and spread them online. The images made by Internet users are posted on the film's official fan site ( Open the link