By Park Chung-a
The director of the mega-hit period piece "The King and the Clown
", said he hopes foreign audiences will be able to recognize the richness and originality of Korean traditional culture in the film.
"Korea's image abroad is stereotyped, mostly focused on the Korean War or on its extremely rapid economic growth. However, it has an incredibly rich culture from a history of thousands of years', Lee Joon-ik
told The Korea Times during a telephone interview on occasion of his film's new record. "The movie is based on a true story in early-1500s Korea. I hope this movie provides an opportunity for the world to see us as a culturally rich country, rather than just the world's best cell-phone maker".
Lee said that the movie provides a foreign audience a chance to learn about the structure of governance of the Korean royal kingdom, which has rarely been portrayed in movies.
In a new version of the movie aimed at international audiences, he said there will be a few additional scenes and lines providing background information on the Choson Kingdom (1392-1910). "There will be more details about a power struggle within the royal palace and why there was serious conflict between the King and his subjects", he said.
Work on English subtitles is also currently underway. Kim Yong-ok
, a renowned philosopher and professor at Sunchon University, who specializes in Confucianism, is in charge of the translation. Kim also translated "Chihwaseon"
, a film that South Korea's veteran director Im Kwon-taek
won the Best Director Award for at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival
"We are working very hard to make a translation that can convey subtle nuances of Korean customs and culture. It's very tough", he said. "We use ancient language used in Shakespeare's works as well as modern language".
Lee recommended viewers compare the context of the movie with Shakespeare's tragedies, and also find differences between clowns in Korea and those in the West.
"There are a lot of similarities between the plot of the movie and original forms of Shakespeare's tragedies such as `Hamlet' and `King Lear'. Conflicts within royal government during the Choson Kingdom are not so different from those of Europe in the Middle Ages", he said.
According to the director, clowns (jesters) in western tragedies speak out but rarely challenge reality. "They never play central roles, only minor roles as outsiders. However, in `The King and the Clown
', clowns play major roles by courageously pursuing their desires", he said. "It is important to recognize the pathos of Korean clowns. Clowns of the Choson Kingdom represent the soul of minority revolting against injustice".
He also said that it is interesting to see how the use of clowns' masks in Korea and in the West have different meanings. "In the West, they wear masks to hide their faces; Koreans wear masks to reveal their inner feelings", he said.
The director attributed the success of the film to growing potential of Korean movies as well as growing nationalism.
"The 21st century is a post-war period that has seen expansion of nationalism, hence strengthening people's attachment to their roots", Lee said. "However prevalent Western culture may be, you cannot deny your blood, your soul's root. I think the success of my movie, which is set in the Choson Kingdom, indicates people's increasing interest in Korean traditional customs and heralds an era of historical plays".
Lee also called for more appreciation of Korean traditional customs that have been ignored with the influx of foreign culture.
"It is such a pity that Korea's traditional culture has been under-appreciated and looked down upon due to the prevalent flunkeyism and worship of the powerful", said Lee.
He said that although the film has been at the center of attention by depicting gay romance, the ultimate theme of the movie is the pursuit of freedom. "Once a man is a member of a society, he cannot be free of the values that society beholds. Individuals' desires are hence oppressed", said Lee.
In the Choson Kingdom, revealing one's inner emotions and conflicts was considered shallow. "However, in the movie the clown Jang-saeng revolts against authority and the existing order. Even King Yonsan abandons hypocrisy as an authoritarian king, confiding in and finding peace in male court jester Kong-gil, who belongs to the lowest class of society. Hence he touches the spirit of freedom".
Although the three main characters seem to express their feelings freely, the director said that he intentionally avoided explicit sexual scenes among them to enhance the spiritual aspect of their relationship --except for just one surprise kiss from Yonsan to Kong-gil. "Keeping some distance from and being reserved in physical expression towards a loved one is an Asian value. Although they desire each other intensely, they are discreet in approaching their loved one. It is a unique Oriental value which I cherish and wanted to portray", he said.
Just as he has shed light on clowns in the movie, Lee's next movie "Radio Star"
will also be about lives of outsiders.
"I think the tragedy of capitalist society is that so many people endlessly struggle to become part of the mainstream. I want to keep showing that those outside the mainstream of society can also be happy", he said.