“The King and The Clown” is the 10th highest grossing domestic film in South Korea and upon release it was the highest grossing film in its history until “The Host” came along a few months later. This is most impressive for a film that was made on a pretty low-budget, did not feature A-List stars and tackled a controversial subject. So what exactly is it that made “The King and The Clown” (or “The King’s Man”, its original Korean title) tick with the masses?
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Jang-saeng and the effeminate Gong-gil are members of a street performers crew in 15th-century Joseon, who love to do lewd skits and acrobatic acts which were very popular among the common public at the time, with Jang-saeng playing the male in the story and Gong-gil playing his female counterpart. Gong-gil is often pimped out by the crew’s leader, a fact which doesn’t sit well with Jang-saeng. An incident forces them to run away from their troupe and they decide to go to the Capital.
Once there, they meet up with another group of street performers and together they decide to do skits that mock the King and the lifestyle inside the Royal Palace. The news reaches cruel King Yeonsan’s ears who has the crew summoned to the Palace to perform for him, after which he takes a shine to the graceful Gong-gil.
Director Lee Joon-ik has made a career out of fantastic period dramas. A majority of the films in his filmography are of the genre and although “The King and The Clown” was only his sophomore effort, it remains his crowning glory. He successfully manages to create a world of beauty, colour and affection, driven forward by the equally beautiful, colourful and affectionate people that inhabit it. While homosexuality is a theme that runs through the film, it never explicitly states if Jang-saeng loves Gong-gil in that way, and the only intimate contact between the King and Gong-gil happens when the King kisses a passed-out Gong-gil. Therein lies the film’s true strength. It truly carries the emotional core of the characters’ feelings. This film was released just a year after homosexuality was removed as a “socially unacceptable” behaviour by the Government and the delicacy with which it handles the relationships between the three leads worked massively in its favour.
A street performance in the beginning of the film has Gong-gil declare, “Here comes a fool rash and proud. I never knew a fool who knows his place.” One is reminded of this at various junctions in the story as the events play out. An unhinged King sits on the Throne, street performers who have no place in the Palace are allowed to live there, the Clown pretends to be the King for his performances while the actual King often joins in and bows down to the Clown, a woman who used to be a whore now sits beside the King as his consort and a Clown, who knows nothing about royalty or politics, is made a Minister to the King. By the time it dawns to all of these fools that they may not be in their place, it is too late for them.
The script relies heavily on the chemistry between the three leads. It was a very bold move to cast three actors who didn’t have a whole body of work before this, but it totally payed out! Kam Woo-sung is excellent as the ambitious, masculine Jang-saeng who just wants to be out there performing with the one he cares for the most. Gong-gil is a character that not many actors would have wanted to touch, but full credits to Lee Joon-gi for breathing life into him! His Gong-gil is very graceful, polite, naïve and yes, very beautiful too. He has indeed made the character his own and it would be difficult to imagine any other actor in the role. But it is Jung Jin-young who absolutely steals the show as the tyrannical King Yeonsan. The swings that he takes from the fun-loving young King to an affectionate, loving man to a tyrannical ruler who knows no mercy are phenomenal. He is mesmerising to watch and leaves the viewer feeling almost sorry for a King who is known throughout history as one of the worst, most violent Kings of the Joseon dynasty.
The cinematography, set designs and costume design demand special mention, as does the score of the film. While the grand sets and colourful costumes are beautifully captured by cinematographer Ji Kil-woong, composer Lee Byung-woo’s background score really elevates the scenes to new heights. This is most noticeable in the scenes of the performances by the troupes, both on the streets and within the Palace walls. Although this has been adapted from the stage play “Yi”, the film looks and feels very cinematic in its scope and execution. It maintains a steady pace throughout with no scenes feeling out of place or unnecessary.
Films dealing with homosexuality in South Korea are quite rare. “The King and The Clown” remains one of the finest, most subtle efforts to handle the subject. It is not merely a love story. It holds an emotional core that does not need words or actions sometimes. It just needs to be felt.