By Chris Horn
There’s no question that Korean period films have continued to increase in popularity in recent years as three of the top ten grossing Korean films by ticket admissions are set during the Joseon dynasty. As Korean studios allocate increasing resources to the next big period films they would do well to study Lee Joon-ik’s masterful The King and the Clown. Not only does Lee capture a thematically interesting story rounded out by compelling performances, but The King and the Clown is brilliant in its sympathetic look at all levels of Joseon society.
Kam Woo-sung stars as the charismatic, playful Jangsaeng, a street clown and accomplished tightrope walker. He’s joined by his younger, effeminate partner Gong-gil (played by a then unknown Lee Joon-gi). After Jangsaeng raises a firestorm of protest against their manager’s pimping of Gong-gil to rich noblemen, the pair flee to Seoul and quickly form a troupe with another trio of clowns. After remarking that the King’s bed, in reference to his infamous concubine Noksu (Kang Seong-yeon), is where the big money is, the group puts on a bawdy show mocking King Yeonsan.
When the King’s ministers discover the show, they immediately place the band of clowns under arrest and threaten them with flogging. Jangsaeng manages to convince his captors to let him perform the show for the King himself: if the King likes their performance they should be freed, if not he can kill them himself. Surprising the ministers, Noksu and the clowns themselves, the gambit works. King Yeonsan is enthralled with the performance and even brings them into his court as official court clowns. However, as the King takes an increasing interest in Gong-gil and mentally unravels, Jangsaeng and his friends fear their blessing may have actually been a curse.
Adapted from Kim Tae-woong’s stage play Yi, Lee and writer Choi Seok-hwan show superb judgment in limiting the scope of the narrative. Although this is a period drama, it never feels needlessly epic and the constrained story provides more focus on the actual characters and their complex relationships. Lee Joon-gi and Kam Woo-sung exhibit rare chemistry and we truly come to care about the two harlequins. Jangsaeng’s almost fatherly relationship with Gong-gil is clearly filling some empty void, and Lee makes careful note to establish the basis for their companionship as the film concludes.
But if there is a true star to The King and the Clown, it would have to be Jung Jin-young as King Yeonsan. With a character noted as being the most tyrannical of all the Joseon kings, one would be forgiven for expecting a caricature of evil, but instead Jung provides a nuanced performance as a young man who never had a chance. A king who can never escape comparisons to his well-respected father, he also witnessed his own mother’s forced suicide as she was betrayed by jealous concubines. His fixation on Gong-gil appears innocent at first, but by the time Gong-gil realizes he's in too deep it is too late. As King Yeonsan unwinds it becomes clear that he is a broken shell of a man bubbling over with emotional torment.
This is the brilliance of The King and the Clown: its insistence on shining a light on each member of society. We gain a relatively balanced look at different groups of Joseon society, from the tortured yet obviously privileged King to the lowly clowns who remember their peers cannot read as they go to recruit more members. Each character is distinctly human and flawed, even Jangsaeng who is initially motivated by the prospect of earning more money. While the film may shine a less sympathetic light on the court ministers, they too mount an understandable resistance to the unstable king whom they feel is desecrating the royal position and unfit to pragmatically rule the land.
Moreso than most of his peers, Lee does a masterful job balancing tone throughout The King and the Clown. The opening credits themselves set an initially serious tone as traditional instruments play over contemporary pieces of art along with ominous descriptions of King Yeonsan. Lee then parlays this into the raucous ribaldry of Jangsaeng and Gong-gil’s tightrope routine. This is a beat Lee continuously hits as the pair become established performers in the King’s court, but the lightheartedness gradually distorts into uneasiness as King Yeonsan becomes increasingly unhinged. Miraculous approval of their show turns awkward as the king himself partakes in the show and bows to Jangsaeng, raising questions as to who is really the king and who is the clown.
As more and more directors hope to break into the top grossing Korean films with their own period vehicles, they would do well to study the elements that made The King and the Clown such a strong film. A story that foregoes gimmicky cinematography and cookie-cutter characters has already paved the way for like-minded films to follow a decade later.
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This review also appeared on TheCineholic.com