King and the Clown, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/27/07 15:45:39

"Mesmerizing, taboo-breaking triangle."
5 stars (Awesome)

I've seen "King and the Clown" referred to as Shakespearean a number of times, which is a pretty easy leap just from the title: Many of the Bard's most memorable scenes feature jesters and actors, and if certain sequences in this film don't remind you that "The Play's the Thing / Wherein I'll Catch the Conscience of a King", it's time to brush up your "Hamlet". Shakespeare never did what these filmmakers do, though, placing his clowns front and center.

Those clowns are Jang-sang (Kam Woo-seong), a brash and gifted acrobat, and Gong-gil (Lee Jun-gi), whose smooth skin and lean frame make him ideal for playing the female parts in their street performances. After Jang-sang takes violent exception to their troupe's leader pimping Gong-gil out, they head to Souel, where they hook up with three other performers and make good money mocking the King (Jeong Jin-yeong) and his consort Nok-su (Kang Seong-yeon). They're thrown into irons when a minister sees this, although Jang-sang talks him into sparing their lives if they can make the King laugh. This succeeds, and gets them lodgings within the palace, but exposes them to greater dangers: One of the King's advisors opts to use them as Hamlet did, to smoke out traitors in the court; meanwhile, the dangerously unstable King becomes extremely taken with minstrelry in general and Gong-gil in particular.

It's not difficult to see why the King and others are drawn to Gong-gil. I haven't seen Lee Jun-gi in anything else, but he looks disconcertingly feminine; if not for an early shot revealing a flat chest, I'd strongly suspect it was a woman in the role. Lee doesn't go out of his way to mince or act girly, but in a way that only makes him more convincing - a girl who opted to be a street performer wouldn't be a delicate flower. It makes for an intriguingly ambiguous relationship with Jang-sang, one that could easily be a close friendship and which could just as easily be romantic, but Lee doesn't play Gong-gil as coquettish, but almost trapped by his appearance.

The other men in his life are just as fascinating to watch. Kam Woo-seong is self-assured righteousness as Jang-sang: He winks at danger but never seems completely reckless; the scar on his face suggests that he knows actions have consequences. There is never any doubt in the audience's mind that Jang-sang loves Gong-gil, probably more than anything else in the world, but it's clearly not simple lust; the affection of siblings is there too. There's perfect torment on his face toward the end of the film, when it's clear that he may have rescued Gong-gil from one form of prostitution just to see him forced into another, with an even more powerful master - and that Gong-gil might be okay with that.

There's less charm and nuance to Jeong Jin-yeong's King Yeon-san: The man's nuts, but he's a captivating monster. What's amazing is that despite the lengthy preamble that the film starts with (at least, for this festival audience; the subtitles didn't seem to be translating anything on screen), he initially comes across as sympathetic. He's young, good-looking, and his ministers are complaining about what seem like trivial matters of propriety and protocol. He bursts out laughing when the clowns perform their routine. His bloodthirsty and unforgiving nature surfaces when they start mocking the minstrels, though, and he becomes thoroughly unpredictable after that, whether by jumping into the show or ordering executions. Jeong makes the King a child, one it's almost tempting to think can be salvaged. But it's all too clear that his whims have potentially deadly consequences, and that he doesn't really care what happens to people as a result.

Smaller characters are fine, too: Jang Hang-seon lends dignity as Cheo-seon, the senior adviser who sees the merit in sparing the minstrels. Kang Seong-yeon runs perfectly hot and cold as Nok-su, who climbed out of the gutter herself to be by the King's side and certainly doesn't appreciate the idea of losing that position to some boy. Yu Hae-hin, Jeong Seok-yong, and Lee Seung-hun are amusing as the ragtag group of minstrels Jang-sang and Gong-gil take up with, providing comic relief and a glimpse at what common minstrels were generally like so that we can more clearly see the leads as special.

They can give these performances because they're given a pretty great script to work with. Choi Seok-hwan adapts from Kim Tae-woong's play Yi, and it deftly balances bawdy gags with sexual ambiguity that never gives the impression of being impressed with its coyness. The screenplay doesn't waste time - things introduced in what seem like throwaway scenes are referenced later, but director Lee Jun-ik doesn't harp on how important some piece of information is on either end. The film is beautiful to look at, too, showing no hint of the story ever having been stage-bound and contrasting the opulence of the palace with the rather less pleasant world occupied by the penniless without either looking exaggerated or fake.

It's tempting to try to read some meaning into the story beyond a tale well-told, but I can't claim to know Korean culture well enough to do that. Is this interpretation of Yeon-san inspired by Kim Jong-il, for instance? Both are harsh dictators overwhelmed by reminders of their fathers and unhealthy fascinations with entertainers. I also have a difficult time thinking of any other time I've seen homosexuality portrayed in Korean film, so I'm somewhat intrigued by how this one adroitly sidesteps the idea of a sexual relationship between Jang-sang and Gong-gil, even though their love for each other is the core of the film.

Whatever the intent is, it works. "King and the Clown" was a gigantic hit at the Korean box office - the all-time champ before "The Host" was released the next summer - as well as the country's official submission for the Academy Awards. If you're lucky enough to get a chance to see it, it's not to be missed.

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