The King and the Clown (2005) - Lee Jun-ik (Korean with subs)


Plot - Set in 15th century Korea, currently being ruled by a harsh and maniacal King Yonsan, who appears to be under the spell of one of his courtesans. Jang-sang and his friend Gong-gil are two performers in a travelling troupe that puts on shows for the general public. After a disagreement and fight with the troupe leader regarding Gong-gil being pimped to certain lords due to his feminine looks, they both decide to leave the troupe and head to the capital Seoul to seek their fortune by putting on their own shows. Jang-Sang has the idea to put on a show mocking the king and his consort which while proving a hit with the general public soon provokes the interest of the King and his advisors. They are captured and escorted to the palace where they are to be flogged. Jang-Sang pleads to perform the show in front of the King so that if the king likes the show they are spared. However if the King is not amused it means certain death...

Thoughts - An interesting and surprisingly funny and touching film that proved to be a commercial success in Korea despite being a relatively low budget affair based on a 2001 play, no 'name' stars and containing issues pertaining to homosexuality as well a more traditional comedy art-form in the Jester/clown sections. Despite not being a particular fan of the slapstick bawdy humour I really enjoyed these scenes and found them quite funny. It's helped by a really good performance from Kam Woo-seong as Jang-Sang combining an acerbic aloofness with some great comic timing and overt performances 'in costume' - the straight sections where they perform to the public are really quite amusing and when they perform in front of the king there's a tension mixed in with the slapstick that provokes a really interesting mix between nervous laughter and the fact that some of these routines are pretty funny, as one of the performers mournfully remarks, 'every time we do a performance people get killed'. We get in essence a performance with a performance and sometimes another performance in that. It's very interesting how the 'real' life drama blends into the 'performed' drama and the director weaves it all together skilfully.

Partnered Jang-Sang with the more serene Lee Jun-gi as Gong Li there's a sweet central relationship between the two. At times bearing in mind Gong Li's sexuality it's difficult to pin down exactly what their relationship is since it seems to fluctuate from brotherly to fatherly to jealousy but ultimately it is a love story and rather sweet one at that. Aided by a three-stooges-like comedy troupe (again I was surprised at how funny I found them) under his command there is a quality to the film that immerses you in that time period. The performance of Jin-yeong Jeong as the King nicely straddles the two natures he needs to display as the king, so he doesn't, as he could have so easily, appear simply a crazed and bloodthirsty despot. It's quite Shakespearean at times in terms of the story and even the dialogue (the translation feels like one of the better ones, translating meaning), also bringing to mind Sheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, as the Jesters perform to save their lives.

Filmed in Korea it certainly takes advantage of the landscape and period setting with some lovely looking locales and bright period costumes. The set design and choreography is very well done and is a very beautiful film to look at. Lee Jun-ik has crafted a well woven and ultimately touching story about the love between two people, set in an interesting background of court intrigue. If at times some of the motivations don't entirely convince when he tries to add layers to the king's character (a childhood back-story is slightly too overt) and if the pacing sometimes feels slightly off, it's negated by how much he does get absolutely right. A well crafted film by a director that has really captured the essence of the story that is well worth a watch.