THE KING AND THE CLOWN (2005)
Smattered with physical comedy, emotional drama and visual aplomb, a Joseon dynasty king allows a court clown and his troupe to openly mock him
Adapted from the Korean stage play Yi, a brief passage from the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty which fleetingly names the king’s favourite clown was the spark of inspiration here. Director Lee Joon-ik manages to pick-up this spur and produce something multifaceted in its mood and themes.
Enhanced by committed lead performances and engaging camera craft, The King and the Clown has propelled itself into box office success and Oscar entry by demonstrating a measure of sympathy towards those of all classes – the king who was never free to have fun and the street entertainers trying to dodge destitution.
Set during the reign of King Yeonsan (Jung Jin-young – Guns & Talks, Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield) in the 15th century, we first meet two street entertainers and tightrope walkers – Jangsaeng (Kam Woo-sung – R-Point, Spider Forest) and Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi – Flying Boys) – who are part of an entertainment group. While Jangsaeng assumes the role of chief clown, the striking Gong-gil plays female roles, resulting in him being prostituted to rich customers by their manager.
Angry at Gong-gil’s treatment, Jangsaeng kills their manager and the pair flee to Seoul where they form a new team of street entertainers. After creating a skit where the group mocks the king and his concubine Jang Nok-su (Kang Sung-yeon) they are eventually arrested for treason. Facing death, Jangsaeng strikes a deal with one of the king’s consultants to either to make the king laugh with their act or be executed.
During their act they manage to make the king laugh with one final last ditch joke and the group is made part of the court’s entertainment, but when their risqué act evolves and takes a poke at the wider establishment of the court’s council, they make themselves targets.
The King and the Clown possesses the confidence to take physical comedy and nestle it within a film with so much tragedy and heartache. These ebbs and flows are disorientating, but all the better for it. There are also themes around the difficulties of same-sex love at the time – a less visited theme in period dramas – where the bond between Jangsaeng and Gong-gil is portrayed as something well beyond friendship.
This is also an ode to a life in entertainment. Jangsaeng, in particular, sees no other existence. He was born a clown, a street entertainer, and would be one in any context. The freedom of artistic expression – taken for granted in many countries and eras – is displayed as vitally important and perhaps even worth dying for here.
Following on from his more obviously comedic Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield (2003), Director Lee, alongside cinematographer Ji Kil-woong, have crafted a mature and fulfilling outing in The King and the Clown, one where shot selection is genuinely meaningful. This is especially the case in several overhead shots as the clowns navigate the tightrope – a clear but powerful analogy for the fine line they trod to survive each day.