Last year in December, the South Korean film industry was taken by storm by the relatively low-budget period drama King and the Clown, which lacked major stars and had a strong gay subtext, both normally big no-nos for any potential blockbuster. But despite breaking the rules, King and the Clown has become the most popular film ever made in South Korea, and has been seen by more than 12 million people, or one in four of the nation's residents. It is seen by many as South Korea's Brokeback Mountain, to which the film has been loosely compared, and has turned into a cultural phenomenon that fuelled heated discussions on how a homophobic society like South Korea can embrace a film centering on a gay love triangle among two male clowns and an amorous king.
Based on the historical figure King Yon-san, notorious for his ruthlessness, the film is set in the Chosun Dynasty of the 16th century, and evolves around a pair of itinerant clowns who perform comic plays and acrobatic tricks. Masculine and free-spirited, Jang-seng (Karm Woo-sung) takes the beautiful, feminine-looking Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi) under his wing. Together the two arrive in the capital Seoul and enjoy a meteoric rise to fame performing a skit that satirizes King Yon-san and his concubine Nok-soo.
However, the itinerant clowns quickly find themselves in fetters in front of the king, who is amused by their lewd parody and makes them court jesters. Their satirical plays about corruption among courtiers and related to the conspiracy leading to the death of the king's mother, prompts the monarch to act against those responsible.
Nok-soo, on the other hand, is filled with jealousy as the king becomes enamored with Gong-gil and plots a scheme of her own. In the climax, Jang-seng sacrifices himself for love and shows to the court how the lowest of the low possess a freedom and liberty that aristocrats can never attain.
King and the Clown
Directed by: Lee Jun-ik
Starring: Karm Woo-sung (Jang-seng), Jung Jin-young (King Yon-san), Kang Sung-yeon (Nok-soo), Lee Joon-gi (Gong-gil)
Running time: 120 minutes
Taiwan Release: today
Language: Korean with Chinese subtitles
The film is visually plain and lacks cinematic sophistication. Its strength lies in the good casting and solid script that offers an engaging take on a subject matter that is rarely addressed in South Korea.
The discourse on homosexuality in the film is somewhat confused, and even the director has been unwilling to categorize the film as gay-oriented. Lee's approach to physical displays of affection is tame, and the romantic or physical aspect of the relationships are never explicitly revealed.
Moreover, as the love triangle is centered on the feminine male clown who can readily pass as a woman, it has been suggested that the relationship is not gay at all.
Lee Joon-gi, the androgynous young star who has become an instant sensation, especially among teenage girls, is skillfully portrayed as an incarnation of feminine beauty, and this has eased the film's breakthrough into the mainstream.