Sunday, September 11, 2016

King and the Clown -2005

Yeonsan Gun (1476-1506) was the 10th King of Joseon Dynasty from 1494 to 1506.  He was said to be one of the most cruel kings ever.  He killed people without any compunction.  His mother was ordered to drink poison and commit suicide for the crime of killing other concubines out of jealousy.

Jang Sa Eng
During the rule of Yeonsan, there was a troupe of minstrels who put up acrobatic shows, tight rope walking along with ribald skits. The older one was Jang Saeng (Kam Woo Sung) and the other minstrel was Gong-gil (Lee Joon-Ki).  Gong gil has pretty looks and is able to portray a girl quite effortlessly.

Gong Gil

The headman of the village likes young boys and asks for Gong-gil to be sent to him.  The leader of the troupe agrees to that. Jang Saeng does not like it, we learn that this has been going on for a long time.  The leader often pimps Gong-gil for extra rations or money.  Gong-gil is used to it, but Jang Saeng fights for him.

In the ensuing fracas, the leader is killed and Gong-gil and Jang Saeng run off to Hanyang (present day Seoul).  There they meet up with another small troupe and start performing risque plays involving the King and his Concubine which are met with wholehearted audience approval.

The ribald Play

The King's Clerk Cheo Sin (Jang Hang-Seon) is not amused when he sees the play while passing by.  He gets the troupe arrested and flogged.  Captain - Jang Saeng - dares him to show their skit to the King.  If he laughs, they live, if he does not, they die.

Colorful dance

The King (Jung Jin-Young) is used to pretty cultural shows like this, not a nasty ribald comedy.  

The King and His Concubine

But despite the nervous performance by Captain's troupe, he laughs.  He is not just amused, he wants the troupe to stay and be the Royal Minstrels.  What the Captain's troupe don't know is that the King is unhinged and is quite likely to become violent.  Also, to Jang Saeng's consternation, he appears to like Gong Gil a bit too much.  The King's clerk seems to have an agenda as well.  He seems to want them to perform plays on controversial topics.

A Play about the poisoning of the Queen

The movie is about very strong bonds of friendship (perhaps even intimacy) between Jang-Saeng and Gong-gil.  The King - Yeonsan- is attracted to Gong-gil too.  Gong Gil likes being with the King because he gets to see the King's vulnerable side.  The three leads, Kam Woo Sung, Jung Jin Young and Lee Jun Ki put in stupendous performances.  They are required to love and hate each other at times and they do it wonderfully.

But it is the director Lee Jun ik who is the ultimate winner for putting together this wonderful tale.  Each scene is tight and well directed.  The script and dialogues (alas, I had to depend on the subtitles) are flawless.

The director chooses the audience to use their own imagination to make out what is going on.  There are never any 'leading' dialogues to make the audience think anything.  Only in one instance in the beginning - where Jang Saeng speaks about Gong-gil being regularly pimped (which was integral to the story, if you think of it) - is the audience directly 'told' something.

You, as a viewer, can choose to believe that Jang Saeng was intimate with Gong Gil, or not.  You can choose to believe that the King slept with Gong Gil, or not.  Even the last scene is very open ended and you may, if you wish, believe what you will.

This is what I loved best about the movie.  This is what makes it stand out so much from the usual fare that is dished out.

The cinematography is very good.  As it is a historical film, there are a lot of costumes and montages of flag waving and grandeur. Even the countryside is pretty and virgin (as it must have been in those times).

A special word about the background score. Fabulous. We are given silences, traditional pipes and drums and a beautiful tune to accompany the opening credits.  It is soothing and apt for a great movie like this one.


  1. Excellent review, Ava. Yes, I liked this one too, though I found it eventually heartbreaking. Lee Joong Ki is very good in this, and his effeminate features fit the role to a T. It's in dramas like Iljimae or My Girl that I found his looks getting in the way of my enjoying the series.

  2. Yes. It was heartbreaking. I will watch some more of Lee Jun Ki. My Girl was NOT his best outing. Curiously, I thought Lee Min Ho was effeminate when I first watched Faith. He He. We are certainly not used to smooth skinned actors in Hindi or even English cinema. It takes some getting used to.

    Now I can live with Lee Jun Ki's beautiful features also, I feel.

  3. I was lucky in that my first Lee Min Ho outing was Boys Over Flowers, where the actor who played his friend and somewhat-rival for the heroine's affections far outdid him in the 'feminine looks' department. ;-) So even though I hated Lee Min Ho's hair style in that drama, I liked his looks, otherwise.

    P.S. Talking about men who don't look feminine, you should check out Cha Seung Won. I've just finished watching a very good series starring him (The City Hall) and he's gorgeous, in a very male way.

  4. Ha Ha! Yes that long haired violin player was really chikna. Anyhow, I am used to such looks now.

    Will put Cha Seung Won on my list as well.

  5. Wow, I haven't heard of this film, but it sounds so very interesting. Going to put it on my to-watch list. Thanks, Ava.

  6. Loved this movie. It is really well-made. For me it is very clear that the two male leads are in love with each other. When their troupe lives together, they have a separate room, where they share a bed. Jang Saeng is against pimping out Gong-jil more because of his love for him and also that he sees him as his. He is in fact more against it rather than Gong-Jil himself. Remember the scene when Jang recsues him from the landlord. It is the same case with the King, the King is truly besotted with Jong-Gil and Jang is clearly jealous that the King is spending his night with his lover. In fact for me it was not clear if the King and Jong-Gil were ever lovers. The King wanted to be entertained and have his playthings around him. Remember the scene, when Jong-Gil first spends the night with the King. Jong-Gil lies near Jang, his mid-rif exposed, Jang just covers his skin and turns over and sleeps, we see only Jong’s sad eyes, that his lover refused him affection that night.

    I was hoping that the King would let them go and not hold them back, but that would be contrary to his character, which is used to getting everything he wants. Now in Jong-Gil he has got what he never had and that is his childhood, his innocent entertainment of shadow-plays (and maybe more).

    I wish Jong-Gil had more lines to speak, but his was a role of a passive person, which doesn’t get to decide much.

    Thanks for introducing me to this film.

  7. It has so much 'story', so much is unsaid, so much is left to the imagination of the viewer that I am really thankful to the director/ writer for not spelling out every little thing.

    If you remember, Harv, right after the first play, we see the two masks of Gong Gil and Jang hanging together on the wall. The camera zooms to show them sitting together, waiting for their reward or food.

    I am afraid this movie has spoiled me terribly. I am unable to like other things as much now.

    Their little 'blind man' skit on top of the hill, that Jang starts up to cheer up Gong Gil has immense significance when you remember the last act.