Let’s all cast our minds back to an iconic Korean film that had its 12 year anniversary just a few months ago. This movie took beauty and death in the landscape of a sageuk and transformed them into a story that took South Korea by storm. It was a phenomenon that even spread outside the borders of the nation. Released in 2005, The King and the Clown is a distinctive and somewhat puzzling cinematic success that is nothing short of beautiful. So let’s take a look back at the movie that skyrocketed Lee Junki to fame and left a lasting legacy in the Korean film industry.
The King and the Clown is a story about two clowns, and well, the king of Joseon. Shocking really, giventhe title. All sarcasm aside, it is vastly more complex than that, with the two clowns Jang Saeng and Gong Gil fleeing to Seoul after they commit a crime and attempt to start a new life. It’s fleetingly happy, because soon the men are arrested for mocking King Yeonsan during one of their performances. They are then given an ultimatum: make the king laugh in your performance or die by the end of it.
Looking at this film through the lens of 2017, it’s so interesting to see Lee Junki in his role as the timid, yet beautiful clown Gong Gil; it really is a 180 from from his current roles, especially ones in sageuks like Scholar Who Walks the Night and Moon Lovers. He seemed to want to shake off the flower-boy image immediately after The King and the Clown. And Lee Junki certainly succeeded in avoiding being typecast as a docile, pretty boy role in the years to follow. But in all honesty, he brought Gong Gil to life, in part simply through the elegant lines of his face. I found myself wishing he would appear on the screen at random moments in the film because he was just that stunning. Lee Junki may have been cast as Gong Gil for his headstands, but it was his unique presence and appearance that proved he was the right man for the role. I’m afraid I must leave it at that, for fear of turning this article into a Lee Junki appreciation post, which my fingers are itching to do.
Kam Woo Sung’s character was a great foil to Junki’s, both in appearance and attitude. Jang Saeng is definitely the leader of the ragtag bunch of performers. But it is only through the combined efforts of his and Gong Gil’s quick wits that they were able to escape execution by the hands of the king when they first came to the palace. Whether you interpret their relationship as a platonic brotherhood or romance, the bond of these two clowns is the backbone of the story. It is important to note that some controversial themes regarding homosexuality were definitely present in this movie however. This makes the widespread commercial success of The King and the Clown a little shocking, especially to a predominately Asian audience.
It’s the juxtaposition of the merriment of the clowns and the twisted mentality of the king that makes this film so intriguing to me personally. Performances that are intended to bring laughter and mirth to the royal palace only bring tragedy instead. This is a fairly long movie, with a run time of just under two hours. But upon the clowns’ entrance to the palace time flies by as things rapidly devolve from celebration to senseless slaughter. It’s so easy to feel the sense of helplessness from each of these characters as they slowly begin to realize they missed the chance to escape long ago. The king’s obsession with Gong Gil is disturbing, but so is the obvious trauma that left him damaged beyond repair. None of the characters are entirely unsympathetic, at least to me. And while I really resented some of them, I could also find it in me to pity them.
Gong Gil is perhaps the most pitiable character of all, given that he is constantly being manipulated and used for nearly the entire course of the story. Even his closest friend turns his back on him at one point because Jang Saeng thinks Gong Gil chose to remain in the palace because he is power hungry instead of essentially being held captive. And Lee Junki was able to embody this miserableness remarkably well, especially for a rookie actor.
Oh no, I need to prevent another tangent. No more Junki appreciation, I promised. Here, instead I’ll take a moment to appreciate the dazzling use of costume and setting throughout the film. None of the film’s small budget was reflected in the detail and intricate nature of the costume design. And these aspects really brought the movie to life. The obvious effort put into the wardrobe of the court ladies and palace officials was something to note in particular.
And can we just take a moment to appreciate how unspeakably beautiful the OSTs of this film are? Lee Sun Hee’s “Fate” is a standout from the movie. This is song is one of those rare occasions where an exquisite instrumental and powerful vocals combine to create a piece that is essentially perfect. It captured the mournful, yet ruminative image of The King and the Clown simply through sound and pure emotion. There have been a number of great covers of this song over the years. But nothing quite captures the magic of the original for me.
To this day, The King and the Clown remains the ninth highest grossing film of all time in South Korea. That’s a pretty impressive feat for a movie made on such a small budget, with a cast composed of some little known actors. It also snagged an impressive number of wins and nominations at award shows. Not to mention The King and the Clown was South Korea’s official nomination for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film in the year 2006. It was chosen as such over The Host, another classic Korean film, which is remarkable in its own right.
Given the warm reception from audiences and critics alike, it’s safe to say The King and the Clown is going down in South Korea’s history as a film of note. It’s a fact the cast and crew alike should all be proud of, and just a little something I wanted to reminisce about. And thus ends my trip down memory lane and look at this beautiful movie. If you’ve seen this film before, I hope this brought up some good memories. If not, I highly recommend you check it out and see exactly what all the fuss is about.