Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The King and the Clown

Wang-ui namja (2005)
Directed by: Jun-ik Lee
Writers: Seok-Hwan Choi (writer); Tae-woong Kim (play)
Starring: Woo-seong Kam (Jang-sang); Jin-yeong Jeong (King Yeonsan), Seong-Yeon Kang (Nok-su Jang (as Sung-Yeon Kang)); Jun-gi Lee (Gong-gil)

Why and how does a movie works for you? That’s a very difficult question. You may cite reasons of artistic excellence, the story, the screenplay, the acting, the directing, the camera work and so on. Yet, it’s difficult to put your finger on a particular aspect and say, this film works for this particular reason.
I enjoyed the 2005 Korean film ‘The King and the Clown’. Directed by Lee Jun-ik, the film was the first highest grossing film in Korea till it was toppled by the monster-comedy ‘The Host’ and it was the country’s official entry to the Oscars in 2005. I can recommend the film to anyone. It’s a minor masterpiece, no doubt. I had problems galore with the film, and yet, I LOVED the film. Let me explain the contradiction.
First the film. It begins with a disclaimer that it is a true story based on the history of Yeonsangun of Joseon, a Joseon dynasty king who falls in love with a court clown who mocks him. Probably it is. But as far as the storytelling goes, it’s filled with allusions to Shakespeare, especially King Lear, where the fool dares to tell poor, old Lear about his follies. There are even sentences in the film (especially in the English subtitle) that’s a direct copy of King Lear (“As flies to wanton boy, we are to gods, they kill us for their sport.”).
At the heart of the story are two street jugglers, two players and tight-rope walkers (in the film they are called minstrels): Jang saeng and Gong gil. In their acts, Jang saeng plays the male and Gong gil plays the female, largely owing to his striking feminine features and body language. He is even forced to sell his body to their patrons by the owner of the troupe for whom they play. This is something Jang saeng does not like. Why? No, that’s not explained. Is Jang saeng in love with Gong gil? We don't know. But he does barge into the house of the patron as he was about to deflower Gong. A fight ensures. The troupe owner is killed, and the two jugglers decide to go to Seoul to find better prospects. This is where the film begins.
They come to Seoul and meet another group of street artistes. Soon, Jang becomes their captain, and decides to mock the king and his mistress in their act, as they are most talked about subjects among the public. The crowd loves their show. Soon, the king’s personal assistant spots them, and puts them in jail. Here, Jang strike a bargain. They should be set free if they can make the king laugh. After a nail-biting sequence, with their lives hanged in balance, the king finally laughs. Not only that, he is now fascinated by Gong, and asks the troupe to stay in the palace. So far so good.
But his ministers oppose the idea, and a clash begins between the king and his ministers. The king’s assistant takes this opportunity to use the players to expose the corruption of the ministers. Thus, begins the play within the play within the play. The king begins to react to the players' jokes and starts to act. He also begins to be fascinated be Gong. He even deserts his concubine and invites Gong to his chamber to entertain him. There’s even a scene of him kissing Gong, finally.
This of course distresses Jang. He wants to leave Seoul, but not without Gong. But Gong is sympathetic to the king, whereas his ministers have had enough. What happens next?
It's a nail-biting drama; that’s the film’s main strength. As the events unfold, you don’t have the time to ponder over other issues, other than what’s happening on the screen. Add to that the marvellously choreographed Korean folk art sequences, especially the tight rope walking sequences, you have a shimmering picture of high-drama, veering towards theatricality, yet touching and lifelike. For that you have to thank the production design, the sets and the costumes, which even though 15th century Korean, never look gaudy and dramatic, but becomes part of the narrative.
It’s extraordinary. That’s where the problems start for me. There’s no character development in the story, and the entire drama unfold without even bothering to identify the issue, which actually forms the main crux of the story: ‘the queer identity.’
Except for the king’s character that show a slight variation, a tyrant with a troubled past, probably there is a hope for his redemption, all the other characters are pure cardboard, beautiful to look at, probably you know them slightly, but without depth.
First and foremost, why does Jang is so possessive about Gong? Is he in love with him? Apparently. But there’s nothing to show and tell, to betray his emotion. The king’s reaction is equally ambivalent. Does he loves Gong for his skills, his art, or for his body? At least we can guess here, there’s a tiny shot when the king kisses Gong. Hurrah!!!
It’s a fun to watch a film where the script is fully in control, where it leaves clues in the beginning of the film only to explain at the end, where the same imagery is explained in different contexts. Here’s there are several such instances. There's Jang’s rope tricks to prove his expertise in the art, which comes to play a pivotal role once (spoiler!!) he goes blind. Then the blindness itself. In the beginning of the film, on their way to Seoul, Jang and Gong plays two blind man just for the fun of it, and at the end of the film, Jang is actually blind. But the problem is the dialogues (I really don't know how good the English translation is, but from my experience, I can tell subtitles are never a patch on the real dialogues of the films). In his last rope trick, Jang goes to explain his blindness, and links it with the king’s tyrannies... but the two and fro conversations between the two lovers (Jang and Gong, and we don’t know if they are lovers) becomes heavily poetic, heavily Shakespearean, so much so that it finally becomes almost meaningless, and somehow mars the impact of the end. But, all these are miraculously saved by the on-the-spot performance of the three leads, the king and the two clowns, especially the king.
Whatever we may say, ‘The King and the Clown’ is a beautiful film, a must-watch, a near-masterpiece.
Dibyajyoti Sarma

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