[Korean Movie Night NY continues with Lee Jun-Ik's The King and the Clown. If you live in New York City, you can see this film for free at the Tribeca Cinemas tonight (April 10th) at 7 PM. More information can be found here.]
As I usually do with all the Korean films I see, I took a cursory glance at the The King and the Clown's page on the Asian Wiki. I checked to see if I recognized any of the stars (yes) and then looked up director Lee Jun-Ik to see if I knew any of his work. I saw that he had directed a film called Sunny, and I immediately became incredibly excited. Sunny, which I saw as part of this year's New York Korean Film Festival, is not only among my favorite Korean films of ever, it is one of my favorite comedies of ever. So I watched The King and the Clown with those expectations in the back of my mind.
When looking at things a bit more in depth in order to write this, I found out that Lee Jun-Ik did not direct the Sunny that I know and love. He directed a different movie called Sunny. Had I paid attention, I would have noticed that the romanization of the Korean name (Nimeun Meongose) was pretty far off from Sseoni. So my bad on that one.
But it doesn't really matter. When The King and the Clown's credits rolled, I believed that the same director had made both of them, and that is some pretty high praise right there.
The King and the Clown (Wang-ui namja)
The year is 1501, and Korea is ruled by King Yeonsan (Jung Jin-Young). After being chased out of their previous place, minstrels Jang-Sang (Kam Woo-Sung) and Gong-Gil (Lee Joon-Gi) go to Seoul in search of new territory. The two are street performers, doing shows for coins from whoever passes by. The two of them join up with a group of three performers already in Seoul and they become a big group. After they decide to make fun of the King and his favorite prostitute (Kang Sung-Yeon), things go south and they have to make the king laugh or die.
From there, things get crazy, and an unexpectedly large number of people end up dying, some of them in really brutal ways. But it's not all bad, because the players themselves put on a number of shows throughout, and although I can't claim to have understood what everything meant (I know very little about Korean history), a lot of the humor was pretty accessible. Which is great, because the humor is excellent. I was laughing constantly throughout the film (at least, when it wanted me to), and even if the constant drum banging became a bit much by the end, I was always looking forward to their next performance.
But not everything is funny. Thinking about it, I would probably call the film a drama before I'd call it a comedy. I could be remembering it wrong, but it seems like the majority of scenes used comedy to keep things from becoming unbearable as opposed to using it to just keep in entertaining. Although in large groups things tend to be a bit on the lighter side (with some notable exceptions), the personal interactions between the principal characters are rarely comedic. Even the funniest scenes have an underlying tone of unease or sadness, especially when they involve the King.
But that's not a bad thing, because the drama is also well done. A few points missed their mark (mostly because of an occasionally lackluster performance by Lee Joon-Gi), but the majority of moments had some real weight behind them, and it made the tense scenes tenser and the sad scenes sadder.
It doesn't hurt that almost all of the characters are interesting, and the best example is King Yeonsan. Although his Ministry seems to have an exorbitant amount of power over his decisions, the King spends a lot of the The King and the Clown trying to control things in his own, kingly way. Although his reactions seemed a bit harsh, his frustration is easy to understand. Unwillingly kept in the shadow of his father's rule, he finds himself in a bizarre limbo as a ruler. Even though he is supposedly chosen by heaven, his Ministry seems to think that Heaven hath forsaken him and doesn't put a lot of stock into his feelings and intentions.
The most annoying part of The King and the Clown is its use of language. I don't know if it was a translational decision or if the screenwriters butchered the Korean language in the same way, but the dialogue frequently feels like a failed attempt to recreate the Elizabethan era. Verbs and nouns are thrown around haphazardly, ignoring the basic rules of grammar in order to sound older and (perhaps) more poetic.
I can understand it conceptually, because it is a period piece and that's the way we've been told to believe people talked 500 or so years ago, but people don't talk like that, and it wasn't successful in its mimicry. Fortunately, the issue rarely got in the way of actual comprehension, so it was a minor issue in the grand scheme of the film, but there were times (especially in the King's dialogue) that I actually groaned at the way his language was structured.
While I can't say much for the fashion of the time, early 1500s Korea seems like it was a tense place. The end of the movie (and this isn't spoiling anything, because I didn't understand why it was taking place, and you can't really spoil what may or may not have been a historical event anyhow) features the start of some sort of revolt. An angry mob suddenly forms and storms the castle. I'm not sure why, and I don't know that anyone else is either. But in the middle of it all are two minstrels, just trying to get along in life, making some terrible decisions in the process.
But those terrible decisions lead to some terrific cinema. Although the tone varies wildly from scene to scene, it's not erratic. It flows well and keeps things from becoming stale or predictable. I honestly had no idea where the film was going, but I nonetheless felt like it had earned that place when it got there.