Film Review: Dark Drama ‘The King and the Clown’ Is A Masterful Projection Of Passion and Lust5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Two brothers put up a skit to mock and satirise the lofty and corrupt king of Joseon. They are arrested and are brought to the king’s palace. The brothers would only be reprieved if they can make the king laugh by performing for him. However, the more they perform and the longer they remain, the deeper they are drawn into the labyrinth of corruption and power struggle in the palace.
Director: Lee Joon-Ik
Cast: Lee Joon-Gi, Kam Woo-Sung, Jung Jin-Young, Kang Sung-Yeon
Country: South Korea
Runtime: 119 minutes
If any of Shakespeare’s or Webster’s tragedies could be set in Joseon-dynasty Korea, The King and the Clown (2005) would be almost too perfect a fit. The enticingly dark and menacing film confronts you with the notion of truth. questioning if we are groping around in blindness, and choosing to only accept what we perceive rather than see.
The King and the Clown is one of South Korea’s most popular and highest-grossing domestic films of all time. In its first four months of screening alone, sold a total of 12.3 million tickets and is grossed at US$74.4 million worldwide. The film was also actor Lee Joon-Gi’s (who also starred in the hit K-drama series Flower of Evil (2020) and Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, (2016)) debut into the Korean movie and entertainment industry.
The King and the Clown is an exceptional example of filmic meta-narrations and storytelling. It is a macabre tragedy that plays on the Shakespearean trope of clowns and fools being the only people in every play who are the most aware of truth and reality, all masked and cloaked in drama and delusion.
Jang Saeng (Kam Woo-Sung) and Gong Gil (Lee Joon-Gi) are two brothers who are ordinary minstrels of a travelling troupe at the bottom of society, whose lives turn around when they enter the Palace. Due to Gong Gil’s feminine appearance and effeminate mannerisms, he specialises in female roles in skits. However, he is often prostituted to and preyed upon by older pedophilic noblemen who are keen on having sexual relations with him.
After an inadvertent disaster that occurs when Jang Saeng tries to rescue Gong Gil from a compromising situation, they find themselves in Hanyang (current day Seoul) with the intention of performing their final show before retiring from the trade. They put up a play that catches the attention of the emotionally volatile but politically weak King (Jeong Jin-Young), and as a punishment, are forcefully brought to the palace to be resident entertainers. They would only be freed on the condition that they make him laugh.
The lewd and vulgar plays and puppet shows that are put on are meta-narratives that hold up a satirical mirror of the court. With every successive play that is put on, a section of the curtain of courtly pretensions and corruption is pulled back to reveal dangerous truths, as their portrayal of the court grows to match the actual court. As the plays become clearer and — ironically — ever closer to the truth, the more life-threatening they also become to the audience. More and more blood is spilled with every successive play.
Contrary to the dimly-lit sets and moody lightings we might usually expect for such a macabre story, The King and the Clown is instead splashed with extremely bright and vibrant colours of red and yellow. The ebullient colours deride and jest at the pseudo and transient emotions of the characters. Their circumstances are still deeply submerged in dark misery and uncontrolled in the turbulence of love and passion. While the bright colours enhance the vividness of terror and passion that grip the characters, they also expose the rawness of their emotions and experiences.
The film presents the tangled and complicated tensions of love, passion, lust and vengeance. The king is a frightening madman drunkenly obsessed with the world of play as he runs away from reality. His obsession and unbridled passionate lust, like a wild and untamed animal, is enough to make your skin crawl. The characters’ hearts are pulled in all directions, with their desires in constant conflict with each other. Lines drawn to strictly delineate one’s place and hierarchy are forcefully smudged.
Despite the many arteries and complexities in the plot, each actor masterfully expresses the complications and innate contradictions of the human condition. There is not a moment when a single emotion or thought can be clearly perceived, but an entangled and knotted mess of sensations. The highly energetic performance by the cast also sucks you into the whirlwind of events they are experiencing.
The King and the Clown remains a hallmark of Korean cinema and a popular film among South Korean audiences today. It picks at the natural but animalistic emotions beneath us, ugly emotions that we try to suppress and cover up.
Stream The King and the Clown on Netflix: