[A Look Back On Korea's 'Cheonman Movie' #15] Wang-ui namja (King and The Clown)

연합뉴스 / 2021-11-27 08:00:43
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by Ra Hwak Jin / Lee Hyo Yoon

[Episode 15] King and the Clown (2005 Directed by Lee Joon-ik)

▲ This photo, provided by "The King and The Clwon," shows the poster for the film "The King and The Clown." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap) 


Director Lee Joon-ik’s 2005 production “King and The Clown” was the first history film to accumulate more than 10 million audiences in Korea. Its Korean title would be translated directly to “The King’s Man,” but when being introduced to foreign countries it was named “King and the Clown.”

10.51 million people watched the movie, according to KOBIS data, while 12.3 million audiences watched it according to the Korean Film Yearbook. Considering that the previous hit history film, “Untold Scandal” (2003) starring the first hallyu star Bae Yong-joon attracted 3.58 million of total audience, “King and the Clown” did change the status of historical film within the Korean movie industry.

Despite its relatively low production cost, 6.6 billion Korean won(5.5 million dollars) including 4.4 billion won of production fee and marketing cost, its high-quality scenario, the actors’ great performances and the fancy scenes of a feast in the palace or hunting show what a ‘well-made’ historical film is.

The film is a story of a talented clown Jang-Saeng (Kam Woo-sung), tyrant Yeonsan (Jung Jin-young) and a beautiful clown Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi) who is trusted and loved by these men. 

And with Yeonsan’s concubine Jang Nok-su (Kang Sung-yeon) eyeing Gong-gil with jealousy and the collision between the king and the vassals added, a large-scale, beautiful yet tragic play begins.


▲ This photo, provided by "The King and The Clown," shows the teaser poster for "The King and The Clown." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap) 

◇ "Historical films require responsibility,” says director

Director Lee used to work in the advertisement industry but dived into the film industry in 1993 with “Kid Cop,” a B-film. His first directed film was a failure and Lee gave up directing to focus only on producing films for a while.

However his 2003 historical film “Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield” received positive responses with dialects and soon grasped success with his second historical film “King and the Clown.”

The film swept awards including the Baeksang Arts Awards and winning 7 prizes from that year’s Grand Bell Awards.

But his following films, “Radio Star” (2006), “The Happy Life” (2007) and “Sunny” (2008), although memorable, all failed to reach 2 million audiences.

When his 2011 production “Battlefield Heroes,” a sequel of “Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield” couldn’t exceed 1.7 million audiences, he announced through Twitter to retire from commercial films.

Then Lee returned with a film “Hope” in 2013 using Cho Doo-soon case, one of South Korea's most notorious child rape in recent memory, as a motive and restored his reputation with the 2015 film “The Throne” which recorded 6.24 million watchers.

For the next few years, Lee released “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet” (2016), “Anarchist from Colony” (2017) and “Metamorphosis” (2018). Recently, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, he dropped “The Book of Fish” and received the critics’ praises.

Through his historical productions, not only the traditional characters like generals were spotlighted but also those who were shunned to the back of the history such as clowns, anarchist and banished intellectuals were re-interpreted.

“History is a public asset. A director interpreting history into his own words must take immense responsibility,” said Lee during an interview with Yonhap News in 2016 ahead of releasing "The Throne."



▲ This photo shows director Lee Joon-ik of the film "The King and The Clown." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap) 

◇ “Pretty man” syndrome, Lee Joon-gi… Director Lee comments, “Homosexual love is not the main theme”

A large part of the film’s popularity can be said to have owed to actor Lee Joon-gi who started a ‘pretty man’ syndrome in Korea. The actor who possesses both feminine and manly attractions exerted neutrality hard to be found in the previous Korean movies and dramas. At that time, Lee was a new-face to the entertainment scene and had only taken minor roles in 4~5 dramas. But with the film’s release, he instantly rose to stardom and has been actively continuing his career as a top-tier actor.

The film featured homosexuality which Korean films rarely dealt with. But Lee’s excellent depiction of his role attracted high interest.

“'King and The Clown’ doesn’t directly portray love between same sex but is a movie that broke the taboo against such emotions,” said Hwang Jin-mi movie critic.

Even the New York Times saw the film as a work that brought up the topic, homosexual love, to the Korean society.

But the director seemed rather cautious about defining the film’s main topic as homosexuality during an interview with NYT.

"This is not homosexuality as defined by the West," Mr. Lee said in the interview. "It's very different from 'Brokeback Mountain.' In that movie, homosexuality is fate, not a preference. Here, it's a practice."

Lee Joon-ik said he had been more interested in evoking the world of itinerant clowns, many of whom were involved in same-sex relationships.



▲ This photo, provided by "The King and The Clown," shows Kam Woo-sung and Lee Joon-gi of "The King and The Clown." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

◇ Film’s popularity brought spotlight on plays and musicals… motive music for the movie became issue as well

The film was based on a play. The play itself was already famous but after the film became popular it regained attention as well, setting out a country tour.

Yet, unlike the play, the film features play cultures such as Jultagi, the show on the rope, as an important part.

The film’s cast actors learned how to play instruments like Kkwaenggwari or Janggu and Jultagi from the Namsadang for the clowns’ performance scenes.

After the film was released, the producer of the play added a number of performance scenes using traditional instruments to stage a musical.

An important line in the film, “I am here, you are there,” was from a play called “Kiss.” The author of the play, professor Yun Young-sun of Korea National University of Arts quested the court to ban the film claiming that it has used his lines without permission. But the court declined the request.

The movie also inspired the music scene as well. Singer An Ye-eun composed “Hong Yuan,” a song in Yeonsan’s point of view from the film and sang it in K-pop Star 5. The song became a turning point and especially moved You Hee-yul, one of the judges, to let her advance to the next round. Later, the song became an OST for the series “The Rebel.”



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