The King and the Clown (왕의 남자)

Chosun dynasty, ca. 1504. Two itinerant street performers, Jang-sang and Gong-gil, having fled to Seoul, face an even more onerous fate when a bawdy farce lands them in prison to await certain death. An opportunity to redeem themselves arises, and a rather lackluster show succeeds nonetheless in pleasing the King and purchasing the troupe’s freedom. Installed in the court, the minstrels now are caught between the perfidy of the ministers and the madness of the King, overcome with grief at his mother’s death. Meanwhile, the King has taken a fancy to Gong-gil.


Lee Joon Ik’s wildly popular historical drama King and the Clown sold over 12 million tickets, making it the single most successful film in Korean history. It has received nearly unanimous critical acclaim as well, and earned its makers over $85 million. The film was released on DVD last month in a handsome 4-disc Limited Edition package which includes the OST, both the theatrical version and an international version containing some ten additional minutes of additional background information, and a disc of special features including a ‘making-of’ and interviews with the director, cast and crew.

Most recently, the picture has received an unheard-of 15 nominations for the upcoming 43rd Daejong Film Festival, more than any other film in the festival’s history. Among the categories receiving nominations are best picture, best director, best leading actor (Kam Woo-seong), best supporting actor (Yoo Hae-jin), best supporting actress (Kang Seong-yeon), best new actor (Lee Joon-ki), best script, best cinematography, best lighting, best editing, best music, best art, best acoustic technology, best planning and best costumes.

Nobody could have foreseen that this medium budget ($4.5 M) historical drama with no big-name stars would go on to become the sensation it has become. Especially since the film takes as its central theme homoerotic love. Plagued by uninspiring direction, routine sound design, mediocre set design, pedestrian photography and a soundtrack void of musicality, the question naturally arises: how did this film become a national hit?

Arriving in theaters the 29 December, 2005, the film was in direct competition with the $200 million American blockbuster King Kong and two Korean blockbusters, Blue Swallow and Typhoon. Blue Swallow fell victim to a vicious Internet campaign which effectively killed its chances at the box office. Ticket sales for Lee Joon Ik’s film (based on the play, Yi) quickly soared as word-of-mouth spread, when as of March, nearly one in four Koreans had seen the movie.

It may be a bit rash to claim, as some have done, that the success of the prominently gay-themed King and the Clown signals a change in attitudes of Korean society, but it is definitely a move in the right direction.  In spite of Lee’s assertions to the contrary, King and the Clown (literally ‘The King’s Man’ in Korean), is without question a taboo-breaker in that it portrays same sex relationships with sensitivity and intelligence, something which, as recently as a decade ago, would have been all but unthinkable. Only one or two films had previously attempted to portray gays in a realistic manner, but they were flops commercially.The fact that in Lee’s film no sex is shown only serves to strengthen the notion that the bond between the men is more than mere carnal lust. Some claim to see in Lee’s drama a parody of the Uri party, others the end of despotic rule in 1992. While the harsh and arbitrary behavior of King Yeonsan and the greed of the court are more than hinted at, it is the humanistic element of the film that prevails — in particular, the camaraderie of the minstrels and the hapless lot of Gong-gil, caught between King Yeonsan and Jang-sang.

Without going into great detail about the cinematography, lighting, editing and artwork, I will merely point out that the inobservant viewer is likely to mistake colorful sets and costume design for enlivening camerawork, just as the untrained ear confounds the pounding of drums and shaking of tambourines for authentic period music-making. There is nothing whatsoever remarkable about any of the above, ‘efficiency’ being about the nicest thing that can be said of the foregoing. The costumes have none of the richness of color or fabric of other period dramas I can recall.

Special mention must be made of the English translation. The subtitles, provided by renowned Korean philosopher Kim Yong-ok give just the right tone, from Shakespearean English to the vulgar speech of the minstrels. If anyone working on this picture deserves an award, it is Dr. Kim.

The OST included in the LE boxset reveals just how vacuous the score for the film really is. The composer, Lee Byeong-Wu – 이병우, has created music for a host (pun intended) of other critically acclaimed movies, but Lee’s historical drama reveals him to be singularly uninspired. Some of the films Lee Byeong-Wu has composed soundtracks for include:

The Host   괴물  (2006)
For Horowitz   호로비츠를 위하여 (2006)
Rules of Dating  연애의 목적 (2005)
The Red Shoes  분홍신 (2005)
Untold Scandal   스캔들조선남녀상열지사  (2003)
A Tale of Two Sisters  장화 홍련 (2003)

A plaintive cello motif that appears over and over… Lacks any of the mirth, whimsy and excitement one associates with 2/3 of the movie. Listening to the CD at home or in the car, one soon forgets what an entertaining and fun film this was. Thirty tracks of mournful, lugubrious sounds in which the listener will search in vain for a single unifying idea, melody, rhythm or any of the other features customarily accepted as forming a musical vocabulary. No theme is ever developed, elaborated upon or varied. Compared to which, the noisy orchestration for Running Wild is heavenly bliss.

In answer to the question posed above then, solid performances by lead actors Gam Wu-Seong (his best acting yet) and Jeong Jin-Yeong; an excellent, high-spirited script; colorful set pieces, tightrope walking and other circus acts; humanistic centered — painted in broad, bold, colorful strokes; curiosity concerning the sexuality of the character played by Lee; national pride and interest in national folklore.

LE: Worth the dough?
Is the Limited Edition box set worth paying the extra money for? The print is pristine, no aliasing or digital artifacts, good contrast throughout, though black levels were sometimes a bit murky, especially in weakly-lit indoor scenes. No annoying edge enhancement. I would recommend holding out for the bare-bones edition, as the OST is unlikely to get much play, there is little need for both the international and theatrical versions, and the bonus disc lacks English subtitles.

South Korea | 2005 | Directed by Lee Joon Ik – 이준익 | Starring (Jang-sang) Gam Wu-Seong – 감우성, (Gong Gil) Lee Jun-Gi – 이준기, Yu Hae-Jin – 유해진, (Yeonsan) Jeong Jin-Yeong –  정진영, (Nok-su) Kang Seong-Yeon – 강성연, Jang Hang-Seon – 장항선, Yun Ju-Sang – 윤주상

Producer:  Lee Joon Ik – 이준익
Action Director:  Oh Se-Young – 오세영
Composer:  Lee Byeong-Wu – 이병우
Scriptwriter:  Choi Seok-Hwan – 최석환
Artistic director:  Kang Seung-Yong – 강승용
Editors:  Kim Sang-Beom – 김상범, Kim Jae-Beom – 김재범
Cinematographer:  Ji Kil-Wung – 지길웅
Costumes:  Shim Hyeon-Seop – 심현섭
Distributor:  Cinema Service
Financing studio:  CJ Entertainment

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