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The King and the Clown

August 3rd, 2006 (08:28 pm)

© 2006 D. Gordon

"character is destiny"

Most Americans have some familiarity with South Korea. It's the place where some of the consumer goods come from, courtesy of a few well-timed policies of some pretty repressive regimes in the 1960s and 70s. There's also the North-South geopolitical divide, that puts the axis in Axis of Evil. But there's been something going on in Korean society which hasn't really shown up on American radar screens: the concept of 한류 hallyu, or "Korean Wave." This, from what I've uncovered (and yes, there's a Wikipedia entry for this), is a nationalism, a sense of Koreanness, that permeates popular culture, fuelled and funded in part by the income generated by those earlier government policies and exported to other Asian nations. This isn't a Serb or Nazi-style nationalism; it's more a pride in Korean values, family and otherwise (which have many similarities to general Asian values), a "we're here, and we're doing pretty well" that demonstrates Korea's advanced industrial status in the world - something that should be very recognizable to Westerners. It's definitely recognizable to neighboring countries; right now, in Asia, it's cool to be Korean.

One of the biggest examples of hallyu in recent years is a movie named 왕의 남자 Wang-ui namja, or The King and the Clown. In three short months at the beginning of this year, it came from nowhere to become the most watched film in Korean history.

Jang-Saeng and Gong-gil are itinerant minstrel-clowns in early sixteenth-century Korea. Jang-Saeng is a bit of a genius at both concocting skits and managing their lives; he also takes it upon himself to protect Gong-gil, much like a father, brother, or lover. Gong-gil is ethereally beautiful, somewhat shy, and a kind, gentle soul; but he derives a sort of courage from his belief in Jang-Saeng and his ability to keep them safe. (He instinctively severely injures a man to save Jang-Saeng, only to go into shock when he realizes what he has done.) They complement each other, and they survive. So it seems just bad karma that leads them to Seoul and punishment for mocking the king, then saves them from being flogged to death only to end up in the middle of insanity, court intrigue, and the king's growing attraction towards Gong-gil.

The movie was heralded as a Korean Brokeback Mountain in the western press when it came out. Part of that was timing - Brokeback Mountain opened in very late November 2005 and King and the Clown at the end of December - but most of it was subject matter. Like the Ang Lee film, the plot concerns an intense relationship between men which faces severe censure from the society around them (although for different reasons). Both movies break barriers: Brokeback Mountain presents homosexuality in a mainstream movie in a straightforward and almost Shakespearean way; King and the Clown implies homosexuality to a society which had removed it from the official government list of "socially undesirable acts" less than two years earlier. But it would be a mistake to compare the two. They're both very good, but homosexuality never rises above implication in the Korean movie, acting as one of several possible explanations. It's just not a valid comparison.

Is this the best movie I've ever seen? No. But it's a very solidly good story about class conflict and different worlds colliding. There's very good acting as well: Gam Woo-Sung, Jung Jin-Young, and Lee Joon-Gi are all strong leads. Gam as the main lead has Jang-Saeng's swagger and daredevil attitude down perfectly, while Jung's Yeosan is just the right mix of mistrust and insanity. Lee is delicate but not a completely deferential shade; Gong-gil's role is key to the story, and Lee handles it quite deftly. All three men, especially Lee, have become huge stars from their appearances, and in this particular case it's well deserved.

A major factor in the success of the story is the story, a major rewrite of a popular play, Yi. It is woven into many layers: the contrast between the nobles and the clowns (who were basically beggars); the clowns' quest to survive; the relationships between Jang-Saeng, Gong-gil, and King Yeosun; the presence of Nok-Soo the concubine. It's also a retelling of an historical tale well-known to the average Korean[1], presented from a new angle. Yeosan is traditionally presented as a mad tyrant; this take introduces the possibility that the behavior of the ministers and the yangbun (who in effect questioned the legitimacy of the king) may have forced some of Yeosan's actions. Symbolism hangs ominously over the story, from colors, clothing and gestures, to Gong-gil's use of hand puppets to entertain the king, fill in some major plot points, and express his own character (every puppet play he does is a reenactment of an earlier event in the story; there's an excellent explanation of this on imdb). And there's just a good amount of suspense, as the story drags its characters deeper and deeper into a morass of court intrigue in which they're merely pawns. As one of the clowns says after a pivotal performance, they perform a skit and people die.This is edge-of-the-seat stuff, as you think, "this can't end well,"... "oh, this is going to end badly." The teenyboppers may be all over this movie, but there is a there there.

While it is a rich tale, it's difficult to access without understanding Korean language and culture, or finding some source of background information. Fortunately, the movie has been such a hit that there are a number of english-language sources available online; there's an especially helpful series of reviews at Twitch.com (see links below). Knowing the underlying information makes the story that much more poignant - and also makes repeat viewings to catch these things a must.

In addition, the translations are some of the best I've seen in a while. Once the movie became a hit, Dr. Kim Yong-Ok, one of the foremost living Korean philosophers (and whose other translation job was Im Kwon-taek's Chihwaseon, winner of the Best Director Award at Cannes in 2002) apparently volunteered to translate the dialogue into English. And he did a fine job: the clowns speak the lower-class vernacular that you'd expect; the court has a precise formal tone; and the colloquialisms are in the right place. The introduction itself includes historical context in the subtitles, explaining the real-life king and the role of the court secretaries/diarists in preserving his story (which, like those of all 27 of the Chosun kings, exists in the Korean state archives). One drawback may be that the intricacies and plays-on-words in the language haven't been preserved in the translation, but this is still a great story.

In short, there's a lot of detail here - but if you're willing to pay attention, and do a little research, you'll be more than amply rewarded. Thank you, 한류 hallyu.

Now my only wish would be for a big screen showing somewhere in the States...

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[1] The real-life King Yeosun's story is a staple of the Korean national tale; his court diaries mention a clown named Gong-gil who mocked the king and was punished and exiled for it.