The King and The Clown  Review – A Shakespearean Tragedy
The King and the Clown (왕의 남자, Wang-ui Namja) is a layered & multithreaded narrative that encompasses powerful visuals and dramatic tropes that remarkably feel like a Shakespearean tragedy. Adapted from the stage play, Yi (“You”), the film-director ‘Lee Joon-ik’ and the screenwriter ‘Choi Seok-hwan’ deconstructs the relationship of the two ill-fated travelling clowns who get tangled in a web of true compassion, kindness and longing for a good life.
The greatest achievement of ‘The King and The Clown’ is its relevancy and universality of the story in spite of every element being indigenous to Korean socio-culture, set in the 15th century during the reign of King Yeonsan.
Jangsaeng (played by Kam Woo-sung) and effete Gong-gil (played by Lee Joon-gi) are the street clowns and tightrope walkers who travel places to places displaying their work to amuse and entertain locals and rich customers. Enraged Jangsaeng runs away to Seoul with Gong-gil after killing the manager who constantly prostituted Gong-gil to affluent customers.
In Seoul, they add other minstrels to the group and start mocking the King Yeonsan (Jung Jin-young) and his concubine Jang Nok-su (Kang Sung-yeon) in their skit. The king’s consultant, Choseon, notices the play and catches them for treason. Choseon offers them a deal of performing in front of the King, and if he laughs, then their lives would be saved. They manage to make the King laugh and gets to stay in the palace.
The plot on the paper looks thin and bland, but the underlying complexity of the emotions and the tale of love & madness ingrained in the narrative is what makes this movie one of the best Korean dramas.
‘The king and the clown’ employees the drama not only as a communicative medium to the audience but also as a part of the skit performed by the clowns that reveal a great deal about the king, concubines and the ministers in the royal court.
In fact, the performing group brings corruption to the light of King that results in the banishment of the minister involved in corruption. The heightened dramatic plays build the meta-narrative that is intriguing but unnoticeable unless you are ready to immerse yourself in it. Like, Gong-gil performing the puppetry show for the king inside his courtyard reveals about the personal crisis of the Gong-gil as well. Similarly, the skit involving Gong-gil portraying the King’s mother and Jang-seng the previous King reveals the circumstance under which the king’s mother was murdered. It results in the king’s descent into the madness.
One of the predominant themes of the movie involves sexuality and love that defines the character’s arc through-out the movie. The romantic relationship between Jang-seng and Gong-gil is never explicitly spelt out in the film.
It rather takes their action and counter-action to the implication of their action in an account to portray their love. After the King gets fascinated by Gong-gil and heavily crushes on him, the fierce jealousy in Jang-seng almost consumes him. But it is his unending love for Gong-gil that he returns to mock the king openly even after his eyes are seared with burning iron as punishment.
The dramatic performances and strong symbolism, with the undercurrent of the various shades of love, lust, jealousy, hate, trust are woven into the story like a true Shakespearean work. Even the comical overtone and the magnitude of the tragedy inflicting each character as an implication of choices under the influence of emotions is Shakespearean in nature.
Influencing the crowd the and council using powerful monologues or the king’s descent into the madness that is reminiscent of Ichimonji Hidetora (played by Tatsuya Nakadai) in Ran [dir. Akira Kurosawa] which was itself inspired from ‘King Lear’.
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The production design and director of photography gel seamlessly to create the 15th-century Korean cultural milieu with such sublime fineness that you are drawn to the drama instantly. The bright and vibrant colours of the palace against the personal and social drama happening in the life of three primary characters are symbolically contrasting.
The crucial part of the layered drama to work involves moving and compelling performances from everyone. Jung Jin-young, Lee Joon-gi and Kam Woo-sung bring subtle and varied nuances to their characters.
Jung Jin-young breathes cynicisms and child-like naivety to the tyrannical king who is far lonesome and shallow than any other character in the film. Equally brilliant is Kam Woo-sung who is playful, bold and charismatic.
‘The King and the Clown’ is a well written and directed historical drama that weaves the emotional nuances of the king and two clowns into the drama surrounding them within the court.