Wang-ui namja, a.k.a. The King and the Clown, was a sensation upon its release in Korea in 2005, becoming the country's highest grossing film that year. In viewing the region 3 limited edition release of the movie, it's easy to see why. This gripping costume drama is brimming with a unique charm, with original characters and a special setting that will likely be new to most viewers. Art Service has put together a three-disc DVD package that capitalizes on The King and the Clown's popularity while also giving the movie the appropriate red carpet treatment.
The story concerns itself with two performers, Jang-sang (Woo-seong Kam, Spider Forest) and Gong-gil (Jung-gi Lee, My Girl), who are forced to leave their traveling troupe after a run-in with the boss. Gong-gil is an androgynous beauty, and in the routines he and Jang-sang perform together--a vaudevillian mix of bawdy jokes and acrobatics--Gong-gil often plays a feminine role. This has led their greedy ringmaster to try to make extra money by pimping the fair-faced minstrel out to men in the villages they stop in. Jang-sang can't take seeing his friend exploited, so they break away and head to Seoul. There, the pair joins up with a trio of ratty street performers and start putting on shows satirizing Korea's tyrannical king.
In a crawl at the start of the film, it's been explained to us that The King and the Clown is set during the Chosun Dynasty, and it begins in 1504, two years before King Yeonsan (Jin-yeng Jeong, Hi! Dharma) is going to be removed from his throne. When we meet the king, it's obvious why the citizenry eventually turned against him. He lives in the rather large shadow of his father, and is prone to both violent outbursts and infantile freak-outs, sometimes simultaneously. The people aren't very fond of him because he has demarcated a good portion of Seoul as his personal hunting area, and the clowns make great use of his illicit affair with the courtesan Nok-su (Seuong-Yeon Kang) in their stage act. The ministers in his court try to steer King Yeonsan toward proper choices, but he is too stubborn to listen.
This makes for a very real threat when Jang-sang and Gong-gil are brought to the Palace to see if their scandalous routine can entertain the monarchy. If it does, a life of luxury awaits; if not, death. Luckily for them, King Yeonsan turns out to be a ham who enjoys goofy humor and even wants to get in on the act himself. He's instantly smitten with Gong-gil's tender beauty, and he starts summoning the actor for private sessions. From what we can see, this is mainly just parroting the day's performance and playing with puppets. Like Jang-sang, however, we have suspicions there is something more, and it both makes us angry and scared--particularly when Nok-su starts to feel threatened by the king's intense affection for the clown. Eventually, the intrigue of the royal court, Jang-sang's rebellious streak, and the off-kilter mental status of the monarch are all going to collide, making for a climax that is both surprising and satisfying.
Many have gone for the most obvious comparison when discussing The King and the Clown and likened it to Brokeback Mountain. There are definite homoerotic overtones to the story, and we can be pretty sure that the king has other things in mind for Gong-gil than just playing with dolls. Most touching is the relationship between the two performers, however. By keeping Jang-sang's true feelings a mystery, it's more poignant watching him tear himself apart when Gong-gil disappears into the king's private chambers. We do learn that they have a bond that extends back to childhood, when Jang-sang first became the more delicate boy's protector, and so the connection transcends any prurient "are they or aren't they?" speculation. That said, any doubts about how the two feel about each other are cleared up by the sacrifices they will make.
Director Jun-ik Lee and screenwriter Seok-Hwan Choi have collaborated with each other on two other films, 2003's Hwangsanbul and last year's Radio Star, neither of which I've seen, but based on The King and the Clown, I'd sit down with them in a heartbeat. In this case, they have adapted a play by Tae-woong Kim, and the final result is just sublime. The King and the Clown really has it all. There are laughs, tears, and even real tension and danger. The drama is complex, and the setting is gorgeous. From the costumes through to the elaborate sets, Jun-ik Lee has recreated 16th-century Korea so that viewers can really feel like they are there.
This limited edition set comes with two versions of The King and the Clown. The first is the theatrical version and it runs 119 minutes. The second disc is a new cut that extends the film by ten more minutes. While the theatrical cut is wonderful, the extended cut is equally as good and you'd be fine going with either. The new version adds such a small amount, it's barely noticeable, and I had to pop in the first disc again just to make sure what I thought was new really wasn't there the first time. The main elements come early in the film, when the clowns arrive in Seoul. There is some added business in the street market, including Jang-sang stealing rice cakes and a fortune teller giving the pair a warning about what fate has in store for them. At the end of that scene, there is one more stunt in the competition between Jang-sang and Six Dix. There is also some added interaction between Jang-sang and Gong-gil later in the movie that is cute and emphasizes their closeness, and some more backroom plotting amongst the ministers.
Regardless of which cut you watch, there is no denying the potent emotional content of The King and the Clown. Korea has really become a powerful cinematic force, and though their crime dramas and horror movies seem to get the most attention in the States, hopefully movies like this one will also remind us that the country has a rich history that can provide a sumptuous backdrop for social drama. With its mix of comedy and romance, The King and the Clown is a definite audience pleaser and well worth seeking out.
This is a region 3 disc and so will only be compatible with multi-region players.
The King and the Clown looks wonderful in its 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Outside of one scene near the back end of the theatrical version that has some slight edge enhancement, I noticed nothing wrong with either cut. On the contrary, the colors all look phenomenal, which is great given how bright and varied the costumes and settings are.
There are a couple of 5.1 sound mixes to choose from, both in DTS and Dolby Digital. I listened to the Dolby and it was really nicely done. The mix creates a real sense of an open environment.
There are Korean and English subtitles. The English titles are well written, with only a couple of mistakes. They move at a manageable speed and there are no cultural confusions that mar the viewing experience.
The first and most obvious bonus for The King and the Clown is its exceptional packaging. The DVDs come in an ornate box with a folding, magnetic lid. The inside cover of the lid houses a CD of the musical score for the movie, and when the disc is in its clear plastic tray, the shiny underside can be seen through the cut-outs in the front cover, giving the box extra sparkle when on display. The score itself is a lush mixture of Western orchestration and a smattering of more traditional Asian music and flourishes of Golden Age Hollywood. The music was composed by Byung-woo Lee, who also did the scores for Untold Scandal, A Tale of Two Sisters, and My Beautiful Girl, Mari. At times, I heard small touches of Ennio Morricone that play quite nicely. It's definitely a soundtrack worthy of being included.
The rest of the items are inside the box itself. The three DVDs are inside a foldable sleeve with gorgeous color photos of the four main cast members. Each disc is also clearly labeled in English so that it's easy to choose which one you want. With the discs, you will find a handsome, squarebound book with 32 pages of color photos, production sketches, and Korean liner notes. Eight full color postcards also come in a lovely sleeve. They are large cards, almost the size of a DVD case. Finally, you also get an advertisement for other King and the Clown products. I would love to get my hands on the dolls Gong-gil uses to entertain the king.
The first disc, the theatrical cut, has two commentary tracks: one with the director and members of the crew, and another with members of the cast. Alas, neither are subtitled, so unless you speak Korean (I don't), you'll just have to wonder what they're talking about.
Be forewarned, as well, that the disc menus are also in Korean, so you might have to do some trial and error navigating, particularly when you get to DVD 3, which is the big supplements disc. (DVD 2 has no extras, just the extended cut.) Those features are broken down into three sections, and once again, no subtitles in any language. So, you're going to have to speak Korean to get the full effect. It's too bad that subtitles aren't provided for people in other parts of the world, as this is an amazing set and I'd have given it the "DVD Talk Collector Series" rating if it was more accessible.
Anyway, a rundown of the extra features are as follows:
* Making of documentary (22 minutes): Plenty of on-set footage mixed with cast and crew interviews. Much of the rehearsal material is set to music and can be enjoyed just for the physicality of it all.
* Art and Costume Design featurette (20 min.): A detailed look at designs and production drawings, the sewing of the clothes and construction of set elements, and a presentation of the outfits on a fashion runway. Also contains interviews with the craftsmen.
* Cast interviews: This is broken into two sections. There are 17 minutes of interviews with the four main cast members, and then 14 minutes with supporting players. Cut into the conversation is more behind the scenes footage, including make-up tests and wardrobe for the peasant minstrels.
* Deleted scenes (9:30 min.): Six cut segments, ranging from a short walk in the mountains to more elaborate conversations and an extended battle performance that acts as an overture to the clowns' climactic play
* Music Director interview (6:20 min.): A talk with the composer with the scoring session as backdrop.
* Behind the scenes featurette (5:00 min.): A montage of stunt rehearsals, focusing on falls and the physical damage inflicted on the bodies of the performers--though not in a morbid way. It's a light-hearted reel.
* "Samul Nori" dance performance (14 min.): A look at the acrobat troupe that taught the actors their routines, including material from a live performance the troupe gave of their own act and rehearsal sessions.
* "Pung Mul" music performance (19 min.): Another documentary featurette about the drum playing that accompanies the minstrels during their shows.
* The construction of the "Banquet" performance by the clowns (8:20 min.): A look at how the troupe's street performance was put together.
* Beyond the Movie: "Yi" - The original stage play (24 min.): An involved examination of the source material for The King and the Clown, including filmed elements from an actual stage production.
* The True Story of Yeonsan (15 min.): A talk with a historian with brief footage of historical landmarks related to the king.
* The "Banquet" Scene - Behind the scenes (6 min.): Off-set rehearsals for the first set of skits performed by the clowns. (This actually seems like it should be linked to the third program in this section.)
* Poster photo shoot (5:30 min.): A collection of stills, make-up preparation, and on-set footage from the session.
* Press conference (6 min.): A montage of musical performances recreated from the movie leads into snippets of the director and actors answering questions.
* Footage from the premiere (4:30 min.): Another press conference type set-up.
* Music video (4:30 min.): A montage of pieces of the movie. I am not sure what song this is edited to. It's a vocal performance by a woman, but the song on the soundtrack CD is sung by a man.
* Trailer & TV spot
* Stills gallery (2:00 min.): A montage of images from the movie set to music. I don't really like how this was done. The pictures are all framed within the skin of a drum, except the drum isn't completely onscreen, so the images are shoved up to the top of the screen and given a sepia tint to match the skin. It's not the greatest showcase for the photos.
Sadly, some delays prevented DVD Talk from posting this review earlier, and this limited edition box set looks like it has gone out of print. You may still be able to find it if you look around on the internet, but if you just want to see the movie, sites like YesAsia.com have several regular options to choose from.
Highly Recommended. The King and the Clown is that rare kind of film that leaves this writer at a loss when I try to sum up or categorize it. The story is overly rich with heart, showing the camaraderie between two friends and touching on the deeper love that exists between them. Though the sacrifices each makes are grave, because the main characters are clowns, they won't let you forget to smile in the face of adversity. With exceptional performances and a beautiful historical backdrop, The King and the Clown wins in every category.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.