There's humor to be found in South Korea's The King and the Clown, but not the type first imagined upon hearing the title: gallivanting jesters and lavish shenanigans, in the key of Danny Kaye's The Court Jester, aren't the chief orders of business here. Sure, you'll see wildly-dressed clowns, hand puppet shows, and stern agenda-driven royals, but the film's strengths don't hinge on lightheartedness and double entendres. Instead, the laughs will (mostly) be those of surprise, where the sexual lewdness and aristocratic satire of their context will stun due to the audacity it'd take to perform them in the 16th-century Chosun Dynasty setting. Yet, this isn't a batch of innuendos and quasi-perverse gags solely crafted to rile up an audience (well, the film's audience); the resolve The King and The Clown puts behind freedom of choice -- either in mocking those in charge or the uncontrollable draw of sexual attraction -- cements meaning underneath why they're being, and should be, performed in the face of higher-ups.
It takes a while for the duo of street entertainers -- Jang-seng (Kam Woo-seong), confident and masculine, and Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi), whose feminine and delicate posture brings him close to androgyny -- to get in the halls of King Yeonsan's (Jeong Jin-yeong) court. At first, their routine of tightrope-walking, undergarment-flashing, and eloquent purple-prose chatter only earns them enough money to eat, sleep, and live to perform the next day, while their "stage manager" pimps Gong-gil out to more deeper-pocketed onlookers. Jangsaeng reaches a boiling point and confronts the manager over the unsavory practice; in the middle of their tussle, the manager is erroneously killed. The pair decides to flee to the capital of Seoul because of it, and once there (like many gypsies do), they pair up with another trio of street performers. In a combination of desperation, a rattled mind-frame, and simple ingenuity, Jangsaeng cooks up an idea to lampoon the lavishly pleasure-seeking king himself -- and his new concubine (Seuong-Yeon Kang) -- in their new act. Naturally, it catches the interest of some important people.
Right up to the point where they gain the attention of the royal court, these street performances are confident, daring, and riveting to watch against the period-appropriate locations, as if we're standing at the front of the commoner crowd and marveling in the dusty streets alongside them. Shrewd editing and camerawork fluidly mix with the self-aware choreography, which creates a low-key stir of energy within mindfully-used gymnastic flips and displays of vulgarity, generating laughs and cheers among their onlookers. Once invited to present their sexually-charged parody in front of the king, however, their coolness turns into a jittery fear for their lives; as it should, given that their satire pokes fun at the unhinged ruler's sex life. Their sweaty shift in temperament when waiting to see how King Yeonsan will react is a demanding performance -- wearing the same quaint costumes and executing the same tricks, only with fidgets, trembles, and fumbles -- and the waning elegance is skillfully realized by the gypsies.
The King and the Clown is about more than the simple immediacy behind seeing what the king will think of the sex-driven satire, though, and whether he'll have them executed. As King Yeonsan continues to watch the troupe -- who, surprisingly, have been asked back to perform for the royal court -- he starts to develop a draw towards Gong-gil. This naturally creates a stir in the royalty's infrastructure (his advisors warn him of such), and redirects the film in a complex and provocative direction. The scenes involving the king as he explores the nature of his pull towards the effeminate man pivots on their implications: royalty succumbing to his attraction, both towards a commoner performer and, well, a man. His frantic movement around his chambers when Gong-gil arrives, suggesting maddened curiosity, is an animated representation of bottled-up, unpredictable attraction, where the king feels truly alive. And it's intense to watch, as the livelihood of the gypsies essentially hangs on what's occurring behind closed doors.
Enough positive things can't be said about the charismatic cast, from the supporting players breathing life into the ragtag gypsies to Kam Woo-seong as Jang-seng, but Lee Joon-gi deserves specific recognition as the choice for Gong-gil. Finding a male actor that's right on the line between masculinity and femininity, that can handle the struggle between apprehension and strength properly, isn't easy; the soft features that Lee Joon-gi presents hits the right notes, and it's wholly convincing to assume that King Yeonsan, a patently straight man, would feel that conflicting draw. His gender neutrality proves alluring, which makes the (not very lurid) scenes involving their romantic endeavors -- at first rigid, then slowly developing into one-sided mania -- emotionally dynamic and captivating to watch in context of the film's scenario. This film pivots so intently on that dramatic device that, without the right actor, the core purposes underneath it might've collapsed. Selecting Lee Joon-gi reinforced the story's effectiveness.
You get the sense from the opening moments of The King and the Clown that there's a veil of tragedy draped atop it, as if a downhearted fate awaits these destitute but enduring gypsies, which proves true once it follows through with an anticipated barrage of treachery, sexual confusion, and ultimately death surrounding the king's cloak-and-dagger affair. There's beauty in its melancholy fabric: it's easily one of the most accessible and absorbing films about pansexuality, "gender-blindness", out there, and the reason for its accessibility lies in the fact that it's telling a heartrending story which doesn't have to be affective simply because of its angle. While the structure of the king's defense of his attraction -- and the aristocracy's resistance -- becomes an overt but pointed representation of the struggles of modern-era sexuality, where he lays claim to his choices as an individual instead of adhering to precedence, the film's earns its poignancy because of the way that the actions effectively blur those lines.
Video and Audio:
I'd like nothing more than call out praises for Pathfinder Home Entertainment's choice to present The King and the Clown in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, since they have a history of missing the mark with some of their presentations of desirable foreign-language films (see Green Fish). But aside from the correct framing, there's not much more to celebrate with this somewhat harsh and lifeless presentation, even though it is, ultimately, watchable. The lively camerawork and vibrant colors feels restrained in terms of how a film shot in 2005 should look, but ultimately the negative's concentration on color usage and skin tones gets the job done. It's in the overall digital properties -- some harsh pixilation, lack of depth, noise, overly dark contrast, and stiff frame-to-frame movement -- where this disc ultimately lacks life. It's a clean print, though, and it's enhanced for widescreen televisions, which do work in the transfer's favor.
Here's where things get a little less forgivable: where the Korean release of the film (and the Blu-ray, for that matter) have multi-channel presentations, Pathfinder's DVD only arrives with a 2-channel Korean stereo track. To its credit, the thump of drums, the presence of the music, and the overall verbal buoyancy actually sound fairly strong -- a bit bright, but with enough oomph and control to be acknowledgeable. Limiting the presentation only to the front-end of the stage, however, assuredly weakens the presentation, which should pack a wallop with a bevy of surround devices (crowds, music, and overall essence). The English subtitles are, however, highly competent and nail down the flowery language of the performances perfectly, with no glaring grammatical issues.
Aside from a brief glimpse into the Making Of (4:02, 4x3) the film and a letterbox Trailer (2:20, 4x3), there's not a lot to work with here.
The King and the Clown is a beautiful, entertaining, and ultimately affecting import from South Korea, a 16th-century period film with impressive street-level set pieces and incrementally escalating drama build around the tumultuous attraction a king develops for a man. While it might sound too tightly-built into the niche of gay cinema, there's an accessibility about its storytelling -- and emotional resonance -- that takes it beyond those limitations, culminating into an eloquently tragic work that also voices a clear perspective on chipping away at the boundaries of sexual attraction. It's not a message unheard of, and it's not communicated subtly, but it does offer a robust dramatic backbone for a story about street performers striving to live and make their voices heard. While the film itself earns a very high recommendation, Pathfinder Home Entertainment's DVD misses the mark in several arenas that other-region editions of the film have nailed (check out Jamie's review here), making the lackluster DVD one best to be Rented for screening the content itself once.