Story: Jang-sang (Kam Woo-seong) is part of a group of jesters and entertains his audience alongside his feminine looking friend
Gong-gil (Lee Jun-gi). Because of his beautiful look Gong-gil is driven into prostitution with noblemen. Jang-sang can't watch this happening
anymore and leaves the troupe along with his friend. In Seoul they set up a new troupe with a few local jesters. However, the king's advisor
hears from their new programme, in which they make fun of the king, and has them arrested. Before they are beaten to death Jang-sang pleads
for a chance to play in front of the king (Jeong Jin-yeong). If they wouldn't succeed in making the king laugh, they would be exectuted. In fact,
the jesters manage to amuse the king, who henceforth has them employed as the royal jester troupe despite the ministers' protest.
The king slowly develops some child-like fascination for the performance of the jesters and with time starts to have his eye on
Gong-gil. Jang-sang who can interpret the signs from early on wants to leave the king's court as soon as possible, but it still seems to be
too late for that already.
Review: "The King and the Clown" has been a phenomenon in Korea. Shot with a small budget, quite the unfamiliar faces in the lead
roles and revolving around the topic of homosexuality, which has been a big taboo in Korea, this period drama managed to become the most
successful film at the Korean box-office at that time. Why the movie has been so incredibly successful is a mystery that cannot be solved.
It also must be pointed out that "The King and the Clown" can't live up to its enormously good reputation, yet we still get a wonderful
picture here that leaves no doubt from the get-go that we are presented with quality cinema. It's especially thanks to the fantastic acting
achievements that we are drawn into the movie so fast. However, the beautiful and opulent sets as well as the captivating love story, which
has that certain something about it, manage to win the viewer's heart in no time.
"The King and the Clown" provides some traditional dances and performances that are most of all exciting because of the beautiful costumes. The performance of the jester troup is characterized by a more vulgar humor most of the time, though. It's also no coincidence that it's exactly this kind of humor the king has a liking for. King Yeonsan is a tyrant shaped by his ministers who has quite some demons to exorcise since his childhood days when his mother was sentenced to death by the king. This event he could never really digest so that it had a strong influence on his character's development. That's the reason why the king is the actual driving force of the drama. He is a tyrant that sentences to death people in a matter of seconds, yet at the same time he is a victim of his own court and his traumatic childhood. His emotionality that over and over again clashes with his coldhearted rulership makes him unpredictable and frightening. A true despot that nonetheless can often win the viewer's sympathies as he simply has to be pitied for what has happened to him.
This dualism in the character of the king is excellently carried by Jeong Jin-yeong ("Bichunmoo") so that acting-wise he often outshines his two colleagues. Kam Woo-seong ("R-Point") plays the very manly and selfless Jang-sang who is always ready to lay his head on the block for his more feminine friend. Lee Jun-gi ("Flying Boys") in fact has some typical female physical traits with his petite nose, his small mouth and his tender skin so that it is easy to understand why some nobleman might find an interest in him. His acting is very subtle which also becomes a benefit as he never falls into the stereotypical category of the gay woman surrogate. The relationship between him and Jang-sang is only hinted at and therefore works so well in the end. Their relationship dangles between deeply felt friendship and a homosexual love affair without latter ever coming into the foreground. The director surely deserves some extra words of praise for the sensitiveness with which he works the love story - actually, it's even a love triangle - into the movie.
"The King and the Clown" also deals with corrupt ministers at court. The king's advisor even brought the jester troupe to the king's court for the sole purpose that they make fun of the royal court in front of the king and show the ruler what kind of life his ministers actually lead. The coldbloodedness with which king Yeongsan goes against corruption is frightening, but in one show of the jesters, which the king writes himself, he tries to come to terms with his childhood trauma and settles up with the culprits which is why the background story gives us a good explanation for his almost manic character. This scene is especially dramatical as it finely blends movie reality and stage acting.
But what's actually something positive can also unfold its negative sides. As a viewer you always get the feeling that the relationship between the two jesters should stand a little bit more in the spotlight. And in some way it does, but often enough the king being torn apart in the inside holds the reins and banishes the two jesters on the backseat without this apparently being the intention of director Lee Jun-ik ("Radio Star").
The effectively used love story, the power struggle at court and the historical background stand as a fine mix, that brings to bear the drama of the movie in a successful manner. The dances and traditional music offer a good variety and technically there is also nothing to badmouth about. Thus, it's even more strange that we aren't left with tears in our eyes at the end of the movie. "The King and the Clown" sadly can't be that moving eventually and maybe it also doesn't want to be. It's in fact the subtle but also powerful acting that is the film's true strength. Consequently, there are no overly dramatic moments to be found and where they can be found they are embedded in the stage performances of the jesters. At the bottom line the two hours of the movie fly by like an arrow and even though you might not be left with an empty tissue pack you will still feel like having watched a nice drama that finally offers some essence, too.