Nobody in movies knows anything, if you believe William Goldman. For instance, no one in their right mind would have predicted that the highest grossing movie in the history of Korean cinema would be a queer-themed historical drama. And yet, that's what happened. The King and the Clown (2005, directed by Jun-ik Lee), an unassuming "small" movie, somehow tickled the Korean popular imagination and became that blockbuster.
The story follows the friendship of two itinerant "clowns," though "clown" is an English descriptor. They are more like traveling acrobats and actors, whose plays are ribald. These are the rough and tumble Jang-sang, the frontman, and the androgynous Gong-gil, who specializes in playing women. When the film opens, their manager finds that he can make more money by pimping Gong-gil to the local aristocrat than he can from the play. This infuriates Jang-sang, who rescues a not-exactly unwilling Gong-gil from being sold for the night. The two escape from their troupe after killing the manager and head to Seoul, where pickings for traveling players are slim. The king has driven out huge chunks of the population to increase his hunting grounds, and there is no longer a show district where Jang-sang and Gong-gil can ply their trade. They're basically for the street, where they fall in with a rival company and stage a play mocking the current king. They make a lot of money, but the run is short. They're arrested for treason. In the course of being punished, Jang-sang challenges their jailors that the king himself should judge them. If he laughs, they're off the hook. If not, heads roll. Miraculously, they make him laugh, but then things get hairy, because the king has cast his eye on Gong-gil. So, too, has his consort. Meanwhile, the king's ministers begin using the troupe as pawns in the intrigues of court...
Huge popular successes rarely appear sui generis, and so it is with this film. There are echoes here of Farewell, My Concubine and Brokeback Mountain, as well as numerous contemporary Korean films. In spite of the fact that the main narrative is based on a true story, it's a "true story" in the same way that the the myth of Hypatia or Alexander and the Gordian Knot are "true." It merges with a common worldwide archetype of the jester speaking truth to power and power yielding before it. It's a film that's as much about entertainment itself as anything else, and it's a magnificent entertainment on its own, and a multi-layered one at that. On the surface, it's about comedy, but it's structured like a thriller. There's an everpresent threat of death hanging over its main narrative, and while the comedy is funny, it's also a tightrope. Fall off, and the tigers get you.
At this point, I hardly need mention that this film is beautifully made. That's almost a given in Korean cinema these days. The King and the Clown is as much a colorful historical pageant as it is a comic tragedy, and like most historical pageants, it has a minute obsession with production and costume design. As a visual object, its beautiful. As a dramatic object, it synthesizes its multifarioius influences into high tragedy. Parts of it are positively Shakespearean, particularly its suggestion that all the world's a stage, and that the play's the thing to catch the conscience of the king. The tragedy turns unexpectedly sanguinary when a play stirs up the roots of the king's tyranny. There's an interesting inversion in this, however: It's the fools that are the center of this movie, not the mad king. This is at the heart of the film's success in Korea, where anti-authoritarian themes play particularly well after decades of military dictatorship. This film also shares the Korean trait of veering from comedy to absolute horror. That's a national cinema that's on speaking terms with evil, and they sure know how to show it.
The heart of the film is the love story between Jang-sang and Gong-gil, a love story that is almost entirely sub rosa. The fact that Gong-gil is some variety of queer is overt. The fact that Jang-sang is some variety of queer is not. The movie doesn't spell out a romantic relationship between them, but it doesn't exclude the possibility, either. Korean film has only recently thawed when it comes to depictions of homosexuality, so its openmindedness is unexpected. The love story is what gives the ruthless plot mechanisms at the end of the film their gut-punch.