The King and the Clown

A street performer balances between being on the king’s good side and the king’s really good side in Lee Joon-ik’s period tragic dramedy.

“If the king likes it, then we’re innocent. We will make the King laugh.”

The Joseon dynasty is often considered one of Korea’s most prosperous, peaceful and innovative times – compared to the European Renaissance – and saw in countless numerous innovations in culture, art and technology overseen by hundreds of years of generally benevolent and well-liked rulers. Except, as the opening text of The King and the Clown would like to inform you, in the case of the tenth king Yeonsan who is largely remembered now for his tyranny and cruelty, and only occasionally for his intelligence and artistic sensibilities.

The King and the Clown tells the story of two street performers, Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi) and Jaesang (Kam Woo-sung) who find themselves imprisoned, along with their troupe, after a particularly sharp piece of penis-based satire. Jaesang is able to bargain for their lives: if they can make the King (Jung Jin-young) laugh, they’ll be allowed to go. The performance goes as badly as you’d expect when performing under such pressure, but the King finally does laugh at Gong-gil’s antics, and immediately takes an interest in him.

The troupe then becomes the palace’s live-in entertainers, and while they’re still alive they’re hardly free. This becomes more and more clear as Yeonsan’s fascination with Gong-gil becomes stronger – much to the annoyance of his newest concubine Nok-su (Kang Sung-yeon) – and as the king gets more and more erratic, the troupe realises they need to leave before they’re all killed.

Gong-gil is, ostensibly, the main character, but doesn’t get as much screen time as you’d expect. As the character who goes through the most, it would have been nice to see Lee Joon-gi get to show off his acting chops a bit more, especially considering this was his first feature. It’s not that he isn’t in the film much, far from it, but he often does seem like he’s been pushed to the background a bit more. Jaesang has the most to do here, but he’s also the least interesting. His character doesn’t really change much throughout the course of the story. Kam’s performance is engaging, and his relationship to Gong-gil is captivating, but there’s not much more to his character in the final scene that isn’t established in the first ten minutes.

Despite painting him as a monster as early as the opening text, the movie does focus a lot on Yeonsan. Like Jaesang, he doesn’t get much resembling a story arc, but there are still more layers to him than you might expect. By the end of the story a lot has been uncovered, and the result is a pretty complex character played excellently that only occasionally goes a bit over-the-top in his villainy.  

Lee Jon-ik and writer Choi Seok-hwan’s story is wonderfully subtle in the way it portrays LGBT relationships – and could have been why it managed to find lots of mainstream success at the time. The friendship between Jaesang and Gong-gil could be seen as bordering on homosexual, though it’s never really established, but the king’s increased passion for his jester is far more explicit. I couldn’t tell you how much of the story is real (I expect very little), but I appreciate the way that Yeonsan’s sexual repression comes out and how it flavours his character.

Overall The King and the Clown is a pretty solid drama, with plenty of comedic elements and refreshing moments of acrobatics and clownery to keep things fresh (even if the extended sequences of comedy performances can drag on a bit too long sat times). The way it slowly turns from comedy to serious drama and even tragedy mirrors the king’s increasing volatility and keeps the plot moving forward. There are for sure moments where it stumbles, but like a good tightrope trick, it’s all in the landing.

Verdict: It’s a story that’s been told a dozen times before, but the queer theming and historical elements help raise The King and the Clown above similar films.

Overall entertainment: 7.5/10
Violence: 3/10
Sex: Only the crudest jokes allowed here
Deaths: More than I expected going in, to be honest
Those bandages: Must have fused to the burns around his eyes, right? There’s no way they’re not getting infected.

The King and the Clown (2005)
Also known as왕의 남자 (The King’s Man)

Director: Lee Joon-ik
Writer: Choi Seok-hwan (screenplay), Kim Tae-woon (play)


Kam Woo-sung – Jang-saeng
Lee Joon-gi – Gong-gil
Jung Jin-young – King Yeonsan
Kang Sung-yeon – Jang Nok-su
Jang Hang-seon – Cheo-sun
Yoo Hae-jin – Yuk-gab
Jeong Seok-yong – Chil-duk
Lee Seung-hun – Pal-bok


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