Sunday, May 13, 2012

Korean Movie Night: King and the Clown

The play’s still the thing for King Yeon-san, the worst tyrant of the Chosun era.  However, it will be the consciences of his enemies in court that will be pricked by the productions staged by two very different thespian-minstrels in Lee Jun-ik’s King and the Clown (trailer here), which screens this Tuesday as part of the Korean Cultural Service’s fortnightly free Korean Movie Night in New York.

Newly arrived in Seoul, female impersonator Gong-gil and his ambiguous protector Jang-seng hit upon a popular gimmick when they start mocking the dissolute monarch in their skits.  Of course, this attracts the wrong sort of attention from zealous court ministers.  To forestall a flogging, Jang-seng agrees to a dangerous proposition—make the King laugh with their controversial routine or face execution.

Though not exactly prone to self-deprecating humor, Jang-seng and Gong-gil somehow manage to turn that frown upside down.  Frankly, it was largely the feminine Gong-gil.  Nevertheless, the King quarters the entire troupe in the palace.  Getting tips from the wise councilor Cheo-sun, their next command performances skewer thinly veiled court officials for their corruption and disloyalty.  Since the King uses the resulting discomfort as proof of a panged conscience and grounds for execution, these shows are decidedly unpopular with the titled bureaucracy.  The King quite enjoys them though and he is also becoming quite taken with Gong-gil.  This does not sit well with his Machiavellian consort Jang Nok-su, or with the increasingly disillusioned Jang-seng.

While K&C might imply a heck of a lot, it never shows even the slightest bit of handholding between Gong-gil and the King.  Yet, its chaste homosexual themes were more than enough for the notoriously homophobic Chinese Communist government to ban the film.  The depiction of a corrupt tyrant hastening his downfall through the capricious abuse of power probably did not help either.  Frankly, the China no-go is always a positive indicator a given film is definitely worth seeing.

Indeed, K&C is an entertaining costume drama, with plenty of intrigue and a fair amount of action (but no hanky-panky).  As Jang-seng, Kam Woo-seong is a totally manly, completely credible action hero and a monster brooder.  Lee Jun-ki’s Gong-gil seems to be stuck in a state of arrested development, emotionally and intellectually, but he certainly looks the part.  Jeong Jin-yeong seethes like mad, but he is also quite compelling expressing the roots of the King’s madness.  However, it is Kang Seong-yeon who really delivers the guilty pleasures as the lovely and deliciously devious royal consort.

K&C is plenty of fun, particularly when you can see it for free.  Despite the heavy subtext, sexuality hardly plays a role in the film.  It is all about power and jealousy (in the broadest sense), which is always a combustible mix.  Recommended for fans of Korean historicals, it screens this Tuesday (5/15) at the Tribeca Cinemas.  Connoisseurs of Korean cinema should also make note of the following selection for Korean Movie Night, the slightly naughtier but still enjoyable Forbidden Quest, a must for all publishing drones when it screens (for free) two weeks later (6/5).  Happy Mother's Day.