The new movie "The King and the Clown" overpowers viewers with its irrepressible power and charm. Indeed, a general impression of force is the one thing audiences are likely to take home with them before they can make sense of any details.
Such details may include a scene when the humble clown ridicules the king, the tension when Jang-saeng suddenly somersaults while walking a tightrope high up in the air and the almost palpable jealousy and attraction between characters. Released last Thursday, the movie delivers something no other period drama can.
The story takes place in the Chosun era under King Yeonsan. Director Lee Joon-ik did a great job with "Hwangsanbeol," a comedy set, of all times, during the war between the ancient Baekje and Shilla kingdoms in the 7th century. Here, he starts off with a close-up of the tyrant King Yeonsan, and from there takes audiences from one unexpected place to the next.
Jeering at the history Koreans are so familiar with and mocking the solemn king, the clown Jang-saeng is undeniably the hero of this satire, a member of the wretched underclass who live within sight of starvation no matter what great man is in charge of the nation. Yet he is a free spirit, and happy as a king, one might say, when showing his skills in front of an audience.
Moving to the capital Hanyang with his effete actor friend Gong-gil, played by Lee Jun-ki, he becomes popular in downtown streets. The king's majordomo, challenges the clowns to make the king, who is weary of feuds and conspiracies, laugh. Once before the monarch, Jang-saeng pillories the king's affair with Noksu (Kang Sung-yeon) and, against all the odds, the king bursts into laughter. But the story does not end with Jang-saeng's elevation to palace clown over the feat: there is bloodshed within the palace walls to come, and the awkward matter of the king taking a shine to Gong-gil.
Among the film's many visual pleasures are wide-angle shots of the tightrope walk and a spectacular opera scene reminiscent in its splendor of "Farewell My Concubine." But what really makes the movie is the acting by Kam Woo-sung, Chung Jin-young and new rising star Lee Jun-ki. Viewers will be surprised at the powerful energy and wit Kam Woo-sung displays after having established himself in cool, cerebral roles, and how well Chung Jin-young's voice works for the solemn king. Lee Jun-ki, too, is suitably fey and charming. In this last release of the year, Korea has another sure-fire audience magnet.