Updated: Jul 2, 2021
As Korea's official submission for the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, "The King and Clown" stands out as one of director Lee Jon-ik's best. This moving story about the triumph of art and humanity in the face of grave persecution and fear will have you thinking about it years after the film ends.
The film is an adaptation of the award-winning Korean stage play Yi which centers around an effeminate actor who is said to be the king's favorite clown. Set in the late 15th century in the reign of King Yeonsan, The King and Clown is about two male street clowns, Jangsaeng (Kam Woo-soong) and Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi), as they make their way through life with their wandering troupe. Because of Gong-gil's feminine beauty, he usually takes on the female roles in the troupe's performances. Unfortunately, his beauty also exposes him to many dangers, and the troupe needs to keep moving from place to place to help him stay safe.
One day, the troupe is challenged to perform for the king and is tasked to make him laugh. Their initial success sets them up to perform more and more plays for the king. But instead of simply staging "safe" stories, the troupe responds by staging more productions with implied messages about the corruption at court and other dangerous political issues. Over time, the king falls for Gong-gil, but his favor quickly turns into a dangerous obsession and grows more unpredictable by the day. Gong-gil then finds himself between pleasing the one man who can destroy his entire troupe and telling the king the truth about the horrible conditions of the monarchy. But when the lives of your friends are in the hands of a madman, how far can an artist go to remain faithful to art and truth, and where must he begin to compromise?
Lee Joon-gi -- he of Resident Evil: Final Chapter fame for action film fans, and Flower of Evil tragedy for k-drama fans -- enjoys a solid reputation as one of Asia's top action film stars. His long training and background in martial arts come in handy; he regularly does his own stunts and rarely uses stunt doubles. But when he was starting out, he was far from the hyper-masculinity he embodies in Resident Evil. In fact, Joon-gi's first role as the pretty Gong-gil was so pivotal that he is credited for launching the massive "flower boy" trend back in 2005. But there's more to The King and Clown than just Joon-gi's beautiful face and convincingly effeminate performance: it was, after all, directed by Daesang/Grand Prize awardee Lee Jun-ik, who has also directed The Throne (2016). Both of his films made it into the Oscars category for Best Foreign Film.
There's so much to love in this movie, even if the story is ultimately tragic (and which Korean historical isn't?). Aside from Lee Joon-gi's delicate performance as an effeminate street clown, I suspect that the movie's strong message of fighting for your art and staying honest even when everyone else is bowing to a tyrannical leader (ahem, ahem) still resonates with many contemporary viewers. While the amazing cast is incredible to watch, it is the skill of Director Lee Joon-ik when helming the tension-filled scenes that will really keep you at the edge of your seat until the end. Watch for the scenes where the street performers have to make the king laugh or face execution. Watch how stressed you'll get when the king calls for Gong-gil in the night. While The King and Clown is primarily about art and artistic integrity, it certainly does not shy away from the high costs and the risky realities that artists must pay in order to create art.
In the landscape of Korean films, The King and Clown is quite the anomaly. It had a minimal budget. It had an unknown actor debuting as its lead. It had a strong homosexual theme set in a historical production -- quite shocking in still-conservative Korea. It had no gimmicky cinematography nor amazing stage effects. Yet it turned out to be their most critically and commercially successful film in 2005, and remains one of its best to this day. I would even dare say that the film still stands up nicely in the more hypercritical times we now live in. But when a beautifully written tragedy is combined with strong performances and helmed steadily by a director of Lee Joon-ik's caliber, art of the best kind happens. The kind that helps us empathize and feel and become better humans. The kind that restores our faith in love and goodness in the face of fear and destruction. The kind of art that resonates with you so memorably that it stays with you years after the credits roll.
Now available on Netflix
Stream: If you want to see why this film was the most-watched South Korean film in 2005 and why it still resonates today. This film is also one of the reasons why Lee Joon-ik won the Grand Prize/Daesang for film contribution in this year's Baeksangs.
Skip: If heavy themes like this are not your cup of tea. But we do suggest you give it a try.