History, as they say, is written by the winners. In Cinema just like in life and war, the one standing on top after a lengthy battle, the last one to laugh writes the end. Just what kind of chapter Lee Joon-Ik will write in Chungmuro's history with >왕의 남자 (The King and The Clown) is something we won't be able to fully understand or even experience for quite a few years, but we can already see some early consequences today.
With the success of 쉬리 (Shiri) and 공동경비구역 JSA (Joint Security Area) films dealing with the 분단 (North/South Divide) built a very strong trend. Kwak Kyung-Taek's record breaking 친구 (Friend) sent the industry into a 조폭 (Jopok, gangster) frenzy, and the two mega-blockbusters 실미도 (Silmido) and 태극기 휘날리며 (Tageukgi) showed Korean-style blockbusters weren't dead, especially when they pushed the flag-waving card. But looking back at all those huge hits, there was almost always an axiom connecting the films: big stars, famous directors, lavish sets and lots of special effects.
Sometimes records are broken thanks to massive marketing campaigns by their producers, like in Silmido's case; sometimes they find themselves in the right place at the right time, taking advantage of a building trend like JSA. Removed from quality -- and all of those films are good, although in different doses -- what those films achieved were short term breakthroughs, personal gains; they helped directors and actors rise to stardom, or become even bigger stars. They helped the industry with their success, but in a way also fooled producers into believing following a trend was enough to bring you a surefire hit.
When 서편제 (Sopyonje) made it huge, several films tried to follow Im Kwon-Taek's lead in rediscovering Korea's cultural roots, but failed in finding public acceptance. While the divide and gangsters are responsible for the majority of the films in the All time Top 10, those are merely peaks of trends which left many victims at the bottom, barely raising their voice. The last few years saw several creatively bankrupt projects derailing without making much noise: films like DMZ 비무장지대 (Demilitarized Zone) and 안중근 (Ahn Joong-Geun), banking on the Divide and the nationalistic overtones of the two Kang's blockbusters respectively, and falling flat on their faces. The collection of insipid gangster comedies which populated Korean Cinema a couple of years ago would also be a good example. You'd think producers would have learned their lesson by now, forgetting for a moment trends and market demographics and focusing on simply making a good film. But no, history repeats itself. All that changes is the players.
Of course this will continue. Despite getting trashed by critics, 한반도 (Hanbando) will probably end up with a box office run similar to last year's 태풍 (Typhoon). Why? Simply because it's a big film with big stars, it deals with a touchy subject and distribution companies and theater chains will happily shove it down Koreans' throats until it makes back all its money. Gangster comedies will continue to be made in droves, as we already have a third Marrying The Mafia ready to unfold next Chuseok, along with a third Gangster Wife, not to mention a possible third serving of gangsters going back to school. Still, the little page of history Lee Joon-Ik wrote with his film is there, and increasingly more people are starting to notice it.
The reasons are simple. Illustrious flops like 야수 (Running Wild) and 청연 (Blue Swallow) -- despite being two excellent films, mind you -- have shown banking on big stars and big budgets doesn't guarantee big money. And finally producers have started noticing that the Korean Wave is more a wide but ambiguous cultural phenomenon than anything they can bank on to improve their fortunes. After the huge success of 외 출 (April Snow) and 내 머리속의 지우개 (A Moment To Remember), a group of films targeted at the Japanese and/or Chinese speaking markets was produced. 데이지 (Daisy), 파랑주의보 (My Girl & I) and 연리지 (Now & Forever) might have promised big returns for their producers, but when those films flopped both at home (no surprise. Koreans don't like Korean Wave bait and they've shown it more than once) and abroad, then some of those producers started smelling the roses. Choi Ji-Woo will not get you a hit just because she wailed all the way to the end of 천국의 계단 (Stairway To Heaven) and made Yonsama's heart beat in 겨울연가 (Winter Sonata).
Blockbusters with huge stars don't work anymore. Some star vehicles manage to break through the glass ceiling, like 청춘만화 (Almost Love) and horrible comedies like 투사부일체 (My Boss, My Teacher). But the real story at the box office is another, it's like a silent revolution, replacing the old rules under the eyes of those not quick enough to realize something is changing. Of the dozens and dozens of films in production at the moment, only a handful go over the 5 Billion Won, and those look like very solid projects, like the 11 Billion Won Drama 화려한 휴가 (Splendid Holidays) set during the Gwangju Massacre. But the real success story of 2006 so far is 달콤, 살벌한 연인 (My Scary Girl), a film with no stars which cost a mere 900 Million Won to produce, and went on to sell over 2 Million tickets. Even Ryu Seung-Wan's 짝패 (The City of Violence), a 'pure action' film costing 2.5 Billion Won, went on to break even selling a good 1.2 Million tickets.
In the past the idea was that you needed either a star director or popular actors to make it big, but now it seems like the concept, the idea has become a little more important. Spending less money on films gives you more options, you tend to have more freedom to experiment and even when you don't make it big the loss is not dramatic. Don't believe me? A quick look at the films under production reveals a rebirth of variety Chungmuro hasn't seen since the mid 90s. It's not just melodramas, gangster and horror films next to arthouse and auterist Cinema. Sci-Fi, Musicals, black comedies and oddities like Jang Joon-Hwan's 반구영웅 (Fartman) are sharing space next to the usual romcoms and melodramas. Why all the confidence, after people were already spelling a slow death for Korean Cinema when the 2002 blockbuster bubble burst?
Pointing everything to a single film would be foolish, but then again whispering in a crowd beats screaming in an empty room. Yes, not all the merit for this small (or possibly big, who knows) revolution in Chungmuro belongs to it, but Lee Joon-Ik's The King and The Clown did something special which gave confidence to producers even when the screen quota reduction is rearing its ugly head on the peninsula. It's not just loved by industry insiders and used as an example to follow because it's on top of the mountain, but because of its journey to get there. Unlike all the record hits which preceded it, Lee's film had no stars, a shaky budget of just over 4 Billion Won, and a company with a big debt to deal with.
Despite the success of 황산벌 (Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield), all Cineworld and Lee were able to pay back of the huge debts which started from 공포 택시 (Ghost Taxi)'s flop was 1 Billion Won, so they were still over 3 Billion in the red, which inevitably influenced their choices when dealing with any new project. To avoid any further losses the company stopped distributing films, but they still needed money to shoot their next film. Director Lee went to his old friend Kang Woo-Suk, looking for a possible way out, and all those years of sharing misfortunes had a very significant influence: Kang had 2.3 Billion Won 'handy' from various ordeals and gave them to Lee right away. No conditions, no interest. Just the promise he'd slowly pay them back when he could. People are surprised that Lee was able to shoot a Sageuk for a little over 4 Billion, but if he could he probably would have spent a little more. The situation just didn't allow any other extra expenditures, but thankfully Lee's modus operandi fit well with those limitations, otherwise this film could have never been made.
The basic idea behind the film, beyond the original play it was loosely based on, was that of showing the sense of identity of the Clowns vis-a-vis the position of the King. Lee compared Royal Jesters to chickens. Strange, but not entirely so if you think about it: chickens are animals announcing the morning's arrival, standing in the middle of Heaven and Earth. Royal Jesters are the trait d'union between the people and Heaven (the King). Their relationship stand at extremes: the highest with the lowest, every other outside influence coming in between. So, in a way, that's why they can relate to each other. Jang-Saeng's hands are tied by his social rank, whereas every move Yeonsan tried to make was contested and criticized by Censors hungry for Power. From one end of the Palace to the other, the King and the Clowns, sharing some of the same problems.
Lee's interest in making Sageuk came while researching for 아나키스트 (Anarchists) in the mid-to-late 90s, and after completing 황산벌 (Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield) he found the canvass the Sageuk setting offered him was much larger than what a slightly more contemporary film would give him. With Battlefield and its surprising success in the can, Lee was looking for other projects, always on the run like when he started working in this business two decades ago. A member of the planning team then gave him some advice, to check a theater play which was quite interesting. Lee read the script, and he instantly found himself catapulted into a world he knew very little about. Curiosity started getting the better of him, so much that he decided to give it a go. That play was Kim Tae-Woong's 爾 (Yi).
The first few meetings between playwright Kim Tae-Woong and Director Lee Joon-Ik weren't exactly what you'd call productive. Kim had just completed a play in 2001 after hitting it big the year before with Yi, and an old friend from college came to visit for a drink: it was Jung Jin-Young. Jung asked him if he was interested in becoming a director in Chungmuro after all the success he went through in the theater world. After all, people like Lee Yoon-Taek of 오구 (Ogu: Hilarious Mourning) and of course Jang Jin made the big step after illustrious careers in theater. But back then Kim saw films with an uncompromising artist's point of view: he considered the medium just a form of mainstream entertainment, something commercial; a business, so to speak. All he thought about, coming from a world where you'd perform even in front of 20 people at times, was doing something which would challenge him as an artist, he never cared about things like making a profit. And that's when he met the antithesis of that concept (at least in his mind), Lee Joon-Ik.
It wasn't so much that Lee only saw money -- hell, his philosophy was the exact opposite -- but Kim misunderstood his pragmatism and down-to-earth approach to the dynamics of film which made him appear like a journeyman only interested in making a few bucks. Lee saw his attitude as aloof, and Kim considered Lee someone a little too interested in money to fit his idea of someone worth working with. Let's just say it didn't work out.
Even when Lee directed Battlefield, Kim felt he took the matter a little too lightly despite having a good item on his hands, so learning that he wanted to adapt his jewel, his most successful work Yi into a film, he could hardly trust Lee would end up giving justice to something he worked so hard to create. It was in some ways like when Jung Jin-Young got to know the man, right around the time when he was offered a role in 달마야 놀자 (Hi, Dharma) after being recommended by Park Shin-Yang. Until he actually got to meet the man and listen to his ideas, Jung thought Lee was simply mocking Buddhism and Monks to make a buck. But thankfully those were only initial misunderstandings. The moment they met Lee, they knew instantly this wasn't the kind of person they expected.
While Jung became known as Lee's persona, after starring in four films he produced and/or directed, the Director's relationship with Kim was a little more difficult to handle. Inspired by a variety of sources, including Baudelaire's Le Spleen De Paris and of course Yeonsan's own Diaries, Yi told the story of a Palace jester named Gong-Gil, right after the two famous purges of yangban by Yeonsan. The King preferred the company of his favourite Clown instead of women, and went so far as giving him an official rank, using the Yi (爾 of 너, a more polite way of saying You) to address him. In love with Gong-Gil, another Clown named Jang-Saeng would work with one of the King's former favourite concubines, Jang Nok-Soo, to criticize the King for his conduct regarding Gong-Gil.
Lee didn't care much about Gong-Gil, and he didn't relate to Yeonsan's struggles the way Kim fleshed them out either. But Jang-Saeng was ringing a bell. He was closer to what he envisioned for his film, so much that he wanted to shift the focus completely: The King and The Clown's new protagonist became Jang-Saeng, relegating Gong-Gil to a very important, but still secondary role.
Two things caught his interest more than Gong-Gil's strange relationship with the King. One was the essence of Royal Clowns itself. While Koreans might have been familiar with Jesters from Western or other Asian Literature, Korea also had its unique brand of jesters ever since the Goryeo Dynasty, and they didn't simply satirize the King to make a living. Korean Clowns would put their entire body on the line to entertain the crowd. Another issue which always played a significant part in his past works as a producer or director was that of equality between people and how that concept clashed with politics and history. The group of activists in Anarchists hope for a better future for their fellow Koreans, but find themselves betrayed by both factions, and playing simple pawns in a political game between left and right. Similarly, the characters in 간첩 리철진 (The Spy) distance themselves from the norm, in accepting a North Korean spy as a person first, removed from all the pro and con the divide creates. And of course we have Gyebaek's ultimate sacrifice in Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield, letting someone go to tell the story for him.
So instead of focusing primarily on Palace politics like most other works dealing with Yeonsan did, or on the Gong-Gil/Yeonsan line of the play, Lee put the spotlight on the plight of people like Jang-Saeng. How did he do that? By, among other things, reading Shakespeare. Kim Tae-Woong gave Lee a book entitled Shakespeare's Four Tragedies, dealing obviously with Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet. Reading it, Lee discovered Aristoteles' Six main elements of a good tragedy: plot, thought, characters, dialogue, music and spectacle. He was particularly surprised by the addition of thought as in theme: what's important is not what happens, but what's hidden behind that, what that action's message is. In some ways, Shakespeare's works always followed that creed, all the main characters building their destiny through character. So the motto of The King and The Clown was just like that of a tragedy like Othello and Macbeth: character is destiny.
The balancing of those six elements would make or break the film, but the biggest issue was removed from any narrative-based formality. At first the crew was hunting for locations at real Palaces, like Kyunghee and Gyeongbok Palace, but after the Cultural Heritage Administration protested the crew was forced to build one for themselves. If you've been looking at Sageuk on TV like 주몽 (Jumong), 연개소문 (Yeon Gaesomun) or the upcoming 대조영 (Dae Jo Young), you know all too well building a full Palace set for a Sageuk is pretty much out of any film production company's league, unless they want to spend 10 Billion Won (at best) for the set alone. Cineworld didn't even have half of that. But as misfortune always seems to come in pairs, things had to get even worse before they got better.
Their first choice for the role of Jang-Saeng was Jang Hyuk, a young actor with a decent track record at the box office, and good enough acting skills. But, after getting involved in last year's draft dodging scandal, Jang had to drop out. The company was left without a Palace, and even without its most important Clown. Delaying the shoot's start by months, this string of bad luck ended up becoming a blessing in disguise. KBS' fantastic Sageuk 불멸의 이순신 (The Immortal Lee Soon-Shin) had just completed its shoot, and Cineworld found the perfect opportunity: instead of building a set they couldn't afford, the company used the one for the popular Sageuk which helped Kim Myung-Min's rise to stardom. From going to a possible collapse, they ended up spending 300 Million less than expected, and found themselves with a very good set to boot. One of the six elements, spectacle, was taken care of. As Euripides would say, "fortune truly helps those who are of good judgment."
Despite a trend building among historians in the early-to-mid 90s bringing a significant change in the way Yeonsan was seen by popular culture, it took a while before anyone on TV and the big screen took notice. While past works dealing with the tyrant noted how the madness of the King was created by his hunger for motherly care (and anger for the unfortunate death of his mother), few works ever tried to look at more significant causes for his despotic rule. And when a certain Jung Ha-Yeon, who recently wrote a little Drama called 신돈 (Shin Don) -- which, coincidentally, might just be the best Sageuk since The Immortal Lee Soon-Shin -- wrote 장녹수 (Jang Nok-Soo) in 1995 for KBS, things started to change.
Jung's work pointed the blame to the actions of the 삼사 (三司, Samsa, the Three Censorate Offices), constantly complaining about the King's action ever since Seongjong's reign. Jang Nok-Soo was one of the first Dramas to move the focus from individual character flaws (Yeonsan's) to a much more complex set of consequences which had political and ideological significance. The show starred Yoo Dong-Geun of 연개소문 (Yeon Gaesomun) as Yeonsan, and Park Ji-Young as the famous concubine of the title. But despite all the changes Yeonsan's 'character' saw in the last 15 years, Lee didn't want to necessarily focus on the war of words between the King and the Censorate which led to the purges of yangban during Yeonsan's tenure. He was more interested in Yeonsan's character and personality itself, and how that shaped his relationship with Gong-Gil, Jang-Saeng, Nok-Soo and everyone else. Now all he needed was someone who could give the role justice.
Jung Jin-Young's return to Chungmuro in the late 90s, after a good half decade of theater and only theater -- with the exception of a small role in 테러리스트 (Terrorist) -- came completely by coincidence. Jung was working in the Assistant Producers' team for Lee Chang-Dong's 초록 물고기 (Green Fish), and less than a week before the shooting started, the actor supposed to play the role of Han Suk-Gyu's brother-in-law dropped out because of contract issues. Since they knew he had experience in theater, Director Lee and Yeo Gyun-Dong just approached this young assistant producer and told him to play the part himself. Despite giving a good performance there, Jung never thought that would lead into a career in Chungmuro, at least as an actor. Jung always dreamed of becoming a director ever since his childhood, so he kept writing scripts at home and doing theater -- not exactly a very remunerative job, at least in Korea.
But then again life is full of strange events, things that sometimes build a person's destiny by pure coincidence. Remember how Director Lee Joon-Ik got in the business by chance, when his wife got pregnant and he had to drop out of Sejong University? Something quite similar happened to Jung, which might just be one of the reasons why the two have become such good working partners. It was 1997 and Jung's wife got pregnant, and with very little money at home (not enough to cover hospital costs, for instance) he had to make a quick decision: what's the quickest way to make decent money? Acting. Making little money in theater, Jung found the hard way how the industry was changing for the worse, at least in financial terms, but he also rediscovered his passion for acting. He found himself on the receiving end of Lady Luck's hand when he was cast in what was the role of his life back then: 약속 (A Promise), one of the biggest hits of 1998, starring Jeon Do-Yeon and Park Shin-Yang.
How did he get the call? Jung was at home playing Baduk with his brother-in-law, when his 삐삐 (Beeper) started ringing. It was one of those strange situations when you can barely hear what the person on the other hand is saying, and since we were still far from the era of super Cam phones with every gadget in the book except something making you coffee, he could just sit there and listen. It was some film company, offering him a role in one of their films. He thought to himself this would just be another of those small roles, selling eggs on the street or playing the guy who gets killed after three scenes. But it turned out to be something he never expected. Playing lead Park Shin-Yang's loyal right hand man in the film, Jung ended up winning Best Supporting Actor at both the Blue Dragon and Grand Bell Awards that year. So much for selling eggs on the street...
From that moment, Jung built his career with interesting roles, even if his choice of films wasn't always the best. He got his first lead in the remake 링 (The Ring Virus) next to Shin Eun-Kyung, and also an important role in the Wuxia 비천무 (Bichunmoo). After starring in the little know black comedy 교도소 월드컵 (Prison World Cup), Jung found in another man of theater his chance to make an impact with the public. It was Jang Jin with 킬러들의 수다 (Guns & Talks), where he played an interesting prosecutor, far removed from the usual good and bad dichotomies of the genre. Then came the beginning of his long story with Director Lee Joon-Ik, playing a monk in Hi, Dharma. The role was one of the highlights of Jung's career, and brought the actor closer to then Producer Lee, who even cast him in his return to the directing chair, Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield.
In casting Jung Jin-Young as Yeonsan, Director Lee wanted him to forget about any previous portrayal of the controversial King. He told him to forget about historical records and how party strife influenced his tenure, to focus instead of the person behind the figure. Living the moment, constantly changing. A man who wasn't fit to be King, but inevitably became one because the way situations unfolded. To create this character, Lee focused more on new sources rather than existing records. Two titles he particularly focused on were Park Jong-Hwa's 금삼의 피 (Bloody Robes) and the more recent play 문제적 인간 연산 (Yeonsan, a Problematic Figure) by Lee Yoon-Taek. The peculiar thing was that while the first was a sort of 'lateral biography' and much more subjective, the latter was the complete opposite.
Another film to adapt Park's work was Lee Hyuk-Soo's 연산군 (Prince Yeonsan) in 1987, with Lee Dae-Geun as Yeonsan and Kang Su-Yeon as Nok-Soo. Park is not new to film or Drama adaptation, as 용의 눈물 (Tears of the Dragon), 왕의 여자 (The King and The Woman) and many big screen Sageuk in the 60s (mostly dealing with Yeonsan) also came from the same pen. What was the major point regarding Yeonsan here? That his rule was considered despotic because that's what the point of view of those who wrote history back then was. In other words, just like Shilla's unification of the Peninsula is seen as an heroic act in the 삼국사기 (Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms), written by Shilla Royalty descendant Kim Bu-Shik in the Goryeo period, Yeonsan's rule was treated even more negatively as it struck a nerve of those writing historical records in the first place.
Through those works, Lee found two things to focus on: Yeonsan's Oedipus Complex, shaping his emotional state during his tenure. And, once again, that sense of equality which populates most of Cineworld's films: Yeonsan becomes a 'clown' of his own by the end of the film, with that big smile on his face. He's not the King up there on a pedestal, judged by his deeds as a ruler. He's a man just like everyone else, prone to making mistakes as he was raised in an environment which inevitably shaped his future. But where did all that chaotic environment start?
During King Seongjong's rule (1469-1494), a group of young, reform-minded Neo-Confucian yangban rose to prominence, not only contesting the old guard of Merit Subjects, but also harshly criticizing anyone who would indulge in acts betraying Confucian values. Seongjong's rule saw this Neo-Confucian group gain immense power within the Samsa, the three Censorate Offices. Always a very tolerant ruler, Seongjong allowed these young, idealist Censors to raise their voice and challenge the acts of the old guard, but also of the King's policies. Seen as a chance to gain power, the Samsa kept mounting the pressure on the King, nearly criticizing every move he made, eventually causing a rift within the palace. This 사림파 (Sarim faction) of Neo-Confucians would later dig their own grave, when constant criticism was partially responsible for the King's madness.
An event marked the beginning of the end for the faction. Lady Yoon was just a concubine, before she became the King's second wife. The palace needed a royal heir, and her beauty was just another incentive for Seongjong to marry her. Although Lady Yoon gave birth to a son, Lee Yoong, her tenure in the Palace was a little different from that of your usual queen: she poisoned a 'rival' concubine, and even hit the King himself, with the signs of her rage clearly showing the day after. Queen Mother Insu learned of her act, and first sent into exile, and later was one of the culprits (along with government officials) behind her poisoning. When Seongjong died in 1494, the throne was left to young Lee Yoong, who later became known as Yeonsan.
Not knowing what happened to his mother, Yeonsan tried to solve all the problems which plagued his father's tenure, putting the focus back on the King's authority and trying to tame the increasing power of the Samsa. But his tentative would soon meet with attacks from the Neo-Confucian heavy Censorate, criticizing the King for just about everything, from his views on Buddhist rituals to, most importantly, the Royal Line, which since Sejo's rule had been controversial to say the least. While his first purge of Yangban in 1498 had more to do with the conflict of power between the Samsa and the King, what happened in 1504 was much, much closer to home.
Yeonsan finally learned of what happened to his mother, and started eliminating anyone even remotely connected with the matter. First he punished the two concubines responsible for Lady Yoon's jealousy, even beating them to death himself as the records suggest. He tried to dig out information about every single man and woman who participated in the event, breaking the long standing rule which forbid the King from looking at historical records, going from Merit Subjects on one side to Samsa Neo-Confucians on the other. He abolished two of the Samsa's Offices, closed the office of Royal Lectures, and seized land from tens of thousands of commoners to turn it into his personal hunting ground, and enjoyed the company of women and entertainers more than his duties as a ruler.
The madness of the King was mostly recorded as one's man succession of treacherous misdeeds, but at the end of the day it was caused by the forces which brought him to power, by both the shaky Royal Line of the Lee Dynasty and the party strife between conservative Merit Subjects and Neo-Confucians, rendering the King a mere pawn in a game of bigger forces. By humanizing Yeonsan, by making him look as a big child playing games way too dangerous for his own good, Director Lee has managed to avoid the pitfalls (on both sides of the spectrum) that the discussion about Yeonsan often brings. Despite having shown a clear ideological slant in all his previous films, and Yeonsan's tyrannical rule being the exact antithesis of that ideology, Lee never fails to focus on the real issue, which was people above ideology and politics. That the Yeonsan portrayed in The King and The Clown is so different from past portrayals goes down not only to Jung Jin-Young's charismatic performance, but also to the fact Lee tried to find the person behind the figure.
But while Yeonsan was an important part of the film, the Clowns were still the core of The King and The Clown. Casting for the King was quite easy, but it was the Clowns themselves who would create the biggest headaches for the company. As we mentioned before, Jang Hyuk was supposed to play Jang-Saeng, but that's only because he was the only 'star' who accepted the role. The script was sent to even more popular actors, but nobody seemed interested. The film was ready to shoot by October 2004, but Jang's draft dodging scandal forced them to choose someone else. Up to December, the choice was between Lee Moon-Shik, who worked with Director Lee on many films before, and Kim Soo-Ro. But then another name emerged: Gam Woo-Sung.
Kim ended up leaving the role to Gam, who had built a reputation for being a really hard working and talented actor, but never tried Sageuk himself as he thought he didn't have the right image. The last obstacle was finding Gong-Gil, who at first was supposed to be played by Park Hae-Il, but they eventually decided to go for an audition, which ended up crowning relative newcomer Lee Joon-Gi as our new Gong-Gil. The actors had only a few months to get acquainted with the roles, and learn the skills the Clowns showed during their performance. At the end of all this misfortune, one little ray of light emerged: there was no star on the set, so everyone ended up working harder, and that concept of equality so often mentioned in Lee's film actually found its equivalent on the set of the film.
While the play was more about Gong-Gil's change after coming into contact with extreme power, the film pointed the spotlight at a simple, free-spirited 천민 (commoner) squaring off against the most powerful man in town. It became a much more significant allegory just like Lee's past work, added a few characters (like Cheo-Seon, played by Jang Hang-Seon), and worked with a larger canvass. Of course with theater you can focus on a couple of issues and carry the ball from there, but films, especially Sageuk need a broader spectrum to work.
The reasons for focusing on Jang-Saeng had more to do with the director's modus operandi and ideological point of view than anything else. Gong-Gil's internal struggle (more in terms of power than sexuality, obviously) didn't speak to him, and although he could relate to some of Yeonsan's problems it wasn't enough to draw his attention. So why Jang-Saeng? Because it was the character he could relate to the most, because his struggle, his sense of hostility towards the society he was living in mirrored in some ways Lee's past and current struggles. When Lee debuted as a director in 1993 with 키드 캅 (Kid Cop), it was also because of hostility, and his desire to get his revenge on life which awarded him 15 hard years lived with money constantly on his mind. Just like Jang-Saeng, Lee had always been an anti-conformist, so he related to his struggles much more than Gong-Gil's thirst for power or Yeonsan's Oedipus Complex. And so it was Jang-Saeng, after all.
This anti-conformism was reflected in the way Jang-Saeng's character develops, hauling down Yeonsan's power through satire. But it wasn't just an attack on Yeonsan's status as a despotic ruler, it brought down his figure entirely, putting Jang-Saeng and Yeonsan on the same level. When Yeonsan joins Jang-Saeng in his little performance inside the Palace, the King himself becomes a Clown, as through that he can finally strip himself of the boundaries his role forces upon him, by even getting to know his human side.
What's so good about Gam's performance as Jang-Saeng is that not only he absorbed techniques and skills which would take months and months of training for any normal actor, showing admirable talent as a performer. It's that 'average guy' humanism, neither heroic nor its antithesis. Jang-Saeng is the mirror with which the viewer approaches the film. He's like us, trying to find his way, to do his best to enjoy life the way he wants. And while his casting in the film was pure coincidence, it might just have been destiny as well. Looking at Gam's career, there's a little Jang-Saeng in the young man's journey from perpetual second liner to yesterday's winner of the Grand Bell Best Leading Actor award.
After graduating from SNU in -- surprise surprise -- East Asian Painting, just like the many of this generation's stars Gam debuted in 1991 with the campus Drama 우리들의 천국 (Our Paradise). Yet, over a decade later, when he won his first Award for Yoo Ha's 결혼은 미친 짓이다 (Marriage is a Crazy Thing), that was 'only' for Best New Actor. What about the past 10 years of hard work, he must have thought. But of course he was a 'new' actor in Chungmuro, as he spent 10 years working hard on TV alone. The first really significant role Gam was cast in was in the magnificent 산 (Manaslu), about the successes and tragedies of a notorious family of mountaineers. The 1996 Drama had a huge cast, from veterans like Song Jae-Ho and Kim Mi-Sook to younger, talented actors like Jo Jae-Hyun, Kim Ji-Soo and Gam himself. It was shot on location in Nepal and the Himalaya's, mixing spectacle with some of the best writing of the decade.
The late 90s and early 2000s saw Gam getting more leading roles on TV, mostly in melodramas and romcoms like 예감 (Instinct), 눈으로 말해요 (To My Eyes) and 현정아 사랑해 (I Love You, Hyun-Jung). But of course the big change came with his debut in Chungmuro, opposite Eom Jung-Hwa in the excellent Marriage is a Crazy Thing. Gam instantly made an impact, so much that he was cast as a lead in Song Il-Gon's fascinating 거미숲 (Spider Forest) and the wildly underrated Vietnam War Guilt Trip 알포인트 (R-Point), which cemented his position as a major talent. When he starred opposite Kim Soo-Ro in the glorious little comedy 간큰가족 (Super Family), Gam proved he also had range, lots of it.
I challenge anyone looking at any of those performances to envision Gam's entry into stardom, but even if he was in a 'right place, right time' situation, he certainly earned that spot. Is this is strongest performance to date? I can't say, as most of his work tends to blend for me, with consistently good performances, but he certainly makes an impression. He strips himself of a certain 'detached' aura he had in the past, and comes closer to the viewer. This is some of the finest acting of his career, and it's wonderful seeing good actors eventually find success after working their way up the ranks for years. It should be a lesson to all the pretty something-turned-'actor' infesting the scene nowadays, thinking they can become multitainers when they're just jack of all trades, master of none.
Yet the biggest story of The King and The Clown ended up becoming someone else. Despite turning the strong homosexual code of the play into thinly veiled (no pun intended) undertones and a mere kiss, despite the focus shifting from Gong-Gil to Jang-Saeng, Lee Joon-Gi became a superstar anyway. In some ways, the fact Director Lee opted for a subtler approach to Jang-Saeng and Gong-Gil's relationship (who actually kiss each other in the play) helped the film succeed even more. The film never explicitly pushes an homosexual relationship between the two Clowns, it instead highlights their strong relationship as something more than working partners. And one of the reasons why Lee was perfect for the role is that he's the embodiment of a powerful new trend in Korean pop culture, that of the cross-sexual -- this has nothing to do with past metrosexuals, mind you.
Lee possesses the kind of beauty which charms women and intrigues men, he mixes masculine and feminine elements, yin and yang. That this is a huge trend you can see it clearly on TV, with characters like 주몽 (Jumong)'s Sayong, neither man nor woman, a mix of strength and sensibility. Lee Joon-Gi's 'cross-sexual 'look certainly helped the role in ways even someone like Park Hae-Il wouldn't have been able to, but beyond the social issue it has become, the presence of this 동성애 (Homoerotic) code has been not only overstated by Western Media, who almost made The King and The Clown look like some kind of Sageuk version of Brokeback Mountain, it was never intended in the first place by its makers.
Lee's appearance and that famous kiss certainly help that misinterpretation, but calling it simple homoeroticism on sexual terms fails to consider the kind of period we're dealing with, and the position of the man supposedly influenced by this code. What Yeonsan is looking for is not a lover per se. Gong-Gil simply becomes a surrogate for what Yeonsan desires, and he's the embodiment of everything Yeonsan lacks. So in this case, that 'King's Man' of the Korean title can only be a man for that reason, because in Gong-Gil Yeonsan sees the freedom he can never have. He plays with Gong-Gil and through those moments becomes a Clown himself, becomes Lee Yoong the man, and not Yeonsan the King. He escapes from the trap of Royalty he should have never been involved with, and finds a space to breathe.
His kiss, more than act of sexual attraction, is the release of emotional tension pent up for way too long, exploding when Yeonsan feels he's losing the only person who can bring him happiness. Yeonsan came to power suffering the consequences of the Censorate's vicious criticism of just about every single policy his father Seongjong made before passing the throne to him, so he needs an escape valve, something to remind him of his being human. For a while he finds that escape through Nok-Soo, who sort of becomes a surrogate for his mother -- you see them playing silly games on his bedroom after the Clowns' performances -- and his only confidant. But then Gong-Gil, whose practice of selling his body to rich Yangban angered Jang-Saeng before joining the Palace, enters his life. In him, Yeonsan finds something much more important than an escape valve, beyond the fact he's a pretty, young and effeminate lad.
Gong-Gil represents everything Yeonsan can't have and could never do. He's not someone he's addicted to. In the same way, the strange relationship between Gong-Gil and Jang-Saeng, with a hint of potential romance, is something which was probably exaggerated by marketing. The most important moments of the film regarding the two are their 'you're there and I'm here' play on top of the hill, and after Jang-Saeng gets punished by the King, his realizing that he can only find his identity (as a Clown and a person) through his partner's view of him. So is it homoerotic? Certainly there are some undertones (and you could argue they were put there to make a bigger impact at the box office, too), but don't misunderstand this film as a Brokeback Mountain of the East, because then you'll lose the central theme of the film, which is finding one's identity as a person first and foremost. So Gong-Gil might be 'The King's Man' for Yeonsan, but when Jang-Saeng finally finds his true identity walking the ropes, playing the King next to the man who went through so many things with him, Gong-Gil becomes another King's man as well.
Until now we talked about a variety of different textual, historical and social elements making this film a success, but of course The King and The Clown is a Lee Joon-Ik film first and foremost. Like Lee Byung-Hoon on TV or Im Kwon-Taek in his most prolific years, Lee nearly disappears behind the camera and lets the story and the characters come alive. You never notice the camera is there, that there's even a soundtrack, or any disruption of the narrative flow because of editing. You could see that as cheap, and Lee would probably bring out his dry humour and say he did it to spend less, but in all his films he's always used a 'more is less' approach.
There's nothing really sticking out: the costumes are beautiful, but nowhere near the brilliance of Jo Geun-Hyun's work in 형사 Duelist. The script is excellent, but pales in comparison to the marvelous linguistic flow of Kim Dae-Woo's 음란서생 (Forbidden Quest). The intrigue is there, but never as pungent as older Sageuk like 영원한 제국 (The Eternal Empire) or recently 혈의 누 (Blood Rain). Then what is it? It's the storytelling, folks. People complained Lee Byung-Hoon's 서동요 (The Ballad of Seo Dong) was a disappointment because the sets looked like something out of a Daily Sageuk in the 70s and the acting was subpar, but by its third act it caught fire anyway. Why? Because you cared about the characters.
Even if you don't know a single thing about Yeonsan's tyranny, the unique position he found himself in when the Samsa was increasingly influencing the throne between the late 15th and early 16th Century or of the story of Lady Yoon's poisoning, you're likely to enjoy this film anyway. Instead of being a traditional Sageuk, it uses the oldest staple of Korean Drama -- the 삼각관계 (menage a trois), this time going beyond simple attraction -- and wraps it around a famous historical context, becoming a post-modern twist on the tropes of the genre. What it focuses on, other than stripping the figure from the person and presenting a more human Yeonsan, is celebrating Korean traditional arts. Just like 서편제 (Sopyonje) revived interest in pansori, The King and The Clown brought things like Samulnori (percussion based Korean traditional music), 줄타기 (funambulism) and 'yard satires' back into the mainstream.
By presenting a sort of flashback using Beijing Opera -- which obviously didn't exist when Yeonsan was ruling the country -- Lee creates a brilliant contrast and clash between traditions, which eventually ends up putting the spotlight back on the Clowns and their wonderful, festival like performances. But like most of Lee's works, the film has also a very strong allegorical element. The satire seen in the film and performed by the Clowns is no different from the feats of wild standup comedy on TV, like 웃찾사 (People Searching For Laughter) and 개그콘서트 (Gag Concert). When you hear Lee talk of how Royal Clowns always put their body on the line to entertain their audience, then things are no different nowadays. Just look at the average standup comedy show in Korea, and you'll see how physical and varied their performances are.
But then if any good film with good acting, directing which does everything possible to help the narrative, and even celebrates its country traditions could succeed, people like Lee Joon-Ik would have it much easier. Then how did this film with no stars, a problematic subject (Yeonsan) and up to now unpopular undertones (homosexuality), low budget and no aggressive marketing campaigns end up on top of the mountain, with some people watching it a dozen times? Like 웰컴 투 동막골 (Welcome To Dongmakgol), it's a film distinguishing the difference between not being complex and completely dumbing down things, concept which Hollywood doesn't seem to understand. And it truly gives something to enjoy for everyone, it's not just a word tacked on to a poster. Want proof?
Viewers in their 20s, especially women (Chungmuro's most important demographics) found the relationship between Jang-Saeng and Gong-Gil appealing, with its subtle hints of homoeroticism and the unique menage a trois with Yeonsan. They rediscovered their cultural roots through the Clowns' performances, and found the film easy to follow in contrast with the very demanding political intrigues which usually send young viewers away from traditional Sageuk. Viewers in their 30s had Yeonsan's struggle in mind, his will for revenge and Oedipus Complex, leading him to madness. And with this we cover the majority of people going to theaters in Korea nowadays.
But if you want your film to become a success, you need to bring out the uncle who'd rather read a book or watch political shows on TV, the 할아버지 (grandfather) whose eyesight is too bad and temper too quick to go to a theater, immersed in an ocean of teenagers wearing strange technological gadgets. You need to convince the Ajumma to turn off the Daily Drama on TV, get a perm and show up in theaters, maybe for the first time in 20 years, when she'd go with her 'Oppa' to see Bae Chang-Ho's films like 고래사냥 (Whale Hunting). And this film did exactly that. It offered enough political intrigue for the older Sageuk addicts, an eye to tradition to capture older viewers and the Ajumma crowd. It was easier to follow, well acted, well directed and without MTV Style techniques. It was, in short, what they used to call a good film.
The secrets of the film's success go beyond that. The unique situation which led the film to its final casting brought producers into a working atmosphere where everyone was a lead. Instead of using star power to make a buck, The King and The Clown created stars of its own. Another big reason was Lee and Cineworld's acumen and pragmatism, wasting very little money on superfluous things, and being able to absorb any potential loss with the reassurance that they didn't spend 20 Billion Won on some mega bloated typhoon which more or less turned into a simple fart. This inevitably ties to marketing, which instead of shoving the film down people's throats banked on word of mouth alone. And of course there's Lady Luck, which always comes at the strangest of moments.
Beyond the figures, the records, the awards, the silly controversies over alleged plagiarism. Beyond all that one thing will remain from The King and The Clown, something more producers and directors in this industry should learn: the people who made it a success. Because this film was made for the people but without turning that into an exercise in hitting the bottom of the barrel. And it was made by people, as the focus wasn't on big budgets, overseas locations and all those silly elements which please that invisible, incredibly fickle audience that forms the so called Korean Wave. So it's not the 20 Billion Wons, the Screen Quotas and the 600 screen nationwide releases which mark the fate of a film. It's giving all you have, passion, confidence, fear, talent, hard work, blood, sweat and tears. And make a damn good film. They were right after all. Cineworld made money with a film, they didn't make a film with money. And now they're on top of the mountain, like the Clowns. I think that's a pretty decent lesson to learn...