K-Movie “The world is but a stage.”

The King and the Clown | 왕의 남자 (2005)

Cinema Service | The King and the Clown

The title of the film kinda gives it away, but it’s about two clowns on the streets and Yeonsan, the most ruthless and inhuman King of the 15th century Joseon. Jang Saeng (Kam Woo‑Sung) and Gong Gil (Lee Jun-Ki) are members of a clown troupe that roams around the streets of the country for the common public. These street performances traditionally include tightropes, acrobatics, and plays that include provocative black comedy. Both were very talented, but Gong Gil did not have the charisma that Jang Saeng had. Similar to Shakespear plays, females could not be found in these clown acts, having males play the feminine roles. The seemingly effeminate Gong Gil was the one to play those parts and was often taken by the troupe’s leader to serve the higher aristocrats that demanded him - which Jang Saeng was very irritated about. The two flee together and went to Hanyang (Seoul of today,) the capital city of Joseon to build a team of talented clowns and earn money themselves. There they meet three other clowns and decide to join the team.

Cinema Service | The King and the Clown

As clowns playing for the commoners, Jang Saeng believed that their audience enjoys watching acts that mock the greedy pigs in higher society. At the time the biggest scandal of Hanyang was the unworthy King Yeonsan and his bimbo consort who was formerly a slave, Jang Nok-Su. Hence, the team ends up pushing the limits and starts to mock the King. When discovered by the King’s Head Eunuch, Jang Saeng requests to play for the royalty and to spare their lives only if the King laughs. The King ends up loving the play (and Gong Gil in particular) and keeps the clowns in the palace as his official royal minstrels.

Cinema Service | The King and the Clown

A short history lesson about King Yeonsan! Known as the worst King in Korean history, his life story was dealt with in a number of different Korean dramas and movies. In the first ten years of ruling, Yeonsan was in fact a wise king who cared for the poor. Nonetheless, he showed his violent side by ruthlessly executing hundreds of government officials, his father’s two concubines and even his own grandmother. After the outrage, the nation’s welfare was not of his interest anymore. He spent his last few years as King with only women, entertainment, and hunting. Rumours say that the reason behind his sudden change of action was because he found out the truth of his biological mother’s unfair death. It is true that Yeonsan’s mother was executed and that he killed those officials that opposed his attempt to restore her title; yet, there are also rumours that this story was exaggerated to justify Yeonsan’s ignorant actions as King. Yeonsan was dethroned by the officials in 1506 and died at age 31 on an island where he was exiled. 

Cinema Service | The King and the Clown

Building on this tragic story of King Yeonsan, the movie portrays the King’s insanity as a result of the traumatic experience he had from his mother’s death. Yeonsan's childhood was deprived of motherly love and he was continuously reminded of how undeserving he was as the King of the country. Gong Gil sees this vulnerable part of him and starts feels emotionally close. However, the King’s interest towards Gong Gil later ends up in a disturbing obsession as the plot unfolds. 

Cinema Service | The King and the Clown

The bond between Jang Saeng and Gong Gil can be interpreted in either brotherhood or romance, depending on the viewer’s perception. Regardless, with the relationship between these two main leads and the relationship of Gong Gil and the King, The King and the Clown was the first to imply a hint of LGBT features in a large-scale commercial movie. In 2005 Korea, LGBTQ+ was considered a social taboo that should not be discussed in the media. But with the enormous box office success of this film, Korean media took a massive step forward, accepting different forms of love. As the most-watched film of the year, it achieved a box office record of 74.5 million USD.

Cinema Service | The King and the Clown

Here’s a link to the trailer, left in wish that everyone reading this article will end up watching The King and the Clown tonight 🙏 Below is my personal favourite quotes from a scene of the movie, the last act of Gong Gil and Jang Saeng.

Gong Gil - “What body shall thy reborn soul take? A nobleman’s?”
Jang Saeng - “No, no.”
Gong Gil - “A King’s then?”
Jang Saeng - “That displeases also. I wish to be a minstrel again”
Gong Gil - “Witless fool! Why seek again thy cause for ruin?”
Jang Saeng - “Then what new body awaits thee?”
Gong Gil - “It is none other! A minstrel! And nothing more!”

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