King and the Clown was South Korea’s best selling film of 2005, having sold more than 12 million tickets over a span of 7 weeks. The very basic plot line is the story of two clowns that go to Seoul to gain fame and fortune and have the idea of mocking the King to attract more public. Though the idea functions at first they’re rapidly punished but are left with one chance: if they can make the king laugh their lives will be spared.
The movie also makes discreet jibes at those in power, and their ability, or inability, to accept satires about themselves. It is always easy for men in power to dismiss harshly the satires and their creators, but it takes a lot more to be able to look past the comic and understand the issues made fun of. There are brief scenes at courtroom politicking and on corruption, but these scenes are too short to leave any lasting impression or distract the audience. King and the Clown is a historical drama which has the cinematic beauty, unique plot and highly talented actors. In addition, it gracefully breaches subjects that have been considered taboo.
It’s no coincidence that in the IMDB entry for this film you will probably see, in the list of recommendations for similar titles you might enjoy, a copy of Branagh’s Hamlet. With a great deal of reference to the political machinations of the noble classes, to madness and to the idea that both circumstance and fate conspire hand in hand, The King and the Clown reads a lot like a Shakespearean tragedy. This isn’t the first film I’ve reviewed that has been borrowed from the famous poet and it seems to be a recurring theme in asian movies, which I didn’t really notice until I began reviewing films.
Considering that not only was the film selected as the official Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 79th Academy Awards, won a host of awards at the Dae Jong, and broke the box-office records for any Korean domestic film ever in 2006, it’s perhaps no surprise that it’s described as an ‘unexpected hit’. With all that said, it’s tempting to try to read some meaning into the story beyond a tale well-told, but I can’t claim to know Korean culture well enough to do that. Whatever the intent is, it works.