16 March 2010

King and the Clown

Last year one of my beloved lecturers lent me a DVD -- a Korean film called King and the Clown. Of course it took me several months before I had a chance to see it. It turned out to be one of the most emotionally intense films I'd ever watched.

The story involves the complicated relationships among main characters, including two clowns and the King. Apparently it's based on a true story that once happened in Korea during the reign of King Yeonsangun of the Joseon Dynasty. I was intrigued by the playful yet serious performance of these three main characters whose fates are somehow intertwined in the solemn atmosphere of the palace.

The film does highlight the omnipotent power of the King, who can dictate the destiny of people around him with only a few words. The implication is that his power can be both alluring and rewarding for those who can secure his favour, but the same power may potentially be a death sentence for those who are not in his book or have enough dignity not to be obsequious. Then one day come Jangsaeng and Gonggil, two clowns, who are popular thanks to their ability to mock people around them. The awkward situation is when these two clowns don't have a choice but to provide an entertainment that borders on the satire of the whole court. The even more awkward situation is when the King is pleased with their performance and even has a crush on Gonggil and is willing to forsake his duty to spend time with this rural comedian and his beautiful storytelling skills with the aid of puppets and phantasmagoria.

The film delicately shows the moment when power and favour intertwine and how these two comedians react to their instant favour at court, despite their knowledge that the courtiers hate them, not only because they take the King away from his duty, but also because their satire just exposes these courtiers to ridicule. The tension between the rurality of the comedians and the urbanity of the courtiers can never be clearer. However, the clowns also find themselves in a very vulnerable position: once they lose the King's favour, their lives may be finished too. I reckon the film does a great job in portraying the arbitrariness and absurdity of the whole situation when everything does depend on the King's ups and downs, unfettered by any rules or traditions. Yet, both the clowns and courtiers need to do their jobs, knowing only too well the absurdity that lies underneath their acts.

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