Admittedly, this was my first Korean clown-and-king epic with a dash of gay subtext, but King and Clown is, to my mind at least, a baffling mess of a film. There are moments of great beauty and fun, with acrobat scenes shot with aplomb, beautiful colours and costumes floating across the screen. At other times, it’s an arch, melodramatic mess not even worthy of daytime soaps. The trick, I guess, is for that not to get you down.
The story is apparently derived from the true tale of a mad, brutal king, circa 1500 AD, who invited a bunch of jesters into his court despite the fact that they were known to break the rules and taunt the ruler himself. The first hour of the film, building up the jesters to enter the court, picking up ragtag side characters as the march to Seoul takes place was quite enjoyable, and the acrobatics were quite impressive.
Underlying this main plot is the fact that the two (male) protagonists do a girl/guy schtick, and the “girl” in the act is quite striking an fair, often bartered out to help pay the bills. The fairness of the character is so fine that even the King falls for him, scandalizing the court even more than the jesting of the King, ministers, and other officials and members of the court.
That much was straightforward – where the film totally goes out to left field is where a non-sexual, non-physical love triangle (and various other forms of betrayal) cumulating with the slitting of wrists (and surreal resurrection), some operatic fight scenes, a bunch of tame sexual exploits and other related hanky panky. The programme guide extolls the fact that this was the biggest hit in Korean history, and I can’t help but feel that this fact a) shows there may be more depth in the flick than I’m giving it credit for, or, more likely, b) this is the same type that flocked to Titanic for the sense of soft seduction in a period setting.
The book also ties the homoerotic elements to last year’s big success, citing the label of “Korea’s Brokeback Mountain” given to the film. Frankly, this is just insulting to the fine Brokeback (is there a new rule that all future films that take place outdoors and have a hint of homoeroticism be compared to that flick?). As the film collapses to its messy, ridiculous conclusion I was left with a strong feeling of a lost opportunity, a potentially enlightening epic coated with enough schmaltz to make it almost camp.