These kings of the cinema aren’t clowning around
▶ From left, Yeonsan, Jangsaeng, Gonggil and Noksu, the king’s lover, all characters in the movie “King and the Clown.” Provided by the promoter
It may not have been big-budget, but the movie “King and the Clown” (Wang-ui Namja) is in the running to top the Korean box office for at least the first half of 2006. Its numbers at least make it look triumphant: as of Jan. 16, more than 5 million people had gone to see the movie less than 20 days after its release, according to Cinema Service, the film’s distributor.
Compare that with “Typhoon,” which at $15.3 million was the most expensive movie yet made in Korea and lured 4.2 million movie-goers; “King Kong” has so far been seen by 4.1 million.
Who would have thought a $4-million film about a young palace clown during the Joseon dynasty would beat Korea’s mega-budget adventure or the Big Ape? None of the producers did. They said the making of the movie was so fraught with problems that they had little hope it would do well.
Take casting, for example. The actor Jang Hyeok was chosen to star in the role of the older clown, Jangsaeng, but Jang was quickly discovered to have dodged the draft and was forcibly sent to boot camp. It took seven months to find a replacement, Gam Woo-sung.
The sets were equally troubling. The producers had hoped to shoot the movie on location at Changdeok palace, but the government barred them from filming there, on the grounds that historically, no lowly commoner clown would have been allowed to enter the palace.
The movie’s plot revolves around a tyrannical ruler during the Joseon Dynasty, Yeonsan, who invites a band of clowns led by Jangsaeng to his court to entertain him.
Rebuffed by the government, the producers “borrowed” a set used by a KBS television drama set during the same period.
But as Gam’s character says in his heavy Jeolla slur, “This wearisome world we live in ― it could only be good for a laugh.” It turned out to be as prescient a line as it is popular. By using the KBS set, the producers saved a lot of money, finishing the movie for less than $4 million. Critics have also praised Gam’s acting, calling him a perfect fit for the role.
“We knew ‘King and the Clown’ wouldn’t be easy to promote,” said Jung Seung-hye, the head of Yeonghwasa Achim, the marketing company for the movie. “For one thing, we didn’t have a big star.”
In contrast, “Typhoon” features the Asian heart-throb Jang Dong-gun, and another big-budget drama, “Cheongyeon,” has both Jang Jin-young and Kim Ju-hyuk, neither of whom are lightweights.
“Instead of depending on the star-name power, we decided to focus on the personalities of each character,” Ms. Jung said.
Movie pundits said this film could easily break last year’s blockbuster record if ticket sales keep up. These kind of surprises have happened before: “Welcome to Dongmakgol,” a fantasy drama set during the Korean War, pulled over 8 million people last year.
The movie’s success is due in part to its cross-generational appeal. Young Internet users leave messages on bulletin boards boasting of having seen the movie twice because “it’s too good to watch just once,” while ticket lines are packed with older, gray-haired patrons.
Lee Joon-ik, the film’s director, said the movie’s various characters help it pull in people from different generations.
“Teenagers love Gonggil (the young clown), those in their 20s like Jangsaeng, those in their 30s and 40s feel close to Yeonsan and people over 50 like Cheosin (the king’s advisor),” Mr. Lee said.
The title, which in Korean means “The King’s Man,” hints at royal homosexuality. Allusions to the topic abound, with the male clowns, well, living in very close quarters and the king expressing a romantic interest in a young and quite feminine clown. Add a court eunuch (the character Cheosin), glamorous costumes, beautiful women and several supporting comic characters and the result is wickedly funny.
Though the historical Yeonsan became a tyrant and vicious ruler after his mother’s death, he was also known as a womanizer and odd character. He was eventually dethroned.
It may be popular now, but the producers admitted that they hesitated to push the homosexual angle to the movie out of fear that the public would be enraged by their “distorting” the rather somber history of the Joseon Dynasty, Korea’s last line of kings.
In the end, the decided to stick as close as possible to the original script, which was for a play called “Yi.”
So much for those worries: not only is the film’s success pushing the boundary of acceptable film behavior (the movie is rated for ages 15 and older), but the actor who plays the younger clown, Lee Jun-gi, has become Korea’s newest mega-star ― something the industry had been looking for for a long time.
by Lee Hoo-nam, Lee Min-a