BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Korea, take four.

The King and the Clown was a taboo buster in Korea, and it also became the biggest box office hit in Korean history. The film demonstrates the generic hybridity that typifies a number of big Korean hits, as it straddles the conventions of melodrama, historical epics, romance, slapstick comedy and action. The film looks at two clowns (Gong-gil and Jang-sang) who decide to satirise the despotic head of the Chosun Dynasty in order to improve their impoverished lot. The rather wildly unpredictable repercussions result in chaos, love, obsession, revenge and ultimately a societal shift. Art does indeed effect political change, if The King and the Clown is to be believed.

The obsession by the King towards the androgynous Gong-gil (numerous people in the audience remarked afterwards how “pretty” Lee Jung-gi, the actor who played Gong-gil, was) was the film’s major talking point in Korea. The film was indeed banned in China for example as a result of this coy subtext. Meanwhile, Gong-gil and Jang-sang’s relationship is much more than brotherly too – although much more innocent and perhaps, less power-saturated than the King’s fixation. Their relationship isn’t fully explained (and importantly so) and it seems to transcend simple classification.

The film’s links back to Shakespeare are reasonably obvious. The play within a play trick to expose consciences is straight out of Hamlet, while King Lear and Macbeth motifs also frequently feature. Shakespeare’s love of the players who act as comic foils to the blinded powerful, get played out too. This is quite a talky film, which manages to synthesise a reasonably complex narrative and vast cast into its two hours. The film does the technical aspects wonderfully: the settings in particular dazzle with their detail and beauty. The acting is top-notch, and the costumes are unbelievable (in particular, Nok-su, the King’s mistress has the most incredible costumes). While the ending may be so over-the-top to lose its potency, it manages to fit in with the overall melodramatic mood of the film. The King and the Clown manages to blend reasonably subversive leanings with a commercial narrative into one highly enjoyable experience.