Jesters: The Game Changers (광대들: 풍문조작단, Kim Joo-ho, 2019)

“Even with swords to our necks we say what we must!” a stage actor insists, though somewhat duplicitously as he wilfully says what he must to survive while simultaneously defending his artistic integrity. Oddly timely, Jesters: The Game Changers (광대들: 풍문조작단, Gwangdaedeul: Pungmunjojakdan) is an ironic exploration of the importance of art in engendering narrative proving once and for all that it really can remake the world. Our hero finds himself less torn than you’d expect him to be, only too keen to parrot the words of a regime he does not respect in return not only for his life but for material gain. 

Our heroes are a band of “jesters”, itinerant street entertainers who belong to a kind of underclass and earn their living through their ability to change “reputations”. Petitioned by an ageing wife discarded in favour of a young and beautiful concubine, the gang blacken the other woman’s reputation by literally putting on a show with storyteller Ma Deok-ho (Cho Jin-woong) as the romantic hero sweeping her off her feet. The illusion is broken by a sudden spell of rain, but in any case the gang soon find themselves falling foul of prime minister Han Myeong-hoe (Son Hyun-joo) who makes them an offer they can’t refuse – counter the disadvantageous narrative that the king is a cruel tyrant who usurped the throne through murdering his brothers and nephew with tales of his magnificence, or die. Deok-ho points out that a good way of raising his reputation would be cutting taxes and getting rid of corrupt nobles but unsurprisingly as is rapidly becoming evident, he isn’t being hired to speak the truth. 

On the one hand, Jesters is the tale of Deok-ho’s slow path towards realising his responsibility as an artist to tell the “truth” even when it is inconvenient. His mentor Mal-bo (Choi Gwi-hwa) had come by a banned book, The Six Loyal Subjects, which recounted the real story of how the king came to the throne and was determined to promulgate it, merely changing the name of the king to that of Ming to protect himself against a censorious crack down on street entertainers spreading “fake news”. Deok-ho claims to believe only what he sees, rejecting the evidence of the book, cynically determined to do whatever it takes to escape his poverty. He’d rather not be threatened, but he has no particular objection to Han’s request, only using it to increase his social status by ensuring the gang are re-registered as “middle class” rather than lowly entertainers, later even angling for a position at court. For Han, he engineers miracles from a tree which bends to clear the way for the passing monarch to visitations from the Buddha and floral rain falling from golden skies, tales of which spread quickly through the gossip-hungry nation embellished as they go. 

As Han puts it “history is made by those with power” and to that extent he who controls the past controls the future. Han executes three street performers for spreading “fake news”, men who were literally prepared to die for their artistic integrity in the way Deok-ho was not, while employing Deok-ho to spread “propaganda” that glorifies a weakened king. Enjoying his new status Deok-ho does not really consider the implications of what he’s doing until he realises that Han is playing his own angle, improving his stunts for additional leverage, razing a village so that the nearby temple where one of Deok-ho’s “miracles” occurred might be expanded. Han claimed to be mounting an egalitarian revolution, deposing a “mad” king to hand power back to the people but of course only meant to manipulate regal power for himself. 

Power, as we see, belongs more or less to the storytellers who literally write the narrative. In old Joseon that’s those like Deok-ho, or in other times newspapers, TV shows, or social media feeds. Deok is only just realising he had power all along, if only he had listed to Mal-bo and used it more wisely rather than “rolling his tongue for fame and cheers”. A somewhat flippant satire on fake news/propaganda synchronicity, Jesters makes a passionate plea not only for the power of art to remake the world but for the responsibility of the artist to tell the truth even when it is not popular.


Jesters: The Game Changers screens at the Rio on 31st October as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)