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)

A Special Lady (미옥, Lee An-gyu, 2017)

A Special Lady posterAll you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun – so goes the age old wisdom. Korean cinema, it has to be said, has been in a fairly progressive mood of late with several high profile female-led action movies to complement the macho melodrama that has become synonymous with the nation’s cinematic output. There has, however, been a slight imbalance in the way these films have been presented – yes, women carry guns and issue roundhouse kicks to the face but they do so out of maternal fire. This obsession with corrupted motherhood finds a natural home in Lee An-gyu’s A Special Lady (미옥, Miok) which puts puts Kim Hye-soo in a blonde wig and then asks her to do pretty much what she did in Coin Locker Girl only more sympathetically.

Na Hyun-jung (Kim Hye-soo) has risen from lowly bar girl and exploited sex worker to be the right-hand woman of mob boss Kim (Choi Moo-sung). Marshalling a collection of (well cared for) high class call girls, her main stock in trade is blackmail – she sends her girls out as honey traps to capture “important” people, bring them back to the “hotel” for illicit “fun”, and film them in the act to compel them to work in the best interests of the gang. The plan usually works, but snotty prosecutor Choi (Lee Hee-joon), who has just returned from his honeymoon after marrying the boss’ daughter, liked to think of himself as having integrity and is hell bent on revenge against the villainous Na. Exploiting weaknesses already exposed within the gang including the stormy romance between Na and ambitious foot soldier Lim (Lee Sun-Kyun), and the return of Na’s illegitimate son with boss Kim whose wife and (legitimate) child were murdered by a rival organisation, Choi sets about taking it down in an unorthodox way as a means of getting his sex tape back but also fulfilling his commitment to “justice”.

The English title, A Special Lady, has an awkward spin to it with its mobster-esque patter hinting at a classy bar girl or much loved peripheral figure. The Korean title which is simply a woman’s name gives a better indication of the tale at hand in its emphasis on loss of innocence, fall, and rebirth as something or someone else. Na is certainly well versed in the gangster world, perfectly equipped to operate within it both in her physical prowess and also in her emotional control, politicking, and ability to strategise, yet she also operates outside of gang structures with many, including Lim who has long been in love with her, resenting that a mere woman holds such a high position with such proximity to Kim.

This marginal status extends to Na’s feminised perspective which reduces her to a figure of ruined motherhood. Na takes care of her girls, as a mother would, entrusting them to another woman who acts as their madam but is fiercely loyal to her, more nanny than henchman. Her major preoccupation is with the son she was forced to give up as an infant after spending time on the inside on behalf of the gang. Joo-hwan (Kim Min-suk) is Kim’s son and heir and the mob boss has been careful to keep him overseas to keep him safe, but either because of persistent parental absence or his gangster genes, the boy keeps getting himself expelled for violent conduct and Kim thinks it’s probably time to bring him home and verse him in his heritage. Na has long wanted to be reunited with her almost grown up son, but he has no idea she is his mother and believes he is the son of Kim’s deceased wife. When Joo-hwan is threatened and then turned against her by vicious rumours, Na will stop at nothing to ensure his safety even if he never knows who she really is.

Na’s descent into ferocious fighting machine, attacking a field full of mobsters with a bone saw, is the rage of a mother whose child is threatened. She doesn’t fight them off because she wants to survive, or for revenge, or simply because they are from a rival gang but because they threaten her children both in the case of one of her girls who happens to be with Na, and of course their targeting of Joo-hwan solely to get to his mother. The world of the film is a persistently misogynistic one – not just in the way women are routinely used as a means to an end by the gangsters, and by Na herself, but in the way that Na struggles to be accepted as a valid member of the gangster hierarchy rather than an adjunct to it as an honorary manager of the female contingent. Lim, who feels displaced by her in his status within the gang, is also desperately in love with Na who seems to return his feelings on some level but ultimately turns him down – something he can not accept, stooping so low as to threaten Na’s child to blackmail her into accepting him despite his intense resentment on finding out about her previous relationship with Kim.

Unexpected action hero status aside, Na becomes nothing more than a figure of corrupted motherhood who must be “repaired” through saving her son and then by retiring to become a more “normal” maternal figure. The debut from Lee An-gyu, A Special Lady features a number of well choreographed action scenes, strikingly composed images, and impressive production design but all too often falls back on tired ideas as its heroine battles valiantly to save her son with the intention of “rescuing” herself in the process.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)