The feudal order conspires against everyone from minstrel to king in Lee Joon-ik’s Shakespearean historical epic, King and the Clown (왕의 남자, Wang-ui Namja). The Korean title might translate to the equally ambiguous “The King’s Man”, but in any case invites the question of who it is that is the “king” and who the “clown” though in practice it might not matter because their roles are to a degree interchangeable. Nevertheless, a minstrel’s attempt to transgress class boundaries eventually leads to tragedy but also perhaps defiance in his seizing of the little freedom that is given to him.
The oppressiveness of the system is emphasised in the opening text which explains the historical background and reveals that the king of this story was considered a tyrant, though also thought to be sensitive and intelligent, while permanently damaged by the early death of his mother who was forced to take her own life because of machinations in the court. The King (Jung Jin-young) himself rails at the system complaining that he has no real power and is largely unable to overrule the advice of his courtiers who remain loyal to his late father and simultaneously force him to obey the rule of a man who is already dead. In this internecine feudal society, not even the king is free.
This might in a sense explain his tyranny, borne both of an anxiety over the precarity of his rule (the text also reveals that he was deposed by his courtiers shortly after the film concludes) and is otherwise engaged in a kind of frustrated boundary pushing. At heart, he is a wounded and petulant child. His eventual decision to participate in the clown show put on by Jang-saeng (Kam Woo-sung) and his troupe of jesters hints at his mental instability and growing inability to discern reality from fantasy, or to a point perhaps there is no true “reality” for a king and so the distinction no longer matters as there is no real difference for him between a man “dying” in a play and dying for real.
For Jang-saeng, however, there is a difference. He and his brother-in-arms Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi) are technically on the run after Gong-gil ended up killing their manager to defend Jang-saeng who had tried to protect him from exploitation in being pimped out as a male sex worker to earn extra money for the company. It’s Jang-saeng who hits on the lucrative opportunities of satire after teaming up with three other minstrels in the capital and hearing tales of the King’s scandalous sex life. This obviously gets him into hot water with the authorities, though Jang-saeng talks himself out of trouble by convincing conflicted courtier Cheo-seon (Jang Hang-seon) to allow them to perform before the King who actively enjoys being mocked and brings the clowns into the palace to entertain him at his pleasure causing a further rift with his conservative courtiers who do not enjoy having their dirty dealings exposed through bawdy street theatre.
The repeated visual motif of the tightrope emphasises the fine line Jang-saeng is walking as a commoner in the court. Cheo-seon had hoped their performance would show the King the extent of the corruption among his courtiers, but the results leave Jang-seong conflicted as he sees men die as a result of his comedy while failing in his primary goal of protecting Gong-gil from exploitation as he quickly becomes a favourite of the King again endangering their position as they become a target for the King’s mistress (Kang Sung-yeon), a former sex worker who had like them used her natural gifts to transgress the boundaries of class. Cheo-seon complains that it’s the King’s “lust for a boy” which has corrupted the court, while Jang-seong’s resentment may otherwise be unwarranted as Gong-gil appears to like and pity the King and may have come to his own decision about advancing his fortunes despite Jang-seong’s assertion that there are some things that should not be sold.
But as Jang-seong comes to realise, all around the tightrope is an abyss. “Never knew a fool who knew his place” Jang-seong wrote in one of his plays and that is in someways his tragedy, that he dared to challenge the social order but in the end could not overcome it and neither could the King. Even so he may find a kind of freedom in seeking escape from a cruel and oppressive society in the only way that is available to him. “The world’s but a stage. Kingly is he who struts for a while, then exits in style” Jang-seong exclaims, a “sightless fool” who finally knows where he stands.
King and the Clown screened as part of this year’s Queer East .
Trailer (English subtitles)