Tuesday, 20 June 2006

King and the Clown 왕의 남자 (2006)

Korea’s Kurosawa epic brims with Shakespearean sensibility

It has been 8 years since the passing of Akira Kurosawa, but this hasn’t stopped directors from evoking his style, replicating his panoramic battle scenes. or remaking his movies. The battlefield is littered with carcasses of failed films like The Last Samurai, The 13th Warrior and Tsui Hark’s twice-removed ripoff, Seven Swords. Finally, in the darkest hour, Lee Joon-Ik, whose film company imported several jidai geki flicks – including Kurosawa’s – to Korea in the past, has succeeded where many have failed, and created a film that evokes Kurosawa, yet looks like nothing the great auteur has directed.

Lee Joon-Ik’s tale revolves around the historical figure of Yeonsan, 10th king of the Joseon dynasty. Infamously memorialised in the official Joseon annals as a most profligate and cruel king (a traditional portrayal that Jewel in the Palace reaffirms), director Lee revisions the monarch as Richard III – an unpopular but emotionally-damaged king whose reputation has been subject to vilification at the hands of the nobles who deposed him, and the Confucian scribes in court.

Bringing salve to the king’s tortured psyche are street performers Jong-gil and Jang-sang. Arrested and tortured for putting on burlesques that satire the excesses of the king, his consort, and the imperial court, the duo make a bet with a courtier: Allow them to stage the burlesque once more for the king himself, and let them off if they manage to get a laugh out of Yeonsan. “What kind of a madman would laugh at this?” their accomplices ask, feeling the imaginary blade coming down on their necks. And yet the King does burst into a jolly fit, and fetes the clowns and their troupe as his official court jesters.

That signals the beginning of an ambiguous and unstable relationship between the king, his fools, and the Confucian courtiers. At times, the script appears to play like a doctoral thesis on "Parody and Subversion in the Masque" or "The Fool: Laughter and Danger in Elizabethan theatre" (The fools realise each time they put on a burlesque or masque for Yeonsan, someone ends up executed or murdered). It feels like a dramatic adaptation of an academic treatise on elements of Shakespeare’s plays, especially when some scenes are reminiscent of Hamlet (Yeonsan is eager to find out the truth behind his mother’s untimely death) or even Lear (Jong-gil the fool is the only human Yeonsan can strike up a semblance of a normal relationship with), and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (the tragedy of Yeonsan is indeed told through the eyes of the two fools).

While the tension and danger amidst the court intrigue are well-written, the movie may come across as more scriptable than lisable. Part of this feeling of misalignment comes from the fact that the Shakespearean feel is achieved at the price of anachronism – Korean never had a tradition of court jesters. The very idea that someone – much less a fool – would be allowed to openly mock a king, and to tell the truth at the same time, is completely alien to period and social hierarchy maintained by the Confucian courtiers. The sense of wild historical improbability does detract from this movie. There is precious little effort on part of the scriptwriter to square the circle and reconcile the idea of a court jester working within a Confucian system, or to examine the factionalism amongst the courtiers during the period.

Visually, the film boils over with frantic excitement and wide angle shots, with at 1 masque, 2 burlesques, 1 Chinese opera, 2 street performances featuring tightropes, acrobatics, 2 puppet shows, and 1 wayang kulit performance, while the charismatic interaction between the 3 main characters also serve to fill out emotionally the academic feel of the movie. The English subtitles, translated by professor Kim Yong Ok, are far superior to the Mandarin translation, and contribute to the rough and tumble verse of Shakespeare at times.

I’m bowled over by the audacity of the concept for King and the Clown, and despite its (very few) shortcomings, it’s a completely fresh take at Shakespeare, an original Kurosawa. Lee Joon-Ik evokes the great masters while pilfering none of their material, and I venture that he has created a classic that can count among the best Kurosawa interpretations of Shakespeare, and yet stand on its own.

First published at incinemas on 22 June 2006

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