Il-beom (played by Kim In-kwon) is forced by circumstance to look for well-paying work in morally duplicitous places, and ends up degrading himself for the amusement of older women, as part of a dubious but most likely legal scam to get them to buy overpriced consumer goods. What the women get out of this peculiar arrangement is initially unclear, but that much is quickly answered by Ok-nim (played by Lee Joo-sil), an older woman with little to look forward to in life except for these little junkets.
First and foremost "Clown of a Salesman" is...depressing. There really isn't any way to get around that much. Il-beom needs the money. While his purpose for acquiring money is the fairly noble goal of trying to save his young daughter, ultimately, this doesn't make Il-beom feel like any less of a vile person for agreeing to scam old women. It's the lack of a support network that's the real problem for the man, which is why his relationship with Ok-nim ends up taking on filial undertones.
And to Ok-nim's credit, this is the part of the arrangement that appeals to her as well. Ok-nim's family is doing fine. So fine, in fact, that they keep making excuses not to meet with their lonely old mother. She never finds out why Il-beom needs this money so badly. For that matter, Ok-nim never even seems all that curious as to why Il-beom's desperate pleas for help seem less like part of the show and more like genuine desperation. Going that deep would defy the business-like nature of the relationship.
That's all there is to it really. Il-beom got into this mess somewhat paradoxically by trying to do the right thing, and now he has no choice but to continue his life smiling even though there's times when the man clearly wants to kill himself. The main dramatic moment near the end forces Il-beom to come to terms with this by having him acknowledge just how low he's willing to go for the sake of his family.
It's pretty harsh cultural commentary. The entire story in "Clown of a Salesman" is only made possible because of societal breakdown on multiple levels. It's not possible for honest men like Il-beom to make an honest living, because people would rather bully the man than help him. It's not possible for good women like Ok-nim to live respectfully, because there's not much for them to really live for if their family doesn't actually need them. On both the economic and the social level, the situation is messed up.
A movie like "Clown of a Salesman" is difficult to recommend precisely because it's so dispiriting. Ironically the movies themselves are the same kind of opiate that Il-beom is peddling- they exist mainly as a distraction from the real problems in our everyday lives. What can "Clown of a Salesman" offer in comparison to that? Well...it can offer empathy. It can be a reminder to us to try to do better than that. This is a Mother's Day movie less because you want to watch it with your mother as much because it makes you want to tell her you love her and finally go out for that brunch you've been putting off.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Clown of a Salesman""
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