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King & the Clown Tops Korean Film of All Time

2006/03/10 Source

By Nigel DSa
Contributing Writer

As of March 5th, 2006 local box-office winner The King and the Clown broke all previous records and surged past the 11.74 million admissions mark held by Taegugki, to become the most successful Korean film of all time.

The gay-themed film is being called Korea's Brokeback Mountain, and has remained in the top three at the box office since its release on Dec. 29, 2005.

The King and the Clown is to get the royal treatment as the English international version of the film is underway and is being translated by one of Korea's foremost scholars and public philosophers, Kim Yong-ok, whose pen-name is Do-ol (meaning 'stone').

Dr. Kim is professor emeritus at Sunchon National University and the author of numerous books on philosophy, religion and art. He has translated English philosophy into Korean and has also published a three-volume account of his interview with the Dalai Lama.

Dr. Kim saw The King and the Clown in January and was impressed enough to contact the production company to express his concern that an English translation be carefully done to bring across more clearly the finer points of Korean culture. When asked by director Lee Joon-ik for assistance, Kim volunteered to handle the project.

For The King and the Clown he has chosen the English title The Royal Jester which he says contains the ambiguity and multiple meanings of the original Korean title, namely a King's clown, a kingly clown, and a clownish king.

In January, thanks largely to The King and the Clown, local Korean films enjoyed one of their best months in history, taking in box office receipts of over 78 percent, despite the presence of US heavyweights such as King Kong and the Chronicles of Narnia.

The winning streak was second only to February 2004 when, thanks largely to Korean War blockbuster Taegugki, domestic films peaked at an 82 percent market share.

There are two ironies surrounding the current success. The first is that many in the film industry feel beleaguered rather than emboldened by this strong showing, as it coincided with the government's announcement that Korea's Screen Quota system would be halved, cutting the required annual screen time for Korean films from 40 percent to 20 percent.

In the light of local fare dominating nearly 80 percent of the box-office, it is hard to argue for the preservation of protectionist measures, and finance ministers timed the decision well.

The second irony is that unlike Taegugki the star-fueled blockbuster of two years ago this year's first box-office champion was a modestly budgeted film with no major star-power to draw audiences.

Based on the stage-play Yi, about a Chosun-era king and his jester, The King and the Clown cost only 4 million US dollars to make, and has sold almost 12 million tickets since its release nine weeks ago, already making it the most successful film in Korean history.

It is a case of word-of-mouth prevailing over the blockbuster hype of double-digit productions.

By contrast, the 15 million dollar "Typhoon", focusing on the North-South divide, is the most expensive Korean film ever made, with a stellar cast including Jang Dong-gun, Lee Jung-jae and Lee Mi-yeon. Yet it drew only 4.2 million admissions, 2 million short of what it needed to break even. Relying more on special effects and a sensational plot, the film lacked detailed and compelling characters and failed to reach Korean audiences on a personal level.

An even greater bomb was the 10 million dollar Blue Swallow starring Jang Jin-yeong. Set during the period of Japanese occupation and purportedly recounting the tale of Korea's first female pilot, this aerial hopeful plummeted, barely drawing 600 000 viewers. Korean audiences may have been disappointed that the film did not come out strongly enough against imperial Japan.

Like many successful Korean films, word-of-mouth was a tremendous factor in the popularity of The King and the Clown. The question "Have you seen that movie?" has a snowball-effect on ticket sales here.

Based on the true story of a mad king, it is well scripted and performance-driven, with a bit of homoerotic controversy thrown in. While Koreans are a far cry from accepting homosexuality in their own society, it does seem to have market potential.

The minor-hit A Bungee-Jumping of Their Own broached the issue, albeit in a way that gave it an underlying heterosexual context.

In The King and the Clown, it is the gender-bending jester Konggil, played by Lee Joon-gi, who fascinates both his wealthy patrons and Korean film-going audiences alike.

Feminized men are a growing trend in Korea, with high-school girls apparently going giddy for men who could conceivably pass as women. Last year Korea debuted the world's first manufactured transgender pop group, 'Lady'.

Lee Joon-gi, who has become famous overnight for his graceful portrayal of Konggil and his girlish good looks, is one of the chief reasons for the film's popularity. Though we cannot say this is simply a case of the lady-boy trend triumphing over big-budget muscle. Much of the film's delight issues from the energetic play-acting and witty sparring of the two clowns.

Some critics account for the big draw of The King and the Clown by proposing that Korean audiences have evolved and refined their movie-going tastes, falling prey less and less to the glossy, hyped, often ridiculous plots of commercial productions, and instead favoring the subtle textures of unique personal dramas. This seems doubtful, if the success of the appallingly asinine sequel, My Boss, My Teacher, and gimmicky hits like Vampire Cop Ricky and Oh! My God are any indication.

There is no single reason for The King and the Clown's popularity, however a mix of the right ingredients and the power of word-of-mouth in densely populated Korea helped it go a long way. It is also worth noting that Koreans go to the movies a lot more often than they used to. Attendance has more than tripled in the last eight years, making Korea the fifth largest movie-going audience in the world.

As for The King and the Clown, there is already a stage musical spin-off of in the works.

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