Gay-themed movie proves to be surprise hit in South Korea

Posted on 09 Feb 2006 at 11:10pm
By Burt Herman

“‘King and the Clown’ portrays effeminate court jester caught in love triangle involving 16th century king, fellow performer

SEOUL, South Korea The latest hit movie in South Korea centers on an unlikely theme for the deeply conservative country: A delicately effeminate male clown caught between the affections of a despotic king and the love of a fellow performer.

“King and the Clown” has become an unexpected runaway success at the box office, drawing more than 8.6 million people including President Roh Moo-hyun since its Dec. 29 premiere, making it the No. 3 most-popular film ever in South Korea.

The story centers around a troupe of entertainers condemned to die for an act mocking the 16th century King Yonsan, but who beg to be pardoned if they can make the king laugh with their racy skit poking fun at him and his favorite concubine.

The clowns succeed in breaking the king’s icy stare and become court jesters.

Kong-gil, the gentle-faced male clown who portrays the female concubine in the act, draws the attention of the king and becomes his favorite, staging private puppet shows to Yonsan’s delight but drawing the jealousy of clown leader Jang-saeng, who has always protected his friend from the amorous attention of other men.

The gay plot line is deliberately muted. The king and Kong-gil share only one quick kiss on screen.

The movie is based on a play that was inspired by a brief mention in the king’s diary about his favorite clown.

Gay people have only recently gained some acceptance in South Korean society, with its strict Confucian traditions and a strong Catholic church. The government only in April 2004 removed sodomy from a list of “socially unacceptable sexual acts” it considered harmful for youth.

Actor Hong Suk-chon caused a national sensation in 2000 when he became the first celebrity to publicly reveal he was gay. Hong’s coming out cost him his job on a children’s TV program, and he only returned to the small screen three years later, then playing an openly gay designer.

The new film was made on a low budget, $4.5 million, and unlike many other blockbusters doesn’t deal with the tragic division of the Korean Peninsula.

Director Lee Jun-ik said he’s been surprised by the success of “King and the Clown,” and feels it comes from the audience’s enjoyment at seeing a window into palace life and the class contrast between the aristocracy and lowly clowns, not because of the gay theme.

Seeking to underplay the gay aspect, the film’s English title is different from the Korean version that more directly implies the all-male love triangle: “The King’s Men.”

“People who talk about homosexuality today have totally different concepts from the past,” Lee told The Associated Press. He said the story of the relationship between the king and the clown was based on the tyrant’s emotional emptiness that his concubine Nok-su is unable to fill, not physical desire.

The actor Lee Jun-gi who plays the clown Kong-gil has enjoyed a wave of attention from the film, fueled by the trend of “pretty boy” culture seen here in recent years of women favoring such androgynous men.

Lee Jun-gi said one of the good things about the movie is that various interpretations are possible by the audience. “I feel proud of creating a unique character,” he told AP.

“Lee Jun-gi’s popularity is possible because he appealed to audience, not through homosexuality but as a “‘pretty boy’ without showing any homosexual desires,” the Munwha daily newspaper wrote in a column analyzing the film’s strong following.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of February 10, 2006.

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