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Year: 2005
South Korea
Language: Korean
Director: Lee Jun-ik
Screenplay: Choi Seok-hwan
Adapted from a play by: Kim Tae-wung
Cinematography: Ji Gil-Wung
Soundscore: Lee Byung-woo
Cast: Gam Wu-seong, Lee Jun Ki, Jeong Jin-yeong, Kang Seong Yeon
Runtime: 119 min
Trailer: on YouTube

Seen at the Korean Cultural Centre (KCCUK) during the Lee Jun-ik (이준익) month of KCCUK’s Korean Film Night programme “2012: Year of the 12 Directors”. The review is about the extended version of the film, not the theatrical release.

It’s the final lines of Wangeui Namja that best sum up the film: All the world’s a stage. Date-wise the Shakespearean quote is a little misplaced, given that the setting of Wangeui Namja is the early 16th century Joseon, but As You Like It, where it is taken from, was written around 1599 or 1600. That said, the metaphor very likely preceded the Bard of Avon, if not in exact words than at least in its conceptual form.

Being tight-rope walking clowns, Jangsaeng (Gam Wu-seong) and Gong-il (Lee Jun Ki), two of Wangeui Namja’s main characters, certainly live this idea. The two men, who are separated in age by perhaps 10, 15 years, are part of a larger troupe of street entertainers, but have a special bond. The exact nature of their relationship is never revealed in the film, however, it is clear from the start that the older and more experienced Jangsaeng watches over the ethereally beautiful and very effeminate Gong-il, violently objecting to their troupe leader’s readiness to prostitute the boy to rich spectators in the audience. When the disagreement turns bloody, Jangsaeng and Gong-il flee to Seoul, where they form a new ensemble with three other actors and, after a particularly risqué skit about the current king and his concubine, find themselves at the royal court and in front of the mocked man himself, forced to perform to save their lives. It is the same, derogatory sketch they put on, but Jangsaeng and Gong-il’s new companions are frozen with fear and they themselves more aware with every second that their act is falling apart. However, King Yeonsan (Jeong Jin-yeong) laughs – he laughs!

King at play.

It is a first sign of the king’s madness, because mad – utterly delusional really – he is. Not only does he make the men that have ridiculed him jesters of the court, but we soon see him re-enacting scenes from the skit with his concubine Noksu (Kang Seong Yeon). To the king all is play and the minions are his puppets. But being king the game he plays is ever so more dangerous and the stakes are high, with betrayal and struggles of power in the royal court forming the murky background for King Yeonsan’s diversions. His mother, we learn, was poisoned during the king’s boyhood, the murder being suggested as the cause of his deranged psyche and erratic oscillations between immaturely playful child and ruthless ruler. Meanwhile, many of the ministers of the court remain loyal to king’s father, also dead, and intrigues are brewing to remove Yeonsan from the throne.

As the king becomes increasingly mesmerised by Gong-il’s beauty, the young jester and his companions inevitably are pulled into the game. Yeonsan frequently summons Gong-il to his private chambers, inciting displeasure in the ministers, who feel threatened by the troupe’s continued presence (they rightfully worry that performances will expose past treacheries, in particular about the queen mother’s murder), but also fomenting jealousy in Noksu and anger in Jangsaeng, both of whom suspect that deviant sexual desires are driving these invitations. Although this may be so, there is in fact never more than a relatively chaste – and drunken – kiss as the king only orders Gong-il to “play”: to tell stories with shadow puppets or reenact performances. Becoming aware of Yeonsan’s childhood traumas, the sensitive Gong-il feels pity and complies, unable to see that his master’s pain translates into insane cruelty. Only when heads come rolling does he realise that the king has no sense of reality – that it is actual people he is toying with – and no compassion, ready to torture and slaughter anyone, including the person dearest to Gong-il.

The king and his pretty toy (boy?), Gong-il.

Wangeui Namja is a story narrated through performance, adding a layer to the film (and even more so the original play, Yi, that it is based on) that reinforces its message. The tool of theatricality is not peripheral, it pervades every scene: the film opens with a show and just about all crucial moments of the plot involve some sort performance element. The fate of one character is foreshadowed when the clowns pretend to be blind just for fun, the king’s true nature is revealed to the young jester in a show that becomes disturbingly bloody and the love and loyalty between Gong-il and Jangsaeng is confirmed through a moving rope act in the film’s conclusion.

As characters, particularly the king and the older jester are well defined, both Jeong Jin-yeong and Gam Wu-seong making the brutal, insanely playful ruler and the proud, fiercely protective performer come alive respectively. Lee Jun Ki also does well, but does not quite reach their level. He certainly looks the part of Gong-il, however, the personality – of a shy, sensitive, world-innocent boy – that his role very much relies on, is conveyed only to some extent through Lee Jun Ki’s acting. There are scenes when we can see it: when Gong-il is visibly shaken after the fateful disagreement with the original troupe leader at the beginning or when he hides behind a screen as the king storms into the courtyard, shouting “Where is my Gong-il?”. Though his physical beauty inadvertently draws everyone’s eyes, the jester prefers to remain in the background – Lee Jun Ki, however, sometimes merely seems to be standing around rather than continuing to form this withdrawn character through, say, subtly added gestures or facial expressions. As a consequence some of Gong-il’s actions – particularly his decision to stay with the king and the resulting break with Jangsaeng – are not fully understandable. That said, Gong-il was an early role for Lee Jun Ki and is not so much a bad performance as a not yet fully perfected one by an actor still learning his craft.

Hunting games.

Similar things could be said of Lee Jun-ik, the director. Although Wangeui Namja was an incredibly successful film (it still holds, with 12.3 million tickets sold, the position of second highest number of admissions ever for a Korean production) and is wonderful in many ways, there are aspects that could be polished. The text in the opening shots of the film were helpful, but perhaps not the most elegant way to provide – even if needed – explanations. Equally, while the cinematography was pretty, I couldn’t help but wonder what we would have seen if Hwang Ki-seok, the cinematographer for the utterly gorgeous 형사 (Hyeongsa/Duelist, 2005), had been behind the camera – though I realise budget restrictions and personal preferences likely come into play here.

Whether Wangeui Namja‘s triumph at the Korean box office came due to a much-debated kiss between two men and its hints at homosexuality, the draw of eye candy or the mere joy of watching a richly colourful costume drama, I cannot say. For myself, however, the film succeeds as a touching story on the bond between two characters that reflects a larger metaphor on life, in which we all, whether kings or clowns, are merely actors on a stage. Lee Jun-ik’s decision to tell the story through performance instead of more conventionally narrative scenes also deserves special praise.

Overall verdict: Lee Jun-ik makes extensive use of a tool of dual performance – staged scenes within a film – to convey metaphor and message of Wangeui Namja, providing a richly theatrical and ultimately touching costume drama on a king and two clowns.

Rating: 8/10

Bonus bits:

  • A fan site for Wangeui Namja, where you can find all kinds of interesting details and further links to reviews and articles.
  • I kind of like Thundie’s reflections on the film over at Thundie’s Prattle (even if I don’t 100% agree with her). Note: the reflections do contain some spoilers, so read after watching Wangeui Namja.
  • With all the performance in the film, I wondered if I was not perhaps losing out on the play on words that I felt may have been ever so more present in the Korean version. Certainly some scenes – Jangsaeng and Gong-il’s final rope act – were very much defined by the words uttered, words that, I presume, carried even more meaning in the original. I’m not blaming the subtitlers here as some such loss is inevitable, but it’s more of a reason to get fluent in Korean and rewatch Wangeui Namja one day.

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