Jules Does

Jules Does K-Pop Academy Homework: Korean History Through Film

Posted on: October 29, 2014

For this week’s K-Pop Academy Homework, I watched a film about a historical event in Korea, reviewed it and drew some conclusions about Korean history. Enjoy!

There is a huge wealth of Korean historical films and dramas, for which fans such as myself are immensely grateful. My favourite K-Drama ever is certainly Sungkyunkwan Scandal, a wonderful epic about royalty, cross-dressing and education in the Joseon Period (in this case, the late 18th century). The costuming is stunning, the plot relatively taut throughout, and the people are *gorgeous*. Did I say that last bit out loud? For this week’s homework, I watched the 2005 Korean movie The King and the Clown, reviewed it and assessed what I could glean from it about Korean history.

Before we start, a brief word about the dangers of learning from films. I love movies, truly I do, but movies are supposed to be stories, not accurate historical documents. They have to adhere to certain story-telling tenets and not leave huge gaps between the action, or people will get bored and go watch White Chicks 2 (yes, White Chicks 2 is everyone’s go-to replacement movie). If you believe absolutely everything you see in movies, you will end up being horrbly wrong about certain facts and will wind up irritating people who actually know something about the subject. Possible errors include:

  • Thinking the Trojan War took 6 months instead of 10 years.
  • Believing that the WWII Enigma machine was captured by the Americans, not the British.
  • “Knowing” that the Emperor Commodus reigned for about a month before being killed in the arena.
  • Picturing Jesus as a blonde white guy.

Gah, so many errors! Nevertheless, movies can be interesting sources of historical fact, particularly for smaller details like fashion trends and so on, so I’ll do my best to pick the wheat from the chaff.

The Film’s Background and Plot

The King and the Clown is based on a play from 2000 called Yi by Kim Tae-Woon, which took its inspiration from a small section of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty which refers to Gong Gil, the King’s favourite clown. It was wildly successful upon its release and currently holds the position of sixth highest-grossing domestic film in South Korea. It also made a huge star out of Lee Joon Gi, who plays Gong Gil.

Lee Joon Gi as Gong Gil.

The film is set in the 15th Century during the Joseon Dynasty in the reign of King Yeonsan (or Yeonsangun) (played by Jung Jin Young) and follows two street performers, Jang Saeng (Kam Woo Sung) and Gong Gil. Gong Gil is a very beautiful man who often plays the female roles in the ribald plays they put on, though unfortunately this leads an unscrupulous troupe manager to whore him out to enhance the troupe’s takings. Jang Saeng is very protective of Gong Gil (although it is not ever really clear that their bond is a romantic one) and clashes violently with the troupe manager, so the pair leave for Seoul to make their fortune.

Upon their arrival, they find that crowds in Seoul are fairly hard to muster, given that the King has demolished a huge section of the city to build hunting grounds and evicted the people living there. In order to boost their takings, but also because Jang Saeng has an evident problem with authority, they team up with a few local minstrels and put on several highly popular shows satirising the King and his mistress, Jang Nok Su (Kang Seong Yong). This is an especially daring move in a society where deference to the hierarchy is rigidly enshrined. When they are inevitably arrested, Jang Saeng persuades the official in charge, Choseon, to let them perform their play before the King – if they can make him laugh, they get to live. If not…

Satire is srs bzness.

Largely due to (what seems to be) an unscripted bit of wit from Gong Gil, they succeed in making the King laugh and find themselves installed in the palace as the King’s go-to minstrels. They provide a distraction from the frustrations the King faces among his ministers, who appear to want the King to stop messing about and be a decent ruler like his father. Choseon realises that the minstrels have the power to satirise not only the King, but the ministers as well, and in so doing expose a great deal of court corruption while ingratiating themselves with the King.

The King especially favours the beautiful Gong Gil, who is often summoned to the King’s private chambers to perform puppet shows and shadow puppetry. It becomes clear that the King is dangerously unhinged and only ever wants to play about, rather than govern. This angers Jang Nok Su, who feels her position of power slipping away, and worries Jang Saeng. At the King’s command, the minstrels perfom a tragedy about the death of the King’s mother, who died after being commanded to drink poison by the former King at the instigation of his concubines and demanding mother. The King is so moved by the play (and by Gong Gil’s emotive portrayal of his late mother) that he murders his father’s concubines on the spot, causing his grandmother to die of a heart attack there and then.

The minstrels plan to leave, but the King makes Gong Gil a minister and refuses to let him go. The ministers attempt to kill Gong Gil during a hunt, and Jang Nok Su has him framed, alleging that posters in his handwriting in Hangul were found in the town slandering the King in the worst possible language. Ever the defender, Jang Saeng claims that he was the author of the posters and is imprisoned. He is released secretly by Choseon and told to leave and forget about Gong Gil, but returns and walks on a tightrope in the courtyard, shouting about the king’s excesses and lusts, before he is brought down by the King, who has him blinded. The King still refuses to let Gong Gil leave the palace, insisting on playing increasingly twisted games that reveal a lot about his psychology and his sexual obsession with Gong Gil.

Choseon meets secretly with a shadowy group of people who aim to overthrow the King and replace him with his less-unhinged half brother, but he chooses to hang himself rather than be brought into the scandal. In despair at Jang Saeng’s plight, Gong Gil attempts suicide, but his life is saved. The next day, Jang Saeng is brought out into the courtyard to walk the tightrope again, which he does even though he is blind, all while telling of his and Gong Gil’s shared troubles and adventures. Hearing this, Gong Gil goes to join him on the tightrope and asks him what he would be in his next life. Jang Saeng replies that, despite it all, he would still choose to be a minstrel, and Gong Gil agrees. The two run towards each other on the tightrope and bounce high in the air while a mob rushes through the palace doors to depose King Yeonsan.

My Review

The relationship between Gong Gil and Jang Saeng was beautifully done, I thought. You do get hints about how they met and their history together, but it doesn’t go into too much detail or get really ham-fisted with too much exposition, which I appreciated. It let their bond kind of speak for itself. I also enjoyed the fact that the film kept its focus on the relationship between the two friends even as larger problems were beginning to overwhelm them and the country – it’s that bond that the film begins and ends with, without even a written epilogue about what became of King Yeonsan (he was exiled and died shortly after).  Homosexual themes are still fairly risque in Asian cinema (the film was banned in China) (not that homosexual themes aren’t risque in Western cinema too), but I think this film handled them fairly sensitively, demonising the people who would exploit Gong Gil for his body without actually demonising homosexuality itself.

It may be because I am a sour old lemon, but I didn’t find the humour in the film all that funny. It may have been that it was supposed to be more of an example of historical humour (do people really laugh at the bawdy bits in Shakespeare that much anymore?) and a demonstration of the kind of ribaldry that would have been employed by performers then, but it didn’t seem all that amusing. The language barrier may have been part of the problem of course, although the person who wrote the subtitles made a valiant effort; puns are pretty impossible to translate.

Jung Jin Young was an excellent mad king, oscillating between childish foolishness and chilling coldness. He also showed how hot-tempered the King could be when he didn’t get his way, but also succeeded in making the King an object of pity as well as fear through little glimpses into his past and his private moments – his mistress babies him, which is undignifed, but which is probably linked to the absence of his mother in his life. These little scenes made it easier to understand the King’s twisted motivations without justifying them or arguing that he wasn’t that bad.

I do think you would need to have read a little bit about King Yeonsan and his reign before going into this film. If you didn’t cast an eye over even the Wikipedia entry you might be a little confused, and the significant moments featuring his mother or his attitudes to his ministers would not have been as easy to understand.

The film is visually sumptuous, with lots of bold colours and attention to the detail of interior design, costuming and architecture. The difference between the faded, washed-out colours of the clothes and houses of the common people and the richly painted and coloured royal equivalents are truly striking, and the excess of colour in the palace contributes to the overall feelings of excess and too-muchness of the King’s court and life generally.

The King and the Clown was also a great showcase for plenty of traditional Korean art, including several dances such as the Seungjonmu, as well as traditional masks, acrobatics, and, of course, fashion (of which more later). The masks used in the performances seemed to be of certain fixed types – the eunuch, the red-faced man, the woman – which reminded me of the masks used in ancient Greek theatre.

The costuming was exquisite! I’ve already mentioned the importance of colour saturation in the film’s visual palatte, but even without that the attention to detail was truly striking. There were so many small things that could have gone undone, but because they were there they added a great deal of depth to the film’s setting. The richness of the royal costumes was reflected in the low quality satirical costumes the characters wear at the beginning of their dangerous endeavour  – you can see in the picture above how they mocked-up the king’s distinctive shoulder and chest embroidery through the use of woven rushes and coloured rags. The beautiful hair arrangements of the female characters was also terribly beautiful and elaborate.

Case in point.

What I Learned

I’ve tried to find another source for each of the things I’ve learned here so that I don’t fall into the trap I outlined above, but apologies if I still have a bunch of misconceptions about Korean history. Please put any corrections in the comments! I know from reading around that certain things in the film aren’t true (for example, the King had Choseon tortured to death and personally cut off his limbs, but in the film he’s afforded a much tidier death), so I’ve tried not to include any known untruths.

  • History and Etiquette
    • King Yeonsan was widely hated and took over a large part of Seoul to create hunting grounds, resulting in the eviction of many residents. He also created huge pleasure halls out of existing temples and universites and filled them with beautiful women from around the country.
    • The King’s mother was executed for a number of infractions while the King was still a young prince, which drove him to seek revenge on those in government who had had anything to do with her death.
    • The King’s consort, Jang Nok Su, was looked down upon for being a former gisaeng, or courtesan, and had an intense lust for power that led her to her eventual execution.
    • Posters in Hangul protesting against King Yeonsan were actually put up around the town, which led the King to ban the use of Hangul.
    • Minstrel troupes travelled the countryside, often staying with a patron who would hire them to put on larger shows. The shows were fairly lowbrow, with lots of bawdy humour, and used standard characters depicted by masks.
    • One feature of minstrel shows would be two characters exchanging witty dialogue while one or both did elaborate tricks on a tightrope. Tightrope walkers used a fan to help them balance.
    • Performances took place outside or in a courtyard of a building.
    • The music used to accompany shows of various sizes and formalities could vary, but often involved a gong and at least one drum.
    • Although the King wielded supereme power, he was still very much answerable to his ministers, who could obstruct him in his wishes.
    • During Cabinet meetings, the King would sit on an elevated throne, with the ministers seated on the floor in two rows on both sides of a central aisle. The ministers would kneel for the duration of the meeting. If all of the minsters disagreed with something, they would call out in unison.
    • There were very specific instructions on how to address the King in any given situation. All responses to the King’s speech were marked by extreme deference and frequent, very low bowing.
    • Despite the invention of Hangul by King Sejong, some members of Korean society were still illiterate by the time of King Yeonsan’s reign (and certainly afterwards as well) – it’s incorrect to think that the promulgation of Hangul immediately led to 100% literacy among the population.
  • Dress
    • Common people wore clothes made of cheap materials such as hemp, while the rich could afford silk garments.
    • Rich women wore hanbok with a number of diaphanous petticoats in order to puff out their skirt even further.
    • Although clothes could be a wide variety of colours, certain strong colours prevailed, including red, yellow, black, green and blue.
    • When mourning a royal, the entire court, including ministers, wore garments made of white hemp, complete with hemp headgear.
    • Elite men wore their hair in a topknot with a headband across their forehead to secure any wispy bits. The topknot could also be decorated, such as in the case of the King.

      The King with an elaborate covering for his topknot and showing the forehead covering.

    • A person’s rank could be discerned through, among other things, their headgear. The King wore a distinctive hat with several tiers, while lower ranking official wore hats with only one tier. The King’s hat sometimes had elaborate decoration in various materials on the sides and front.

      The King’s hat compared to a lower official’s hat.

    • Poorer people wore woven shoes with a single strap across the centre. Wealthier people had more elaborately made shoes, which sometimes featured decorations and multiple colours.
    • Undergarments tended to be white, if you had them.
    • High-class and/or wealth women wore huge hairpieces to augment their own braided hair. Women of especially high status would ornament their hair with elaborate pins and other decorations.

      Kang Seong Yeon as Jang Nok Su.

    • The garments of royals were often decorated with embroidery in gold or silver thread.
    • The king’s clothes were ornamented with embroidered dragons on the chest and both shoulders.
    • Palace guards wore hats with a large string of round beads as a hat cord.
    • Ministers wore blue robes with a large section of embroidery on the chest. All ministers wore the same outfit while performing their duties. They also wore a single-tiered hat with a tall rear tier and a bow-shaped decoration at the back that jutted out at the sides.


These are just some of the things you can learn about Korean history and culture from paying attention to a movie. As you can see, it can be quite rewarding! I recommend you watch The King and the Clown, or find another Korean historical drama that suits your tastes and see how much you can learn in under three hours.

I can’t finish without directing you to the amazing YouTube channel of the Korean Film Archive. There are a number of older Korean films there with English subtitles that are totally free and legal to watch. I’m hoping to watch the 1961 film Prince Yeonsan later this week in order to compare it with the depiction of Yeonsan in The King and the Clown. Watch this space! Also, it would be remiss of me not to draw your attention to the Korean Film Festival, which is about to start in London before going to a few other cities. It runs from the 6th to the 21st of November and has a number of awesome Korean films, from historical dramas to rom-coms to modern stories, certain to please all fans of world cinema. The K-Pop Academy will be promoting the Festival this coming Saturday in Leicester Square, so please do come along and encourage us!


1 Response to "Jules Does K-Pop Academy Homework: Korean History Through Film"

[…] on to the pictures of all of us looking amazing was a small point that I made in my review of The King and the Clown, where I noted that the king had embroidered roundels on his chest and shoulders, and the ministers […]

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