The King and the Clown (Wang-ui namja, 왕의 남자) 2005; dir. Joon-ik Lee; (IMDB.com)
The King and the Clown differs from the other films discussed in this series in a couple of ways. It doesn’t have any fantastical elements, being largely historical fiction, and it’s part of a rather small list of South Korean films that deals explicitly with LGBTQ themes. Due to the latter, the film’s incredible success in South Korea was something of a surprise: it was the most popular domestic film in 2005 and remains among the top 20 highest-grossing movies in Korean history.
The movie was inspired by a passage in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, where a court jester named Gong-gil is mentioned as having mocked the tyrannical King Yeonsan, a lecherous, violent maniac who happened to be one of the most despised monarchs of the Joseon Dynasty (and possibly of all Korean history). Not for no reason: this king hated criticism so much that he purged the country’s scholars twice, and banned vernacular writing (in the Hangul alphabet) entirely. He was, in short, a tyrannical madman… and if you know anything about the history of tyrannical madmen, it should come as no surprise that the film has been compared to Shakespearean tragedy—not just because of its many echoes of Hamlet, or the tragic implied love story involving Gong-gil and his close companion Jang-sang, but because its most sympathetic characters ultimately meets a dreadful end.
It seems wise at this point to note that this movie deals with some pretty extreme content: the film all but begins with the murder of a man pimping out the extremely effeminate Gong-gil to male admirers, and takes off from there. Before the curtains close, there are instances of torture, mutilation, many more murders (and people being hunted in the woods), and the depiction of serious mental illness. Even sexual coercion is strongly implied. Much of the most horrific content is offscreen, of course (if just barely so), and tastefully presented—but it is nonetheless a rough ride for the characters. In addition, the film makes no bones about just how outright bawdy Joseon-era street performances sometimes were, though mostly this lightens the whole affair.
All of that said, The King and the Clown is strongly recommended as inspirational material for a game set in Jeosung for several reasons.
The first is that it depicts a troupe of street performers—or, in the term used in The Koryo Hall of Adventures, bards of the Jaein subclass. During the course of the film, we get a really good look at the performance arts of the traditional Korean folk minstrel, including feats of acrobatics like tightrope walking, puppetry, instrumental music performances, oration, masked dramas, and dances. For commoner Jaein, at least, the film is worthwhile a crash course in the subject. There’s even a glimpse of some of the more elevated courtly entertainments around the middle of the film; as you might expect, they’re somewhat reminiscent of classical Chinese drama and opera.
The second thing about the film that could inspire a fantasy narrative or game is that it’s a pretty good look at how one could involve characters in what is, in Korean historical dramas, ubiquitous: courtly intrigue. It’s unlikely that a royal palace will be the typical stomping grounds of your average adventuring party, but you’ll find ample inspiration here for ways to get them situated in a palace and then embroiled in the politics of the place. It makes for a fun departure from a campaign primarily devoted to wilderness excursions and battling monsters, and also makes clear how player character actions could have wide-ranging consequences, ranging from changes in popular sentiment to triggering outright peasant uprisings.
Finally, GMs looking for tips on designing and roleplaying members of the royal palace will find many of the most familiar stock types on show here: the deadly serious scholar-ministers; the scheming and jealous concubine; the mentally warped monarch desperate to flout Confucian law and the overrbearing “advice” of his uptight minister-advisors. (Jung Jin-young really has fun chewing the scenery in his depiction of the insane king.)
That said, the film also manages to go beyond that, to reveal reasons why the king is utterly mad, as his private conferences with Gong-gil (and other secret conferences) slowly reveal. The uptight ministers, the mad king, the scheming concubine: all of them have reasons for their actions, and the film drip-feeds them to the viewer in a way that a GM could do worse than to emulate, rendering the story’s villains sympathetic and logical even as they grow increasingly repugnant and horrifying. For a GM, it’s an object lesson in developing villains who present moral and political dilemmas quite unlike those faced by the typical fantasy-adventuring party.
The Koryo Hall of Adventures draws on Korean history and culture, as well as the experience of living in Korea, and not all players and Game Masters are familiar with this cultural background. Appendix K, named as a riff on Gary Gygax’s now-celebrated “Appendix N,” attempts to provide a list of references to help better visualize this campaign setting. In this series, Gord Sellar covers movies, television series, books, music, and other works that offer inspiration, adventure seeds, ideas, helpful visuals, and more.