TV & Radio
My Side of the Mountain
A gay-themed film becomes a surprise hit in Korea.
By Mark Russell
March 27, 2006 issue - Like "Brokeback Mountain," South Korea's "The King and the Clown" is a mainstream movie featuring homosexual characters that urges viewers to put the story ahead of sexual politics. But unlike the highly publicized "Brokeback," the $4.2 million "King and the Clown," produced by Eagle Pictures, emerged from obscurity. It's since become the biggest film in Korean history, seen by 12 million of the country's 47 million citizens. That translates into $77.5 million at the box office; by comparison, the highest-grossing foreign film ever shown in Korea, "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," made only $38 million. "Before the première, we knew it was good," says director Lee Jun-ik. "We hoped it might sell 5 million tickets. But nobody could have predicted what happened."
Fantastic word of mouth has fueled the film's success. Despite being a period drama devoid of big-name stars, "The King and the Clown" has sparked enough buzz to draw swelling crowds week after week. Set 500 years ago, it's the story of two traveling entertainers—the macho Jang-seng and the effeminate Gong-gil—who become official performers in the royal palace. The movie skillfully mixes comedy and drama, against a fast-paced backdrop of high-wire acrobatics and clown culture, and has obviously struck a chord with audiences.
The gay scenes are subtle but not sugarcoated. When the movie begins, an unscrupulous troupe leader is pimping Gong-gil to lecherous nobles for food. In the palace, King Yon-san leaves his concubine because he is so fixated on the feminine Gong-gil. As with "Brokeback," filmmakers focused on the human nature of the relationships , which many in the conservative country found liberating. "While I was sitting in the theater, I thought, Oh, my god, director Lee, thank you so much," says gay actor Hong Suk-chun, who was virtually blackballed from television when he was outed five years ago.
"The King and the Clown" is paving the way for other gay-themed movies. On March 1, "Brokeback Mountain" was released, selling a modest but respectable 150,000 tickets so far. Last week, the Japanese indie film "La Maison do Himiko," which also deals with homosexuality, opened and quickly sold 70,000 tickets. "In terms of audience reaction, 'The King and the Crown' definitely helped," says Josh Lee, vice president of international sales at CJ Entertainment, which imported "Brokeback" to Korea—and is selling "The King and the Clown" abroad. Soon, the rest of the world will get to see what all the buzz is about