TV & Radio
Gay movie's success echoes in Seoul's closet
By Norimitsu Onishi The New York Times
THURSDAY, MARCH 30, 2006
SEOUL "King and the Clown" lacked a single top star from South Korea's booming film industry or the other usual ingredients of a surefire blockbuster.
And in a country where homosexuality was removed from a government list of "socially unacceptable" acts only in 2004, the film centers on a gay love triangle in a 16th-century royal court: a young male clown torn between his love for a fellow clown and an amorous king.
But to everyone's surprise, not least the director's, in mid-March the movie became the most popular ever in South Korea's history, seen by more than 12 million people, or one in four residents. In U.S. terms, it would perhaps be the equivalent of "Brokeback Mountain" - to which this movie has been loosely compared - grossing as much as "Titanic."
As a cultural phenomenon, "King and the Clown" has led to sometimes confused, sometimes uncomfortable discussions here about the nature of homosexuality, something that was rarely discussed publicly until a few years ago.
At the core of the movie, which the producers hope to take to the United States, are two male clowns, a masculine one named Jang Saeng and a feminine, delicate-looking one named Gong Gil, who assumes the female part in skits.
Itinerant performers who depend on handouts for their survival, they are condemned to death one day for a bawdy skit insulting Yonsan, a king remembered in Korean history for his tyranny. But after succeeding in making the king laugh, the clowns are pardoned and allowed to become court jesters.
The king becomes enamored of Gong Gil, and the ensuing relationship fuels Jang Saeng's jealousy. Physical displays of affection are subtle: The king kisses the sleeping clown in one brief scene; in another showing the two clowns sleeping next to each other, Jang Saeng gently tucks in his partner.
All tame perhaps, but many here consider the movie a taboo-breaker in its matter-of-fact portrayal of homosexuality. Popular culture had long ignored gays or, in more recent years, relegated them to caricatured roles.
"One or two films tried to describe gay relationships in a serious way, but were unsuccessful commercially," said Tcha Sung-Jai, one of the country's best-known producers and a professor of film at Dongkuk University. "That's why everyone in the industry was so surprised when 'King and the Clown' became a hit."
"I cried when I saw the movie," he added, "and I'm a very strong heterosexual."
In addition to homosexuality, other previous taboos, like human rights violations during South Korea's military rule and North Korea-related themes, have been broached recently in films. Movies have mirrored, and sometimes tried to stay abreast of, a South Korean society that has been socially and politically transformed in the last decade.
Until a decade ago, when a tiny gay rights movement was started by Korean-Americans on a few college campuses here, most Koreans had been unaware even of the existence of gays. Even though Seoul has long had two neighborhoods with small clusters of gay bars, Itaewon and Chongno, gays remained hidden and homosexuality went unmentioned.
Then, in 2000, the issue was tossed into the public arena when a well- known television actor, Hong Suk Chon, became the first major figure to come out of the closet. Hong was immediately dropped from his show, and his career appeared over. But in 2003, in a sign of changing attitudes, the actor began a successful comeback.
"We feel that the last 10 years is the equivalent of 100 years because so many changes occurred in such a short period," Oh Ga Ram, an official at the Korean Gay Men's Human Rights Group, said in an interview in the organization's office in Chongno.
No other public figure has come out of the closet, and most Korean gays remain hidden. But Oh said "King and the Clown" was a "positive step" because "there is a discourse now that did not exist before."
The discourse, though, was often confused, Oh said. Because the love triangle hinges on a feminine male clown, some viewers say the relationship is not a gay one at all. "In the minds of many Koreans now, 'pretty males' equal gay," he said.
The movie's title in Korean is more direct about the nature of the relationship: "The King's Man."
Still, its director, Lee Jun Ik, was hesitant to define his movie as a gay- themed one and minimized it as a taboo-breaker.
"This is not homosexuality as defined by the West," Lee said in an interview. "It's very different from 'Brokeback Mountain.' In that movie, homosexuality is fate, not a preference. Here, it's a practice."
Lee said he had been more interested in evoking the world of itinerant clowns, many of whom were involved in same-sex relationships.
One person the director consulted was Kim Gi Bok, 77, who is considered the last surviving itinerant clown. Kim was amused at the attention he had gotten because of the film.
"Before we were treated as beggars, but now we are considered traditional artists," he said in an interview in Anseong, a town north of Seoul, where a center to keep alive his craft was established.
Intense relationships developed among itinerant clowns, Kim said, because they worked in all-male troupes and traveled together all the time.
"It was also difficult to get a wife," he said. "We were beggars. Who would marry a beggar?"
As in the movie, a masculine clown and a feminine clown often became a couple. The masculine clown showed his love by buying his partner, called a biri, a watch, Kim said.
"They would stay together all the time, sleeping in the same room, helping each other out," he said. "The biri would go into people's kitchens and even beg for food for both of them.
"Some of the biris were extremely beautiful - they had hair down to here," Kim said, pointing to his waist, as his eyes lit up at the memory. He added that some clowns who did manage to marry would sometimes leave their wives for fellow clowns.
Kim himself married and had one son. He said he, too, had biris during his life, though he said the relations had not been sexual.
"Relations between men were very sincere and genuine," Kim said. "It was an amazing, remarkable relationship, much closer than anything between a husband and wife."
My Side of the Mountain A gay-themed film becomes a surprise hit in Korea.