The movie The King and the Clown is one of the first films in contemporary Korean cinema to portray open homosexuality on screen. It was controversial since homosexuality has been a topic of taboo if not illegal in a mostly conservative Korean society. This attention benefited a minor film as people could connect to the emotions and social ideas expressed in the movie despite its controversial perspective. The film was able to show genuine emotion in the characters, striking a delicate balance of advocating homosexuality without creating an overexaggerated and forceful attempt of forcing the topic unto the audience.
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The film explores various aspects of South Korean society, showing the challenges that each social group had to face. Although The King and the Clown is a period piece, it holds some relevance in the modern day. For example, the privileged king apparently struggled with his mental health, sexual identity, and public perception. The film’s characters show a depth of emotion that contrasts with fundamental human flaws.
Even though the characters are homosexual, that does not make them different emotionally or impervious to social struggles. The director chose to enclose homosexual relationships within a heterosexual context by portraying one of the gay partners as effeminate. This may be inherently opposing to the true nature of LGBTQ equality since sexuality should not be based in gendered terms.
East Asian queer cinema is based on appropriating Western ideals of homosexuality and adapting them to local cultures, specifically applying them to the concept of family. A person’s role in the family is contrasted with sexual identity. Inherently, it may create conflict that can be resolved through acceptance. “Constructed as a localization of the Western cultural model of gay identity, hybrid gay identities challenge the view of cultural globalization as homogenization” (Shin, 2013, p. 92).
Many conservative cultures view homosexuality as a degradation of social morals imposed by the West. The hybrid strategy is influenced by a strong advocacy for LGBTQ rights in Western cinema but seeks to adopt an inherently local cultural approach through local films. For example, The King and the Clown highlights homosexuality in Korean history where royalty or traveling clown troupes were known to engage in such sexual relationships. Therefore, the origin of the ideas and emotions stems from within Korean tradition itself, forcing a reexamination of current social barriers.
Contemporary Korean cinema is firmly grounded in realism which reflects the expectations of film audiences. Therefore, homosexuality is challenging to find openly expressed through the film in a conservative society. “Although still rarely dealing with issues of homosexual equality, and not yet approaching the level of gay and lesbian political viability common in Western cinema, Korean cinema is now moving to tolerate…” (Lee, 2000, p. 281). The LGBTQ movements are gaining more acceptance through independent filmmakers who are not subject to government sponsorship which places strict filters on the creative material. In addition, historical dramas or films exploring social ideas that attract Korean audiences can advocate for the acceptance of sexual minority groups.
Lee, J. (2000). Remembered branches: towards a future of Korean homosexual film. Journal of Homosexuality, 39(3-4), 273-281. Web.
Shin, J. (2013). Male homosexuality in The King and the Clown: Hybrid construction and contested meanings. Journal of Korean Studies, 18(1), 89-114.