Of course, a plotline about an all-male troupe that tries to win the laughter of a tyrannical king is bound to be funny. But this story of two jesters—an ass-whupping alpha-male and an effeminate drag queen – blurs the lines of intimacy and desire through a love triangle that results in disaster. Think The Last Emperor (a horribly isolated ruler) meets Farewell, My Concubine (male friendship and pervasive misery), but add the bang-and-clang of traditional Korean drums, comedic brilliance, and a gender-bending male actor with flawless skin.
Before The Host, King and the Clown was the highest grossing domestic film in South Korea, a zeitgeist-changing feat given its raunchy political satire and homoerotic subtext. We’re talking South Korea here—a Confucian-rooted country that produces more heterosexual sap than Martha Stewart Weddings.
As the popularity of the King and the Clown attests, South Korea has come a long way (though the press tended to gloss over gay desire and praised the acting instead.) Not too long ago, actor Hong Suk-chon lost his job when he became the first South Korean celebrity to come out as gay; he’s now made a comeback. And in 2004, the country's Youth Protection Commission dropped homosexuality from its list of "socially unacceptable" acts.
But on my way out, I overheard a woman debating the film with her friends, claiming that the two main characters were "just friends."
"There was nothing physical; it was purely platonic," she emphasized.
Looks like the South Korean media isn't the only thing in denial.