Set in 16th century Korea, Jaeng-sang and Gong-gil are exceptionally good jesters in a small-time performing troupe. Despite their skill money is sparse and to increase earnings the troupe master prostitutes Gong-gil to rich patrons. The film begins with Jaeng-sang finally snapping and convincing Gong-gil to run away to Seoul with him.
From there things get worse.
After competing with the self-proclaimed best clowns in Seoul they find themselves both with potential troupe mates and great material for their show--the sexual exploits of the king. Though popular their act quickly finds them arrested, and it is only through Gong-gil and Jaeng-sang making a spectacular saving performance in front of the king himself that allows them not only to live, but also be taken on permanently in the royal court.
However, court life is beset with peril as the bloodthirsty King, his jealous consort, and the resentful advisors come constantly in conflict. The jesters are unable to avoid getting caught up in it, due to their highly controversial shows and to the King's increasing obsession with the beautiful Gong-gil. Once again Jaeng-sang and Gong-gil find themselves led down the same road they started, but the stakes are much, much higher.
The film is particularly notable for being a relatively low budget production starring few famous actors which highly features the traditional arts and has homosexual undertones, yet broke all Korean box office records before it. Interestingly it also came out the same year as Brokeback Mountain.
- Zero-Percent Approval Rating: The King.
- All The Guys Want Him
- Bare Your Midriff: Most of Gong-gil's performance outfits feature this prominently
- Bishonen: Gong-gil is about the prettiest you get in real life. See bottom left of page picture.
- Bolivian Army Ending: The final shot features them jumping off of the tightrope as Jaeng-sang throws his fan
- The Caligula: Based on the actual ruler Yeonsangun of Joseon, the King of the film is ruthless and erratic in his behaviour, but also very cultured and rather sympathetic at times
- Cross Dresser: Gong-gil always plays female roles in their shows. And he's very convincing.
- Crotch Grab Sex Check: Played for laughs as one of the Seoul jesters gets groped by onlookers whenever he portrays a eunuch or a woman. More seriously done with Nok-su forcefully stripping Gong-gil in a fit of jealousy.
- Downer Ending/Bittersweet Ending
- Driven to Suicide: Gong-gil finally until it's interrupted. However the mutual suicide of Gong-gil and Jaeng-sang at the end goes off successfully despite a massive interruption by La Résistance.
- Extreme Doormat: Gong-gil. The opposite of a Satellite Character though and not lacking personality, just easy to walk all over.
- Freudian Excuse: The murder of the King's mother as justification for his being so unhinged comes to the fore after one of the clowns' performances.
- A Friend in Need
- Gallows Humour: After Jaeng-sang is blinded his jokes get downright morbid.
- Hope Spot: Arriving in Seoul and getting hired by the King seems positive, briefly.
- Hot Consort/The Mistress (originally): Nok-su. Hot and a total bitch.
- Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: Two ministers view the mock hunt in celebration of Gong-gil's entitlement as a perfect opportunity to kill him.
- Hurricane of Puns: Well they're clowns.
- Inter Class Romance: The King's fixation with a male street clown is a major point of contention in the court and used to help justify their coup. Nok-su is implied to also have caused friction for being lower class, but Nok-su is better at court intrigue than Gong-gil is.
- It Gets Worse: Jaeng-sang proposes at the start of the film that he and Gong-gil either run away or kill themselves. The latter may have been a better idea.
- Kick the Dog: Despite being The Hero, Jaeng-sang gets these moments halfway through in his treatment of Gong-gil, for whom he hithertofore was The Champion. This is presumably from misunderstanding that Gong-gil is in a very precarious position by this time and cannot leave the King no matter how much he may want to. Some of it may be a verbal approach to Get a Hold of Yourself, Man!.
- Like Father, Like Son: Inverted. The ministers love reminding the King he is not what his father was.
- Love Ruins the Realm: The ministers view the King's dalliance with Gong-gil as this.
- Man Child: The king, and in this case it's not endearing so much as tragic and terrifying.
- Period Piece
- Please Don't Leave Me: Poor Gong-gil can neither get away from court nor convince Jaeng-sang to stay with him.
- Please Spare Him, My Liege: Several times by Gong-gil, once for an entire night. Sadly it never actually works.
- Red String of Fate
- Taking the Heat: When Nok-su frames Gong-gil for defamation Jaeng-sang steps in.
- Trauma Conga Line: The entire plot.
- Triang Relations: Probably type 7, although there is lots of ambiguity.