tvn’s first sageuk offering of 2019 왕이 된 남자 (The Man Who Became King/ English title: The Crowned Clown) has only aired for two weeks, yet I am already feeling the withdrawal symptom. That is such a hyperbolic thing to say at this point, especially when the drama has not even passed the halfway mark yet. Maybe this has something to do with the huge anticipation I had ever since the remake of 2012 hit movie Masquerade was first announced last year and the long wait for it to finally air earlier this month. Jinxes or not, I have to say something about this drama, which has occupied my brain all week long.
Perhaps, many of you have not realized that unlike the movie, this drama ventures into the fictional genre instead of sticking to the history. Hence, there are little risk on being called on its historical inaccuracies like what the movie experienced, and the drama won’t be limited to the real history and the movie’s conclusion. So, instead of playing Gwanghae for the second time after his movie Warriors of the Dawn, Yeo Jin-gu is playing dual roles of a fictional king Yi Heon and a clown named Ha-seon.
It is a delight to see Yeo Jin-gu in a genre that I think he fares better in it, or it is just the sageuk bias in me clouding my judgement. His filmography covers both modern and historical projects, but to have him in another historical drama that lets him hone his craft as well as utilizing his talents to the max is a blessing. Playing two polar opposite characters in one project is no easy feat, but this young actor has proven that his talent can only get better, provided that he can meet a project in which he can shine. And The Crowned Clown is doing a very good job so far.
We haven’t had the chance to see much of the original king Yi Heon, except in the first episode in which he displayed multiple sides of him: the tortured soul of an unloved child, the desperate will of a young king to strengthen his influence, the slow crumble of his own sanity, and his imminent descent into rage. It is easy to hate him for his seemingly selfish actions and we are not yet permitted to hear his innermost thoughts, but I find him pitiful. Growing under the pressure of such a bad father (a very welcomed cameo by Jang Hyuk!), one can only wonder why he has not gotten into a blowing rage yet. Maybe he was just waiting for the right time, and the time has come for him to unleash his bottled fury with the death of the late king, and with the (almost) absolute power he can hold as he ascended to the throne. Little did he know that his decisions would come back to haunt him, and he’s left to deal with the weight of his decision by himself.
Enters Ha-seon, the clown who had just set his foot in the capital for the first time. Bright and energetic, his fearless self might be his strength…or his weakness, alongside his face which, unknown to him at first, resembles the king’s visage. His life motto shows how bold he is, thanks to the risky nature of his daily job as a street jester. Make a noble laugh with your joke and you’ll live the next day with plenty to eat; piss them off with your crude joke and you’ll die, not able to see another day. His daring way of adapting the royals as the subjects of his play backfires when he gets noticed by Lee Gyu (Kim Sang-kyung), the faithful Royal Secretary who is finding a way to save the king from being killed on the throne. Lee Gyu’s solution? Put a scarecrow on the throne, someone who resembles the king and someone who can be at disposal easily. Lucky or not, Ha-seon is that scarecrow.
Despite the drama’s declaration that it is not a direct adaptation of the movie, it still manages to address the things overlooked by the movie; for instance, the important characters of Queen Dowager and the young Grand Prince and Ha-seon’s logical level of illiteracy for his status (he’s portrayed as a man who can only read Korean scripts and totally illiterate when it comes to Chinese characters). The are a few things tinkered around to make the viewing experience more wholesome like the additional characters around the main characters and Eunuch Jo’s fleshed out character. I was wondering why they did not go down the road of direct adaptation since I wanted to have a drama that properly portray Gwanghae’s conflicts, but looking back at it, the real Prince Gwanghae was 33 years old when he ascended the throne as the king. No matter how much we want to believe it or how we see it, Yeo Jin-gu doesn’t look past 25, let alone 30. His voice is another thing, but 33 would be a stretch to portray (especially in sageuk) by someone who is only 21! In history, by the time the king banished Grand Prince Yeongchang, Gwanghae was already 38. No amount of mountain water or gold flakes could make someone near 40 look like he was barely 20 in Joseon, so that actually spared the drama from intense criticism.
The first four episodes are long, each with running time between 75 and 80 minutes. But then, the drama knows how to lure its audience, tricking you into believing that the episode is short when actually, you have spent more than an hour watching it. It is easy to get intoxicated(?) with the scenery featured, and the director is not stingy when it comes to shooting the background places: the lush garden, the long and short bridges, the red walls of the palace, and even the suffocating, dark throne hall. Minimal lights are used in nighttime scenes, especially in the chambers, providing a logical approach to the days before electricity. The characters are half-hidden in the darkness except for the glowing candles lighting up half of their faces, which make up for a good shot, especially for scheming characters.
Another thing to commend this drama for is the excellent usage of instrumentals for its background music. A kdrama is not complete without its long list of OSTs, and the songs can be quite a mood killer especially for historical dramas. But here, the instrumentals blend well with the scenes they are featured in, and set up the mood for the particular scenes. The drum piece is surely out to get your heart racing for the nerve-wrecking scenes, and the string piece coupled with the sly, knowing smile of Court Lady Kim (Min Ji-ah) will make you understand how uncomfortable it is for Ha-seon to be in the same room with her when they’re alone. My favourite so far is the slow piano rendition of Schubert’s Serenade being featured in So-woon’s long walks and longing stares, like this scene (the piece starts at 0:51 mark) :
So far, The Crowned Clown focused on Ha-seon adapting to the palace life and following Lee Gyu’s instructions on how to deal with people around Heon’s life. Little did Lee Gyu know that Ha-seon isn’t as simple as he thought the young man would be, as Ha-seon’s survival instinct and warm heart, combined with his personal motivation, often made him collide with Lee Gyu’s principles and plans. Although he used to say nothing when Heon take actions which could be regarded as wrong, he had to interfere for Ha-seon, even when the latter was doing the right thing. The Royal Secretary is now forced to rethink his stance on everything and reconsider how he is going to use Ha-seon in the future, especially after seeing it for himself that Heon is barely functioning at the moment. I am curious about something, though: where does Lee Gyu’s loyalty lie? In the sovereign (which is Heon), in the nation, or in his own interest? Only time will tell.
It has been a very aesthetically pleasing (and nerve-wrecking!) journey so far and the drama doesn’t show any sign of slowing down…and I hope they don’t, especially after the poisoning, assassination, and dethronement attempts made in the first four episodes. That is not an easy feat and it is such a great experience watching Yeo Jin-gu and Lee Se-young getting their lead roles after seeing them playing younger counterparts of main characters before. More venture into darker scenes are welcomed (because sageuk is bound for bloodbath anyway so BRING IT ON!) but let me breathe a bit…or else, even this happy scene of So-woon finally smiling brightly would make me cry a river.