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Just as Brokeback Mountain has become a pop-culture phenomenon in the United States, a gay-themed movie has racked up big box-office in South Korea. King and the Clown--about a delicately effeminate male clown caught between the affections of a despotic king and a fellow performer--has sold more than 11 million tickets through Sunday since its December 29 premiere, making it the third-most popular film ever in this conservative country.
Even President Roh Moo-hyun has seen it. (By contrast, President Bush said last month he'd yet to see the cowboy romance favored to win the best-picture Oscar.)
The surprise hit is about a troupe of entertainers condemned to die for an act mocking 16th-century King Yonsan, but who beg to be pardoned if they can make the king laugh with their racy skit lampooning him and his favorite concubine. The clowns succeed and become court jesters. Kong-gil, the gentle-faced male clown who portrays the woman in the skit, draws the king's attention--staging private puppet shows to Yonsan's delight but evoking the jealousy of clown leader Jang-saeng, who has always protected his friend from other men's amorous advances.
The gay story line is muted. The king and Kong-gil share one quick on-screen kiss. The movie is based on a fictional play that was inspired by a brief mention in the king's diary about his favorite clown.
Homosexuality has only recently gained some acceptance in South Korean society, with its strict Confucian traditions and strong Catholic church. In April 2004, the government removed homosexuality from a list of "socially unacceptable sexual acts."
Actor Hong Suk-chon caused a national sensation in 2000 when he became the first celebrity to publicly reveal he was gay. Hong's coming out cost him his job on a children's TV program, and he only returned to the small screen three years later--playing a gay designer.
Director Lee Jun-ik said he's been surprised by the success of King and the Clown, which was made for $4.5 million, and feels it comes from the audience's enjoyment at seeing a window into palace life and the class differences between the aristocracy and lowly clowns--not because of the gay theme. "People who talk about homosexuality today have totally different concepts from the past," Lee told the Associated Press. He said the story of the relationship between the king and the clown was based on the tyrant's emotional emptiness that his concubine Nok-su was unable to fill--not physical desire.
Actor Lee Jun-gi, who plays the clown Kong-gil, has enjoyed growing popularity because of the film. He told the AP that among the movie's attributes is that various audience interpretations are possible. "I feel proud of creating a unique character," he said.
Chung You-sun, a 26-year-old office worker who saw the film with a colleague in downtown Seoul, said she was drawn by the satire of royal life, but that the movie also shows "Korean society is more and more open to homosexuality." That's the hope of Hahn Chae-yun, director of the Korean Sexual Minority Culture and Rights Center, who also noted the touching story and film's direction were the real reason for its success--not the gay theme. "I hope people's views toward homosexual love could be more broad-minded, and treated the same as love between others, through this success of the movie," Hahn said. (Burt Herman, AP)