Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

Top Star (톱스타) – ★★☆☆☆

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Actor-turned-director Park Joong-hoon (박중훈) has crafted a highly polished and glitzy directorial debut with Top Star (톱스타).

The heavyweight actor – who has hit films including Haeundae (해운대)Radio Star (라디오 스타) and Nowhere To Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다) in his back catalogue – has clearly exercised his connections within the industry as Top Star features an assortment of high profile names from Korean cinema.

Unfortunately however, while there is enjoyment to be had in watching the beautiful faces, lavish lifestyles and celebrity scandals, there is precious little substance beneath the glamour. Director Park has clearly aimed his debut at a broad audience and in doing so he has produced a competent, though unremarkable, film about the nature of stardom.

Diligent manager Tae-sik helps superstar Won-joon at every turn

Diligent manager Tae-sik helps superstar Won-joon at every turn

Superstar Won-joon (Kim Min-joon (김민준) has it all – good looks, a career in film and television, an expensive lifestyle, and a beautiful girlfriend named Mi-na (So I-hyeon (소이현). Yet behind all the glitz and glamour, Won-joon is taken care of by an agency, particularly by diligent manager Tae-sik (Eom Tae-woong (엄태웅). Tae-sik’s adoration of Won-joon leads him to help cover up scandals and, in helping in one case of some magnitude, Tae-sik suffers great personal distress. Stunned by his selflessness, Won-joon grants Tae-sik a sizeable role in his latest television series and is happy to see his ambitions of becoming an actor finally materialize. Yet in discovering fame, Tae-sik begins to change, leading him into a rivalry with Won-joon.

One of the great benefits of having a veteran actor step behind the camera for Top Star is that the portrayal of the world of celebrity is convincing. The conversations and behind-the-glamour events clearly come from a person of experience, from discussions in limousines and public-relations meetings to relaxation at home portrayed with insight. Director Park does well in balancing the realms of stardom and downtime, conveying the former as merely attractive but shallow superficiality and working to build character in the latter. It generally works well, although the script routinely employs cliches and contrivances that have been utilised better before, as in 200 Pounds Beauty (미녀는 괴로워). Foregrounded, however, is the rivalry that develops between Tae-sik and Won-joon that occurs in both worlds, which is also where the more interesting events transpire.

Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

The initial friendship between Tae-sik and Won-joon is articulated well, as the manager idolises his talent by helping to cover up scandals with no questions asked. Yet the story does become somewhat absurd as Tae-sik suffers a great personal burden in order to provide an alibi for one particular scandal, one that stretches believability almost too far. As Top Star is clearly marketed towards family audiences, director Park omits psychological exploration of Tae-sik’s adoration, yet while it is arguably ‘dark’ material it is depth that is sorely required as the film is so concerned with his unstable personality. Still, sequences in which Won-joon advises Tae-sik on the merits of acting are enjoyable and humourous as their camaraderie deepens on the set of their TV show. Yet just as the story begins to get interesting the film jumps years into the future, bypassing all the fascinating moments that have transpired to trouble their relationship and instead placing audiences in the distressed middle period.

As such Top Star loses all momentum, and the film is forced to reestablish itself once more by reintroducing characters and their new situations. It’s an event from which the story never fully recovers and as the film once more sets up events and attempts to take a belated darker tone, they lack the potency they would otherwise have contained. Additionally the (again belated) inclusion of melodrama amongst all the protagonists is horribly cliched and detracts from the viewing experience. One of the major benefits of Top Star‘s second half however is the greater screen time afforded to actress So I-hyeon as TV producer Mi-na. The role is wafer thin and one-dimensional with So I-hyeon very much required to be just a pretty face, although the actress stretches the material as much as she can and is quite charismatic. Yet undermining everything is the manner in which the story wraps up, as it is far too neat and with little – if any – ramifications despite all the wrongdoing. Top Star is great in representing the glitz and glamour of the movie business but, try as it might to explore the nature of celebrity, the film crucially lacks any depth to do so.

Tae-sik's longing for Mi-na and Won-joon's life in general clouds his judgement

Tae-sik’s longing for Mi-na and Won-joon’s life in general clouds his judgement

Top Star (톱스타) is a highly polished and glamourous directorial debut from veteran actor Park Joong-hoon (박중훈). The film attempts to explore the nature of celebrity as a talent manager turned actor desperately works to retain his fame, even creating a rivalry with his idol. As director Park aims Top Star squarely at family audiences however, he doesn’t delve into the psychology of his protagonists resulting in a film that is wonderfully glitzy, but lacking in any real depth.

★★☆☆☆

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Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
Jang-saeng and Gong-gil perform their popular routines for unappreciative nobility

The King and the Clown (왕의 남자) – ★★★★☆

The King and the Clown (왕의 남자)

The King and the Clown (왕의 남자)

As a breathtaking romantic period-drama set during the Joseon dynasty, The King and the Clown is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the highest grossing films in Korean cinema history. However what may be surprising for some is that the romance is homosexual in nature, particularly in a culture where such relationships remain largely taboo. Yet despite such prejudice the film has not only garnered incredible critical praise and commercial success, but has also acted as something of a catalyst for a shift in ignorance largely thanks to androgynous actor Lee Joon-ki.

Two talented male minstrels – ruggedly masculine Jang-saeng (Kam Woo-seong (감우성) and delicately feminine Gong-gil (Lee Joon-ki (이준기) – are the leads in an acting troupe that perform for nobility in Joseon dynasty-era Korea. After the performances, Gong-gil is often forced into sexual slavery by their corrupt manager for extra money, sickening his partner. Unable to continue the de-humanising practice, the pair escape and depart for Seoul to earn their fortunes as performance artists and comedians in the capital city. Upon hearing of the cruel absurdities of the current ruler King Yeon-san (Jeong Jin-yeong (정진영), the duo join forces with other street performers to enact a comical tale ridiculing the King with the truths that others are too scared to tell. Their popularity is such that government officials take note, punishing them violently. However they are spared upon one condition – they must perform their mocking routine in front of the King himself, and, should he laugh, Jang-saeng and Gong-gil will be freed.

Jang-saeng and Gong-gil perform their popular routines for unappreciative nobility

Jang-saeng and Gong-gil perform their popular routines for unappreciative nobility

The King and the Clown – or more literally translated as ‘The King’s Man’ – is an incredibly poignant and captivating film and a wonderfully colourful historical tale. This is largely due to the partnership between the highly charismatic lead protagonists who never cease to be compelling, and an extremely well-balanced script by Choi Seok-hwan (최석환) who artfully plays with pacing to provide sensitive and thought provoking scenes throughout. Characterization is central to the success of the film, providing fully-rounded roles to individuals who could easily be stereotyped by continually emphasizing their emotional complexity. Jang-saeng is a gifted athlete and performer, with an over-powering compulsion to be truthful and to upset those in power through disrespect; Gong-gil is an equally talented artist who is as adept at acting as he is beautiful, aware that both features are a blessing and a curse; even King Yeon-san, who is often described in the annals of history as the most brutal and selfish ruler in the Joseon era, is portrayed as a psychologically damaged man through childhood torment and the pressures of court. In each case, the narrative allows the protagonists the time to convey their motivations – conscious or otherwise – while the actors that portray them fully inhabit their roles and are utterly convincing whenever they appear on screen.

The concept of truth-through-performance is masterfully conveyed, recalling the likes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet of the ‘play within a play’. As such the film operates as an insightful commentary of the era, depicting the obscurity of truth that is seemingly inherent with power as well as the corruption and tyranny of those in court, through traditional cultural forms. Due to this The King and the Clown expresses a grand, ‘epic’ quality, one which is unfortunately not capitalized on by director Lee Joon-ik. The director is highly competent throughout the film, featuring some wonderful set-pieces and intimate sequences, yet he falters in conveying the grandiose scale of Joseon and the palace in particular, with an establishing shot of Seoul the only notable exception. Despite such shortcomings director Lee Joon-ik is incredibly skilled at conveying intimacy and poignancy as he visualizes the cultural flair and exhibitions with passion and verve, in conjunction with the violence and intense distress that consistently follows. The director’s representation of the homosexual relationships within the film are cautious and understated yet rather than a criticism this actually infers a more innocent and a sweet natured love, although some factions of the audience may take issue with King Yeon-san’s dalliance with Gong-gil as the product of an unresolved Oedipal complex.

The vindictive King Yeon-san and his concubine observe the performers

The vindictive King Yeon-san and his consort observe the performers

As comic performers Jang-saeng and Gong-gil, Kam Woo-seong and Lee Joon-ki are absolutely enthralling. Kam Woo-seong masterfully conveys the arrogance and audacity of the character, with his unbridled distain for those of a higher societal position palpable. The actor is wonderfully charismatic yet simultaneously tragic, traits that he exemplifies through every mannerism and facial expression with sincerity. Such a description also befits Lee Joon-ki who, as the androgynously beautiful Gong-gil, is a delight. He conveys femininity and elegance with startling conviction, with his resignation to fulfill his sexual role following the performances tender and heartbreaking. His character is as much a commentary about the manipulation of women as it is about homosexuals by those in power, and Lee Joon-ki does not disappoint in emphasizing the sheer injustice of societal inequality.

As the film’s other central protagonist, Jeong Jin-yeong is also frighteningly mesmerizing as King Yeon-san. The actor eloquently conveys the sadistically tragic nature of the ruler as he unpredictably switches emotions on a whim, portraying the leader as an underdeveloped adolescent in one breathe whilst in the next a violent and cruel man. As such Jeong Jin-yeong is fascinating to watch as the long hidden truths are revealed, for his reactions are unpredictably horrifying.

Through the performances, Jang-saeng and Gong-gil reveal truths to King Yeon-san, which often incur violence

Through their performances Jang-saeng and Gong-gil reveal truths to King Yeon-san, which often incur violence

Verdict:

The King and the Clown is an amazing tale and a wonderful journey through one of the darkest eras of the Joseon dynasty. The narrative and characterization are excellent, as is the acting by all the principal cast who never cease to be enthralling and compelling. While the directing is somewhat lacking in scale the emphasis on intimacy and poignancy makes the film and enduring classic and a testament to the creative qualities of Korean filmmakers.

★★★★☆

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