Directed by Lee Won-shuk
Starring Han Suk-kyu, Go Soo, Park Shin-hye, Yoo Yeon-seok
The George Clooney movie The Monuments Men dares a high-concept, eccentric film premise upon an American audience steeped in expectations. It’s a World War II movie lighter than most, and about the rescue of fine art, not Private Ryans. Blasphemy, right? Well, the director himself, also the lead actor, appears in the closing scene before an in-movie audience and questions whether or not the wartime rescue of art was a good idea. Wait, is he talking about the operation or the movie itself? It is a self-conscious film, mired in the labored context of genre decorum. A lot of the Korean pop culture I’ve witnessed so far eschews context, even before exportation to America. There’s a propulsive energy to movies like Parasite and The Handmaiden, like “Wowzer, where did that come from?” and you’ll see highly-paid and highly-respected Korean celebrities doing absurd things in the name of cinema (or variety shows). A film like The Royal Tailor doesn’t stop to observe its absurdity, doesn’t replicate the audience to lie prostrate before it and be judged, and this allows the earnest deliveries of lines like “I’ll make sure your clothes never see the light of day!” The magic trick, then, is that this line is a gut punch.
Jo Dol-seok is the head tailor of the Sanguiwon, the royal attire department of the Joseon court. He’s acclaimed by the young king for his mastery of craft and for being trustworthy. This king has trust issues, and he simmers throughout as the film’s anxious undercurrent. A younger and even more impressive tailor enters the scene, Lee Gong-ji, and he — coolly but quickly — gets to work upending fashion conventions, shortening sleeves, fitting garments to the body rather than the traditional and impractical reverse. Fashion-forward here is framed as an invasion of a sacred space, but not even the king can deny the comfort or the aesthetic. However, if the king is paranoid, the head tailor is ambitious, on the verge of promotion and suddenly threatened by new blood. He can, with maneuvering, use the king as a hammer to quash his opponent, and he gets his pretense when Gong-jin falls for the queen. Oh, young love — and that’s the hitch. Quashable he may be, Gong-jin is of godly moral stature, not so much a maverick as a similarly passionate artist, and he charms everyone he meets.
Slowly revealed, this is a portrait of that rarest thing: a complicated male friendship. Pictured here is not, I’d argue, a father/son dynamic, though there is an age gap and a subtle desire for the approval of the older. Their most compelling chemistry is simpler. Gong-ji is irresistible, full of spark and off-kilter wisdom, and in his coworking with Dol-seok, he begins to shake the head tailor loose of his most limiting flaws. It’s stirring and sweet — and the first domino in an unexpectedly tragic story. And despite the eventual victims of that tragedy, Dol-seok remains our proxy. He’s torn between the warmth of Gong-ji’s friendship on the one side, and the swirl of ego and politics on the other; it is his story. Gong-ji may be far more sympathetic, but he is, also, one of those K-drama characters, like Yeon-doo in Cheer Up! who is just so perfect. Only a K-drama hero would smile during literal death. Whether or not it’s a deep character is answered by his being compelling regardless. The actor Go Soo delivers a great performance, and the character functions within the story’s framework.
This is a reservation, and I’m being defensive. There’s something I can’t shake about The Royal Tailor. I watch movies these days with an active mind, not necessarily geared toward analysis itself — a natural process — but rather the arrangement of my opinion — barf. As I decided early this year to not take notes during a viewing, I’ve developed a slight talent for keeping ideas in my head before rushing to spill them at the roll of the credits. Consequently, this makes for a single mind negotiating each and every film composing the variety of an artistic medium. And it’s where preconception induced by a movie’s context (genre, year, country, personnel) positions me for surprises. I didn’t know much about The Royal Tailor going in, so my expectations beyond “this movie features Park Shin-hye near the top of the cast list” were properly calibrated by the opening scenes. The composition, the music, the color and light — it’s tasteful, even pretty, but generic. It is, cruelly on my part, dictated less by direction and more by genre. In fact, the film has the feeling of a K-drama, for more than its smiling doomed man.
Ample lighting, generous coverage, flat compositions, all squared up like a tourism ad. Period Korea is gorgeous and detailed, and its occupants are charismatic and seductive, no matter their place along a protagonist/antagonist spectrum. It’s safe, and it reminded me of the other side of Korean cinema. My entree to the nation’s cinema came hard and with bite: “Extreme Asian” as embodied by the revenge thrillers and auteurs. But where Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho’s films are borderline art pieces, scattered examples like My Wife is a Gangster and The Huntresses don’t necessarily feature their hallmarks — the moody color grading of Memories of Murder and Oldboy, the painterly framing, and of course, the violence bespeaking a Most Artistic Madness. It’s ludicrous, but this is my private revelation that Koreans make commercial movies, too.
Granted, their idea of commercial is different than, say, America’s, who’d so reached a terminal point with their inflated budgets that the artistic compromises had political implications. Massive contracts for talent and the expense of visual effects require access to Mainland China’s audience, who sit ready and eager behind an authoritarian government. South Korea got burnt on big blockbusters early — the global march of D-War: Dragon Wars fumbled the nationalist torch somewhere in the Pacific — and so the narrative I’ve insisted on mentally is they chose not to compete with Hollywood’s excess. Choosing to rely instead on homegrown assets, I would argue that star power is the number one force driving Korean’s mainstream market, and this allows for actors to exhibit a wide range. This sometimes means absurdity, but never self-doubt. Never change, South Korea, and never stop to explain.
As a matter of fact, I spent most of The Royal Tailor lost. As characters whirled from one side of the screen to the other, I couldn’t tell from where they came or where they were going, how one plot point moved logically to the next. For example, Gong-ji sees the queen cry as she relates her backstory, and this moves him to mass-produce dresses which is what gets him into trouble? Each scene made internal sense, but the big picture was vague in the first two acts. That’s a lot of acts, and that adequately captures my experience. It was something like an altering of consciousness — to ascribe maybe way too much power to a movie viewed in two sittings* — reconfiguring that analytical mind, empty of knowledge in fashion or the Joseon Dynasty, toward the film’s own language, one however shared with other movies and TV shows. Trope-studded machinations still require execution, and while the unspecific aesthetics and art design wouldn’t seem to suggest conspiracy, I was close to tears by the end. There’s a crispness, a wide clarity of image, and each scene becomes a theater stage, not a pattern of shadows. Actors are performing big, with their whole faces and bodies, and this also accentuates the quieter moments.
If those formal aspects are the engine, driving all K-drama, what’s unique to the language here is the subject matter. It’s fascinating the role attire plays in the palace drama here, with the verbs of the story and the characters’ agency hinging on clothes. The plot soon points toward the crafting of an ultimate garment for the queen to save her from being dethroned, and while silly on paper, its consequence on film is undeniable. Just as I’ve learned how to watch The Royal Tailor, I’ve developed an eye for hanbok, and the queen’s ceremonial dress is indeed stunning. Everyone along her path gets down on hands and knees, and I totally get that (though it is Park Shin-hye, so it wouldn’t take that much for me). It’s not just about the clothes themselves, it’s about their function as keys to the kingdom, how they announce status and wealth. And yet, it’s also kind of about the clothes themselves, some of which will never see the light of day, after all. Hence, the adjustment on my part. The film will convince me to care about clothing as much as these characters do.
To craft the ultimate garment, Gong-jin must take in the queen’s measurements himself (come on, dude), though it is strictly forbidden. He’s instructed not to lay a hand on her, and so until he does, the measuring proceeds with tight, intense energy. It’s the most sexual non-sex scene I’ve ever witnessed. Aside from the occasional brush of fabric, the only sound is the queen’s heavy breathing. It’s incredibly sensual, and very emotional. As the unnamed queen (apparently Queen Jeongseong), Park Shin-hye’s actual screentime is minimal, anyhow walled off to human interaction. The actress is sure to instill each precious appearance then with a powerful presence, her desires and passions reverberating through her body and shaking loose tears. There are the quiet moments like her back-and-forth with Gong-jin, unbecoming royalty, and then the releases like her climactic words to the king. It’s an eruption at that point, all the indignities and contradictions of her position boiled over. Life in the palace is made up of whispers and practiced language and euphemism — like non-sex. It’s a stubborn adherence to tradition that leads to ruin, and characters glimpse better lives before they’re taken away.
The conflict may present as youth versus experience, but it’s more so individual versus collective, with one side firmly rooted in the layered bureaucracy of palace politics — the Sanguiwon being subject to a royal court itself tributary to Imperial China. Ideology is the problem. Abstracts like ego and the philosophies of art. Each character, from the king to the tailors to Gong-ji’s lady friend to the guy from Train to Busan all have shades. And moments of humanity are spared for even minor players, like the “unattractive” handmaid who’s constantly picked over for mistress by the king during a clever (if kind of horrifying) montage. The Royal Tailor may be a too-confusing blend of “unusual” and “mainstream,” but this director of too few films apparently cracked the recipe. As a work of historical fiction, it determines to provide context, to ask “why?” perhaps dissatisfied with academic orthodoxy — or maybe, that we imagine the past as so distant, with misplaced passions and arcane interests.
*In between, I learned that Park So-dam features, but I couldn’t spot her. I thought she may have been the evil mistress, but that was probably an actress named Lee Yu-bi.