FASHION KING, TAILOR-MADE
Jo Dol Seok (Han Suk Kyu) tailored clothes for three generation of kings before finally becoming the head of the royal attire department at the palace. Although he was born as a lowly commoner and forced to learn the trade as a young child, Dol Seok saw an opportunity to become the best tailor in the nation and perhaps one day raising his social status. He has always been a stickler for principle so he takes an aversion to Lee Gong Jin (Go Soo), a young designer who adapts the traditional design of hanbok into something practical yet fashionable.
Gong Jin falls for the Queen (Park Shin Hye) who seeks his help in fixing the King’s (Yoo Yun Suk) royal robe. Eventually, he’s hired to join the department as a royal tailor and it ignites Dol Seok’s jealousy. As the two designers try to outdo each other, it causes a scandal that rocks the nation.
This is another NYAFF event that I wanted to attend because I saw that Han Suk Kyu and Go Soo were the headliners for this movie. Little did I know that Yoo Yun Suk was also in the movie, much less playing the King. Han Suk Kyu has played so many kings over the years that I almost expect him to be the king if it is a period piece that is set in the royal court. The film’s director, Lee Won Seok, is known for his comedic works and averse to doing period pieces but I really enjoyed the film for both its dramatic scenes as well as its comical ones.
Despite the fact that Han Suk Kyu is a serious, A-list actor, I like the fact that he took on this project for the role of Jo Dol Seok. He’s such a greatly esteemed actor that it feels like he often commands the real estate of the screen. Here, Dol Seok is reserved and quiet. In front of the King, the Queen, the King’s Concubine, and the like, he’s often tucked in the corner or observing quietly.
When it comes to his relationship with Lee Gong Jin, Dol Seok partially admires him and despises him all at the same time. Gong Jin certainly doesn’t feel the same way as he looks up to Dol Seok as a mentor. Dol Seok looks at Gong Jin’s fanciful ideas as though he were looking down at his child. Kids will get excited and cause trouble while it’s the parent’s responsibility to keep them in line, which is what Dol Seok tries to instill in Gong Jin. Han Suk Kyu speaks methodically and purposefully allowing Go Soo to be animated as Gong Jin.
Yoo Yun Suk is convincingly terrifying as the King. He’s an insecure boy who has the whole world at his fingertips in which he can do with it as he pleases. Extending from feeling inadequate under his brother, that feeling continues on into his marriage with the Queen and how he regards his first real servant, Dol Seok. Despite having everything he could ever want, he feels sorry for himself because he fails to see the Queen’s love for him.
As much as the Queen never had feelings for Gong Jin beyond platonic friendship, her love for the King was steadfast. She’s a dutiful Queen aiming to please the King which he dismisses. And yet, Park Shin Hye has a way of making this docile Queen shine in unexpected way.
It’s seen when she confesses her loneliness to Gong Jin or when she decides to break the rules and leave the palace. She has a couple of defining scenes in the movie. From her dazzling entrance at the banquet to making her servant bitch-slap the vile concubine but I think her most defining scene in the movie is when she justifiably tells the King off in the most dignified way ever.
Another actress to watch in this dark tale is Lee Yoo Bi who plays the King’s Concubine. I’m so used to seeing Lee Yoo Bi play the sweet, bubbly types, her role in The Scholar Who Walks the Night included, that it was surprising to see how manipulative and vindictive she can get as So Eui. Sure, she’s played characters who have taken a dark turn before but she often typecasted in those doe-eyed roles that I never imagined she could play so evil. I hope to see her in more contrasting and dynamic roles in the future.
Of course, I couldn’t talk about this movie without discussing the fashion as it is a character in and of itself. The costumes were all designed by Jo Sang Kyung, a famous hanbok maker in Korea. The Academy Awards should really look to this film for Best Costume Design because the clothes were not only extraordinary to look at but enhance the film’s plot by adding stitches of humor and showcasing some of the hanbok history.
The film is a fusion sageuk, which may rub some Korean sageuk purists the wrong way, but it’s a visual stunner that balances both the comical and dramatic aspects of the plot very well. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Dol Seok becomes aware of Gong Jin’s influence in town. The cinematography is beautifully vibrant and reminded me, in a way, of the scene in Pleasantville when suddenly the world turns into color from black and white. However, this moment in the film has the opposite effect as Dol Seok’s nightmare is realized.
At the NYAFF Q&A session, Director Lee Won Seok mentioned that he had originally wanted the film to conclude with Gong Jin being exiled to a remote island with his hands cutoff but I would have been strongly opposed to that ending.
While the film’s ending is still tragic, I am completely satisfied with the ending. As Gong Jin did play with fire by crushing on the Queen, the punishment does seem fitting for his crime and I couldn’t really fathom a different ending for his story even though I feel sorry for him. As for Dol Seok, he may have unfairly attain fame and glory in the eyes of history but not without a hefty price.