KatC Special Feature & Collection
The Asian Concept of "Fate" in King and the Clown
[Original (Chinese) Article]
My heart ached when the closing shot zoomed in on Jang-Saeng and Gong-Gil leaping high into the sky. As the picture faded out, I recalled their final dialog - promising each other to be clowns again in their next life, performing not for their livelihoods, not for any king, but for themselves... At that moment, I suddenly understood the theme of the movie.
The King and the Clown is an Asian movie representing the flavor of our aesthetics, something that is subdued and implicit. And the topic of fate, whether through conformity or rebellion, is very Asian, because we have always lived under all kinds of restrictions and lacked the way to escape even mentally.
At the end of the movie, as Gong-Gil desperately tries to protect Jang-Saeng and follows him up the tightrope one last time, I realized that this was exactly the way our mothers and our mother's mothers had lived their lives - once attached to a man, no matter how pathetic he might have been, they remained loyal to him for the rest of their lives.
The above is just a small part of the movie that moved me. Ever since watching this movie, I have been thinking about characteristics of Asian ideology. There is no concept of a 'God' in our minds whom we can speak to and receive answers from directly. For many believers, God is more of a disciplinarian, who forces them to agree to live under the rules. That's the embodiment of the system/institution.
For thousands of years, restricted by feudal hierarchy and patriarchal morality, we have faced all kinds of invisible enemies but seldom answered to our own inner souls. We learned to ascribe all real-life conflicts and unrealized dreams to destiny so much that we seldom fought back and eventually grew to lack the courage and means to do so. In the movie, we see Jang-Saeng's struggles and the king's sorties against the system; but when Jang-Saeng and Gong-Gil finally fall to the ground, everything comes back to cruel reality - from an Asian perspective, fate prevails... Well, perhaps, to soften the tragedy of this ending or to challenge this idea of unchangeable fate, director Lee has chosen to lead us back to that lush mountainside in the ending scene... only this time, I just couldn't tell where they're heading.
The way King and the Clown presents this theme is quite amazing, hiding its intentions until the last minute. When you tumble onto the topic of fate, a mix of emotions emerges from your mind, but you won't find it jarring because of its fluid handling. The transition from comedy to tragedy in this movie is very distinctive.
We go to the cinema expecting to catch a homosexual story and to ogle the handsome co-lead. Instead, we find selfless affection infused throughout the movie. And when the curtain is finally drawn, we are touched and can only sigh at the heaviness of life (or fate, if you will) again and again.
In this movie, there is no bad guy. Where fate is concerned, no one is really at fault.
In the real Asia, where societies have been restricted to highly regulated social norms for a long time, and whose people have to pay full attention to cope with survival (from hunger and endless wars), the topic of fate cuts really close to society's essence just like as is depicted in the movie.
The West likes to talk about humanity, desire, etc. Yet the world at large is still very much shaped by subconscious fear and uncertainties permeated by the notion of fate and destiny. (Does Jang-Saeng believe in fate? I believe he does. Does he succumb to it? No, he does not, yet I believe in the end he accepts it, not out of ignorance or fear, but out of a sense of helplessness.) It has been a long time since a movie touched the topic so deeply on this level. The Korean film industry may be young and developing, but this time it has done a wonderful job of giving us a simple and yet great work of artistry to ponder.
While the above comments focus on philosophical and historical aspects, my true concern is really about the durability of Chinese society, which is undergoing huge changes which fall heavily on its lower (and even middle) classes. Thus, it is the movie's underlying cultural background and psychology that I've been pondering.
In the last few years, the ethos of Chinese society has changed tremendously and rapidly... I'm not sure if this movie believes in fatalism, but there is no doubt that for Asians, the belief in 'destiny' and 'fortune' will continue to affect a huge group of people for a long time to come. While this can have a positive effect on stabilizing society, it can leave much to be desired in the exploration and enlightenment of the human essence and self identity.
- Agathawrj (05-Jan-07)
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Original (Chinese) Article
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