As someone who’s a bit of a history buff, I always look forward to period films for two reasons. First, well… the history of course. Yeah, I know period films are fiction but there’s still a grain of history in them and it’s always fun to escape into the past for a couple of hours. The other reason is they tend to be visually interesting – from the costumes to the setting, it’s something different from our everyday lives to look at. So of course, a period film whose main characters were tailors, which meant that the costumes would be front and central to the story, was bound to interest me.
Add into the mix the fact that I liked director Lee Wonsuk’s (이원석) first film HOW TO USE GUYS WITH SECRET TIPS (남자사용설명서) and I was really looking forward to THE ROYAL TAILOR (상의원) which screened last Friday at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival (Reel Asian).
Set during the Joseon (조선) dynasty, the film centers on the royal tailor, an older man who’s held the position for 30 years and has served three kings (as he repeatedly tells everyone) with his beautiful but traditional clothes, and a young hip tailor who normally caters to gisaengs (기생, female entertainers) and whose designs are stunning and innovative.
When the court comes out of its three year mourning period (wow, three years of mourning) for the previous king, the new King orders new clothes for himself, his Queen and his court. Unfortunately, during this busy time the Queen’s attendants accidentally set fire to one of the King’s clothes and the Royal Tailor won’t repair it due to some violation of tradition and lack of time.
Enter the new tailor, a man who’s constantly happy and carefree and who’s an absolute genius with fashion. Add in some jealousy from the older, hide-bound Royal Tailor; a King who still feels inadequate because of his dead older brother; and a Prime Minister who wants to unseat the Queen for some reason and there’s no shortage of intrigue.
My feelings on this film are more ambivalent than normal. I generally either like or dislike a film, to varying degrees but my feelings are generally quite clear. With THE ROYAL TAILOR, I both liked parts of it, found parts of it completely unbelievable and other parts slow. In short, I was left ambivalent. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad film but I think it tries to be too much. Basically, it was too ambitious; trying to tell the story from too many viewpoints, with too many primary characters and too many threads to the story.
While that was what I felt when it was finished, the first thing I noticed was the clothes. Just based on the clothes, it’s a visually stunning film with some of the most beautiful costumes that I’ve seen in ages, I honestly can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed the hanbok (한복, traditional Korean clothes) in the film and it made me want to learn more about the different hanbok styles throughout Korean history. In fact, by far my favourite part of the film was the beautiful, stunning hanbok. The costume designer should be feted for the absolutely gorgeous hanbok, especially those of the Queen. It seemed like each dress – whether designed by the royal tailor, Dol-seok or by the younger tailor, Gong-jin – was more beautiful than the last. Costume designer Jo Sang Gyeong (조상경) outdid herself.
But once I got beyond the clothes and started focusing on the story, my thoughts about the film were more varied. There was some great use of humour, especially in the beginning. A great example was the scene in the restaurant which was too funny – the crazy wide-brimmed hats and super long and wide sleeves did make eating, drinking and talking more difficult but funny to watch. It also made me wonder if the long, wide sleeves were the start of the ‘hold one’s arm while pouring’ tradition. Hmm… I should look into that.
Despite the humour, the extremely likeable Go Soo (고수) who played the perennially happy Gong-jin, and the solid acting by just about everyone; the film felt slow and uncertain of itself at times. Was it a tale of competition and professional jealousy among the talented tailors? Was it a royal court intrigue with the Prime Minister working to undermine the King? Was it a tale of the King and the Queen and their doomed love? All of that was there and more which sometimes left me wondering just what I was watching.
That being said, there were some good moments in the film and the actors definitely brought the characters alive. Whether it was Han Suk Kyu (한석규) playing the Royal Tailor, Dol-seok with his rigidity to the rules and tradition, fear of being usurped before he’s finally lifted to the aristocracy and jealousy over Gong-jin’s designs or Park Shin Hye (박신혜) playing the Queen with such subtle emotion and a fabulously expressive face; the acting was solid. Scenes like the one where Gong-jin measures the Queen (surprisingly hot) or when the King, played by Yoo Yeon Seok (유연석), finally decides to consummate the marriage are interesting moments in the tale and ones you know are turning points. The scene when the Kings sets up Gong-jin was poignant and one of the most emotional of the film – it was also one of the few where it seemed all four story lines came together.
But despite the gorgeous clothes, the acting and the stunning scenery (the palace scene with the Chinese was amazing), it’s still a tale of those who are afraid to take a chance (the Royal Tailor, the King) versus those who strive for what they want (Gong-jin, the Queen). And one cannot help but wish the latter won. In many ways, I felt that the first half of the film, which had most of the humour, was almost a different film from the second half, which was much more serious. But for all it’s good points, I think it tried to do and be too much.
While I was hoping for something a little more unconventional as I loved HOW TO USE GUYS WITH SECRET TIPS (it was a fun yet different romantic comedy), THE ROYAL TAILOR is more conventional and tries too hard to be everything to everyone. However, the gorgeous hanbok and solid acting keep the film interesting and worth watching. I didn’t love it but it was fun and visually pretty. I also had to tell myself a couple of times that it was a film and not to take it too seriously when Gong-jin finishes an outfit overnight or other such unbelievable things happen.
Have you seen THE ROYAL TAILOR? What did you think?