A Clever Twist on Ancient Korean History
Firstly, I’m a sucker for movies with some basis in fact, no matter how tenuous. Jesters: The Game Changers claims to be constructed on the ancient records of 40 strange events that were recorded during the reign of King Sejo in the mid-1400’s.
Secondly, this is a movie about storytellers. They survive on their skills as black market reputation changers. A lot like experiential marketing today, they create an occurrence that generates word of mouth (WOM) news. And what could be more impactful in a time period when the average person can’t read?
Throughout antiquity, jesters around the world spread news not as podium speeches or formal decrees but via plays and songs shared – for coin – at town markets and fairs. To survive in that industry, you’ve got to have a bit of flair.
Kim Joo-Ho, who also directed historical comedy, The Grand Heist, and writers Kim Jin-Wook and Sin Dong-Ik convey the tale of a band of spin doctors caught ‘creating’ a story. The five are then sword-point ‘encouraged’ by a royal advisor to use their skills to help a greater cause. They must convince the country’s populace that the sitting king, believed to have gotten the job through murder and conspiracy, is actually ordained by god.
Led by Deok-Ho (Cho Jin-Woong) the group includes Hong-Chil (Ko Chang-Seok), Geun-Deok (Kim Seul-Gi), Jin-sang (Yoon Park) and Pal-Poong (Kim Min-Geok). As a travelling troupe, they’re known to strew the latest updates and a whole lot more; if the price is right and it suits their sensibilities.
In grand Now You See Me style, the gang must then create a series of incidents pointing to royal divination, working all the senses to create believers. What starts out fairly light, takes a gradually darker turn into a more serious scenario of a period of political upheaval and betrayal.
The mid-15th century was clearly a tumultuous time, led by a series of partisan coups. King Sejo (played by Park Hee-Soon) and his advisor Han Myeong-Hoe (Son Hyun-Joo) are both allies and enemies, each believing themselves puppet-mastering the other and ultimately ruling the country.
The narrative is largely focused on leader Deok-Ho and their ‘client’ the wonderfully cold-blooded Myeong-Hoe.
The problem with that stems from the other four jesters, who could have been used to more creatively connect the tale. A slice of how they learned their skills and ended up working together could have made them more relatable.
With the scantiest backstory and very little meaningful screen time, there’s not enough meat here, making these characters largely one-dimensional. Yoon Park, for example, is hardly seen and says very little.
Equally, some of the comedy wasn’t as clever as it could be. Like the ironic moment where leader Deok-Ho says he can only believe what he sees. There’s also a couple of repetitively crude jokes, like the guy who pees when he’s nervous. Additionally, some little contextual links were missed, clouding whether a scene was meant to be in the present or a flashback.
Set-wise, there’s so much right with only occasional misses. Such as the very first illusion operating something perilously close to 20th-century stage lights. It wouldn’t have taken much to make them look more era-appropriate, given the rest of the set. Not a big deal, but this definitely stuck with me. For the most part though, they do a great job showing how the magic could have been constructed circa 1464.
All the pieces are there from the outset for a compelling period piece – historical facts, an interesting plot, a cast of characters and a hunk of tension. The scenes themselves are beautiful. The concept and the illusions great fun, but the character arcs are feeble. Still, an enjoyable 108 minutes, particularly if you enjoy history that doesn’t feel like a history lesson.