We’ve been here before: the King is unhappy; the King is lonely; for some reason unknown to us, the King does not like being king. True, he was the younger son and never expected to rule, but the King also does not seem to even like, yet alone love, his beautiful, loyal wife, and no one at the court knows why. Are we talking about England’s Henry VIII, who longed to be remembered to history for his military prowess but, instead, is known for his six wives, some of whom he divorced and some of whom he actually had killed? No, we are in Korea during The Kingdom of Joseon, literally, the “Great Joseon State,” also known as Choson (and transliterated as such in the film’s subtitles), a Korean kingdom that lasted for approximately five centuries, from 1392 to 1897.Much of modern Korean culture, etiquette, norms, and societal attitudes as well as the the modern Korean language and its dialects derive from the culture and traditions of Joseon. Korea’s 2014 film, The Royal Tailor (Sang-eui-won) examines the personal, political, and cultural struggles of one period in the Chosun dynasty by exploring a rivalry between two members of the Sanguiwon, the tailors responsible for creating the royal attire, and, by extension, the attire for nobility. The Royal Tailor is a sumptuous and intense exploration of how clothes can make a man, yet destroy a world.
Dol-Seok (Han Suk Kyu) is the royal tailor, and he has served three generations of kings producing the traditional Korean hanbok. Though his designs are conservative, they are stunning with their elaborate embroidery on high quality silks.
When the new king (Yoo Yeon Seok) announces the end of the mourning period for the deceased king, his older brother, he orders the Royal Tailor to make garments for the entire court. Dol-Seok, with his huge, in-palace workshop, is happy to oblige, and looks forward to being ennobled by this latest assignment from the King.
Unfortunately, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and despite his impending coronation, the King is still not happy. Not with his crown nor with his Queen (Park Shin Hye), the widow of his dead brother, now the wife of the new King. Though beautiful and young, the Queen is rumored to still be a virgin. Because she has not produced an heir to the throne, her position is precarious and in jeopardy. Further, there are many members in court who want to ensure their own advancement by finding the new king a brand new wife.
When the Queen’s ladies accidentally damage the King’s coronation robe, she begs the Royal Tailor to restore it. Unfortunately, the restoration must be done overnight, and the Tailor protests that it simply cannot be done in such a short period. Terrified of the King’s wrath and even more fearful of losing her position, the Queen turns to an outsider.
Enter the radically daring designer Kong-Jin (Ko Soo), who has a tendency to lie about in brothels with gisaeng (courtesans), who proudly model his provocative designs, and who knows nothing about the court or about royal etiquette.
After the King approves of the “new” coronation gown, which was dramatically altered by upstart tailor Kong-Jin to save its undamaged pieces after the accident, the Royal Tailor Dol-Seok must accept this novice into his palace workshop.
Kong-Jin knows absolutely nothing about using patterns to make clothing. Instead, he draws all his ideas for clothes. He also has the strangest ideas about clothing: that it should be comfortable, and that it should fit the person who wears it. To Dol-Seok’s horror, Kong-Jin also loves bright colors, sheer fabrics, tight sleeves, and shorter hems.
The ensuing rivalry between the two tailors, one championed by the King, and the other by the Queen, mirrors the power struggle between the two royals themselves, as well as among the nobility who wish to control the King.
When power-hungry aristocrats introduce the Prime Minister’s lovely young daughter Soui (Lee Yoo-Bi) to the King, he takes her as his Royal Concubine, and the war between the factions intensifies. As if that situation weren’t dangerous enough, the young tailor Kong-Jin finds himself irresistibly drawn to the lovely but very lonely Queen.
Although the film has some light-hearted (and anachronistic) moments when Kong-Jin dresses some nobles in more comfortable hanbok styles and begins to undermine traditional court fashion, The Royal Tailor is not a comedy. Instead, it is an intense study of power politics on national and personal levels: between siblings, between royalty and nobility, aristocrats and lower classes, educated and self-taught, men and women, young and old, the traditional and the new.
In Korean with English subtitles, the award-winning and critically acclaimed The Royal Tailor is a luscious, beautifully filmed examination of power whose (mostly historically accurate) costumes, sets, and cinematography gloriously mirror the sublime beauty and the terrible ugliness of all its characters’ actions.
Available for rent from Amazon ($1.99 SD – $2.99 HD) or free for Prime members.