Dir. Lee Won-suk | South Korea | 2014 | 127 min
Nov 6 9:15 pm | AGO Jackman Hall
Rippling silks, aureate brocade and metre-wide sleeves: think Seoul Fashion Week meets 17th century Korea. Following his critically acclaimed directorial debut How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (2013), filmmaker Lee Won-suk travels back in time to the Chosun dynasty to offer us a visually stunning period drama that is at once an imaginative glimpse behind palace walls and a thought-provoking meditation on real-world fashion politics.
Set in the ancient capital of Hanyang (modern day Seoul), the film follows two Saiguiwon (royal tailors) whose love and mastery of their craft bring each to the footsteps of the palace and ultimately on a collision course with one another.
The plot bears striking resemblance to Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984): On the façade, it concerns the struggle of an old, established royal official against the perceived threat of a young, talented newcomer. Dol-seok (Han Suk-kyu) is the conservative head tailor whose plans for promotion are disrupted when gifted, but roguish, Jong-kin (Go Soo) bursts into the royal scene, leaving a trail of scandalous fashion innovations in his wake: ancient designs for royal regalia are literally tossed out the window; dull, drab fabrics eschewed for ornate embroidery and flowing silk; stiff, heavy skirts converted into bell-shaped bottoms and pantaloons.
But these petty skirmishes over artistic taste only mirror clashes among higher powers at court. Fashion becomes a perilous arena where king and prime minister, queen and new mistress, assert their clout and supremacy through the visual impact of their attire. Each spectacular outfit becomes an awesome display of power, and reflect the wearer’s stance in a growing debate on tradition and change. Whoever controls the tides of fashion also determines the political direction of the country.
There is certainly much to appreciate about Lee Won-suk’s cinematography. The film starts and ends with clothes in monochrome, contrasting the visual smorgasbord of colours which themselves parallel the ups and downs of the story. Lee is a master tailor of emotions: The anguish and intimacy of forbidden love is expressed in a measuring session where bodies are prohibited from touching. Unlike the oppressive beginning of Amadeus, the first half of the film achieves a playfulness and surrealism on par with a Wes Anderson film, spinning a fabric of lightness and humour that we take for granted until the story takes a darker turn towards its heart-wrenching finale.
Inspiration for the aspiring designer and a visual feast for the rest of us, The Royal Tailor is an emotionally sublime, deeply textured tale with as many layers as there are petticoats in Jong-kin’s hanbok gowns.