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‘The Royal Tailor’ is a charming period piece

‘The Royal Tailor’ is a charming period piece

The Royal Tailor Poster

The Royal Tailor
Written by Byounghak Lee
Directed by Wonsuk Lee
South Korea, 2014

Director Wonsuk Lee’s historical drama, The Royal Tailor, is a colorful story about how two men’s dueling fashion sensibilities affected a kingdom’s political landscape. The dazzling costume designs alone are enough to make The Royal Tailor worth the price of admission, but this film has more to offer than just gorgeous visuals. The Royal Tailor’s stellar performances from its two leads combine with a gripping plot to create an easily accessible and enjoyable film.

The Royal Tailor opens and closes with contemporary scenes explaining the cultural impact of the men at the heart of the story. While the information provided in the moments bookending the film could just as easily be provided on title cards, they serve to reinforce the cultural impact of film’s titular characters. The story then begins with the new king (Yeon-Seok Yoo) summoning his royal tailor, Chul Dol-Seok (Suk-kyu Han), to create new garments for members of his cabinet to wear at his coronation. Chul Dol-Seok is an uneducated commoner who has dedicated his life to his craft, he’s a loyal servant to the crown, and only months away from receiving nobility status. Less than a day before the coronation, the queen (Shin-Hye Park) accidentally burns the king’s ceremonial robe, and asks Chul Dol-Seok if he can repair it. A stickler for rules and regulations, Chul Dol-Seok refuses the request, and young, hotshot tailor, Kong-Jin (Soo Go), is brought in as a last resort. Kong-Jin not only repairs the robe, the garment’s improved fit impresses the king who commissions more work. Kong-Jin’s enthusiasm for pushing fashion boundaries clashes with Chul Dol-Seok’s traditional approach, and as each man vies for the king’s approval, their direct influence on the crown becomes co-opted by those with scheming political machinations.

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There are two main narrative threads at the center of this film, and one works far better than the other. A solid portion of this movie focuses on the story of an insecure new king with a feeble claim to the throne (his mother was a commoner), trying to maintain his weak political foothold. The plot in these parts of the film feels convoluted, the exposition is clunky, and the characters come off as clichés. The segments of the movie focused on Machiavellian scheming are simply not as interesting as the story about the dueling tailors. The film also holds the conceit that if the queen wears a pretty enough outfit, the aloof king will finally give her the time of day. Sure this isn’t an uncommon plot to find in historical pieces and fairy tales, but the film treats this aspect of the story with enough reverence as to be unsettling to audience members who are aware of the Bechdel test.

The film is at its best when it focuses on Chul Dol-Seok and Kong-Jin’s opposing philosophies. Chul Dol-Seok is the quintessential student; he’s dedicated his entire life to his craft (he has the battered hands of a broken down prizefighter) and maintaining the standards that were set in place by the men before him. Kong-Jin is a natural talent who usually isn’t aware of the rules he is breaking, and a man that is always looking for a new challenge: Chul Dol-Seok is like a career postman while Kong-Jin is akin to a teenager that comes along and invents e-mail. While Kong-Jin is the man setting the tides of change into motion it is Chul Dol-Seok entrenched in a position of great influence, and it’s fascinating watching the lengths to which he will go to avoid getting usurped by the younger man.

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Wonsuk Lee’s The Royal Tailor is a light and easy watch that more than makes up for its flaws. The movie features dynamic performances from its two leads, a lush visual palette, and throws in solid helpings of comedy, intrigue, and even tears. Those who enjoy their period films packed with elaborate costumes, solid performances and scheming characters should make sure to catch The Royal Tailor.

For an alternate take on the film, check out Josh Hamm’s review here.

The 19th annual Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival (Reel Asian) runs from November 5 – 15, 2015 in Toronto and Richmond Hill. Visit the festival’s official websiteB-_rating