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VIFF’ 15: ‘The Royal Tailor’ Frays at the Seams

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The Royal Tailor
Screenplay by Byounghak Lee
Directed by Wonsuk Lee
South Korea, 2015

A crowd-pleasing blend of humour, drama, and romance, all awash in a lush and vivid world of kings, queens, fashion, and  Machiavellian intrigue, it is no surprise that The Royal Tailor is one of South Korea’s most successful period films. Yet for all its bright qualities, the final third of the film slowly begins to unravel the pattern it spent the first two-thirds stitching.

Set during the Joseon dynasty as a new king (Yoo Yeon-Seok) comes into power, the film makes fashion its focus. The royal tailor, Dol-Seok (Han Suk-Kyu), has served three kings in his lifetime, learning his art as a young impoverished boy. While he seeks to curry favour with the new lord and rise in stature, he takes his job with an air of dignity and tradition, following the Sanguiwon rules for how the royalty should dress for each occasion. But his jealousy is aroused when a new tailor, Kong-Jin (Ko Soo), a commoner with an artistic mind and flamboyant disregard for the rules, begins to innocently infiltrate his sense of daring fashion into the royal court.

The Queen's Dress

The two begin as friends, mentor and student but their relationship is strained when Dol-Seok is retained by the King, while Kong-Jin catches the eye of the Queen (Park Shin-Hye), who orders him to design new and innovate modes of dress so that she can seduce her husband and consummate their marriage. Side plots and political machinations abound, which makes for a slightly muddled, indistinct plot, especially if you’re not familiar with some of the historical context of certain conflicts, but its similarities to Amadeus and the universal qualities of cutthroat politics help to keep things clear enough for the astute viewer. Unfortunately, it fails to settle into a groove, playing out as expected in terms of the ending, but jumping and skipping as it does so, abandoning all hope of stylistic cohesion.

There are moments which breathe life into the film’s bloated running time, like a surreal lunar moonscape dream sequence, complete with giant rabbits, or a sensually charged scene between Kong-Jin and the Queen as he takes her measurements up and close and personal ( a transgression in an era when her no man beside her husband should touch her so intimately). There’s also a lighthearted nature to the first third, replete with slapstick comedy, over the top jokes, etc. But as the film becomes more serious, it eases into a sentimental potboiler,  even falling into an outright tragedy by the end — but given how the levity built the mood and structure of the film, this turn into cloying pathos feels unearned overstays its welcome.

While it features gorgeous costumes in an array of dazzling colours and styles, a compelling plot, and a group of fine actors, this overwrought period melodrama cannot overcome its poor sense of pacing, predictability, and underwhelming conclusion.

The Vancouver International Film Festival takes place from September 24 – October 9, 2015. Visit the official website for more information.

VIFF 2015


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