Jesters: The Game Changers – Fantasia Film Festival

Written & Directed by Joo-Ho Kim

South Korea/ 2019/ 108 mins

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Censorship, propaganda, and disinformation are the unchanging tools of dictators, bureaucrats, and corrupt officials. To maintain his image after usurping the throne, King Sejo seeks to employ Jesters, Korean storytellers, to manipulate public perception into seeing him as a kind, merciful man who is deserving of his stolen throne. These rogues, who seek nothing more than coin, food, and status, find themselves locked in a struggle of preserving their lives or upholding the truth.

Pioneers of live entertainment, Jester: The Game Changers pays tribute to the industry’s origins – the harlequins, bards and storytellers who formed the foundations of what would become live theatre, performance, and eventually evolve into cinema. Each of the gang’s racketeering ops involves some form of practical effect, or costume, or spontaneous genius resulting in what would come to be known as an instrument of chronophotography. Much of the film relies on stunt-work, both working into the comedic angles writer and director Joo-Ho Kim is searching for, and the authenticity needed to captivate viewers.

Tying into the past, Joo-Ho Kim does a valiant job of drawing the film into historical pieces of South Korean myth and legend. Much of the narrative ties neatly into a true counterpart text, The Loyal Six. This book, a tale on the twisted landscape of political bureaucracy and drive for self-fulfilment, parallels the film’s less than subtle (yet poignant) stance on fake news.

Throughout the film, this veil of utilising the media of the time (the storytellers) as a tool to manipulate public perception of the ruling class is played off as comedic, if still a persistent warning. Come the film’s final third, not only do the performances up the ante of graveness but also accentuate the dangers of image manipulation and political power-play. Notably, Jin-woong Cho’s Deok-ho is performed with such conviction it solidifies the execution. Embracing his disciple as a lead Jester, he utilises his key talents in disarming the King and the treacherous Han Myeong Hoe.

The entire troupe bring something unique to their characters, with the five Jesters all giving off particular energy and character growth. This is perhaps most notable with Seul-gi Kim, the only woman of the group and certainly one of the more rounded and engaging to watch. A fiery character, the pacing in which she moves is choreographed to a knifepoint, with razor timing for humour and an ounce of otherworldliness for the film’s brief supernatural moments.

Joo Sung-Rim’s cinematography capitalises on the physicality of these performances – chiefly Yoon Park and Hee-soon Park’s. And as much as Jesters: The Game Changersmight strike a comedic note, it bathes itself in such intense sunlight as a cultural adventure, that the film radiates moments of clarity and some magnificent shots. There is plenty to appreciate beyond the physical props and set design, as Sung-Rim balances absurdity with surprising respect for Korean mythos and landscape.

This all scrambles wildly and seemingly chaotically into a climax which ties together story strands, both obvious and seemingly inconsequential into a thoroughly tense, humbling finale which demonstrates superb cultural storytelling. As villains are revealed, plots unfurled, and journeys ended, this high-octane finale reminds us all the infinite resource we find in stories, how new ones are created and shared all of the time – and the dangers of the false liars who trap themselves in their own.

Some seek to have their history altered, corrupting the facts to ensnare gratitude and infamy to preserve a legacy. Often, filmmakers wish to lift the lid, exposing the rotten underbelly of things we have moved from; or in the case of Jesters: Game Changers, to demonstrate how ancient techniques shift form but continue in intention. As tight a dramatic piece as it is a physical comedy, Joo-Ho Kim’s film airs the dirty laundry of propaganda and unfurls its close-knit roots in the foundations of storytelling.

Review published for The Wee Review