Set in 16th century Korea, Jang-saeng and Gong-gil are exceptionally good jesters in a small-time performing troupe. Despite their skill money is sparse and to increase earnings the troupe master prostitutes Gong-gil to rich patrons. The film begins with Jang-saeng finally snapping and convincing Gong-gil to run away to Seoul with him.
From there things get worse.
After competing with the self-proclaimed best clowns in Seoul they find themselves both with potential troupe mates and great material for their show—the sexual exploits of the king. Though popular their act quickly finds them arrested, and it is only through Gong-gil and Jang-saeng making a spectacular saving performance in front of the king himself that allows them not only to live, but also be taken on permanently in the royal court.
However, court life is beset with peril as the bloodthirsty King Yeonsan, his jealous consort, and the resentful advisors come constantly in conflict. The jesters are unable to avoid getting caught up in it, due to their highly controversial shows and to the King's increasing obsession with the beautiful Gong-gil. Once again Jang-saeng and Gong-gil find themselves lead down the same road they started, but the stakes are much, much higher.
The film is particularly notable for being a relatively low budget production starring few famous actors which highly features the traditional arts and has homosexual undertones, yet broke all Korean box office records before it. Interestingly it also came out the same year as Brokeback Mountain.
This film provides examples of:
- Bolivian Army Ending: The final shot features them jumping off of the tightrope as Jaeng-sang throws his fan
- The Caligula: Based on the actual ruler Yeonsangun of Joseon, the King of the film is ruthless and erratic in his behaviour, but also very cultured and rather sympathetic at times
- Crossdresser: Gong-gil always plays female roles in their shows. And he's very convincing.
- Crotch-Grab Sex Check: Played for laughs as one of the Seoul jesters gets groped by onlookers whenever he portrays a eunuch or a woman. More seriously done with Nok-su forcefully stripping Gong-gil in a fit of jealousy.
- Did They or Didn't They?: Just how sexual the king actually did get with Gong-gil is rather ambiguous, as we only ever see them playing together.
- Driven to Suicide:
- Extreme Doormat: Gong-gil. The opposite of a Satellite Character though and not lacking personality, just easy to walk all over.
- Freudian Excuse: The murder of the King's mother as justification for his being so unhinged comes to the fore after one of the clowns' performances. It verges on an Oedipus Complex, with Gong-gil taking her role in the aforementioned play and Nok-su playing "Mommy" in private.
- Gallows Humour: After Jang-saeng is blinded, his jokes about the situation get downright morbid.
- Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: Two ministers view the mock hunt in celebration of Gong-gil's entitlement as a perfect opportunity to kill him.
- Kick the Dog: Despite being The Hero, Jang-saeng gets these moments halfway through in his treatment of Gong-gil, for whom he hithertofore was The Champion. This is presumably from misunderstanding that Gong-gil is in a very precarious position by this time and cannot leave the King no matter how much he may want to. Some of it may be a verbal approach to Get a Hold of Yourself, Man!.
- Like Father, Like Son: Inverted. The ministers love reminding the King he is not what his father was.
- Red String of Fate: It is implied that Jang-saeng and Gong-gil will be reborn and meet again in the next life, presumably as minstrels again.
- Uptown Girl: The King's fixation with a male street clown is a major point of contention in the court and used to help justify their coup. Nok-su is implied to also have caused friction for being lower class, but Nok-su is better at court intrigue than Gong-gil is.