June 20, 2018

The Royal Tailor: Sew, Sew Good

The Royal Tailor has made one thing incredibly clear. The difference between North Korean movies and South Korean ones is vast, something akin to the qualitative distances between the comedies of Jerry Lewis and those of Billy Wilder. Or better yet, between the dramas of Ed Wood and Martin Scorsese. So different are the standards by which they can be judged, never mind the standards they establish and uphold that they're impossible to compare seriously side by side. Who in their right mind would say that Cinderfella and Plan Nine From Outer Space are on par with The Apartment and Taxi Driver? And while both Lewis and Wood may have their advocates (and I am among them!), the pleasures they afford are trifling when compared to the true geniuses of cinema. This became quite clear to me after watching Lee Wonsuk's The Royal Tailor, an exquisite historic drama made in South Korea that not only looks 100 times better than any film I've ever seen from their Northern neighbors but is also peopled by characters with complex motives and speaks to the human condition outside of some didactic party line. Agit-prop art this definitely is not.

Not that politics don't come into play. A nasty if nattily attired movie of court intrigue, The Royal Tailor is all about politics — from the petulant king (Yoo Yeon-seok) who's inherited both the throne and his wife (Park Shin-hye) from his late older brother to the conflicted official court tailor (Han Suk-kyu) who finds his position suddenly threatened by an inspired, upstart iconoclast and trendsetter (Go Soo) who has an artist's sensibilities when it comes to design and a pragmatic understanding when it comes to function. He might not be as committed to tradition and craftsmanship as his elder but everyone wants to wear his work. Given the central plot literally swirls around fashion, you can better your bottom dollar that The Royal Tailor is a feast for the eyes: richly colored fabrics, exquisite embroidery, snazzy haberdashery, even underwear stitchery are fully on display so that come the climax, you'll have developed a discerning enough eye to recognize that the violet-colored garb and headpiece worn by the royal concubine (Lee Yoo-bi) are more garish than gorgeous. You can't fake fashion, especially once the Queen has arrived.