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Royal Tailor, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A very charming Korean costume drama."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I've been looking to make a "costume drama" joke about this film ever since I first heard of it, but it initially didn't quite seem appropriate - for the first half or so, this is mainly a very funny, good-natured movie, even if the filmmakers are laying the foundations for the heavier material that will come later. In that regard, the script is fairly clever, although perhaps the last act requires the audience to be more tuned into this particular king's capriciousness than maybe I was. It's an unexpectedly entertaining film despite source material that tends to skew toward melodrama and over-seriousness.

As the film starts, the royal tailor and head of the palace's "Sanguiwon" is Cho Dol-seok (Han Suk-kyu), who is not only one of the few holdovers from the previous kings but has served nearly long enough to have a noble title conferred. It has been three years since the death of the previous monarch, so the new King (Yoo Yeon-seok) commissions a new Dragon Robe, as well as new garments for many of his ministers as the court comes out of mourning. Swamped, Dol-seok is advised by friend Dae-gil (Jo Dal-hwan) to bring on Lee Kong-jin (Ko Soo), a young and flamboyant tailor who not only crafts clothes that depart from traditional templates but becomes a confidant of the Queen (Park Shin-hye), a beauty whom the King inexplicably avoids. When the King's eyes fall upon the Defense Minister's daughter So-yi (Lee Yoo-bi), some in the cabinet see an opportunity which will entangle the tailors.

It's easy to expect the relationship between conservative Dol-suk and upstart Kong-jin to be much more contentious, but watching them quickly warm to each other is one of the film's great pleasures. The difference between them is straightforward - Dol-seok is a studious craftsman while Kong-jin is questioning and creating constantly, complementary skills that make them clearly at their best when working together. Even outside of that, they are an extraordinarily entertaining pair, with Ko Soo tremendously funny and charismatic as Kong-jin, a fellow worth rooting on even when moving in a dangerous direction. Han Suk-kyu is not quite so gregarious as Dol-seok, but he has a way of growing on the audience, not seeming as rigid as his place in the story would imply and always keeping his humble origins visible, even when he is meant to fit among the nobles. When together, there is both impressive camaraderie and contention.

The relationship between the King and Queen is easily understood but not easily untangled, even when it is laid bare. Park Shin-hye is luminous as a queen who is both very down-to-earth and appropriately regal. She and Ko soo share a chemistry that teeters on the edge of forbidden romance, a delightfully delicious ambiguity that works however one chooses to view it. Yoo Yeon-seok fleshes out his supporting role as the King so that he becomes an intriguing part of the story as opposed to just the center of the power that drives the others' motivations.

And, man, just look at the clothes. I think the light early tone of The Royal Tailor helps a lot, because it allows the filmmakers to introduce traditional Korean clothing with comedy about its impracticality, allowing the characters to talk about fashion and design in a way that engages more than the audience that is typically enthusiastic about such things. It keeps the audience engaged as they actually become much more central to the plot. By the end, wardrobe is life and death and it not only doesn't seem absurd, it's fascinating even to those who would never, ever have any part of the recent spate of fashion-oriented movies that have played the boutique houses in America.

It's an attractive film well beyond its costumes, beautifully mounted but never over-produced. Director Lee Won-suk, who also made the charming How to Use Guys with Secret Tips, keeps things chugging along at a brisker pace than the 127-minute running time might indicate, and as the film turns from the designs of clothing to those of plots, he handles the transition with grace and wit.

The wrap-up may seem a bit tidy, but it's perhaps necessary to "hide" this story in the actual history. It takes a bit of the air out of a delightful movie that otherwise transitions nicely to palace intrigue, but not that much. Yes, it is a literal take on the idea of a costume drama (if that's a thing they say in Korean), but it's a cheeky, charming one that would rather be entertaining than formal.

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originally posted: 08/23/15 14:06:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2015 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Wonsuk Lee

Written by
  Byounghak Lee

  Suk-kyu Han
  Soo Go
  Shin-Hye Park
  Yeon-seok Yoo
  Dong-seok Ma

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