Tailors get the royal treatment

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Photo courtesy Reel Asian International Film Festival

by MEI LING CHEN

In The Royal Tailor, Lee Won-suk’s costume drama, intrigue and a fashionable rivalry take form at the imperial court of the Joseon Dynasty, the long-ruling regime renowned for anointing Korea with the nickname, the “Hermit Kingdom.” After three years of mourning the old king, his successor asks the head tailor to make him a new dragon robe – signalling the end to the mourning period and allowing people to dress in colour once again.

The eponymous tailor, Cho Dol-suk (Han Suk-kyu), has tailored clothes for the family for 30 years before finally becoming head of the Sanguiwon. Now, having worked his way up from his station as an impoverished commoner, Dol-suk is just months away from finally becoming a nobleman, and will soon be able to wear the clothes he makes for other people. The only hitch comes in the form of Lee Kong-jin (Go Soo), a young designer, with a disregard for rules and social decorum.

When one of her attendants burns the king’s robe, the queen (Park Shin-hye) implores the head tailor to fix it. Since doing so would be against court customs, Dol-suk refuses. Desperate and at risk of being replaced, she turns to Gong-jin, and their unusual friendship begins. Kong-jin falls in love with the queen and designs more and more unconventional hanboks (traditional Korean dress) for her, flouting palace rules to the chagrin of Dol-suk.

While Dol-suk worries about his status as head tailor, and as Gong-jin’s designs become more and more popular among the common folk, the film never lets their relationship devolve into a petty rivalry. Eventually becoming friends, Kong-jin respects Dol-suk’s experience and technical skill, while Dol-suk admires Kong-jin’s creativity. Their relationship is a classic tale of old-school tradition versus progress and change. Dol-suk tries to illustrate to Kong-jin how dangerous dispensing with the rules can be, but it is actually his own paranoia and jealousy that could lead to his undoing.

Paralleling Dul-sok’s jealousy is that of the king’s (Yoo Yeon-seok). Having always been treated as second to his older brother, the king finally finds himself in charge. Once in power, he discovers that he has less control than originally thought, and his brother’s shadow still looms over him.

The Royal Tailor is a visually beautiful film. The intricate and carefully crafted hanboks in the movie doubles as a fashion show, showcasing in fast-track styles from the 500 years of the Joseon Dynasty. Its first half is humorous and light in tone. The darker second half is as moving and urgent as the characters.

While a period piece, the dialogue, humour and story is quite contemporary. It espouses individualism but does not forget that these ideals can still have consequences. Lee treats his characters with respect allowing each of them time to display their desires and frustrations, and his actors are confident enough to carry it through.

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