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[Herald Review] ‘Jesters: The Game Changers’ yield disappointing results, despite intriguing setup

In the 2006 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, defending champion Josh Smith put down tape well-beyond the free-throw line to indicate that he would jump from there. Had he succeeded in doing so, the leap would have been an unimaginable feat. His jump, however, was well inside the tape, to the dismay and confusion of the frenzied crowd.

To me, the disappointment brought by director Kim Ju-ho’s “Jesters: The Game Changers” was like Smith’s weird bluff. The period piece had pumped up expectations with a brilliant premise, but came woefully short in actual deliverance.

While it aimed to be funny and original, and its props were quite creative, its narrative was sloppy and the parade of cheap and uncomfortable jokes unimpressive.

“Jesters: The Game Changers” / Warner Bros. Korea
“Jesters: The Game Changers” / Warner Bros. Korea
“Jesters: The Game Changers” / Warner Bros. Korea
“Jesters: The Game Changers” / Warner Bros. Korea

The film starts off with the five-person party of clowns during Joseon Dynasty, led by silver-tongued former story teller Deok-ho (Cho Jin-woong). They use props, acting skills, music, and other means to deceive people and start rumors on a commission basis for those who want to artificially inflate their reputations.

Han Myeong-hoe (Son Hyun-joo), high-ranking official and confidant of King Sejo (Park Hee-soon), recruits Deok-ho and his crew to start positive rumors about the monarch of Joseon, who is widely criticized for ousting and killing his nephew on his way to the throne. The clowns are caught between promise of a handsome reward and the guilt of having to defend a tyrant.

The biggest strength of the film is easily its rich imagination. Deok-ho, prop master Hong-chil (Ko Chang-seok), former shaman and foley artist Geun-deok (Kim Seul-gi), painter of picturesque precision Jin-sang (Yoon Park) and acrobat Pal-pung (Kim Min-seok) create an impressive stage production that convincingly depicts miracles, using nothing but Joseon-era props and mechanics.

The said miracles -- which include emergence of a giant Buddha, rainbow-colored mist, raining flowers from the skies, and the king’s leprosy magically being cured -- are based on actual royal records of the time. While it is highly likely they were just propaganda by Sejo to glorify himself, the movie cleverly depicts them as the results of an elaborate scheme using props and acting chops.

This creativity is what makes the film brilliant, and what could have made it a standout film.

Unfortunately the other aspects of the film let things down.

There should have been no weak link in terms of acting chops in the cast, but they do not gel at all. Cho starts off strong but his character soon becomes bland, while the king is just another cookie-cutter misguided soul. Yoon’s acting is incredibly shaky considering his talent, and both Kim Seul-gi and Ko are reduced to cheap jokes.

Ah, the jokes. What should have been the highlight ends up being downfall of the whole film. The problem isn’t just that it is not funny. It is also very uncomfortable.

The juxtaposition of Kim’s demure-looking and the venomous cursing she came out with was what made the comedian-turned-actress stand out on SNL Korea. But her outlandish behavior comes out in the most awkward situations in this flick, which makes it hard to laugh at.

There is a scene in which Kim curses out at a rude aristocrat for making sexual advances at her, but it is not clear whether it is supposed to be funny or serious. As a result, it is just uncomfortable.

Ko is an actor whose on-screen image is between Fred Flintstone and Paddington Bear -- a loveable, well-meaning dunce. The movie tries to capitalize on that, but too often settles for cheap pee jokes. That’s not charming, it’s just stupid.

The pacing of the plot was a bit clunky as well, which made it feel like the movie was running on fumes near the end.

In many ways, it reminded me of “The Face Reader,” with a unique premise, distinct characters and an original story based on actual history. But it had neither the comedy, captivating story, nor the charming characters of that movie. As a result, it felt like a cheap rip-off.

It isn’t a complete turkey, but the promise it showed in the opening act was what made it so disappointing. While it could have been a smart, witty and brilliant film with good cast, it ended up being a mere shadow of its full potential.

In retrospect, Smith’s dunk in 2006 wasn’t terrible. It was just a major let-down, much like this movie.

“Jesters: The Game Changers” opens in local theaters on Aug.21.

By Yoon Min-sik (