The Royal Tailor 상의원(2014) Korean Movie Review: Now on DVD!

Oh! Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart! What did they do to you?

 The Royal Tailor /The Tailor 상의원(2014) Korean Movie English Review

DVD now being sold!

When I entered the movie theater when this movie was showing a few days later than planned as it was the holidays and family obligations suddenly came up, I had barely any idea what “The Royal Tailor” / “The Tailor”/ “상의원(2014) was about. At this point, I have not developed a close ear to what Korean movie industry grapevines there existed. The most exposure I had was some posters and a snippet of a trailer which was pretty vague on the plot of the movie.  

The most I got was that “The Royal Tailor” (2014) was a fictional period piece set in the Joseon period. I was not sure who the protagonist was but it was either the character played by Han Suk-Kyu (한석규) or the character played by Ko Soo (고수). I guessed it was one of those competition movies between two rivals centered around making clothes for the royalties with side dose of political intrigue. Thus, I guessed the movie would have somewhat of an overly serious tone.  The trailer I saw seemed to validate this hypothesis.

And Oh boy… I was only about 60% right.

The concept itself was not particularly interesting. This type of movies is a dime a dozen in Korea.  Ever since the Korean domestic market was large enough to support the budget, Korea has been pumping out fictional period piece movies which would either go the serious route or the ridiculous route. A more recent, well about a decade old, development is the everyman character being used as the protagonist at the center of the dramatic storm’s eye. And now that has been over played. So, I was bored with the whole scene and, thus, not interested in the movie.

The whole fashion element may be a big draw for those non-Korean audiences who want to see this movie whenever it becomes available. For myself, this was only a minor draw since I had looked at many fusion Korean traditional fashion for research purposes. The area is interesting but nothing too exciting about it overall.

In regards to this movie, The Royal Tailor” (2014), low expectations help! It helps a lot!

The plot
Spoiler Warning….!! Well a little. 
I will try to avoid specifics.

Even though I knew almost nothing about the plot of the movie going in, I guessed the overall plot of the movie about 5-10 minutes into it. And, if you are over 30 years old and have seen a decent number of what are considered must watch classic movies of the 80s, you would too.

The Royal Tailor” (2014) is essentially a clone of the movie “Amadeus” (1984). I mean that movie which won 8 Academy awards including for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. And The Royal Tailor” (2014) won’t win any of its Korean equivalent honors. For those who are too young for this movie, “Amadeus” (1984) is about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s rise and death but told by his rival’s, Antonio Salieri, voice. It about how a decent artist becomes distorted by his jealousy towards a bona fide genius. In many ways,    “Amadeus” (1984) is the story of Antonio Salieri than it is of Mozart since it is he who drives the story and also narrates it. In a lot of ways, Mozart is like a force of nature than a character.

So, at this point, you will get an idea of the plot of The Royal Tailor” (2014). The character played by Han Suk-Kyu (한석규) is Antonio Salieri while the character played by Ko Soo (고수) is Mozart. The only thing that differs in concept is that the characters are now tailors rather than composers and the setting is moved from the royal courts of Vienna to the royal courts of Joseon. You can just imagine the pitch meeting in your mind…

And this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are going to copy something, “Amadeus” (1984) is a rather great thing to copy from. At the same time, the Korean movie industry does not have a good track record with this approach. While this type of blatant copying of movie concepts is nothing new to Korean movies, they more than often fail to grasp the core element of the story they are copying off. The Royal Tailor” (2014) falls into this category. Another example of this is “My Dictator” (2014) which is at least half a “Rain Man” (1988) Clone.  I think the best result of this endeavor is “Ode To My Father / The International market” (2014) which is a “Forrest Gump” (1994) Clone.  

If you think about it, 2014 was an odd year!

Failure to copy
If I was to describe “The Royal Tailor” (2014) in one word other than “Amadeus” (1984), it would be schizophrenic. It is a movie that does not know what it really wants to be. First, the movie is only about 60% a serious drama.  The other 40% is slapstick comedy in the veins of a Jim Carrey movie and not even the more serious comedies such as “The Truman Show “(1998). It more like “Ace Ventura” (1994) movie. The combination of these two different tone movies is very jarring. And wasted a lot of valuable screen time.

This is where the failure to copy properly comes into play. In “Amadeus” (1984), the character of Mozart played perfectly by Tom Hulce was outrageous but still was not overtly comedic. The Royal Tailor” (2014) turns the character into a combination between Van wilder from “National Lampoon's Van Wilder” (2002) and Jim Carrey’s character from “Dumb and Dumber” (1994). By doing this, the serious parts of his story are totally negated which come after the half way mark of the movie.

What about the Salieri character played by Han Suk-Kyu (한석규)? He is more like Jason Bateman than F. Murray Abraham who played Antonio Salieri. The character can be petty and jealous but, at the same time, is goofy and nice enough to want to hang out with him. Thus, the character has not the intensity that was in Amadeus” (1984) which is required for this type of story. When the dramatics kick in in the 3rd act of the movie, the emotional change of the Han Suk-Kyu’s (한석규) character feel sudden and forced.

Since I am talking about the movie’ contradicting tones, let’s talk about this movie’s structure. The movie is a 4 act movie that runs about two hours. This is not a great choice for a 2 hour movie but I do understand why they did it. It was a choice made to incorporate the excess plot which I will talk about later. Another reason behind this choice is to also incorporate the two differing tonal scenes. Most of the slapstick scenes which has Ko Soo (고수) doing his own thing separate from the other plot, is in the first two acts. The scenes with the king and queen are mostly serious and are heavily placed in the 3rd and 4th acts.  Han Suk-Kyu’s (한석규) character seems to bridge the gap between the two tones during the first two acts but essentially sticks to the more serious tone in the later acts.

This story structure is messy. The first two acts do not perform their function of setting up for the latter acts well. At the same time, the first two acts which run about one hour in total blend together to much. I could not really pin point when the first act ends and the second act starts in my first viewing. The result of this is that when you enter the 3rd act, the movie feels longer than it actually is. You are ready for the movie to end about the 3rd act. But…!!! There is another act after that!

Second, the story of the movie is not strictly a story about these two artists. On the poster for this movie, you see four characters which include the king and the queen. The Royal Tailor” (2014) has two plots with the other plot being about queen’s attempt to garner the king’s affections and the surrounding political shenanigans.  And this plot seems to be the main plot while two artists’ story seems to be the sub-plot even though Han Suk-Kyu (한석규) and Ko Soo (고수) are actually the two leads of the movie. In other words, the protagonists are not exactly key to the narrative even though they have the most screen time. The resulting movie is rather off in regard its focus.

In a lot of ways, Han Suk-Kyu (한석규) and Ko Soo (고수) are not the ones who drive the story. They are passive at worst and insignificant at best.  This is in contrast to Amadeus” (1984) which this movie is copying off from. “Amadeus” (1984) was their story. It was about their artistic struggles and jealousies. The movie would not have happened without them which could not totally be said about “The Royal Tailor” (2014).

This is another case of the failure to copy properly. The creators of this movie do not seemed to understand what made “Amadeus” (1984) a great story. Thus, in order to Korea-matize it, they introduced over-melodramatic palace politics which is a cliché of Korean dramas into the movie and made it the center-conflict of the movie. This has an effect on how the main protagonists are used.

 Ko Soo (고수) who is playing the maverick Mozart stand-in should be the one who creates conflict because he is “crazy” maverick genius. To be frank, he at least does 20 or more things that should have gotten himself killed in real Joseon. Thus, waiting for when he is getting the piano dropped on him should be a tension builder. However, since the scenes he does these deeds in are comedy scenes, all is well. In comedy movies, most acts that would not be tolerated in reality and in not-comedy movies are tolerated. The same mechanism in play in this movie. Ko Soo’s (고수) character only gets involved in the conflicts of the movie because the movie forces in a “Lancelot and Guinevere” angle. In other words, he is essentially just a device in the main plot.

Even Han Suk-Kyu’s (한석규) character is just a device. He does not cause the conflict and he does not escalate the conflict. Rather his just acts as an agent of the king because that is his function in the court. Since the movie sets him up as this nice character during the first two acts, it is afraid to really tarnish the character. Thus, he is blameless. In other words, both of the protagonists were just victims of circumstance and the power plays of those above them in the social hierarchy. 

Palace intrigue and “Lancelot and Guinevere
Reshaping an old story to make something new is not a bad thing. However, you have to replace the core of the story that made it powerful in the first place with something equal or greater. The problem with “The Royal Tailor” (2014) is that it has no teeth. The movie keeps much of the “Amadeus” (1984) including the framing device and the narrative perspective. However, it only keeps the shell of the story without properly replacing it with something worth the effort.

The Palace intrigue and “Lancelot and Guinevere” main plot of the story is a cliché Korean drama soap plot but it is not inherently bad. There are reasons why it became cliché in the first place. While this plot is nothing new, it had some promise of being interesting in this movie. You have Yoo Yeon-Seok (유연석), who plays the king, doing his best impression of Joaquin Phoenix from “Gladiator” (2000). Park Shin-Hye (박신혜) does an okay job as the queen who wants to survive in the court. You could actually develop these characters into something good but what the movie gives is barely interesting. There is not enough development since most of the first two acts is filled with the sub-plot.

 Not only is there not enough time dedicated to what is actually the main plot, the first two acts, which are filled with slapstick comedy, does not create a proper foundation for the Palace intrigue plot. In addition, the world building is also really poorly done in this movie.

The whole fashion element plays a key role in not only the sub plot-but also the main “Palace intrigue” plot of “The Royal Tailor” (2014). There are two problems with this. The first is that the manner in which the fashion revolution introduced by the so called genius Ko Soo’s (고수) character is portrayed is slapstick comedy-ish. The whole element is not treated with any seriousness. I guess that a reason for going this route was that the fashion revolution here is basically introducing western design concepts more than 400 years advanced. So, it was difficult to treat it as serious. In a way, a large part of the first two acts feel like a “Doctor Who” skit. What would it be like if Doctor Who dropped a modern fashion designer in ancient Joseon?

If  The Royal Tailor” (2014) had a consistent lighter tone, this would work as seen in many movies. However, because the second half of the movie plays more like a serious drama, having a comedic element playing a key role in the serious main plot does not mesh well.

The second problem is with the lack of world building.  Fictional reality does not have to match historical reality. However, you have to either depend on predefined fictional realities already established in the minds’ of the audience or put effort into world building. In historical reality, this type of fashion in the movie will not play a role in Joseon. Basically, most of the fashion created by Ko Soo’s (고수) character would have the queen kicked out for improperness. Sexy was not a virtue for proper ladies in the Joseon period.

In many ways, the court of The Royal Tailor” (2014) feels like a post Renaissance French court in which the show of wealth and outrageous fashion was a route to political influence. I think this is also a left over from “Amadeus” (1984) which portrayed the Vienna’s court. Even though the audience may not be experts in the Joseon period, they are familiar with its depiction in entertainment. The Royal Tailor” (2014) goes against this perception without any proper world building. In its place, the movie spends time with slapstick comedy. The world, not being created, does not provide a sufficient foundation for the actions of the characters or at least the queen. The seriousness of the latter parts of the movie makes this contradiction even more of a problem.

The Fashion
Since I talked about the role fashion played, let’s talk about it a little. I’m not a fashion expert.

Just saying

And, as a novice to the subject, I would say that it was okay. All the gowns made for the movie seemed expertly made and designed. They are all pretty and glamorous. However, at the same time, if you have seen a fusion Hanbok, there seem to be nothing new about the fashion in this movie.

The thing that irks me is that the fashion itself is so obviously influenced by western tradition that the fashions have no real organic place in the setting of the story. But this is another aspect of poor world building. I would not bring it up if the movie did not piss me off with this. The Royal Tailor” (2014) has two framing devices that frame the movie. One is the Salieri telling a story one. Another is “trying to portray the events of the movie as newly discovered real historical events” framing device. There is no reason for that device to be in the movie. It could be edited out and the movie would be better.

The only reason for it is to pander to the tribalism of Korean audience with a character who is basically plagiarizing several centuries worth of another culture’s output. I may be thinking too much but it just pissed me off. Korea has a long history of plagiarizing other people’s effort and now it is a cultural staple.

Since I have mentioned Korean culture, let’s get into why is The Royal Tailor” (2014) copying “Amadeus” (1984).

The age of copying 80s movies
While science has not provided evidence of the possibility of time travel, seeing current Korea and Korean movies feel like going back in time for about 30 years or so. It feels like seeing the movie making days of the late 80s Hollywood. You see many types of movies that were made by mainstream Hollywood then that are not being made now in Hollywood. Hollywood has moved on although some say not for the better.

The reasons for this time delayed cultural phenomenon are many. However, there is no need for digging deep. All cultural zones on the planet are not progressing at the same pace. Some are not even progressing on the same path although globalizations have brought these paths closer together than ever.

Since the start of the 20th century, America has been in the lead of the cultural progress and most other cultural zones have just been playing catch up on a path that keeps inches closer to that of America. This is especially true for Asian cultural zones who were more than a century behind at the start of the game.

Well the game never truly has a starting point.

In the case of Korea, in many ways, we are currently at a state similar to the 80s of America. The society has not fully solidified from the chaos of the previous decades but, at the same time, there seems to be too much money flowing through the economy on the surface. Because of this state Korea is in, the movies we are producing look very similar to those from late 80s Korea. In other words, it took us 30 years to be able to reproduce what we saw on the silver screen before.

This is not something to be overly negative about. It is very difficult to reproduce something if you are not prepared to do so.  You shouldn’t even anticipate this especially for cultural products. You are not going to see an instant and drastic jump in that area which is oddly relevant to this movie. At the same time, it is also somewhat of a good place to be in since nostalgia has a 30 year interval. A lot of Korean cultural products are currently enjoying growth in this niche area.

The only real issue with this as an audience is that Koreans still do not totally get why those cultural products were a success in the first place. “The Royal Tailor” (2014) is a good example. Movies such as “Ode To My Father / The International market” (2014) are an exception and not the rule. The Royal Tailor” (2014) is closer to the rule!

I am stating it again. “The Royal Tailor” (2014) is a blatant clone of the movie “Amadeus” (1984) and has a hard time understanding why that movie was a classic. The movie itself is rather schizophrenic with serious period drama clashing with slapstick comedy.

The Royal Tailor” (2014) is a good example of the product not being as good as the sum of its parts. The cinematography is competent. The direction is nothing really to poo poo on. The acting is decent although Han Suk-Kyu’s (한석규) is just doing his average as the “Tom Hanks” of Korean cinema. There were some very good work done by minor characters played by such actors as Shin So-Yul (신소율) and Ma Dong-Seok (마동석).  I would actually want to see them be more of the center of a story.

Considering the individual talent in front and behind the movie, “The Royal Tailor” (2014) should have been a far better movie than what was actually made. I do not think The Royal Tailor” (2014) would make much of an impact on my cinema life. It is just meh!

If you are not too picky about movies and are interested in Korean culture and not particularly experienced in it, The Royal Tailor” (2014) would be an interesting experience. It would be worth at least a watch.

I was pondering what score to give it considering the craft put into the movie. I was considering giving it a B but there were too much irking me about the movie. So I reduced one letter grade.

Score:  B-  or  6/10

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  1. Nice, detailed review

  2. thanks for the review! where I can watch this movie?

    1. Well it is only showing in Korea now. I think the DVDs will be out in 6 months or so. Not sure about streaming sites

  3. "Korea-matize" is such a great word. lol. Funny. Good, full review. I haven't heard of this movie, maybe because I don't watch the Kmovies as much as the dramas. This year I'm going to try my hand at writing Kmovie reviews for the Fangirl verdict. I'm a total novice at that. My thing is creative writing. But I'll work on it.

    I like how you can make intelligent comparisons to Hollywood films and themes. And that you throw in background on Korean culture to help us understand the mindset of the film's creators.

    I'm over 30, but haven't seen Amadeus. Now I should.

    1. Well you should see it but It is an old movie so you have to prepare for it

  4. Excellent review. I had not noticed the similarities with Amadeus when I watched the movie myself, but yeesh, yeah, that explains a lot of what turned the plot into such a mess.

    1. Are you in Korea? Or has the movie been showing outside of Korea

  5. I must say this article was a detailed excellent yet sipmlified one which satisfies both k-wave fellows and those who want to dig into Joseon dynasty fashion history. I've watched both Amadeus and Marie Antoinette. These two movies are both good and accurate sources in fashion design history ( actually better than other Hollywood products ^^ ).I think the royal tailor tried to mention how Korean traditional customes were both comfortable and practical to fit for daily life and how they've tried to change for more convenience ( somewhere between Japanese and chinese exaggerated trend see-saw style) but sadly the revolution of clothing in 17s century in French court to create the term " fashion design" and draw the attention of other European courtes is bolder than its eastern style.( but there is one similarity! that's how Marie Antoinette compares the elegance sensible side of Austrian costuming and exaggerated artistic french one.) so for introducing the hidden valuable aspects of korean culture was disappointing.As for plot, It was again an unsuccessful copy of Amadeus. which you cleverly described it!

    Thanks a lot ^^