One of the more whimsical titles to come out of this year’s Fantasia Festival, South Korea’s Jesters: The Game Changers, directed by Joon-ho Kim (The Grand Heist) is a unique historical comedy set in the Joseon dynasty.
The “jesters” of the title are a troupe of talented minstrel-like entertainers with tremendous skills that they apply to stage magic for their storytelling — the 15th Century equivalent of a Hollywood special effects house. Among their number are actors, magicians, carpenters, an acrobat, a backdrop painter, and even a foley expert for sound design. Together, they craft amazing storytelling and even convincing practical effects.
Recognizing their talents, an unscrupulous advisor to the King Sejo hires the troupe to apply their talents for their king: special effects to accent his divine appointment and the approval of heaven. Motivated by the wealth offered, the starving artists agree.
There’s just one problem: the king is an unjust and illegitimate ruler who seized the kingdom by murderous force, and this weighs increasingly heavily on the jesters as they continue to become more and more complicit in his crimes of tyranny, even as their wealth and status grow.
In this way, the film begins as pretty much a straight up comedy, but teeters further and further into drama as the burden of the conflict of conscience becomes more and more serious — along with some unexpected twists and turns. In the end, the jesters much craft their biggest and most convincing illusion of all in order to try to set things right.
The big highlight here is the old-school “movie magic” on display, as the jesters craft many illusions which advance the plot of the film — some very simple or humorous, others incredibly complex and even beautiful, and all of them interesting and visually engaging.
One interesting aspect of the film is that it claims to be an accounting of the bizarre true written history of King Sejo — fantastical historical records which detail miraculous events. The film contextualizes this history with humor and the general concept of a special effects team pulling the strings to explain the phenomena.
Jesters: The Game Changers is worth seeking out — a unique high-concept romp with incredible setpieces and a good natured cast of enjoyable goofballs trying to maneuver through sticky, corrupt politics.
The 16:9 screen images in this review were captured and slightly cropped from an internet screener provided by the film’s distributor. The watermarks and timestamps on the images are an aspect of this specific altered presentation.