Fantasia Film Festival’s Jesters: The Game Changers is a really inventive and enjoyable look at what modern day PR, propaganda, censorship and disinformation (or ‘fake news’ as it’s called now) would look like during feudal Joseon era Korea as a team of jesters are forced to choose between upholding the truth about a brutal dictator and losing their lives, or helping to reform his image.
Naturally it should be obvious how relevant a film like this given the state of the world at the moment and how information and truth and verifiable news all seem to have lost any discernible meaning. It’s also pertinent to point out, given that the film is Korean, and it’s a well-known fact that North-Korea heavily controls the information its citizens receive that Jesters: The Game Changers could be looking inwards slightly.
The film centres on five jesters, who all have a particularly talent in manipulating the truth. There’s group leader and silver-tongued storyteller Deok-ho (Cho Jin-woong), rigging expert Hong-chil (Ko Chang-seok) sound/foley artist Geun-deok (Kim Seul-gi), tapestry painter Jin-san (Yoon Park) and agile acrobat Pal-pung (Kim Min-seok). The five of them are an Ocean’s Eleven style team of con-artists who use a combination of their skills in performance art to convincingly deceive people by depicting miracles.
The group are forcibly recruited by the tyrant King Sejo (Park Hee-soon) and his scheming confidant Han Myeong-hoe (Son Hyun-joo) to reform the King’s image given that a story, written in a rebelliously banned book, about the King killing his own nephew to oust him and claim the throne for himself is getting out to the citizenship, despite the authorities attempts to censor and withhold it. This leaves our team of heroes with a choice between furthering the tyrannical rule of the King through the spread of misinformation or risking their lives to do the right thing.
The strength of Jesters: The Game Changers lies firmly in the film’s imagination. I mentioned Ocean’s Eleven earlier because the ‘miracles’ that the team perform are essentially a series of clever and elaborately realised heists using mechanics, stage theatrics and props that play out in a very similar way to the one we see Danny Ocean and his crew pull off, with the incredible preparation and ‘behind-the-scenes- stuff predicating the finished product and impressive reveal.
These ‘miracles’ allow for some truly stunning cinematography and imagery as trees bow, water glows, flowers fall from the sky and literal giant visages of gods appear. There’s so much exuberant colour and so many inventive shots in Jesters: The Game Changers that it really is an impressive visual feat.
However despite most of the film being portrayed with a wry comedy customary from director Joo-Ho Kim there is an overreliance on lowest common denominator comedy and slapstick, particularly with the reoccurring gag of Hong-chil peeing himself that outstays its welcome. There are also slight issues with overall tone as the comedy is incongruous with the actions of the film’s villains and the darker tone that follows when they’re on screen. As a result some particular scenes, like where Geun-deok chews out a particularly lecherous aristocrat, come across as neither funny, nor serious, making it hard for us, as the audience, to know how to react.
Also, for all of its brilliance in devising and depicting the gang’s many ‘miracles’ the film falls down slightly with its cumbersome narrative, particularly in the final third and the climax. After many betrayals and dramatic moments it almost feels like the film is in a rush to resolve itself with its final ‘heist’ from the gang and consequently does so in a clumsy way that stretches suspension of disbelief and fails to live up to the promise of the earlier moments of trickery.
Despite the impression that it may have peaked too soon, Jesters: The Game Changers is an extremely fun and enjoyable film overall that absolutely nails its critique of how propaganda and its origins in storytelling might have evolved drastically between then and now, but the wielding of information is still as dangerous and we still have a moral responsibility to do so carefully and truthfully.
For more reviews and interviews, check out our Fantasia Film Festival 2020 coverage here