Lee Byung-hun, Ryoo Seung-ryong, Han Hyo-joo, Jang Gwang, Shim Eun-kyung. Directed by Choo Chang-min. Korean with English subtitles.
The Korean historical drama Masquerade has plot elements similar to that of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and will therefore remind people of many adaptations of the Twain story, but it reminds me most of “Boss for a Day,” that episode of The Flintstones where the Great Gazoo uses his magic to make Fred the head of a company for one day. You know the one: Without knowing what any of it means, Fred shouts, “Whose baby is that?” “What’s your angle?” and “I’ll buy that!” to whoever seeks his opinion or assistance.
I make this comparison because most synopses of the film call it a historical drama, a genre not generally thought of as whimsical or humorous, and while Masquerade carries the gravitas of a nation’s history and is framed with all the costumes and set-pieces of a period drama, its intention is to uplift and inspire, and its first act is at least as humorous as The Flintstones on a good day.
Lee Byung-hun stars in the dual roles of King Gwanghae, a paranoid ruler who is considering executing his queen’s brother for the crime of treason, and Ha-sun, a local comic actor who performs sketches mimicking the king. Gwanghae is poisoned and rendered incapable of governing while he recovers, so Ha-sun is called in as a substitute to present the illusion of strength and competence.
Ha-sun’s secret is known only to a couple of very close advisors who first seem amused by the simple man’s unfamiliarity with kingly ways. But as Ha-sun grows more comfortable with the royal potty, the royal food-taster, and the ever-present chief of security, these close advisors find themselves warming to a kind man who takes time to know the names of his servants, and who expresses sympathy for the queen, with whom the king does not spend much time lately.
Lee is excellent in both roles, but as Ha-sun he is especially so, letting Ha-sun grow slowly into his strange job while maintaining a profound, simple air that values his countrymen over politics, and goodness over might. He’s helped by mood-influencing camera work and slightly heavy-handed music, but where I normally dislike manipulative film-making, I have to admit both elements are well done, as if the director’s purpose is to show Steven Spielberg how Lincoln might have been even better than it was.
Supporting actors are also quite good, ‘though I have to admit I had a hard time keeping most of the noblemen straight; they were dressed alike and most had the same facial hair. A young actress named Shim Eun-kyung as the royal taster and Han Hyo-joo as the queen are solid, with Jang Gwang as the chief eunuch also offering a heart-wringing performance. All three give Lee characters he can move around with as he plays this absurd but somehow devastating role for a country that doesn’t know who he is and for these three specific people whose surprise at being shown grace is as touching as the grace itself.
I was completely taken in, and I suspect most viewers will be too, with or without some kind of knowledge of Korean royal history. Director Choo Chong-min understands that history is not only a list of wars and elections, but also a story of people, and if there’s truth in the way these people are portrayed, the accuracy of the facts is almost irrelevant.
Masquerade is scheduled for release on DVD on June 11. The DVD includes Korean-language tracks with English subtitles and English-dubbed tracks, but come on: watching the dubbed version only gives you part of the actors’ performances, so stick to the subtitles! Special features include 13 minutes of deleted scenes, an interesting 14-minute feature on the lighting and filming technique, and an 11-minute feature on the production design, all of which I recommend.
8/10, the best Korean film I’ve seen so far in my short experience with Korean cinema.