The rags-to-royalty story has been done to death. Still, every now and then, an aspiring actor or actress comes along with the right script and voila! The past is made new again. That’s the case with MASQUERADE: THE KING OF FAÇADE. In fear of his life, a cowardly king must hide behind an imposter in order to have his life – not his kingdom – saved from his worst instincts; in the course of events, the lowly man-who-would-be-king proves he’s a greater ruler than he of royal descent. What lifts MASQUERADE up a notch or two is the excellent production details and a winning central performance by Byung-hun Lee.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
King Gwanghae (played with simmering restraint by Lee) has encountered a political fiasco that puts him at odds with half of his royal advisors. What’s a coward to do? He orders his Chief Secretary to find a suitable imposter who can occupy the throne during the night-time hours when his palace is least protected against any assassinations. However, when the king slips into a drug-induced coma, his working class peasant of an imposter Ha-seon (played with tremendous charm by the same Lee) follows his heart and proves to his people that they mean more to him than does the sanctity of the throne.
MASQUERADE is a film lover’s delight. The script is based on a true premise about what happened over 15 days that are missing for the royal record of the Chosun Dynasty – the time in which Ha-seon ruled with a loving hand. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the film won 15 out of 20 Grand Bell Awards at the 49th Daejong Film Awards (Korea’s equivalent of Hollywood’s Oscars), including Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. As such, there’s plenty in here to be excited about.
The story spans several plotlines, with the similarity of all being allegiance to the present dynasty. Some of it is more personal in nature, while much of the opening segments are grounded in heavy politics. In fact, at one point, I had to wonder if there wasn’t too much plugged in there for good measure! But in order to get the picture rolling, there had to be an element of political scandal that would bring the king at odds with his advisors; as is the often the case, this political element gets revisited and expanded upon and even figures very prominently into the conclusion. If there were any trimming that could’ve been done, it would’ve been in this area – a snippet here, a snippet there, and methinks MASQUERADE would’ve flowed a bit better.
Still, I found the film a bit uneven at time, mostly in elements that are thankfully restricted to the first half. Out of the gate, much of MASQUERADE appears as if the film was trying to be a somewhat bawdy comedy, replete with fart jokes and some very odd bathroom humor that, while explained, still felt more than a bit out-of-sorts. (Did screenwriters really mean to imply that a king never experiences gastro-intestinal distress? I think not.) Once these elements are worked to the back end of the usefulness (pun intended), the film adopts a stronger tone in exploring the heart, mind, and soul of a man who suddenly finds himself the recipient of vast power but not without the accompanying political intrigue and possible mortal danger. Then, MASQUERADE feels true to a spirit audiences would necessarily embrace, and Lee turns in a singular performance of a man sorting through the various conflicts of royalty in order to ultimately do what’s best for his nation and not for his heart.
So don’t throw in the towel early on this one, and you’ll be amply rewarded in the latter half. It’s the stuff of cinema heaven!
MASQUERADE: THE KING OF FAÇADE is produced by CJ Entertainment and Realies Pictures. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through CJ Entertainment. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Korean spoken language release with English subtitles (no English dubbing available). As for the technical specifications, the picture looks and sounds magnificent throughout with some impressive cinematography. As is often the case with foreign releases finding distribution on American shores, this one is sadly slim on special features: there’s a brief short on lighting and cinematography, another one on the production design, and a handful of deleted scenes.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. An uncharacteristically (and unnecessarily) ribald first hour finally crashes to an end, making way for a classy, poetic, and almost Shakespearean drama of superior quality, vision, and performance. Byung-hun Lee (of the G.I. JOE franchise) is in top form as both the king and the imposter who played him for the sake of the kingdom, breathing life into this oft-explored theme of rags-to-royalty once more. No, it ain’t perfect, but it’s as close to superb as one can get, with sumptuous period detail, an elegant love story, and a testament to queen, court and country … with an inspired denouement for those characters audiences learned to care about.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at CJ Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of MASQUERADE by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
“Masquerade” (aka. Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King) is a film based on a real king during the Joseon era. The film is currently the 4th highest grossing Korean film of all time and has earned numerous awards in Asia. It is a fictionalized account of the missing 15 days in the annals of Joseon Dynasty during his reign; designated by his 1616 entry in his journal: “One must not record that which he wishes to hide.” The film has some similarities to … more