“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 the story of “The Prince and the Pauper” as it brings into its narrative the story of Gwanghae. The film begins as King Gwanghae (Lee Byung-Hun, from A Bittersweet Life and will star in the upcoming American film RED 2) who orders his councilor Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-Ryong) to find him a double for him to avoid constant attempts at his life. Heo Gyun finds a performer-comedian named Ha-Sun, who has a remarkable resemblance to the king. As they feared the king is drugged, close to death. They propose that Ha-Sun take over the reins of the king while he recovers. Heo Gyun grooms the lowly comedian to act and speak like the king. But once Ha-Sun takes over the role of the king, he begins to ponder the arguments within the king’s court and soon, his more humanist views encourage him to make changes of his own. His demeanor also changes the morale of the courtesans and the servants within the court, as he makes changes due to different insights and political views. Even Heo Gyun and the queen (Han Hyo-joo) herself begins to think that he may be a more conscientious ruler than Gwanghae himself. But such drastic moves also inspires a lot of questions, and Gwanghae’s opposition led by Park Chung-Seo (Kim Myung-Gon) is determined to act on his own suspicions.
I do have to admit, the core of its plot can get pretty predictable. Only one of three possible of outcomes can turn up from such a premise. Despite this weakness, the film does never lose a step. The screenplay was immaculately written, and it knew exactly how to bring the film’s intentions into exposition. The direction by Cho Chang-Min was also very careful and makes an effort to develop certain areas in the script. It takes its time to introduce the main characters, and it makes them quite easily to be attached to. The film is remarkably balanced, despite having some familiar Shakespearean themes wrapped around its script, and admittedly there is a sense of darkness around it, the balance of melodrama, grim elements and even light humor were all executed well into the flow of the script. All the emotions were flawlessly played into its script, and this served to make the characters much more interesting than they really were. Korean costume epics always had a way with developing its narrative and characters, and despite some cliché around some of its devices, the film never loses a step and becomes a very effective drama-costume epic.
The film has certain themes that feel familiar and yet, its delivery felt natural and very enthralling. The way it manages to develop certain factors such as Ha-sun’s development from a simple ‘nobody’ into someone inherently noble was very meticulous. You see the change around the character as he interacts with servants, officials and the script even takes care to make those around him feel like a significant part of its story. Kim In-kwon (The Tower) who plays the king’s bodyguard and Shim Eun-Kyung who plays the food taster became essential parts of the plot’s development and the roots of the Ha-Sun character. The cinematography and the set designs were impressive and followed what had been established before in Korean costume dramas to give it a feeling of authenticity and familiarity; this is after all based on a real person, so the production designs stayed close to reality as possible.
I know much of the film falls upon Lee Byung-Hun’s performance, and as always the actor delivers. Playing the part of dual roles is no easy task, but the actor was able to define the differences between the king and Ha-sun that it was believable that they were indeed two different people. Even the way he works his expressions and gestures felt like a piece of two different personalities, and I wonder why Hollywood would waste such talent with movies like G.I. Joe when the man could easily hold the attention of his viewer.
The supporting characters were also excellent. Han Hyo-Joo was terrific as the queen who develops conflicted feelings between the real king and the impostor. She also brings a sense of elegance to the screenplay, and she was so alluring that it would be hard to keep one’s eyes off of her. Ryu Seung-Ryung and Jang Gwang were also fantastic as the king’s top aides. They bring an important sense of empathy in their performances, and they made the dimensions of the Ha-Sun character feel convincing. Some characters did carry that stigma of cliché, such as the corrupt officials who are more into personal interests than serving the kingdom itself and admittedly, this was an area that was a little ignored, but the main characters carried the film’s burden marvelously.
“Masquerade” is a film that has weaknesses. It is a little predictable and yet, the film has no problems enthralling the viewer. The screenplay was steady and confident, the direction was meticulous in bringing things into exposition. The superb performances easily made me a believer that this may have indeed possibly taken place. Lee Byung-Hun deserved every accolade he had received, as he mesmerizes and dazzles his viewers. Combine that with a capable supporting cast, “Masquerade” supplants its small weaknesses and becomes a great film. Highly Recommended [4+ Out of 5 Stars]
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 … more