MASQUERADE – The Review
Korean actor Lee Byung-hun has had greater crossover success into American cinema than possibly anyone else from the field, but he’s still quite active in his home country. MASQUERADE features Lee not only in his first historical film, but in a dual role, to boot. It’s a great chance for him to try his hand at acting regal and dramatic. And the movie he’s chosen more than lives up to him.
MASQUERADE takes place in the early 1600′s, during Korea’s Joseon dynasty. Lee plays both King Gwanghae, ruler of the land, and Ha-seon, a lowly jester. When the politics of the royal court begin to take violent turns, the King, fearing for his safety, hires Ha-seon, who bears an uncanny resemblance to him, to act as a double. When the King falls deathly ill due to poison, his Chief Secretary, Heo Gyun (Ryoo Sung-ryong), has Ha-seon begin to play the King directly, hoping to avoid disarray in the court. Ha-seon must learn on the fly to properly impersonate the King, and along the way, evolves from passively doing as Heo Gyun tells him to actively directing policy. As a peasant, Ha-seon has a greater heart for the people than anyone else in the court, and he begins to change the way things are done. Unfortunately, some of the King’s enemies catch on to this seemingly inexplicable shift in attitude, and circumstances begin to close in on Ha-seon.
The film is as lush and lavish as a period drama should be, although the restrictions of its budget means that most of the action takes place within the confines of the palace. Even though Ha-seon is changing the country, we don’t get to see those changes implemented on any kind of wide scale. But the palace is the perfect setting for suspicious maneuvering and political intrigue, which runs rampant through the story, and the film masterfully keeps us on top of all the changes in the balance of power.
It’s also an extremely funny movie, since, despite the themes of identity and responsibility, it is at its heart a fish out of water story. Ha-seon must adjust to having his every need catered to him, and the film is willing to depict how even the least pleasant… bodily aspects of a King’s day go. It may be a costume drama, but there’s no sense of dignified rigidity here at all, and that’s refreshing.
Lee is terrific here. Since the King is unconscious for most of the film, he doesn’t have to invest much in that character, nor must he do much acting against himself. But in Ha-seon, he builds a small man who gradually comes to fill in the tremendous task assigned to him. His transformation through the plot, from puppet to true leader, is wonderful to watch. The supporting cast is excellent as well, especially Ryoo as the weary Chief Secretary, who must bear Ha-seon’s hayseed naivete with stoic patience. He’s the epitome of the resolutely competent bureaucrat.
MASQUERADE is fun, funny, lovely to look at, and, more than once, quite touching. There is at its heart a message about how misrule comes from an inability to understand the needs of a people. It’s a lesson that any leader, in any country, in any time, could stand to listen to. Gwanghae was a real figure, and while he (probably) wasn’t secretly replaced with a double, he is renowned as the Joseon King with the most compassionate and fair attitude towards his subjects. Perhaps all the world leaders really should be switched with lookalikes.
Photos are courtesy CJ Entertainment.