Masquerade is a costume drama set in the royal court of 17th century Korea. Although the film was supposedly inspired by Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, it’s more nearly a remake of the American 1993 Kevin Kline/Sigourney Weaver film, Dave.
A jaded leader, surrounded by political intrigue and assassination threats, hires a working-class lookalike to cover more frequent visits to a favorite concubine than his neglected queen would approve of. He suddenly falls ill, and his stand-in has to go full-time while he recovers.
The King’s closest advisers direct the stand-in’s performance at first. However, as he becomes more confident in his role, he asserts his own idealism and class perspective to confront the corruption of the aristocracy, and advocate for reforms. He falls for the queen, and wins the loyalty of those closest to him with his superior, if naive, humanitarianism. A final crisis confronts him with a decision of power versus ideals.
Experiencing déjà vu?
But what the heck, it’s a plot worth repeating. Masquerade is watchable and engaging, and I wasn’t very surprised to hear it swept the Daejong (Golden Bell) awards, Korea’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. It’s exactly the sort of likable film that would win a Best Film Oscar in the U.S.
The acting is what it should be. Despite his perpetually messy personal life, Lee Byung Hun is a popular star in Korea, also up and coming in the U.S. He delivers a nicely differentiated dual performance, which won him the Best Actor Daejong. Ryoo Seung Ryong was named Best Supporting Actor for his role as Chief Secretary. It’s a pity he couldn’t split it with Jang Gwang, who communicates much with minimal dialogue as the Chief Eunuch.
Fans of sageuk, who often have to overlook tire tracks, glinting window glass, and other anachronisms in TV historical drama, will appreciate the attention to detail a film-scale budget can bring to the re-creation of another era. The painted roof brackets were particularly eye-catching, and the palace grounds never look like a heavily-frequented historical attraction.
Masquerade is well-subtitled, and the script never gets lost in its own complexities. On the comedic side, the audience learns WAY more about the King’s bathroom habits than they ever would have wondered. The stand-in first appears as he lewdly caricatures the king at a concubine’s salon, but that’s as close to sex as Masquerade gets. Koreans are as repressed about on-screen intimacy as they are frank about bodily functions, so you will see nothing racier than an uncovered collarbone.
Violence is also minimal, as sageuk goes. Most of the torture scenes occur off camera, but there is one incident involving a red-hot iron – parents of young children take note. There is a single swordfight, which is relatively bloodless, and surprisingly earthbound. Perhaps to make up for this departure from airborne battles, the clashing when swords meet is mysteriously amplified. They sound broad, if that is possible.
The setting is even historically accurate. King Gwang Hae existed, and there is indeed a 15 day gap in the court records with only his brief, cryptic note as an explanation.
If you detect a certain lack of enthusiasm on my part, it’s only because I’ve grown accustomed to the depth and nuance of character that can develop over the multiple episodes of a drama series. Feature-length films can’t really compete with that. Nevertheless, Masquerade held my attention through its full 131 minute run. Which is without an intermission, by the way, so skip the large drink.
The film has been a blockbuster in Korea, where it is known as Gwang Hae, the Man Who Became King (광해, 왕이 된 남자). More than 10 million tickets have been sold in a country with a population of 50 million.
By all means see it, especially if you are new to Korean drama and film, curious about Korean history, or just enjoy a good “if commoners were kings” fable. Masquerade is showing in select U.S. and Canadian cities.