Masquerade 광해 왕이 되 남자
2012, colour, 2.35:1, 131 mins
Directed by Choo Chang-min (추창민 | 秋昌旼)
By Derek Elley
Thu, 18 October 2012, 18:45 PM (HKT)
Costume drama, marbled with comedy, is played, directed and written with total confidence. Asian events, plus niche ancillary.
Korea, Joseon dynasty, February 1616. As suspicions of an assassination plot spread throughout the court, King Gwanghae (Lee Byeong-heon), in the eighth year of his reign, secretly orders his Chief Secretary, Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong), to find a lookalike to take his place at night in the royal chamber. Eventually a man bearing an amazing similarity is found, brothel entertainer Ha-seon (Lee Byeong-heon) who has been sending up the king in masked farces. However, when Gwanghae falls critically ill from suspected poisoning, Heo brings Ha-seon back to be the king's fulltime stand-in for a while, in order to avert constitutional chaos if word gets out the king has been poisoned. Heo takes Chief Eunuch Jo (Jang Gwang) into his confidence, and the two coach Ha-seon in court etiquette and royal duties. He is also kept away from the Queen Consort (Han Hyo-ju) and the royal concubines, for fear of discovery; and even the king's personal bodyguard, Captain Do (Kim In-gwon), is not told of the deception. However, the craftiest of Gwanghae's ministers, Interior Minister Park Chung-seo (Kim Myeong-gon), gets suspicious, and covers up any evidence of his complicity in the real king's current illness (actually drugging by poppy seeds) by having one of his accomplices, Lady An (Lee El), murdered. Gradually, Ha-seon gets to like his job, and starts putting wrongs to right and initiating controversial legislation, which further enrages the court's ministers. And then, after she comes to him one night, he agrees to save the queen's brother, magistrate Yu Jeong-ho (Kim Hak-jun), from trumped-up charges of treason.
Sometimes a film turns out to be a complete surprise from the most unpromising ingredients, and Masquerade 광해 왕이 되 남자 is just such a case. Though a strong screen presence (and recently reaching a wider audience in the US production G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)), actor LEE Byeong-heon 이병헌 | 李炳憲 is better known for cold, unsympathetic roles (Joint Security Area 공동경비구역 ＪＳＡ (2000), A Bittersweet Life 달콤한 인생 (2005), I Saw the Devil 악마를 보았다 (2010)) than his romantic ones (Everybody Has Secrets 누구나 비밀은 있다 (2004)), and certainly not for costume movies. Historical dramas are also a hit-and-miss genre in South Korean cinema, more often stodgy than sprightly, while writer HWANG Jo-yun 황조윤 has done little of note since co-scripting Old Boy 올드보이 (2003) and director CHOO Chang-min 추창민 | 秋昌旼 is best known for the goofy island comedy Mapado: Island of Fortunes 마파도 (2005). But in Masquerade all these elements have combined into something very special: a beautifully written, and finally emotionally involving, Joseon-dynasty drama which is one of the best South Korean costume dramas in years.
Based around a real historical figure, the 17th-century King Gwanghae, but otherwise completely fictional, the plot was inspired by a combination of Mark Twain's novel The Prince and the Pauper and a missing fortnight in the official royal annals, here morphed into a plot involving a lookalike who secretly stands in for the king for security reasons and then develops a real liking for the job. Though almost entirely set within the confines of the royal palace, the result manages to be totally involving across more than two hours, with strong characters, a gradually developed dramatic arc that kicks in emotionally during the final half-hour, and none of the episodic, TV drama feel that afflicts many South Korean costume dramas (notably, the recent The Concubine 후궁 제왕의 첩).
A somewhat cool, vacant-looking actor, Lee was a risky choice for the lead role(s) but in the event he delivers. Without becoming knockabout comedy, or overdoing the constant play-off between formality and informality, the movie draws good fun from scenes where the stand-in, a brothel entertainer, grapples with court procedure — from royal toilet etiquette (involving the poetically named Plum Blossom Pot) to official language and decorum. In little bits of physical comedy, including a delightful scene where he tries to get the queen to smile, Lee, in his first costume role, comes up surprising trumps, managing to be distant, boyish and finally commanding.
He's supported by wonderful, reined-back playing from RYU Seung-ryong 류승룡 | 柳成龍 (the North Korean commander in The Front Line 고지전 (2011)) as the Chief Secretary and veteran JANG Gwang 장광 (the children's school head in Silenced 도가니 (2011)) as the Chief Eunuch — and it's this threesome that drives the film. However, without the strong, well-paced script — which, typically for South Korean cinema, takes a while to get to the point — none of this would have held the interest: particularly impressive is the way in which Hwang's screenplay only later develops the character of the queen (maturely played by HAN Hyo-ju 한효주 | 韓孝珠, previously in cuter roles like the blind girl in Always 오직 그대만 (2011)) and adds a touching love story to what is basically a comic-dramatic story of court intrigue. It's a mark of confident writing, and as the various threads come together in the final stretch — including a rather contemporary plea for political tolerance — Masquerade really does deliver emotionally. Only an unnecessary note of nationalism and a smidgeon of China-bashing mar its final achievement.
In smaller, well-drawn roles, character actor KIM In-gwon 김인권 | 金仁權 (My Way 마이 웨이 (2011)) is strong as the king's personal bodyguard and veteran KIM Myeong-gon 김명곤 | 金明坤 as an evil plotter. Choo's direction, helped by d.p. LEE Tae-yun 이태윤's burnished photography, is always at the actors' service, with clean set-ups, invisibly smooth editing by NAM Na-yeong 남나영 | 南娜咏 (Dangerous Liaisons 危險關係) and a score by GWON Yu-jin 권유진 that's alert to the subtle mood changes.
The Korean title means Gwang-hae: The Man Who Became (a) King. Originally, veteran KANG Woo-suk 강우석 | 康祐碩 was to have directed, with a different cast.
ContactSales: CJ Entertainment, Seoul (email@example.com)
Theatrical release: South Korea, 13 Sep 2012.
Presented by CJ Entertainment (SK). Produced by CJ Entertainment (SK), Realies Pictures (SK). Executive producer: Miky Lee. Producers: Im Sang-jin, Won Dong-yeon, Kim Ho-seong.
Script: Hwang Jo-yun. Adaptation: Choo Chang-min. Photography: Lee Tae-yun. Editing: Na Na-yeong. Music: Mowg, Kim Jun-seong. Production design: Oh Heung-seok. Art direction: Jeon Jae-uk. Costume design: Gwon Yu-jin. Sound: Lee Sang-jun, Lee Seung-cheol, Lee Seong-jin. Action: Park Jeong-ryul. Visual effects: Jeong Jae-hun (CJ Powercast).
Cast: Lee Byeong-heon (King Gwanghae; Ha-seon), Ryu Seung-ryong (Chief Secretary Heo Gyun), Han Hyo-ju (Queen Consort), Kim In-gwon (Captain Do, king's personal bodyguard), Jang Gwang (Chief Eunuch Jo), Shim Eun-gyeong (Sa-wol, the food taster), Kim Myeong-gon (Interior Minister Park Chung-seo), Park Ji-a (Lady Han, chief court lady), Shin Jeong-geun (Lee Jeong-rang), Jeon Guk-hyang (Lady Jeong), Yang Jun-mo (Kim), Mun Chang-gil (prime minister), Jeon Bae-su (Hyeong-pan), Do Yong-gu (Byeong-pan), Yu Sun-ung (Ho-pan), Lee Yang-hui (Gong-pan), Park Gyeong-geun (musician), Shin Un-seop (Ye-pan), Kim Jong-gu (royal physician), Lee El (Lady An), Lee Jun-hyeok (Hyeon-gam), Seo Jin-weon (General Overseer Do), Kim Hye-weon (Pearl, the courtesan), Kim Hak-jun (Yu Jeong-ho), Kim Hye-hwa (Plum Blossom Pot servant), Kim Seung-hun (Yi-bang), Lee Bong-ryeon (court woman), Ju yeong-ho (Gwanghae's astrologist).