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Lee Byung Hun, one of Korea’s biggest and most popular stars, who recently also enjoyed success in Hollywood in the “G.I. Joe” films, returns with “Masquerade”, a historical drama directed by Choo Chang Min (“Late Blossom”). As with the recent similarly themed Korean effort “I am the King”, the film is another Prince and the Pauper tale set during two missing weeks in the rule of the famous King Gwanghae of the Joseon Dynasty. Perhaps partly due to the film being Lee’s first ever period costume drama (not to mention seeing the star taking on a challenging double role), it proved incredibly popular at the domestic box office, pulling in more than 12 million admissions (marking it as the fourth highest grossing Korean film ever and the biggest hit of the year), as well as winning a mightily impressive 15 awards at the 49th Daejong Film Awards.
The film opens with Lee as King Gwanghae, a tormented man who suspects he has enemies in the court plotting against him. As a means of protecting himself, he instructs his trusted councillor Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung Ryong, “War of the Arrows”) to find him a double to take over in times of danger. Heo Gyun comes across bawdy performer Ha Sun (also Lee Byung Hun), who is given the job, which starts off easily enough with brief appearances. However, when the king is poisoned and is rushed off into hiding to recover, Ha Sun is coerced into taking over full time, Heo Gyun having to coach him into playing the regent convincingly. Initially terrified, Ha Sun gradually grows into the role and starts making decisions of his own, especially with regards to the queen (Han Hyo Ju, from the popular television drama “Dong Yi”). This of course only serves to complicate matters as people at the court start to notice the differences in the king’s behaviour, with his foes suspecting that something is afoot.
With its premise being so familiar, despite its A-list cast, “Masquerade” was always going to have to come up with something special to stand out, its Prince and the Pauper setup showing a distinct lack of originality. Thankfully, writer Hwang Jo Yoon and director Choo Chang Min (“Oldboy”) get around this in the best way possible, by bringing the script to engaging life through attention to detail and intricate plotting, the film going far beyond its rather basic concept. There’s certainly a great deal going on, and the film compares favourably to other palace intrigue dramas in terms of tension and nuanced subplots, its many different schemes making it a fairly complex affair overall, even if the viewer is never really in much doubt as to where things are heading. At the same time, Choo also works in a surprisingly effective line in light comedy, mostly revolving around Ha Sun’s amusing mistakes as he gets used to palace life and etiquette, and this makes for some decent laughs while keeping the film from ever getting too self-important.
The film’s real strength and depth comes through its characters however, the script really going to some lengths to flesh out its cast and to give even the supporting figures their own motivations and plans. There’s an absence of the usual stereotypes, and the film has a surprising emotional impact, steering away from the melodrama that might have been expected, definitely to its benefit. Lee Byung Hun plays a major part in this, and is excellent in the lead roles, making King Gwanghae and Ha Sun very different, yet convincingly similar. While Ha Sun’s journey from lewd commoner to regal figure is inevitable, it’s rewarding and satisfying to watch, and Lee does some of his best work to date here.
The supporting cast are similarly of a high standard, in particular Heo Gyun, whose changing relationships with the king and Ha Sun are fascinating and provide some of the film’s best moments, and Han Hyo Ju, who despite not having a huge amount to do makes the very most of her role as the confused queen. Kim In Kwon (“The Tower”) also impresses as the king’s bodyguard, as does young actress Shim Eun Kyung (“Sunny”) as a court food taster, and having this kind of quality across the board gives the film a massive boost. Also in its favour is the fact that the film is one of the best looking Korean productions of the last few years. The film obviously enjoyed a large budget, with some fantastic sets and costumes, and while down to earth and believable, it’s a gorgeous and sumptuous affair throughout that does a great job of immersing the viewer. This fits well with Choo’s ambitions for the film, which clearly ran to more than a retelling of the same old story, and the visuals go some way to giving the proceedings a more accomplished feel and wider sense of scope.
“Masquerade” is definitely one of the best Korean historical dramas of the last few years, a fine piece of palace intrigue that shows Lee Byung Hun on excellent form along with the rest of the cast and director Choo Chang Min. The only thing that lets it down somewhat is the over-familiarity of the story, though this doesn’t detract too much from the overall entertainment value or the gripping intricacies of the plot.
Chang-min Choo (director) / Jo-yun Hwang (screenplay), Chang-min Choo (screenplay)
CAST: Byung-hun Lee … Ha-seon / King Gwang-hae
Seung-yong Ryoo … Heo Gyun
Hyo-ju Han … Queen
In-kwon Kim … Do
Gwang Jang … Eunuch
Eun-kyung Shim … Sa-wol
Myung-gon Kim … Park Choong-seo