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Period drama “The Face Reader” emerged as one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed Korean films of the year, pulling in more than 9 million admissions and winning a slew of accolades at the 50th Daejong Film Awards. The film was directed by Han Jae Rim and re-teams him with popular actor Song Kang Ho, who he worked with previously on gangster effort “The Show Must Go On”, along with a remarkable supporting cast of heavy-hitters that includes Lee Jung Jae (“The Thieves”), Kim Hye Su (“Tazza: The High Rollers”), Baek Yoon Shik (“The Taste of Money”), and the up and coming Lee Jong Suk (“No Breathing”) and Jo Jung Suk (“Architecture 101”).
The film takes place in the 1450s during the Joseon dynasty, with Song Kang Ho as Nae Kyung, once the country’s most talented face reader, the practice of physiognomy, whereby the face of a person is studied to reveal their character and future. With their family name still suffering from past disgrace, Nae Kyung is living in isolation with his son Jin Hyeong (Lee Jong Suk) and brother Paeng Heon (Jo Jung Suk), until he is tempted back to the capital by beautiful gisaeng Yeon Hong (Kim Hye Su). Initially working for her in her bawdy establishment, he quickly catches the eye of the palace, and is enlisted to assist with the hiring of officials and the rooting out of corruption, using his position to help Jin Hyeong find a position at the court. Soon enough, he finds himself caught up in a conspiracy to seize the throne, trapped between the ruthless and ambitious Grand Prince Suyang (Lee Jung Jae) and the powerful Vice Premier Kim Jong Seo (Baek Yoon Shik).
In narrative terms, “The Face Reader” sticks to the usual structure seen in Korean period set films of this type, its three acts progressing from light comedy through to drama and finally tragedy. Though it’s an interesting and well-told story it does feel somewhat generic as a result, at least for audiences without knowledge of the period and events it deals with – it’s fair to say that Korean audiences will likely take more from its historical detail in this regard. Still, there’s always plenty of going on, and Han Jae Rim makes up for the air of familiarity by working in plenty of conspiracies, twists and revelations, and this keeps things engaging during a somewhat overlong two hours plus running time. Some excellent production values also help, and Han’s direction is accomplished and nicely judged, showing a good grasp of what makes this kind of film appealing to local audiences. Though things do get melodramatic towards the end, it’s never too drawn out, and does come to a conclusion that’s both dramatically and emotionally satisfying, if perhaps unsurprising.
Where the film does stand out from the crowd is in its superb cast, its gang of A-listers giving it a considerable boost and adding an entertaining touch of prestige. The dependable Song Kang Ho is excellent in the title role and convinces as both a talented and ambitious sage like fortune teller and an everyman figure caught woefully out of his depth and in danger of being swept along by the tide of history. He’s a likeable and essentially decent protagonist and gives the film a valuable solid core, as well as giving the story a welcome human element.
While a star name like Song might have been expected to dominate, the film is very much an ensemble piece, with the supporting cast all enjoying plenty of screen time and turning in commanding performances. Lee Jung Jae in particular is on great form, seeming to relish the part of the callous and driven Suyang, with Baek Yoon Shik also doing an impressive job as the possibly noble Vice Premier. Though they don’t have quite as much to do, Jo Jung Suk and Lee Jong Suk do well in the expected comic relief and junior roles respectively, and while under-used, Kim Hye Su is always easy on the eyes and manages to steal a few scenes of her own.
Song Kang Ho and company go some way to lifting “The Face Reader” up from being an above average though fairly standard Korean historical drama, and lend a definite weight to the proceedings. Fans either of the genre or the cast will doubtless find much to enjoy, and it’s certainly one of the better, not to mention mostly handsomely made recent examples of the form.
Jae-rim Han (director) / Dong-Hyuk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Yun-shik Baek … Kim Jong-seo
Jo Jung-suk … Paeng-hun
Hye-su Kim … Yeon-hong
Jung-Jae Lee … Prince Suyang
Kang-ho Song … Nae-kyung