“His Nobility is of the Heart…Not His Blood.”
King Gwang-hae (Byung-hun Lee, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) is a target for assassination. He commands his secretary Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-Ryong, Miracle in Cell No. 7p) to find a lookalike for him to spend nights in the palace, during which the assassination attempts are most likely. Enter Ha-seon (also Byung-hun Lee), a jester of sorts who makes a living mocking the king in storytelling like the bards of old. However, when the king unexpectedly falls ill and may not recover Ha-seon’s temporary position suddenly becomes full-time. Now this imposter must rely on the secretary and the chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang, 26 Years), the only two who know his true identity, to navigate the treacherous political waters.
From the description, I thought Masquerade was going to be more The Man in the Iron Mask than Dave. Although tonally it did lend itself toward the latter, I wasn’t disappointed at all.
Yes, Masquerade is at its heart the story of “The Prince and The Pauper,” one of the most retold tales of all time. What elevates this particular adaptation are its historical roots (King Gwang-he was a real monarch) and Byung-hun Lee’s performance.
At first, when Ha-seon is commanded to take the place of the king, he’s complacent, not questioning too much and just content to earn the money he’s promised. However, when it becomes clear he’s going to have to adopt the role full-time, there comes a farcical period in the film where Ha-seon struggles with the myriad of customs the court adopts. If Lee didn’t commit to those scenes wholeheartedly, the film would fall apart. Since he does, we are able to connect and laugh with him on his journey.
One of the smartest things the writers did was to show King Gwang-he for only the amount of time necessary to establish his character. The audience has a basic understanding of what goes on during the monarch’s day, and we have the backstory of the king’s storyline: his brother-in-law is suspected of treason and there are forces within the court that would see the king killed. So when Ha-seon is thrown into the role of monarch we understand a bit about what is expected.
One of the things which is expected is a certain amount of distance from everyone, including his Queen (Han Hyo-Joo, Love 911), the captain of his guard, Do (Kim In-Kwon, Almost Che), and his servants. However, we know Ha-seon is a compassionate man; we’ve seen him shed tears for someone else’s suffering, so we know he’s not a distant person.
That’s where Masquerade begins to shift the story from a comedic fish out of water tale to the story of a man who uses his power to help his people.
The journey is a joy to watch, as Ha-seon connects to his royal food taster, a young girl of fifteen named Sa-wol (Shim Eun-Kyung, Lovers in Prague). He hears her tragic story and is compassionate, promising to help. He meets with the Queen, whom Gwang-he has neglected, and tries to repair their relationship. He confronts his court, passing laws to stamp out corruption and help the people regain their livelihoods. The end of the film is an emotional catharsis, which was very satisfying.
Ha-seon’s transformation is grounded by Lee’s willingness to go to whatever lengths are necessary in order to connect to the emotional thread of Ha-seon’s arc. If he needs to be silly, he is silly, but if he needs to be angry boy is he angry! Lee’s ability to portray so many dimensions (indeed, two different characters entirely) is what makes this film work. Masquerade runs over two hours, and they flew by, I was happy with every minute I spent watching.
The historical drama boasts the lavish sets and costumes one would expect and they look beautiful. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer has a few spots of softer focus during night scenes, but otherwise the stream is incredibly strong, with a palette which holds onto the colors without over-saturating them and night shots which hold their black levels in exactly the right way. I was disappointed the Dolby 5.1 audio had issues, with the dialogue suddenly softening to the point where I had to turn up my volume louder than I normally would. Bonus features included almost 15 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes, including an epilogue I would have loved to see attached to the film. There were also two featurettes about the lighting and cinematography as well as the production design.
I really enjoyed Masquerade. Although it’s a story I’ve seen numerous times, Lee’s willingness to connect to the goofy and the emotional extremes in the story elevated the tale.