Following in the long tradition of lavish Asian epics, this new South Korean entry is a beautiful addition to the genre of period prince-and-the pauper themed films. Reminiscent of the Kevin Klein starrer “Dave,” but set four centuries ago, the story is inspired by 15 days worth of lost pages in the royal annals (compare: the missing White House Nixon 18½-minutes) during the reign of the 15th Joseon king, the tyrannical Gwanghae. Apparently the ancient omission had a parchment Post-It translated as “Matters that need be concealed shall not be recorded in the daily government gazette.” Screenwriter Hwang Jo-Yoon takes this lost entry and spins a fortnight’s tale of switched identities with a blend of humor, treachery, pathos, and compassion amid the regal setting and palace-appropriate wardrobe. The production and costume design is as gorgeous as you would expect.
Korean super-star Lee Byung-hun (“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” as well the the local hits “I Saw the Devil” and “A Bittersweet Life”) portrays the evil despot and the blue-collar, off-color village performer Ha-Seon, hired for a handful of gold coins to impersonate the ruler, who is afraid of the treasonous compatriots in his entourage. No sooner can you say “why is my silver spoon turning black,” then the king is in a poisonous coma and whisked away for recovery, while the monarch’s chief secretary Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-yong) and Chief Eunuch Jo (Jang Gwang), initially the only advisors aware of the switch, begin teaching the pretender to the throne the rules of the game.
The lowly buffoon’s 3-day stint is soon extended indefinitely. The comical talents of Byung-hun allow for a pleasant contrast against the treachery afoot from the leader of the opposition and courtiers Park Chung-seo (Kim Myung-gon). The timbre and cadence of the actor’s voice allows for a believable change in character, although as Ha-Seon grows into his most demanding role, he brings a confidence that could make it hard for those in the audience to differentiate the two. That plays an important part in the film’s climax.
“Masquerade” is not a full-fledged comedy, as there is a serious, even deadly side to this tale, which directer Choo Chang-min handles adroitly. Heo Gyun, as expected in this kind of tale, turns the tables on his handlers, which allows for a variety of deception-bashing situations as well as personal engagements with his lowly staff, including the 15-year food taster Sa-wol (teen star Shim Eun-kyung in an extremely effective portrayal) and the royal bodyguard Captain Do (Kim In-kwon). Several of these new acquaintances (from Ha-Seon’s POV, not theirs, as they just think the king has flipped a little) provide heart-rending moments of personal sacrifice to defend the turned-on-the-kingdom’s-head antics to bring a balanced and fair system of taxation to the kingdom.
But before those late-in-the-film heroics, the concubines seem rather amused by the “king”‘s pent-up bowel movement (he was afraid to ask for directions to the regal “throne”), so he ends up releasing himself abruptly on the plum blossom pot in full view of his obedient women servants. Their congratulations on his poo performance does not hide their curiosity that the royal scent smells somewhat different. There’s also the chance that someone might find the arrow-shaped scar missing from the impostor’s chest, especially the queen consort (the lovely Han Hyo-joo), a relationship that involves peril, romance, and comedy in equal doses.
“Masquerade” is already one the biggest Korean hits ever; it has topped the box office for six consecutive weeks (and just passed 10 million tickets sold) since its release in its home market on September 13, 2012. It has just started its U.S. roll out; perfect timing for the shenanigans afoot in our national plebiscite, and Korea’s political elections in December.