Lee Byung-hun and the royal we
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, October 26, 2012
A sumptuous yet sometimes earthy costume epic, “Masquerade” offers a fictional answer to a genuine historical question: Why did Korea’s 17th-century King Gwanghae briefly act like a regular guy?
The movie supposes, implausibly but entertainingly, that Gwanghae behaved like one of the common people because he was. That is, the man who ruled Korea for about two weeks in 1616 was actually the king’s body double, a cabaret-style performer named Ha-seon. (Both the king and the stand-in are played by Lee Byung-hun, who’s appeared in such Korean imports as “I Saw the Devil” and “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” as well as Hollywood’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.”)
When the story begins, Gwanghae correctly suspects that some of his courtiers are trying to kill him. So he sends his chief secretary (Ryoo Seung-ryong) to recruit a man who can impersonate him. The official discovers Ha-seon, who bears an exceptional likeness to the monarch. Although his act is a bit disreputable -- he plays a lecherous king who’s always molesting his ladies-in-waiting -- the double is no peasant. He can actually read.
This skill proves useful after the king is drugged by some of his enemies. The monarch is spirited away so he can recuperate, and his double must take his place. Ha-seon initially struggles with living like a king, notably the lack of privacy. But he comes to master policy issues, as well as the real ruler’s lower, more resonant voice.
Also, it turns out, the substitute is naturally noble. His kindness to his household staff earns him affection the actual king never enjoyed.
Following his instincts, Ha-seon increases taxes on the wealthy and bans exploitation of the poor. Such actions make the fake king even less popular with his advisers than the man he’s impersonating. A crisis is inevitable, but when it arrives the double finds he has some loyal supporters and one unexpected ally.
Inspired by a brief gap in the records of Gwanghae’s 15-year reign, director Choo Chang-min’s movie dusts off a plot used by Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” and Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 “Kagemusha.” Stylistically, “Masquerade” has much more in common with the latter.
The widescreen film opens with an imposing shot of the palace’s grand hall in the snow and features opulent costumes, elegant details and stately compositions. There’s more slapstick than swordplay, but the courtiers’ hostility toward both kings does finally lead to a showdown.
“Masquerade” is, above all, a showcase for Lee Byung-Hun, who doesn’t waste the opportunity. It’s a regal performance, even when the actor is playing someone who doesn’t know the first thing about the king business.
Contains violence, torture, bawdy humor and brief profanity. In Korean with English subtitles.