Hello and welcome to another film review. Today I’ll be reviewing the highly acclaimed, Masquerade, from 2012. I decided that now would be a good time to visit this film, seeing as they are currently in the process of shooting a 2019 drama adaption of the same name, staring Yeo Jin Goo in the leading dual roles. I am a fan of Yeo Jin Goo, so I am looking forward to seeing how he tackles this challenge. I admit, I am a bit nervous as to how they plan to expand the film into a series of episodes. Time will tell. As for my thoughts on the film, feel free to continue reading below!
[Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below].
Masquerade is a 2012 South Korean historical film written by Hwang Jo Yoon and directed by Choo Chang Min. Lee Byung-hun stars in a dual role as the bizarre King Gwanghae and the humble acrobat Ha-sun, who stands in for the monarch when he faces the threat of being poisoned. With 12.3 million tickets sold, this historical movie is currently the ninth highest-grossing movie in Korean film history. Also, it swept the 49th Grand Bell Awards, winning in 15 categories, including Best Film, Director, Screenplay and Actor. The film spans 131 minutes (Wikipedia).
King Gwanghae (Lee Byung-Hun) has been the King for the past 8 years. He now suspects that someone within the royal court is attempting to poison him. In response, King Gwanghae orders his councilor Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-Ryong) to find someone that looks like him to sit in his throne. Heo Gyun then comes across a clown named Ha-Sun (Lee Byung-Hun), who performs lewd shows in front of drunken noblemen. Ha-Sun indeed strongly resembles King Gwanghae and is even able to imitate the way King Gwanghae speaks. Heo Gyun takes Ha-Sun to the royal palace without giving any explanations. At night, Ha-Sun takes the King’s seat, while the King slips away to his mistress’s home. A short time later, King Gwanghae collapses and is taken to a safe house. Meanwhile, Ha-Sun continues his ruse as the King until the King can recover. Slowly, Ha-Sun’s own personality comes out and the people in the King’s inner court notice the changes. The King appears more humane to those around him and far less volatile. While Ha-Sun’s true voice comes out, enemies within the King’s inner circle plan their next move (AsianWiki).
Due to its many accolades, I expected a lot from Masquerade. The film certainly delivers in the comedy department, but feels hollow at particular junctures. There are several themes the film grapples with: Ha Sun’s humanitarian attitude versus the callous King Gwanghae, the power dynamic between the King and his ministers, the relationship a King shares with his servants and his people, and the complicated nature of loyalty. Various relationships between Ha Sun and the diverse range of individuals making up the King’s court are formed, showcased, and tested. These touching bonds are one of the film’s highlights. The film does struggle from time to time, however, in fleshing out the direction of the story it aims to tell. While entertaining nonetheless, Masquerade doesn’t have any set objective. By the time the story reaches its end, many questions remain unanswered, and any feeling of catharsis is absent. It’s a rather abrupt and gloomy ending to a film that, at certain points, gave us false hope for something better.
One qualm I have with the film is the insufficient resolution to the story’s primary dilemma. The looming danger of, “What will happen once the King is ready to return to his post?” haunts the entirety of the narrative, even during the more lighthearted stages. The climax arrives fairly late into the film. Not much of Gwanghae’s character is even seen to begin with, so his delayed entrance into the film’s most critical moment feels underwhelming and hurried; making a scene that should be the film’s peak, seem incredibly flat. Furthermore, the solution to the quandary, while not entirely without value, falls short of expectations due to what I’d deem a lack of commitment on the writer’s part. It seemed to me that they decided upon a happy-medium ending. I would have preferred a tragic ending if it led to a more clean-cut narrative where Gwanghae’s character is given more presence and weight in the film. His minimal appearance makes the mixed ending a lot less appealing, because he suddenly emerges out of nowhere and makes the decision we all knew he was going to make, but only after the writer spends about ten minutes trying to convince viewers that he may have chosen otherwise. This makes the news of Heo Gyun’s death almost insulting and the film’s abrupt transition to black, signifying it’s end, rather jarring.
On a positive note, the film has a clean, slick feel. Each shot was thoughtfully composed, with a color palette comprised of dark, rich tones. Many shots showcased fantastic use of repetition and pattern, often utilizing courtyards or grandiose rooms filled with servants in contrasting or eye-catching colored garments to create impressive visuals and depth. Because I personally found it irritating, I must point out that the first few minutes of the film exhibited some fairly shaky camera work, but this blunder was reconciled as the film progressed. The use of lighting was attentive and astute. It was of particular importance when it came to highlighting certain elements of the film, such as differentiating between lighter and heavier scenes, and heightening the intensity of dire moments. Similarly, warmer tones were often used to discern the more amiable, well-intentioned Ha Sun, while deep, cool colors signaled the irritable and merciless King Gwanghae.
The film’s success is undeniably linked to the impeccable performance of Lee Byung Hyun as Ha Sun and King Gwanghae. Lee Byung Hyun easily succeeds in creating two very different personas. The ominous, greasy feel that characterizes King Gwanghae is completely different from the buffoonery and humanity that make Ha Sun so endearing and appealing. Body language was key in setting these two individuals apart. Gwanghae’s domineering posture and foreboding glances were a stark contrast from the clodhopping, oafish mannerisms emanating from the carefree Ha Sun. Lee’s careful attention to detail and deliberate facial expressions made the preposterous doppelgänger concept much easier to swallow. A level of authenticity that otherwise would have been impossible to achieve, was able to emerge from these two characters. Ryoo Seung Ryong, Shim Eun Kyung, Jang Gwang, and Kim In Kwon also provide compelling and effective performances. While Kim In Kwon and Shim Eun Kyung’s roles were notably smaller than that of Ryoo Seung Ryong, the emotion they poured into their characters made them memorable and endearing. Ryoo Seung Ryong’s Heo Gyun easily became a favorite. The relationship that develops between himself and Ha Sun, while humorous, was also quite touching to witness on screen.
Han Hyo Joo’s character felt the most underutilized. The Queen was merely used for a bit of a romance factor that never quite came into fruition. I’m not so sure the Queen had much business being in the film at all aside from being there to create a bit of drama. One thing I am sure about, is that the poop jokes could have been entirely left out. Not only was too much focus placed on poop sounds, but these jokes felt forced and out of place, as they always tend to in Korean media. I’m not quite sure why poop jokes are so popular, but it seems I can’t escape them, whether I be watching a film or a drama. It’s either poop jokes or fart jokes. One or the other, or sometimes even both. Personally I find these jokes cringeworthy, and pretty disgusting, especially when so much attention is given to creating some pretty ghastly sound effects to “bring the joke home.” It didn’t ruin the film, but it’s a personal preference I felt was worth mentioning since I tend to come across them quite often in the k-drama/k-film realm (my most recent encounter with them having been in the drama 100 Days My Prince).
Overall, Masquerade’s strengths lie in Lee Byung Hyun and Ryoo Seung Ryong’s solid performances, paired with the copious snippets of humor scattered throughout the film. The plot is relatively contrived and shallow, not bringing too much to the table in terms of original content, but the relationships that develop between the characters are heartwarming. Though the topics explored and tropes employed here have been utilized in media before, even within the same genre, Masquerade‘s clever application of “fish out of water” comedy matched with its established cast elevate the film to higher ground, making it an entertaining watch from beginning to end, even if there were a number of lacking areas that could have been addressed.
Have you watched Masquerade? What did you think of the film? If you haven’t already, you can check out the trailer here.