Superstar Lee Byung-hun (JSA, A Bittersweet Life, I Saw the Devil) gets to play the leading role twice over in Masquerade, a lavish South Korean costume drama set during the turbulent rule of King Gwang-hae of the Joseon Dynasty. (Wikipedia pegs this as 1608-1623, for those as ignorant of Korean history as I am.)
One role is that of young King Gwang-hae himself, maintaining his grip on his feuding court through political intrigue and a certain ruthless paranoia. His fear of assassination leads him to task his Chief Secretary (Ryu Seung-ryong) with finding him a double, someone to use as a decoy should the men with flashing knives arrive in the night. He discovers Ha-sun (also played by Lee), a clown caught telling bawdy jokes about the royal family — he is the spitting image of the King, right down to the beard, and he’s up for the job of occasionally playing his nation’s ruler for the right price.
Of course, we know what happens in these Prince and the Pauper scenarios: when the King is actually poisoned, Ha-sun must take over the job full time, eating the King’s food, saying the lines the Chief Secretary feeds him and avoiding the Queen. All this without arousing anyone’s suspicions, and for long enough to allow the real King to hopefully recover and his poisoner to be ferreted out.
Unsurprisingly, then, Masquerade‘s watchability relies heavily on the quality of Lee Byung-hun’s characterisation and performance — and I’m glad to report that both are excellent. Ha-sun’s happy-go-lucky persona develops into something more complex as the story progresses and he discovers both the gravity of his situation and the power that has been thrust upon him. His reactions when he discovers aspects of courtly protocol and intrigue mirror our own, and it’s nothing if not a full-service performance: Lee’s scenes run the gamut from clownish pratfalls, to cold-blooded plotting of politically expedient murder, to grandly melodramatic romance.
The supporting performances are good too, particularly those from the King’s closest retainers: the political animal Chief Secretary Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong), the kindly and circumspect Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang), and the King’s bodyguard (Kim In-kwon). The Queen, played by Han Hyo-joo, is a more distant presence for much of the film, but she definitely has her moments.
When I read the synopsis in the KOFFIA guide, I expected Masquerade to be something akin to Kurosawa’s 1980 film, Kagemusha, but it’s most definitely not. Though they share some common story elements, this film is much more immediate, confined as it is to the King’s court and a period of about fifteen days. The tone is much lighter, too, swapping bawdy comedy and political intrigue for Kagemusha′s grimmer outlook and gigantic, meticulously shot battle scenes.
Perhaps a better guide is 2005’s The King and the Clown, set about a hundred years earlier in the Joseon era. While the relationships in Masquerade lack the complexity of those at the core of King and the Clown, the two films share their setting and a number of themes, including the limits of royal power and the development of friendships across the gulf between commoner and courtier.
Lavishly produced, well acted and a good deal of fun, I heartily recommend checking out Masquerade.