When I first came across Choo Chang-min’s Masquerade, it was on a fourteen-hour flight from Singapore to Helsinki, I had only been exposed once before to Korean period film - a previous experience with A Frozen Flower, was I really up for another film spoken in Middle Korean (중세국어)? Boy, I did not know what was coming!
The King and the man who becomes King are played by Lee Byung-heon with a polarity so worthy of his acclaim for this film. It is a superb performance. As King Gwanghae, Byung-heon is cold, disenchanted with the court and perhaps his people but as Ha-Sun (the impostor), Byung-heon is warm, humble and passionate for his fellow citizens and their wellbeing. This Prince and the Pauper idea is nothing new but Masquerade excels by portraying introspection - the transformation from common man to ‘rightful’ king is an endearing aspect to the film.
Pitted against the evil ministers (when are they ever not evil!?) Ha-Sun rises to a moral challenge -if you were given the power of the King for a day (in Masquerade – fifteen days) what would you do? Assume it all and become like the Gwanghae he is supposed to impostor or hear the people and change the country for the good of all? The answer is obvious but how Masquerade gets to this is cinematically elegant. Masquerade is gorgeous thanks to the visually appetising widescreen cinematography and the excellent production design and costumes that render the period in all its ancient glory.
Forget stuffy historical drama, Lee Byung-heon’s comic scenes take into account that Ha-sun would have no idea that the king does everything in front of the court – even taking a royal dump! His unawares are handled by drawing upon the absurdity inherent in the premise and allow humour to make the film accessible to an audience not familiar with Joseon or ancient Korea. As the viewer you warm to Ha-Sun as King and somewhat become affectionate for this better “Gwanghae”.
Amidst all the royal court plotting and intrigue we see the heartfelt interactions between impostor Gwanghae and his subjects. The Queen played by Han Hyo-joo is beautiful but stifled by the court’s etiquette that even a smile is foreign to her. Hyo-Joo, although quite deprived of screen-time is flawless as a queen repressed by the court. The grace she carries on screen is befitting and her complex facial expressions denote her affection for a King who was once so cold, suddenly changed.
However the heart of this film is Ha-Sun’s fatherly affection for the King’s royal taste-tester, Sa-Wol (played by drama face Shim Eun-kyung). After learning about her plight and how she came to the palace, Ha-Sun as King befriends her. The interaction between the two on screen explores human empathy and is heart-warmingly genuine. Their interaction leads to the climax of the film, the impostor’s “de-throning”.
Masquerade refreshes an unoriginal theme. It’s a portrayal of authentic character conflicts set against what I personally think is the most sumptuous Joseon background I’ve ever seen. Chang-min as a director is not shy to use humour and empathy to deliver this surprisingly relevant human drama.
By Genesis Mansilongan