Film Review: Masquerade

Lavishly entertaining Korean period spectacle works on every level from an ancient but still effective source.

A Korean period version of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, Masquerade tells the story of King Gwang-hae (Lee Byeong-heon), an unpopular monarch who, paranoid about assassination attempts, finds a lowly comic performer, Ha Seon (also Lee), with identical features to impersonate him. Everyone is fooled for a while, but then the King becomes seriously ill and is removed from court to recover, while his doppelganger must seriously up his royal game. Instead of merely being a stooge for the King’s conniving advisors, however, Ha Seon has an “A-ha!” moment regarding the rampant corruption of the court and unjustness to the common people, and sets about to right things.

Director Choo Chang-min has made a sweepingly entertaining, lavishly appointed spectacle from Hwang Jo-yoon’s smart script. The elaborate rituals of the royal court are observed with vibrant detail and much humor, as when Ha Seon, pretending to be the monarch, startlingly finds a full, obeisant audience of courtiers assembled every morning to congratulate him on his morning defecation (which is then thoroughly examined and—shuddersomely—even tasted by his personal physician). The basic premise is beyond hoary, of course, also popping up in other old chestnuts like The Prisoner of Zenda, but it’s quite amazing how smoothly it still works when executed as well as it is here. The design elements are often breathtakingly beautiful and the cinematography handsomely deep-toned.

Naturally, much of the efficacy of the piece hangs on its lead actor in a dual role, and the aristocratically handsome, versatile Lee Byeong-heon really delivers the goods. He convincingly expresses the King’s arrogance and ruthlessness, while making Ha Seon a highly ingratiating Everyman, blessed with a sense of fun which lightens things at all times. Han Hyo-joo is lovely and intelligent as the neglected Queen, who might have been given more to do, and Ryoo Seung-yong, as the chief advisor, and Jang Gwang, in a touching portrait of the head eunuch, lend strong support at court.