South Korean period drama “Masquerade”, which is released at South Korean theaters as “Gwanghae – the man who becomes the King” on this weekend, is ironically a humorous human drama disguising itself as a serious historic drama. It goes without saying that the situation where its hero is placed in is so serious that it is the matter of life and death for him from the beginning to the end, but the movie is stuffed with small funny moments in its pockets while never forgetting what kind of clothes it is wearing along with its heart on the sleeves.
Its subject, Gwanghae-gun the 15th king of the Joseon Dynasty, is one of the interestingly complex figures in the Korean history. He had been regarded as an infamous tyrant since he was deposed, but, while it cannot be denied that he committed several brutal and ruthless deeds to secure his power, he was a good politician who helped restoring his country which had been ravaged by the war with Japan(1592-1598) and also secured the country from the Qing Dynasty of China for a while through his practical diplomatic policies. Now he is mostly regarded as a wise king unluckily stuck in the domestic political feuds which turned out to be the main cause of his undoing, and many historians say Joseon would have not suffered two disastrous invasions by the Qing Dynasty if he had not been dethroned by a coup d’état in 1623.
The movie, partly inspired by serious historic drama films like “Kagemusha”(1980) and also partly inspired by innocent comedy movies like “Dave”(1993), handles the contrasting sides of this king with a familiar fictional premise. As getting involved in the political feuds at his court, King Gwanghae-gun, played by Lee Byeong-heon, has been nervous about possible assassination attempts, so he needs a double for protecting him from constant danger. The king’s right hand man, Heo Gyun(Ryoo Seung-yong), finds a suitable man for the job. He is a clown named Ha-seon(also played by Lee Byeong-heon), and he has been earning a living through his silly antics imitating the king in front of people. When we see one of his performances, most of the people enjoying his performance never sees his uncanny resemblance to the king, because, well, the king rarely gets out the royal court to see and meet his people.
Ha-seon adequately does his job as ordered while the real king is having his own private time outside the court, but he is soon assigned with a far greater task. The real king suddenly loses his consciousness due to poison, and Heo Gyun is determined to prevent the chaos that may be resulted from that. His plan is simple but dangerous; because there is a chance for the king to regain his consciousness, for buying some time, Heo Gyun demands Ha-seon to disguise himself as the king for a while to deceive others at the court. Ha-seon is reluctant, but he quickly accepts his plan because he is promised that he will be paid well as soon as this masquerade is over.
The first half of the movie is a series of amusing small laughs as Ha-seon adjusts himself to a precarious full-time job under the guidance by Heo Gyun and the king’s eunuch. As Heo Gyun instructed before, all he has to do while sitting on the throne is saying few things to run the country, but Ha-seon realizes that there is not much privacy in the king’s daily life. Poor guy, at one moment, he finds himself to be watched by a group of court ladies while he is about to relieve his bowel. Now I have another good reason why I do not want to be a king – and a good reason for not wanting to be employed as a king’s doctor(A hint: the movie has the most hilarious coprophagic scene since “The Help”(2011))
Though the people at the court are a little confounded by little but sudden changes in His Majesty’s behaviors, Ha-seon does a pretty good job of playing the king with convincing dignity and authority while supported by two men helping him at his side. The king’s faithful bodyguard does not sense any difference even though he has encountered Ha-seon before. In case of the queen, she has been exasperated because the king is going to let his brother-in-law to be purged soon, so there is little danger to be exposed by her unless she wants to be, uh, a little closer to him than usual.
The deceit goes well like that thanks to his excellent performance, but Ha-seon begins to approach to the line beyond which the performance is no longer an act. He belongs to a lower caste, but he is a smart guy who can read and learn, so he becomes more active than before at the council with his high-ranking officials. He may be less knowledgeable than them, but he deftly handles the council with his practical common sense, and nobody can easily say no to the king on the throne.
Yes, I know that the movie is not so far from those idealistic dramas like Frank Capra’s works which believe in the common sense of an ordinary man. But, like Capra’s best works, the movie is entertaining enough to overlook its naive sides due to the skilled storytelling and the competent performances to support the story and the characters. Though both Ha-seon and the king are less distinctive than they could be, Lee Byeong-Heon has enough presence to fill these two rather colorless roles. Ha-seon is a little too bland at the hero, but Lee makes him into a likable man we come to care about, and the gradual dramatic transformation inside Ha-seon initiated by his own performance is believable; he becomes excited about what he can do as the king, but he is also horrified later by what he can commit as the man wielding absolute power.
While the dynamic in the relationship between Ha-seon and the king is sadly not developed much in the story, how Ha-seon interact with the others is fun to watch thanks to the reliable supporting cast. Ryoo Seung-yong has a wonderful comic/dramatic chemistry with his co-actor as a man too noble to be the power behind the throne; Heo Gyun thinks little of Ha-seon at first, but he starts to admire and respect a plain man he ‘manipulates’ while discovering the king he wants from Ha-seon. Jang Gwang, who was a horribly abusive school principle and his equally horrible twin brother in “Silenced”(2011), gives a deadpan comic performance as the king’s loyal eunuch who usually holds his opinions while helpfully serving ‘His Majesty’. Balanced well between comedy and drama, Kim In-kwon is both amusing and poignant to watch as a bodyguard for all seasons with soft sides, and Han Hyo-joo is the elegant queen who gets suspicious about her ‘husband’ as she is warmed by the man who unexplainably becomes more romantic and casual than she remembers.
As we have already predicted before it arrives, the third act revolves around the intrigue and subsequent dangers as Ha-seon’s disguise begins to show its seams, and how it is resolved is pretty predictable even when the movie attempts to pump the tension a lot into the screen during its climax. If you have some knowledge about the Korean history during the 17th century, its feel-good melodramatic ending feels a bit awkward to you considering what would happen later in the history, even though the movie openly recognizes the gloomy historical facts through its epilogue subtitles.
None the less, “Masquerade” remains entertaining as a whole. As a period drama, its production design and costumes are exemplary, and I enjoyed the performances as well as the story. Although I do not deny that it could have been better considering the rich potential inside its intriguing premise, at least we get a good entertainment, if not a great one.