The Prince and the Pauper gets transplanted into Korean history and we get to see Lee Byung-hun’s lighter side – predictable maybe, but also very enjoyable…
Driven by paranoia of assassination, King Gwanghae (Lee Byung-hun, A Bittersweet Life, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, I Saw The Devil) of the Joseon dynasty enlists his chief councillor Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-yong, War Of The Arrows, The Front Line, All About My Wife) to find him a double. He finds Ha-sun (played by Lee in a dual role), a lowly acrobat and bawdy joker with a stark resemblance to the king.
Ho-sun has hardly begun stepping in for the King, when Gwanghae’s worst fears are proved true and he is poisoned. As the King takes time to recover, Ho-sun has to step in and cover the King’s official engagements, with Heo Gyun and Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang, The Crucible, Confession of Murder) grooming him to be able to convincingly pull off such a role.
But Ho-sun in very different from the monarch, treating servants more equally and soon reading up on policies to make his own opinion about them. But when ministerial rival Park Chung-seo (Kim Myung-gon, The Great King Sejong) starts to suspect, can Ho-sun’s identity be kept a secret?
Based on an supposition of a 15-day hole in Gwanghae’s 1616 diary, thematically we’ve been here before. From Mark Twain’s original The Prince and the Pauper story through shades of Alexandre Dumas’ Man In the Iron Mask and Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. Though if anything, Heo Gyun and the Chief Eunuch’s effort to make Ho-sun behave like a monarch are closer to comedy of Pygmalion.
Indeed, it’s rather unfortunate that Jang Gyoo-seong ‘s I Am The King was released in Korea just a month before, though that didn’t seem to stop Masquerade sweeping the board at the 49th Daejong Film Awards, the Korean equivalent of the Oscars, picking up a total of 15 awards including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor Lee Byung-hun. Is it really worthy of such critical acclaim?
Well, maybe not. There’s nothing here to surprise you. Of course Ho-sun becomes much more of a humanitarian than his double. And of course those that put him there, Ho-sun and the Chief Eunuch, ultimately realise he makes a much better King than the real one. Undoubtedly some of the political sentiment, particularly lines about sending common people to fight in other countries, has rather struck a chord in contemporary Korea.
But Masquerade is so well played and paced, beautifully shot with lush costume and set design, that there’s little to fault it. Director Choo Chang-min knows exactly what he is doing.
At its heart it gives us a chance to enjoy a lighter side to Lee Byung-hun than we often see, far closer to his real personality. Lee playing comedy is rather a joy to behold, cutting just the right line to hold the film back from becoming slapstick. It’s a pitch-perfect portrayal of the dual roles, managing to distinguish them without over playing the differences. Indeed, the only time we can’t tell is just when it counts.
And there’s solid support throughout. Once again Ryoo Seung-yong is a reliable foil, the conscience of the film, with Jang Gwang and Kim In-kwon (My Way, Haeundae, Peppermint Candy, My Wife Is a Gangster) also a delight. Young Shim Eun-kyung (Sunny, Hansel and Gretel, Possessed) gives a great perfomance as the King’s food taster. Only Han Hyo-joo (Ad-lib Night, My Dear Enemy, Stakeout), cast as Queen Consort Joong Jun fails to leave much of an impression at all, mainly because the script isn’t really sure what to do with the character.
Though I wonder if the film might be reappraised in future years after such a glowing reception, for now this is very much Lee Byung-hun’s show – and we’re loving it! A very enjoyable film!
Masquerade screened as the closing gala to the 7th London Korean Film Festival, attended by stars Lee Byung-hun, Ryoo Seung-yong and director Choo Chang-min.
Several of Lee’s co-stars from Red 2, currently filming in London, also attended, including Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, and that films director Dean Parisot, as well as our very own Dame Helen Mirren!