Actors Ryu Seung-ryong, left, and Lee Byung-hun who star in the film “Masquerade” pose for cameras at the 17th Busan International
Film Festival’s Asia Pacific Actors Network ceremony in Busan, Friday.
By Baek Byung-yeul
While it stars Korean heartthrob Lee Byung-hun, the soaring popularity of “Masquerade” may well be thanks to the timing of its release. With Korea heading to the polls on Dec. 19 to elect a new president, the film looks at how a king learns to be a better ruler when he switches places with a poor clown. Lee plays both King Gwanghae and the clown Ha-seon as the film, set in the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), takes its inspiration from Mark Twain’s novel “The Prince and the Pauper.”
The film is already closing on the Korean box office record of 13 million admissions set by “Thieves” (2012), having been seen by 8.3 million as of Wednesday, a month after its release.
When the unpopular Gwanghae (Leesuspects there is a plot in the royal court to poison him, he orders his councilor Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong) to find a double to sit on the throne in his place. He finds Ha-seon (also Lee), who is almost identical to the king but is actually a better person.
Historically, Gwanghae, the 15th Joseon king from 1574-1641, attempted diplomacy through neutrality as China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Ch’ing Dynasty (1636-1912) set their sights on the country. He also tried his hand at other reforms and reconstruction to try and make the nation prosperous, including an emphasis on the restoration of documents, but met with opposition and was later deposed and exiled to Jeju Island.
In his fourth full-length film, director Chu Chang-min (“Mapado,” “Lost in Love,” and “Late Blossom”) looks at Gwanghae’s achievements while examining how trading roles with the clown teaches the king about leadership.
Lee, 41, impresses as he switches back and forth as the clown and the king. He has risen to find success in Hollywood after appearing in “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (2009) and is currently filming “Red II.”
A talented supporting cast, including Ryu, helps develop the plot that touches on several genres, from comedy to a thriller. But it’s Lee who carries the film, maintaining the tension as he skillfully switches between the good Ha-seon and the fierce and ferocious Gwanghae. He and Ryu also combine for perfect comic timing.
Although the film is set over a period of just 15 days, Gwanghae tried to implement ideal governance Ha-seon proposed as the clown is able to look at things with an infinitely good heart and from the ordinary people’s viewpoint. This has struck a chord with audiences in the lead up to the presidential election.
Despite its historical context, “Masquerade” also has a sense of reality through conspicuous historical research. It accurately describes the routines of a Joseon Kingdom king and there are plenty of period details that add to the esthetic appeal such as Gwanghae’s red “hanbok,” or traditional Korean clothing, that makes him appear insane.
Running time is 131 minutes and the film is rated 15 or older. Distributed by CJ Entertainment.