Sunday, July 06, 2014

NYAFF ’14: The Face Reader

It is not quite fair to lump physiognomy together with phrenology, because the shrewder readers largely supplement the pseudo-scientific analysis with Sherlockian deduction. Kim Nae-gyeong happens to be one of the better ones, but it is not hard to read the ambition written all over Grand Prince Su-yang’s face. Unfortunately, Kim’s family will be engulfed in the ensuing royal power struggle during the course of Han Jae-rim’s The Face Reader (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

As the son of a disgraced nobleman, Kim prefers to lay low and eke a modest living with his bumbling brother-in-law, Paeng-heon. However, his renown as a face reader leads super-connected brothel owner Yeon-hong into tricking him into her employment. Fate shifts quickly in the Joseon era, though. A pro bono gig for the gendarmerie attracts the attention of the venerable deputy prime minister, General Kim Jong-seo, who whisks him off to work with the inspection board evaluating new officials. One of the candidates he approves happens to be his son, Jin-hyeong, who has renounced his name for the sake of a career.

Impressed by his work, the general and the king task the face reader with detecting the traitors within their midst. Obviously, the king’s brother is the leading candidate, but the king dies before Kim gets a good hard look at him. As the grand prince consolidates his hold on the military and the nobility, the face reader scrambles to protect the newly crowned twelve year old king and his guileless son.

Evidently, NYAFF’s special guest and Korean Actor in Focus, Lee Jung-jae has quite the fearsome countenance. You would not want to trifle with him in Park Hoon-jung’s wickedly entertaining gangster film New World, either (which also screens today, full review here). While there is plenty of Richard III in his ruthless usurper, Lee puts an intriguing spin on the character.

Although Face Reader is the first costume role for Snowpiercer’s Song Kang-ho, a sad clown like Kim Nae-gyeong is totally in his wheel-house. Yet, it is Jo Jeong-seok who really lowers the emotional boom, despite Paeng-heon’s deceptively rubber-faced demeanor. On the other hand, Lee Jong-seok’s Jin-hyeong has little presence throughout the film, mostly looking like he has just had his stomach pumped. Such is not the case with Baek Yun-shik, who brings all kinds of grizzled gravitas as General Kim (he has the face of a lion, by the way), while Kim Hye-soo’s courtesan functions as the smart and sophisticated witness to the tale of woe.

Face Reader acts as a corrective to many period action epics, in which a handful of motivated swordsmen can easily scythe through an imperial army. It is also unrepentantly tragic, which meant boffo box-office in South Korea, out-grossing Iron Man 3. Yet, for international audiences, the way karma ironically asserts itself during this chaotic era will be the thing that really sticks. Not surprisingly, it clocks in north of two hours, but Han helms a tight ship, with hardly any slack allowed on-screen. Highly recommended for fans of historical intrigue, The Face Reader screens tomorrow (4/7) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.