Friday, September 21, 2012

Masquerade: the King is not Himself Today

It is like the Joseon era equivalent of the eighteen minute gap in the Watergate tapes.  Fifteen days of King Gwanghae’s official court history mysteriously disappeared.  There was a fair bit of intrigue afoot during that period, but the king missed most of it.  It is his double who briefly tends to matters of state in Choo Chang-min’s Masquerade (trailer here), which opens today in select cities, including New York and Los Angeles.

When Gwanghae first assumed the throne, there was great hope for his reign.  Unfortunately, he turned out to be a capricious ruler.  Sound familiar?  At least in early seventeenth century Korea, there were worse alternatives.  Given the unsavory nature of his rivals in court, his loyal Chief Secretary Heo Gyun opts for full cover-up mode when the king is incapacitated by a life-threatening mickey.  Already employing look-alike actor Ha-seon as the King’s double on a limited basis, Heo Gyun installs him on the throne full time until the royal doctor nurses the king back to health.

Ha-seon knows little about the issues of the day, but his fundamental decency leads him to make better decisions than had been coming from Gwanghae of late.  Trying to make nice with the beautiful Queen Consort, he starts doing those little things, like ending her brother’s torturous inquisition.  Of course, these edicts only further antagonize the conspirators who brought about Ha-seon’s impersonation in the first place.

Essentially, Masquerade is the Korean costume drama version of Dave, but the stakes are higher for everyone involved.  Obviously, not everybody will make it through the picture alive.  The only questions are how high will the body count be and will it include the secret social climber Ha-seon?

In his first true period piece, action star Lee Byung-hun (internationally recognizable for G.I. Joe and I Saw the Devil) handles the dual role of king and clown rather well.  He is convincingly imperious as Gwanghae and not terribly shticky as the in-over-his-head Ha-seon.  However, it is the supporting cast that really shines, particularly Ryoo Seung-ryong (scary good in War of the Arrows), whose hardnosed Heo Gyun personifies steely gravitas.  Likewise, Jang Gwang’s understated turn as Chief Eunuch Jo really sneaks up on viewers.  Han Hyo-joo makes the most of the underwritten Queen Consort role, but Shim Eun-kyung really lowers the dramatic boom as Sawol, the young taster who awakens the conscience of the pretend king.

Costume designer Kwon Yoo-jin’s colorful threads look appropriately rich and finely wrought, but Choo is not overawed by the trappings of royalty, largely narrowing his focus to the micro human tribulations rather than the macro geo-politics.  While there is more backstabbing than swordplay in Masquerade, it should still satisfy the entire spectrum of period action and romance audiences.  Recommended for fans of Korean epic historicals, Masquerade opens today (9/21) in New York at the AMC Empire and in L.A. at the CGV Cinemas, courtesy of CJ Entertainment.