A discourteous comedian takes the place of a king in Chang-min Choo’s elegant, languid Masquerade, a Korean costume drama starring the formidable Byung-hun Lee, sadly best known to American audiences as Storm Shadow, courtesy of the G.I. Joe franchise. Lee, who is a Korean star par excellence, is the film’s focus, portraying both the hardened, seemingly implacable King Gwang-hae and Ha-seon, a performer — jester really — who bears close resemblance to the king.
Gwang-hae absconds to a mistresses’ house to cool his head amid fears of assassination, and his majesty’s venerable council Heo Gyun (Seung-yong Ryoo) is tasked with educating Ha-seon in the ways of royalty. When the king falls ill as a result of poisoning, Ha-seon must keep up the charade just long enough for Heo Gyun to discover the identity of the perpetrator and maintain peace in a royal house ready to collapse.
Ryoo turns in a tremendous supporting performance, the weight of his position never leaving his face. As Ha-seon becomes more adept at imitating the king, the relationship between the impostor and the council deepens and we are treated to several low-key scenes of the two men interacting as they get to know one another’s habits. The story does indeed focus on Ha-seon and the performers’ growing conscience in the face of corruption and the familiar theme of the poor giving everything while the rich part with oh-so-little. It’s a familiar and satisfying fantasy — a pauper taking the place of a king and realizing the power he now wields, slipping out of the illusion he is meant to uphold and instead ruling justly and fairly.
Thankfully, Masquerade is largely aware that such a drastic decision has unintended and often detrimental consequences. Ha-seon is a man thoroughly out of his element and he is quickly embroiled in courtroom dramas, including falling for the Queen (Hyo-ju Han). Chang-min Choo wisely gives time over to scenes between two or three actors at most, men and women who’ve long inhabited as established position coming face to face with a vibrant and challenging new personality. It is a culture shock that serves the film well until a portentous conclusion saps it of some vitality. Sentimentality rules the day — certainly not unusual for a traditional Korean drama — but it is lathered with far too much melodrama to be actually resonant.
Another fault that may be laid at the feet of the film is that it’s somewhat simplistic in its approach, especially in how it portrays the bad guys, gravelly voiced officials who hound the king and push forward policies for their own benefit. The portrayals are so underfed that rooting for Ha-seon becomes a matter of course rather than an intellectual challenge. This is where the fantasy becomes significantly more pronounced and the comedy a touch too unreal. The actors keep us grounded but the film has no real way of showing us the magnitude of what’s at stake. Instead, we hear much proclaimed about the plight of the common people and a couple of characters who represent that struggle are depicted as almost angelic in their countenance.
Ultimately, Masquerade skates by, the privilege of charming production design and strong performances delivered in the service of an uncomplicated plot. It may not be surprising or thought-provoking cinema for the most part, but it is certainly not an unpleasant watch. An unashamed crowd-pleaser, Masquerade should at least appeal as a costume drama and a showcase for a cast led by Byung-hun Lee, who, this critic hopes, will make a dramatic debut in American cinema someday soon.