Masquerade: Film Review

Lee Byung-Hun's superb dual performance is but one of the many strong elements of  this lavish South Korean historical drama.

Lavish South Korean historical drama centers on a commoner recruited as a body double for a king.

Recalling both Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and the political satire Dave, Masquerade is a lavish historical drama from South Korea about a commoner recruited to impersonate a tyrannical king. Gorgeously mounted, it’s far more accessible than the usual imported Asian period dramas that require extensive historical knowledge, and the welcome doses of humor make its 131-minute running time go down easily.

Set during the 17th century Joseon Dynasty, Choo Chang-min’s film concerns the complications that occur when comic performer Ha-Seon (Korean star Lee Byung-Hun, who also appeared in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) is recruited as a double for King Gwanghae (Lee, again) who’s been targeted for assassination.

All goes well until the actual king becomes incapacitated as a result of being poisoned, forcing Ha-Seon to reluctantly assume the role and, with the help of the king’s stoic Chief Advisor (Ryoo Seung-yong) and Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang), fulfill his royal duties.

Much comic mileage is generated from Ha-Seon’s awkward adjustments to his new life, which includes attempting to fool the queen who is made suspicious by her husband’s newfound warmth. But the narrative really gathers steam when he begins asserting himself and using his newfound powers to make changes for the benefit of the oppressed people.

Chang-min’s smart, clever screenplay avoids the usual clichés of this oft-told tale and renders the complex plot machinations with a welcome clarity. The film certainly looks gorgeous, thanks to the stunning widescreen cinematography and the superb production design and costumes that render the period in all its ancient glory.

And the charismatic Lee is superb in his dual roles, superbly conveying both the king’s steely arrogance and his impersonator’s comic befuddlement that eventually gives way to an awareness of his inner strength.  

Opened: Friday, Sept. 21 (CJ Entertainment)
Production: CJ Entertainment, Realize Pictures
Cast: Lee Byung-Hun, Ryoo Seung Yong, Han Hyo-Joo, Kim In-kwon
Director/screenwriter: Choo Chang-min
No rating, 131 min.