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Masquerade (DVD Review)

26 Jun, 2013 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Box Office $0.92 million
$26.98 DVD
Not rated.
In Korean with English subtitles. English dub available.
Stars Byung-hun Lee, Seung-yong Ryoo.

Medieval Asian period movies sometimes feel like watching the latest version of Chinese masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — stunning visuals and SFX swordplay juxtaposed against wooden melodrama.

What South Korea’s Masquerade achieves with aplomb is to reinterpret a 15-day period during the eighth year of King Gwanghae’s reign during the 17th century Joseon dynasty with humor, poignancy, heart — and little swordplay.

King Gwanghae (G.I. Joe’s Byung-hun Lee, who won South Korea’s Grand Bell Awards’ Best Actor for his performance) is so paranoid with sustaining his power and thwarting his enemies that he employs an army of servants to taste his food against possible poisoning. Gwanghae goes a step further by instructing his chief adviser (Seung-yong Ryoo) to find a body double to be his public face.

The double, Ha-seon (also played by Lee) is a clumsy clown jester whose routines often involve mocking the king’s arrogance. When Gwanghae mysteriously falls ill, Ha-seon is quietly delivered to the king’s chambers and told his mission.

What follows is a whirlwind education about royal etiquette, the oddities of chamber operations (the king only goes to the bathroom in special pots under the supervision of female servants) and dynasty politics.

Of course, Ha-seon soon evolves from comedic bumbler to leadership material — a transformation delivered with nuanced effect by Lee. Indeed, it is the actor’s eyes that convincingly portray compassion and inspiration, helping turn public sentiment of the king from self-indulged despot to the people’s savior.

Masquerade is supported by a strong cast, including the captain of the guards (Kim in-Kwon), who suspects the king to be a fake, but then comes to respect Ha-seon for his humanity.  It’s a role reminiscent of Japanese actor Mako’s performance as Po Han in 1966’s The Sand Pebbles (with Steve McQueen), for which the actor received a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

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