Masquerade: a historical drama inspired by a bizarre episode in a Korean king’s reign becomes an inquiry into good government and social class

Choo Chang-min “Gwanghae: Wang-i Doen NamjaMasquerade” (2012)

Korean actor Lee Byung-hun may be better known for his gunslinger roles in flicks like “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” and the not-so magnificent 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven” but he may have reached his career peak in playing two roles in Choo Chang-min’s historical drama epic “Masquerade”. Inspired by an episode in the reign of early 17th-century King Gwanghae, during which in the year 1616 a 15-day period was deliberately not recorded in the archives of the king’s Joseon Dynasty, the film proposes that during this fortnight King Gwanghae went into hiding after being drugged by his palace enemies and allowed an imposter to take his place while he recovered his health.

The action starts very quickly: temperamental tyrant Gwanghae (Lee) orders his defence secretary Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong) to find him a double to stand in for him in case he, the king, is ever poisoned or drugged in an assassination plot. Heo just as speedily finds an acrobat and jester, Ha-seon (Lee again), who of course resembles the king and who has been satirising him in bawdy live performances in Seoul’s red light districts. Ha-seon gets a quick crash course in imitating Gwanghae’s voice and style of kingship, which is just as well since the king is indeed poisoned and he lapses into a coma. Loyal courtiers quickly cart the monarch away to a secret rural location while Heo and the loyal Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang) try to hammer their lowly protege into presentable kingly material sufficient to fool queen consort (Han Hyo-joo), personal bodyguard Captain Do (Kim In-kwon) and the various assorted politicians and courtiers, few of whom can be trusted and nearly of whom would throw a knife into Gwanghae’s back if they could.

After about half an hour of Ha-seon adjusting to his new role, he discovers that Gwanghae has been running something less than an upright administration that holds the welfare and needs of its Korean subjects utmost in mind and he sets about carrying out land and taxation reforms that Heo already had drafted but which Gwanghae had been stalling on. This of course upsets Gwanghae’s courtly enemies even further and they start their own investigations into the king’s recent sudden changes in conduct and behaviour. The queen, the concubines and the women of the court and kitchen are equally perturbed by the king’s sudden studiousness and interest in State matters and avoidance of the harem, and his new-found compassion and care for the kitchen servants, in particular the teenage Sa-wol (Shim Eun-kyung) whose family fell on hard times, selling her and her mother into bondage; Sa-wol ends up working for the palace but does not know where her mother has gone.

Choo’s direction emphasises technical and historical accuracy and detail, and the result is a lavish recreation of both the intrigues and the commonplace affairs that occupied King Gwanghae’s reign and made it so eventful if rather short (the fellow lasted 15 years before being deposed and forced into exile). As contemporary Korean audiences may not be very familiar with this period of their history, the action follows a fairly strict chronological order and the style of direction is straightforward. This allows several themes to come into play: that high birth doesn’t determine one’s place in history whereas conduct and behaviour do; that rulers, even kings, are ultimately servants of the people and must govern fairly and compassionately on their behalf; and there is the danger of identity slippage as at times Ha-seon seems to be dangerously close to regarding himself as the real king. The result is that as Gwanghae’s enemies gradually discover the deceit played on them by the king himself and begin to encroach on and threaten Ha-seon’s life, Ha-seon’s real enemy may be the king himself as he regains his health and prepares to take charge again.

Lee’s bravura acting, from grim tyrant to a lowly bawdy comic who rises to his sudden and unexpected destiny and finds in himself talents and abilities he never thought he had, holds the film together and the supporting cast is no less outstanding. Through Ha-seon, the royal court rediscovers what true kingship is. The plot includes and unites elements of comedy, drama, action and tragedy in a seamless manner. The pace is fairly brisk but I never felt it was hurried and it leaves plenty of room for Ha-seon and Heo to deal with courtly machinations against them and the day-to-day business of governing. The film unites the grand and the epic with the humble and the lowly, and this unity is what gives “Masquerade” its depth and range. In its own way, “Masquerade” interrogates the role of social class in Korean society and finds it wanting.

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