by Simon McEnteggart
Mark Twain's seminal novel 'The Prince and the Pauper' has long endured as a classic for the manner in which it exposed the gulf between the upper and lower classes. The trials and tribulations that Prince Edward and Tom Canty undertake allowed Twain to explore the vast lifestyle differences amongst the 'haves' and 'have nots', with each protagonist utilising their prior experiences to emphasise the hardships and the unfairness evident in both. As a result the story has resonated with audiences of all socio-economic backgrounds, and in today's financial climate, it is perhaps more relevant than ever before.
With Masquerade, screenwriter Hwang Jo-yoon has adapted Twain's novel to Joseon dynasty Korea, with the case of mistaken identity transferred to King Gwang-hae and a lowly comic actor. With its well-structured and highly entertaining script, confident direction from Choo Chang-min and an enthralling set of performances headed by Lee Byeong-heon, Masquerade is without a doubt one of the best films of the year and a testament to the quality of Korea's period dramas.
King Gwang-hae (Lee Byeong-heon) is deeply unpopular in court, and as spies and threats surround him, he becomes increasingly paranoid. Under a veil of secrecy, the King instructs his most loyal subjects to find a suitable surrogate who can impersonate him during the night should any assassination attempts be made against him. By chance, one such subject exists – a comic performer (Lee Byeong-heon) who routinely mocks the King during his performances. Yet while the ruse works well initially, the King suddenly becomes critically ill and is taken to a remote location to recover. Thus it falls to the actor, as well as the loyal Chief Advisor (Ryoo Seung-yong) and Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang) to fool the members of the court until the true King can regain his health and return. However as time passes, the actor becomes increasingly aware of the unfairness and corruption inherent in the ruling elite and begins to introduce changes of his own.
The aesthetics and cinematography within Masquerade are stunning and sumptuously realised by director Choo Chang-min. The film opens with a montage emphasizing the prestige of the royal lifestyle and the flamboyant colors inherent within, composed to convey the luxurious – and arrogant – nature of the ruling elite. The world of the Joseon dynasty is also recreated with an incredible attention to detail ranging from the elegant clothing and crockery to the king's lavish homestead, producing an enthralling and convincing arena in which the exchanges and sedition take place. In setting up the narrative's events screenwriter Hwang Jo-yoon borrows from The King and the Clown (2005) as the King's double receives unwanted attention through his critical portrayal of the King. However, the similarities end there as once the King and the actor exchange places the discord in the court is explored through thoroughly different means, as the actor routinely, and naturally, comes face-to-face with issues that plague the kingdom yet have been ignored by the monarch. Surprisingly Masquerade also features an array of comical moments amongst the drama as the actor bumbles his way through the customs and etiquette of his new environment. Many of the jokes are crude and based on bodily humour, yet rather than a criticism this is actually an intriguing method of exploring the differences between the social classes.
Instrumental is the excellent performance by Lee Byeong-heon. He conveys the arrogance, stoicism and ruthlessness of King Gwang-hae incredibly well and starkly contrasts it with his second role, as the foolhardy yet well-meaning doppelganger. Lee's comic timing is impressive as he conveys the humorous moments within the narrative with deft skill and, with convincing clumsiness, falters through all manner of routines that never fail to inspire laughter. Yet where his performance really shines is through the evolution of the actor from an unwitting clown to a man of dignity and stature, the progression of which is wonderfully subtle and well-paced, it never feels contrived. The internal conflict that appears on his face as he makes decisions that will affect the court and the denizens of the entire kingdom, knowing it will result in his eventual execution, is remarkable to behold. If there is criticism to be laid however, it's in the protagonist's relationship with the Queen, although this is no fault of either Lee or Han Hyo-joo. The Queen merely exists to provide the counterpart with a beautiful damsel in distress to save, and the her function in the narrative doesn't extend beyond a stereotype. Lee is phenomenal in his dual performances and it would be difficult to imagine that he will not be honored with – at the very least – an nomination come awards season. Yet he is also surrounded by an eclectic group of established actors who carry out their roles with incredible skill.
Ryoo Seung-yong is simply wonderful as the stoic and loyal Chief Advisor. The actor conveys his character's commitment to the kingdom with utmost sincerity, yet he is also adept in comic timing as his exchanges with the King's double consistently provide laugh-out-loud moments that also serve to highlight the change in attitude towards each other. Similarly, the Chief Eunuch, played by Jang Gwang, is excellent as the subservient member of the court and brings an understated emotional core to the film, particularly in its early stages. Also worthy of mention is the loyal Captain, performed by Kim In-kwon. Initially a somewhat overshadowed character, the Captain takes a prominent position in the final act with Kim portraying the loyalty of a devoted man with emotion and heart.
Masquerade is a wonderfully realized and incredibly entertaining film. Alongside the well-written and well-paced script is the visually stunning direction and, while it sometimes lacks in scale, it conveys colorful and regal elegance with striking precision. Yet it is Lee Byeong-heon who gives the film its heart with his exceptional performances that serve to emphasis the gulf between the classes in society and the injustices that, no-matter the era, plague the ruling elite. Masquerade is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year and is highly, highly recommended.
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