Judge Michael Nazarewycz is still searching for his identical cousin.
Our review of Masquerade, published June 20th, 2013, is also available.
The King of Façade.
After I watched 2013's Red 2, I knew it was time to add a new name to the list of Asian action stars who don't translate well to American cinema. Yes, Jackie Chan (the Rush Hour franchise) had some success, but other big names from the Far East—names like Jet Li (Lethal Weapon 4) and Chow Yun Fat (The Replacement Killers), as well as legendary Hong Kong action director John Woo (Hard Target)—have struggled to find the success in Tinseltown that their American action counterparts have found. I don't think it's their fault; I just think Hollywood doesn't know what to do with them. The new name on that list is Byung-hun Lee.
I get it, at least as far as Red 2 is concerned. When your cast includes three Oscar winners and a global (albeit fading) action star, you aren't going to spend a lot of time on the new guy who is best known to western audiences as just another member of the G.I. Joe franchise. But he deserves the time. The actor, who has been making Asian films of all genres for nearly 20 years, has done excellent work, including 2010's sublime I Saw the Devil.
With nothing in the U.S. pipeline for him, it looks like Lee's Western path will mostly dead-end the same way the paths of those before him dead-ended. Thank goodness, then, for his Korean cinema career and the global Blu-ray market, which now offer Masquerade. The film, while much heavier on drama than action, is one of Lee's finest outings to date.
Facts of the Case
Lee plays King Gwang-hae, the (circa 16th century) ruler of Korea's Joseon Dynasty. The King is fearful that an assassination attempt is being planned, so he orders his councilor, Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong, War of the Arrows), to find a body double in hopes that he can avoid death. Enter Ha-seon (also played by Lee), a two-bit performer and political satirist who is a dead ringer for the King. No sooner is this discovery made, the King is poisoned and falls into a coma. Ha-seon must be brought in to play King so that friends and enemies alike are none the wiser, and no national or international political unrest occurs.
At first, Ha-seon is simply a stand in, reciting lines that Gyun writes for him. But as morale in the palace improves because Ha-seon is far nicer towards the servants than Gwang-hae ever was, the fill-in recognizes the positive effect he can have on people. This leads to his serious consideration of matters of state. As he implements policy changes that are generally more fair and benevolent to the people of the kingdom, he is praised by almost everyone. Also at a loss over the perceived sudden change in the King and his ways is the Queen, (Hyo-ju Han, Cold Eyes), whose marriage had been relegated to symbolic at best, and who has no idea that her real husband has been poisoned. Ha-seon changes the marital relationship too, paying attention to the Queen the way a husband should pay attention to a wife.
You'll notice, though, that I said "almost everyone" praises him. It isn't universal. The King's political nemesis, Park Choong-seo (Myung-gon Kim, My Heart), is suspicious of this kinder and gentler ruler, and he dispatches his minions to get to the bottom of things.
This film is magnificent, thanks to a flawless collaborative effort including costumers and set designers and musicians, but led by star Lee and writer/director Chang-min Choo (Late Blossom).
With its themes of lookalikes from backgrounds royal and common, this story would be easy to compare to Mark Twain's historical novel, The Prince and the Pauper, and there are some hints of that, but Choo mostly avoids it. Instead he crafts a tale much closer in relation to Ivan Reitman's 1993 film Dave, with the emphasis on politics and the protagonist doppelganger using his chance "in the chair" to affect real change.
There are many similarities to Reitman's film, including a leader falling ill having a lookalike serve in his place; a fractured marriage subplot; and the replacement getting ideas of his own about how things in government ought to change. There are even smaller moments in the film—really too many to mention here—that are reminiscent of the American comedy.
All set in 17th century Korea.
What sets Masquerade apart, though, is that other than some humor early on to introduce Ha-seon, there are no comedic elements to the film. This is a powerful and emotional dramatic tale that Choo masterfully tells once he uses the conceit of switched identities to get Ha-seon in the castle. That's the other remarkable thing about this film: it isn't about switched identities, it's about one man's navigation of right and wrong and growing as a person. The arc the character follows in just over two hours is brilliant.
In addition to Dave, I was also reminded of TV's The West Wing. More than once, star Lee delivers rousing dialogue—set to a sublime score by Jun-seong Kim and Mowg—that never preaches, only inspires. He's no Jed Barlett, but he's damn close. Choo then uses the "twins" conceit to end the story on a spectacular note.
I cried. No kidding.
Lee is amazing. Because Choo doesn't exploit the twins gimmick there is never a time where Lee has to face himself (with what, historically, can be dreadful VFX), and that's perfectly fine. He is excellent as the feared leader, but he shines as the everyman thrust into an unthinkable situation. He is tender, warm, considerate, surprisingly wise, and he finds the perfect pitch across the entirety of that character arc.
The imagery on Masquerade (Blu-ray) is beautiful. As is the case with all period pieces, costumes and settings play key roles, and CJ Entertainment's 2.35:1/1080p transfer presents the brilliance of those costumes and settings in sharp detail. This is particularly true in clearly-offered dark settings, as well as in settings where dazzling reds and golds are heavily used. Topping that is the wonderful Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, which smoothly layers the film's dialogue and ambient noise, as well as the film's triumphant score, which at times includes thunderous drums.
Much to my disappointment, there are no extras. Not even a trailer.
The best compliment I can pay a film is that when the credits roll, I want to immediately watch it again. Masquerade earns that compliment.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: CJ Entertainment
Review content copyright © 2014 Michael Nazarewycz; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.