Amid national chaos and fear for his life, tyrannical King Gwanghae orders his trusted councilor Heo Kyun to find a royal body double. He hires Ha-seon, a peasant mimic who bears a perfect resemblance to the King. When King Gwanghae collapses from a mysterious poison, Ha-seon reluctantly becomes a King. He must follow his conscience to save his country from collapse, avoid assassination, and pull off the biggest masquerade in history
South-East Asian period dramas are generally a very solemn affairs. Often populated by stoic and unyielding characters, there is often very little room to glimpse the humanity that they hid behind the facade. From the off it would seem that Masquerade is yet another entry in the genre. Quite the contrary. Masquerade is in fact a film that looks at what lies behind the stoicism of the time. The fish out of water tale of a commoner in the royal court helps peel back the layers of pretence and probes the humanity behind it. Though it may be by the numbers, Masquerade is one of the most charming films in recent memory.
Lee Byung-Hun, as always, throws himself into the roles of both king and commoner. It is his performance as the commoner, Ha-seoun, that is in integral to the films success. Played with just the right amount of humour and emotion, it is him that reveals the humanity in others around him, no matter how stalwart they may be. Ha-seoun is a cheeky and mischievous character, a facet that Byung-hun clearly enjoys playing. Thanks to this enthusiasm, even the most simple of comedic scenes hit the mark. A scene where he attempts to hide from the queen finds more laughs than it warrants thanks mainly to the physicality of Byung-hun.
The story is clearly reminiscent of Mark Twain’s novel The Prince and the Pauper, to which many similar stories have been developed for the big screen. While Masquerade certainly follows some very familiar beats, it is the naturalism with which Ha-seoun finds he can effect change that sets the film apart. His development never seems rushed, he finds the selfishness and plotting that riddles the royal court and realises the good that he can do slowly and believably. The result is that by the time the film hits it’s most emotional moments, the audience is fully invested and these moments hit hard.
Part of the films charm is found in its wide and varied supporting cast. Often supporting characters in films feel paper thin, only used as tools to aid or hinder the protagonist. This is not the case in Masquerade, the supporting cast feel just as real as out protagonist. From his councillor Heo Kyun (Ryu Seong-ryong), to his chief bodyguard (Kim In-kwon), to his queen (Han Hyo-ju), all the characters have distinct personalities. The result is that when we lose a character, we feel the loss. It doesn’t feel like a cheap attempt to influence out emotions.
As it stands, Masquerade is the 4th highest grossing movie ever at its own domestic box office. It’s not hard to see why. With brilliant production design, a brilliant cast, and superb script, Masquerade may be one of the best period drama of its era. Unsurprisingly the film has not found a market outside of Korea, this may be in some small way a good thing. At least we won’t be getting a Hollywood remake anytime soon.