A critical and commercial success in South Korea, and that's really no surprise. For a period drama, Masquerade contains plenty in its formula that made it so, from a premise that piqued curiosity, an A-list cast, and really solid production values with attention paid to detail, recreating the Joseon period under the reign of the 15th emperor Gwanghae, giving its interpretation to a missing 15 days in the documented Annals of the Joseon Dynasty journals, which writer Hwang Jo-yoon took the liberty to introduce a tale similar to The King and the Pauper, played out with full palace intrigue.
King Gwanghae (Lee Byung-hun), like most kings when being unpopular, fears for his life, and instructs his Chief Secretary Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-ryong) to find a doppelganger. After a search, a bawdy comedian Ha-sun (also played by Lee) was found, and brought to the palace to be groomed as a stand-in, with this secret only made known to Heo Gyun, and Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang) only, given that there are enemies of the state even in the courts, and nobody can be trusted with the secret except for the inner circle. Sure enough King Gwanghae got poisoned, and in his absence, Ha-sun has got to step up into the regal role, opening doors to light comedy, and the raising of eyebrows amongst those intent on committing treason as they slow sense some characteristics in their king that didn't seem quite right.
Director Choo Chang-min had a solid hand at the helm of this production, never scrimping on the opulence of how courts and palaces function, with its legion of servants and court officials, while drawing out excellent performances from the cast at his disposal. There's enough in the film to make anyone sit up and take note of the intricacies of political maneuvering, especially when there are vultures swirling around and ever ready to swoop in to take advantage of any perceived weakness. The story here ranks up there with just about any palace drama anywhere in the world, with loose ends opened during the narrative all neatly tied up, with strong emotions to boot.
Lee Byung-hyun is possibly in his finest role(s) yet playing the two different characters of one having the highest office in the land, while the other a poor nobody plucked from obscurity to assume a role he would have never dreamed of. As King Gwanghae, he plays him ruthless and not very well liked, but as Ha-sun, Lee shows off his acting chops in varying his styles as the need and narrative called for it, being goofy when required, or with all regal pomp when in the open with many eyes and ears. He straddles the roles quite effortlessly, which is a good dramatic break for the actor, who is probably better known for his dumbed down Hollywood exploits that prefer his rock solid abs than to his acting ability, which will convince naysayers that this man can truly act.
The supporting cast also put in top notch performances to play off Lee, especially when the narrative fleshes them out in three dimensions rather than to pass them off as caricatures. Top of the list goes to Heo Gyun as the main executer of the plot, installing Ha-sun as the King while waiting for his real master to awaken from poisoned slumber, and teaching his puppet to wise up, only to be surprised by the man's humanity, which set out to touch the lives of many others, and with it came new found respect. Jang Gwang as the Chief Eunuch was excellent too in being one of two in the scheme of things, and serves as Ha-sun's confidante, and observer during non-official periods.
And others in the story include Captain Do (Kim In-kwon), as the King's royal bodyguard who begins to suspect something's amiss, the young food taster Sa-wol (Shim Eun-kyung) who brings him his meals, and the Queen Consort Joong Jun (Han Hyo-joo) herself, all who slowly benefit from what they thought was a profound change in heart of a man whom they never would have thought to change for the better with new found humanity and grace on display, and each story arc contributing to the breadth of the story, keeping it moving at fast pace, as well as keeping audiences on their feet with each dangerously close shaves of potential exposure of plot and identity.
It's been some time since I had last enjoyed a Korean period film, so this came as a pleasant surprise. It's that kind of production that's big in scale and ambition, and delivered on all counts. Masquerade deserves all the critical and commercial success gone its way and more, and it qualifies itself into my shortlist as one of the best this year has to offer. A definite recommend!