Masquerade (aka Gwang-hae: The Man Who Became King) is not only actor Lee Byeong-hun's first historical film but also his first dual role, playing both Prince Gwang-hae (1574-1641) and Ha-seon, the lowly village street performer who is forced to stand in for the king when he falls ill due to an assassination attempt.
The film begins with the quiet, troubled, torn, and elegant Gwang-hae in his court, as he juggles his emotions and the myriad of court voices competing for his attention and power. Then, it takes us to the dancing, bawdy Ha-seon performing at a restaurant, before he is whisked away by Gwang-hae's trusty chief secretary Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-yong) to meet with Gwang-hae, who will divulge the plan of being the king's stand-in.
The film's playfulness and its dramatic impact understandably revolves around the theme of performance, narratively and performatively. One of the film's spirited highlights is thus the process of Ha-seon's acclimation to court life, getting used to the royal treatment, as it were, even when he defecates. As a storyteller, Ha-seon's talent in adopting voices and different characters becomes very useful as he stands in for the king; only this time, the performance and believability can impact life and death. The first test "show," as it were, is the morning conference, which gathers together the court's officials before Gwang-hae to discuss political matters.
Lee as Ha-seon portraying Gwang-hae smoothly brings together sobriety and levity, a sense of responsibility and justice, but also a streak of impulsiveness -- such as the moment when, after initially rejecting the offer of being Gwang-hae's stand-in, he accepts. He does this for a simple reason: for "the good of the kingdom," as Heo Gyun reasons, but which for Ha-seon meant "the good of the people."
Ha-seon's combination of sobriety and levity is precisely what provokes the myriad changes in his surrounding personal and professional relationships. Ha-seon as Gwang-hae earns the affection of both servants and members of the court, including Gwang-hae's queen (Han Hyo-joo), even in the midst of (or precisely because of) the stressful atmosphere of surveillance, secrecy, suspicion, and the constant keeping up appearances that prevails in the court. For it's not only Ha-seon and those in the know engaged in masquerade, but also Park Choong-seo (Kim Myeong-gon), the head of Gwang-hae's opposition, and his co-conspirators.
An exemplary sequence that not only elaborates the theme of performance but also the film's balance of drama and comedy is perhaps the one in which Ha-seon and Heo Gyun speak in Gwang-hae's chamber, with Ha-seon initially plunged in amusement about being the king's stand-in. Without missing a beat, with both Heo Gyun and the spectator as his audience, Ha-seon changes his demeanour and voice to receive a servant, Sa-wol (Sim Eun-kyeong), and then is moved to tears over her tragic history that led her to work in the king's court.
Co-leads Lee and Ryoo have great rapport as Ha-seon and Heo Gyun. Their roles of master and servant often shift, depending on the physical and conversational context. At times, they even become confused as to when to switch places, which makes for humorous moments. And if Ha-seon's acclimation to the role of Gwang-hae is one of the film's highlights, another is the way he slowly wins over the hearts and minds of those close to him in service -- beginning with eunuch Jo (Jang Gwang) and captain Do (Kim In-kwon). Ha-seon has several comical and touching scenes with Do that are pivotal to the maintenance of the masquerade and, later on, to his and the queen's survival when Park and his cohort once again take action against Gwang-hae.
Ultimately, what makes Masquerade an engaging period film is its attention to the small details as opposed to the sweeping actions that come to make up its emotional layers. That such layers are often comical -- for example, Ha-seon as Gwanghae mis-addressing eunuch Jo (Jang Gwang) as "eunuch Kim;" him becoming curious about the queen and hiding behind the wall that separates their quarters so that she does not catch him looking at her (which prompts his entire entourage of servants to do the same); and him making Captain Do (Kim In-kwon) repeatedly fetch his shoe as a distraction to buy time alone with the queen -- is only an advantage. For such comedy, as well as the quick shifts in tone from humour to gravitas, to work, the cast of actors must deliver nuanced performances that translate strongly on the screen. The cast does just that, led by Lee. While there are no epic battle scenes to make the film spectacular in scale, the power battles fought at the level of individual human gesture make Masquerade memorable.
Masquerade opened in Korea on September 13 and in the US & Canada on September 21.
For more information on where the film is currently playing, go to Masquerade's official website.