What You Missed
It's 1616. Gwanghae (Lee Byung-hun), a young king in Korea's long-lived Joseon dynasty, suspects someone is trying to poison him. He enlists his trusted chief secretary (Ryoo Seung-ryong) to find a lookalike who can foil assassins by standing in for him during the night hours.
The chief secretary finds Ha-seon (also played by Lee), a lowly entertainer who draws crowds with salacious routines in which he impersonates the king gettin' busy with his royal concubines. But he does look remarkably like the fierce monarch — and can imitate his voice and manner.
After a poisoner succeeds in putting the real king in a coma, Ha-seon must step up and play the role of his life, full-time. But how will this peasant handle the complexities of royal politics and policy? Even worse, how will he handle the queen (Han Hyo-joo)?
Why You Missed It
Also known as Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King, this 2012 epic from director Choo Chang-min was a huge hit in South Korea — the nation's third-highest domestic grosser of all time. In the U.S., it reached 15 theaters and has just been released on DVD with the options of subtitles or dubbing.
Should You Keep Missing It?
Masquerade is a gorgeous, opulent epic, set almost entirely in the vanished world of this 17th-century royal court. The costumes alone probably make it worth seeing.
It might remind you of The Last Emperor, in that the Joseon court is a byzantine maze of rules and rituals where one false step can lead to murder or suicide. But this is a more populist, less austere film. The history lesson it offers is relatively simple, and laced with down-to-earth humor — yes, even poop and fart jokes.
A classic clown/trickster figure, Ha-seon stands in for the viewer who doesn't know what to make of this strange, ornate environment. He's aghast when the court ladies not only insist on witnessing his bowel movement, but greet its completion with cries of "Congratulations!"
Eventually, this Everyman starts to use his power to make changes that improve the lot of the common people. Could such a thing have happened in 1616? Who knows — but this twist certainly appeals to modern democratic sensibilities. The movie is, in any case, a speculative embroidery on history rather than a recounting.
Besides the visuals, its biggest asset is Lee, who dominates the screen in both his characters. (An international star, he's known for Korean cult films such as I Saw the Devil and The Good, the Bad and the Weird — both on Netflix Instant — and played Storm Shadow, whoever that is, in both G.I. Joe movies.) He's a wacky slapstick comedian one second, a terrifying ruler the next, keeping the audience entertained even when the court intrigues become a little tiresome.
Verdict: If this were an American movie, I would say it was pure Oscar-bait. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Like A Royal Affair, Masquerade is a costume drama with momentum and stakes.
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