'Masquerade' Unveils the Artful, Humane Side of Duplicity

Directed by: Choo Chang-min; Runtime: 131 minutes
Grade: B

It's common for those who aren't politicians to want to live in the shoes of decision makers for a brief period, just so they might be able to put their perspective and values in motion to fix some of the problems created by questionable, self-focused bureaucracy. South Korea's period drama Masquerade (also known as The Man Who Became King) might not be entirely about that type of wish-fulfillment, but it's one of its strongest aspects: when given the opportunity to become either a hollow puppet or a voice for what he believes in, political decoy Ha-sun allows his sympathetic nature and opinions to guardedly emerge in opposition of the leader he's trying to emulate. While short on innovation within the story that director Choo Chang-min orchestrates, cobbling together familiar fables of paupers and shadow warriors in 1600s Korea, Masquerade triumphs on the momentum of its uplifting tone and a versatile performance from Lee Byung-hun, emphasizing self-aware humor amid the beautifully stuffy costume-drama setting.

Oldboy screenwriter Hwang Jo-yoon bases the story around the enigmatic King Gwanghae of Korea's Joseun Dynasty, a growingly unstable and paranoid autocratic ruler embroiled in several complicated issues of the state. The increase in political pressure and aggression, coupled with his mania, leads to him asking his Chief Secretary Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong) to seek out a doppelganger for his affairs, in case of an assassination attempt. Enter Ha-sun: a playful jester who performs at a brothel, whose unmatchable physical similarity to Gwanghae is belied by the loose and sympathetic demeanor of a commoner. After a few casual trail runs where he obeys the Secretary's instructions about acting like a servant-attended ruler and avoiding the Queen Consort (Han Hyo-joo), his impersonation skills are put to the test when the king's fears about being attacked come to fruition, leaving those in the know uncertain whether he'll survive or not. With suspicious eyes upon him as big issues -- taxes, diplomacy, treason -- are discussed in court, Ha-sun has his work cut out for him.

Liberally borrowing from Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha in both plot and theme, Masquerade filters recognizable elements of a "Prince and Pauper" drama -- the cloak and dagger switch, the discovery of royalty's benefits, the fish-outta-water awkwardness -- through restrained comedic tones reminiscent of Korea's own The King and the Clown, balancing serious-minded stately theatrics with blatant humor. Spellbinding set and costume design befitting other great period epics build up what ultimately becomes a playground for Ha-sun's clash with the daily pomp and circumstance, where the stuffiness and servitude of the king's ungrateful routine ironically play into Ha-sun's discomfort and, ultimately, admiration of the unappreciated. Hwang Jo-yoon's script even works in a bit of literal toilet comedy that'll possibly get bigger laughs than other dedicated comedies. The film never loses its grasp on the situation's gravity, though, even when the humor's at its broadest, keeping the jester's acclimation to kingliness believable.

The duality of the king and the jester gives Lee Byung-hun an opportunity to go beyond his comfort zone as the emotional barometer at the center of Masquerade. While the bitter, stern demeanor of King Gwanghae isn't unlike the intensity he's displayed many times before (only not quite this malicious), the jester's comedic empathy and unease in the spotlight of his court allow the actor to shed his familiar solemnity for a jovial, awkwardly charismatic persona. Ha-sun's evolving interactions with the servants and political aides are frequently exuberant while he navigates the nuance of language, ritualistic dining, and delivering decrees -- a stark difference from the domineering fright they experience at the hand of their king -- reaching a surprisingly playful high once he comes face-to-face with the queen herself. The film knows how to handle this disproportion between personalities, too, by addressing it headfirst: perception of the king's change in demeanor, and his servants' response to it, becomes a focal point in the story that's given poignancy by lee Byung-hun's graceful handling of the weight upon the interim king's shoulders.

Despite Masquerade's politics being clear-cut and easy to follow -- involving land taxes, diplomacy with the Ming dynasty, and treasonous captives -- the machinations are only marginally engaging for highlighting the ominous atmosphere surrounding the king, and for when Ha-sun's admirable traits take over amid his limited power. Ultimately, an emotionally gripping climax is shaped out of seeing what the false king does with his fleeting moments on the throne and how he works around King Gwanghae's troubled queen, commanded by powerful tones about the gray-area usage of power and how a leader motivates his followers through respect instead of a domineering hand. Despite somewhat melodramatic and doubtful methods in how it emphasizes Ha-sun's ability to credibly influence the king's followers in such a short time frame (not to mention how the ruse lasted as long as it did), the sentiment ends up being strong enough through Lee Byung-hun's convincing embodiment of what a commoner would do when temporarily bequeathed the keys to a castle in turmoil.

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