Trips to Korea's Hermit Kingdom have proven particularly lucrative these past few years, none more so that Choo Chang-min's fourth feature "Masquerade" (2012). Set during Korea's exclusive Joseon Dynasty (1392 ~ 1910), "Masquerade" is a cinematic imagining of the fifteen missing days from King Gwanghae royal journals. Choo's film spent an impressive fourteen weeks in Korea's top ten and attracted 12.3 million viewers during the last quarter of 2012, making it the highest grossing Korean historical drama of all time. "Masquerade" was also honoured at Korea's 2012 Grand Bell Awards (its most prestigious award ceremony), claiming fifteen awards including Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and the Popularity Award. The film almost walked away as the highest grossing film released that year, but was narrowly outdone by Choi Dong-hoon's "The Thieves" (12.9M), a modern heist flick that dominated proceedings over Korea's sticky summer.
In the last three years Korea's harvest festival Chuseok has seen the release of three very commercially successful historical hits, all of which shot into Korea's hall of fame as their admission counts swelled accordingly. In 2011 it was Kim Han-min's "Arrow, The Ultimately Weapon" (7.4M – 16th highest grossing Korean feature) that locals loved, Choo's "Masquerade" (4th highest) shined last year, and now audiences have come out in force once again to support Han Jae-rim's "The Face Reader" (8.9M – currently 10th with "Snowpiercer" in sight). It's tradition during the mid-autumn celebrations to travel back to your family's hometown to honour the ancestors and nurture the collective culture through remembering and action. Modern Koreans do still flood the highways and byways during Chuseok, but they also flocked to the cinemas. It's a modern collective ritual to add to the harvest festivities, one that explores Joseon's dynastic dreamscapes through oneiric offerings, butter popcorn, and dry squid. Studios use this culturally significant time to promote local flicks that tap into the cultural consciousness of the holiday, and the figures from the last three years shows us just how much support such synchronicity attracts.
In "Masquerade" Choo dusts off the royal journals of the King Gwanghae (1608 ~ 1623), a stern ruler (played by Lee Byeon-heon) who suspects that he may soon become the target of a political coup and will be assassinated, probably poisoned. Out of perhaps more prudence that fear, the King decides to find a body double to step into his royal attire for a spell, a temporarily 'imposter' that would ride out the wave of threats facing his royal highness. Choo opens "Masquerade" with this juicy extract from the king's own royal diary that gets our imagination rushing: "Find a man with my resemblance. He shall stay in the royal chamber after sunset", after which Choo slowly zooms-in on a shot of his majesty basking in filtered sunrays – godly and glorious.
Ha-seon (also played by Lee Byeon-heon) is a talented performer who possessing a striking resemblance to the king. After some negotiation with the king's personal counsellor Heo Gyum (Ryu Seung-ryong), Ha-seon accepts this unprecedented promotion and slips into the king's attire and the power it represents. However Ha-seon is eventually compelled to allow more and more of his own moral compass to guide his decision-making, particularly as the political climate becomes more and more cloudy in the face of civil unrest. Initially, domestic matters and issues of court seem manageable, but his choices soon starting gaining mass and momentum, culminating when the Ming Dynasty and Manchu Empire start to press their own military agendas on the kingdom.
There is plenty of good humour to be had here as this unprepared peasant fumbles his way around the royal chambers playing king. It is quite amusing when Ha-seon discovers, for example, that his bathroom rituals from now on are all hands free, in the presence of housemaids, and that his faecal matter is professionally taste tested. There was simply no privacy for the king back then, which makes for great dramatic tension as this imposter's mask slowly starts to crack and crumble from both outside and within.
Tales of royal doppelgangers are not uncommon, and those familiar with Mark Twain's "The Prince & The Pauper" will quickly note the themes found in both these notably pieces of historical fiction. While the consequences of the 'fake' king always make for great film fodder, it is the overarching question of what will happen when the king returns that constantly threatens. In "Masquerade", Choo weaves these core conflicts throughout his low-key kingdom with the same emotive sensitivity found in his 2011 film "Late Blossom" – a heartfelt melodrama for the ages. "Masquerade" is definitely not as action-packed or glamorous as other period pieces (favouring the claustrophobic court chambers over sunlight scenes, and melodrama or comedy over action more often than not), but it's that intense proximity (even confinement) that real drives the drama and conflict home.
Available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon and YESASIA
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