When King Gwang-hae ruled over Korea, landowners were the only ones taxed, and peasants and middle-class citizens suffered under his rule. But there’s a sliver of that moment in time where, during his eighth year of ruling, his policies changed, favoring the commoner over aristocracy, honoring the sacrifices of others instead of punishing the weak. With portions of the historical record missing, one can see how easily some historians can hypothesize what occurred during this brief period. Unfortunately we’ve been cheated out of another gnarly Lindsay Lohan body swap comedy, so we’ll make do with “Masquerade.”
Lee Byung-hun (“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”) headlines this historical drama as both the despotic king and his magnanimous double. Growing paranoid over his rule, King Gwang-hae enlisted his trusted servant to fetch him a double. But before this plan can be put into motion, the King is poisoned, and forced out of the public eye, necessitating a quick replacement to ensure no one thinks the monarchy has weakened. Ha-seon is the answer, a lowly street performer with a casual smile and easygoing attitude that couldn’t be more different than the king’s humorless manner. Regardless, training to be royalty must begin in haste as the King must keep up appearances, no matter how trivial.
Director Choo Chang-min (“Late Blossom”) has been blessed with a considerable budget, allowing for opulent sets and ornate costumes to recapture a politically turbulent past era. However, he still seems uncertain how to play the material. Now that word has spread of the King’s affliction, Ha-seon must personify a quick recovery, attracting the attention of would-be assassins, leading a kingdom to further walk on eggshells. However, he can’t help but embrace the farce inherent in this “Prince and the Pauper” setup. It’s not enough that Ha-seon has to be ignorant of certain traditions; he must also be a legit fish out of water, at one point struggling with extreme flatulence in the eyes of a comically loyal court. Sequences where Ha-seon’s ineptitude are still met with undying affection and worship from the King’s followers can be played straight, but instead he allows Lee Byung-hun to mug and mince broadly as his followers bumble at his feet.
In Ha-seon’s favor, his character has a believable inherent humanity that shines in subtle ways. When his dubious bodyguard opts to take the fake King’s life, Ha-seon dodges death through sheer luck, somehow convincing his attempted killer that he is wrong. But when the man attempts to take his own life in shame, Ha-seon intercepts his sword, instead assuming a regal form and reminding the man that he is a bodyguard, and that his duties are to protect the monarchy, for without bodyguards they are nothing. Whereas the last king would have found this scoundrel disposable, the new ruler insists that life is valuable, imbuing the man with a sense of purpose to fix his mistakes instead of suffer for them.
There are conventions of this sort of picture that need to be honored, however. So in the short time on the throne, Ha-seon has to fall in love, he has to understand empathy for his common man, and he has to understand there’s a time to follow orders and a time to stand up for what is right. Naturally, that allows the mask to drop just enough for people to doubt that this sympathetic King is not the tyrant that previously controlled the kingdom. Of course, there’s something queasily subversive about the whole thing: the idea that past rulers have to be robbed of the very hint of progress and self-awareness, attributing it to a fluke part-time ruler. Even still, to do this with a standard rich man-poor man dichotomy feels a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. The fish are also wearing shirts that say “fire here.” It’s broader than we can convey, basically.
Lee is sneering and petulant as the disposed King, but lively and charming as Ha-seon, with both a charlatan’s mischievous streak seen in his Cheshire Cat grin and an old-school masculinity that can’t help but shine through. The press notes reveal that he is also the first Asian actor to leave his handprint at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (that can’t be right, can it?), and if you had no prior introduction to him, it wouldn’t be much of a guess to assume he’s a natural global star. His attributes and gestures feel a bit too contemporary for the material, but it’s also the shading a big star brings to a role like this, one that allows him to overshadow a competent supporting cast. Where the film has its conceptual failings, none fall in his lap. [B-]