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Review: ‘Masquerade’

Korean Tale Of Two Kings

Above: Korea' "Masquerade"

Two new Asian films open this week. But while China's "Tai Chi Zero" tries to dress up a familiar tale with flashy style, Korea's "Masquerade" (opened October 19 at AMC Fashion Valley) takes a tried and true formula and gives it a classic treatment.

"Masquerade" (also known as "Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King") takes a classic and familiar story involving a king and his double. This notion was at the center of "Man in the Iron Mask," "The Prince and the Pauper," and "Kagemusha," and it's an immediately engaging idea.

"Masquerade" serves up a speculative fiction about the eighth year of Gwanghae-gun's reign when the court chronicles record the King saying, "Do not put on record what is meant to be hidden." The film focuses on the following two weeks' worth of missing entries. Gwanghae-gun was the 15th king of the Joseon Dynasty. He is viewed by history as both a tyrant and savvy politician. The contradictions of his reign are addressed in both comic and serious terms by "Masquerade," which suggests that the king's adviser Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-Ryong) forces lowly court comedian Ha-sun (Lee Byung-hun) to impersonate Gwanghae-gun (also Lee Byung-hun) while the King recovers from a failed assassination attempt. As is often the case in these types of tales, the King is insensitive to the needs of his people, while his lowly double reveals more compassion.

Director Choo Chang-min delivers a familiar tale with elegant skill and assurance. He proves that if you have a good story, there's no need to gild the lily. He mounts the production with lavish period sets and costumes to visually lure us in but what proves most satisfying are the characters. Ha-Sun wins the audience over as he does the King's advisor. "Masquerade" stands in sharp contrast to the other Asian film opening this week, "Tai Chi Zero." Unlike that film, "Masquerade" manages shifts in emotional tones with great skill, so there are moments of silly slapstick and even potty humor (yes, there's a hilarious scene involving royal defecation) but also moving drama and intense action.

As both the King and the imposter, actor Lee Byung-hun delivers a pair of effective performances. He finds physical comedy in the lowly jester Ha-Sun but then rises to the challenge of playing king and ends up showing us an imposter who's more regal than the real king. In the past, Lee has dazzled us in action films ("A Bittersweet Life," "The Good, The Bad, and The Weird") with his feline grace and then devastated us with the emotional rollercoaster "I Saw the Devil." "Masquerade" proves another feather in his cap.

"Masquerade" (unrated and in Korean with English subtitles) is a satisfying and visually sumptuous production. It never surprises you and it never reaches the epic heights of Kurosawa's "Kagemusha" but it's a highly engaging and entertaining work that mixes a little history with great storytelling.

Companion viewing: "The Prince and the Pauper," "Kagemusha," "A Bittersweet Life," "I Saw the Devil"

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