Mark Twain’s seminal novel The Prince and the Pauper has long endured arguably for the manner in which it exposed the gulf between the upper and lower economic classes. The trials and tribulations that Prince Edward and Tom Canty undertake allow Twain to explore the vast lifestyle differences amongst the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, with each protagonist utilising their prior experiences to emphasise the hardships, and the unfairness, of both existences. In doing so the story has resonated with audiences of all socio-economic backgrounds, and in the contemporary financial climate, is perhaps even more relevant than ever.
With Masquerade, screenwriter Hwang Jo-yoon has adapted Twain’s novel to Joseon dynasty Korea, with the case of mistaken identity transferred between King Gwang-hae and a lowly comic actor. With a well-structured and highly entertaining script, incredibly competent directing from Choo Chang-min, and an enthralling set of performances from Lee Byeong-heon, Masquerade is without doubt one of the best films of the year and a testament to the quality of the period dramas Korea can produce.
King Gwang-hae (Lee Byeong-Heon (이병헌) is deeply unpopular in court, and as spies and threats surround him, becomes increasingly paranoid. Under a veil of secrecy, the King instructs his most loyal subjects to find a suitable surrogate who can impersonate him during the night should any assassination attempts be made against him. By chance, one such subject exists – a comic performer (Lee Byeong-Heon) who routinely mocks the King during his performances. Yet while the ruse works well initially, the King suddenly becomes critically ill and taken to a remote location to recover. Thus it falls to the actor, as well as the loyal Chief Advisor (Ryoo Seung-yong (류승룡) and Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang (장광) to fool the members of the court until the true King can regain his health and return to secure his kingdom. However as time passes, the actor becomes increasingly aware of the unfairness and corruption inherent in the ruling elite and begins to introduce changes of his own.
The aesthetics and cinematography within Masquerade are stunningly sumptuous, and are wonderfully realised by director Choo Chang-min. Indeed, the film opens with a montage emphasizing the extreme prestige of the royal lifestyle and the flamboyant colours inherent within, composed to convey the luxurious – and arrogant – nature of the ruling elite. The world of the Joseon dynasty is also recreated with incredible attention to detail ranging from the elegant clothing to crockery to the king’s lavish homestead, producing an enthrallingly convincing arena in which the exchanges and sedition take place. In setting up such narrative events screenwriter Hwang Jo-yoon borrows the catalyst from The King and the Clown as the King’s double receives unwanted attention through his critical portrayal of the King. There the similarities end however as once the King and the actor exchange places the discord in the court is explored through thoroughly different means, as the actor routinely, and naturally, comes face-to-face with issues that plague the kingdom yet have been ignored by the monarch. Surprisingly Masquerade also features an array of comical moments amongst the drama as the actor bumbles his way through the customs and etiquette of his new environment. Many of the jokes are crude and based on bodily humour, yet rather than a criticism this is actually an intriguing method of exploring the differences between the social classes and allows the audience to gain greater empathy with the actor who seemingly cannot perform the simplest of tasks without an entourage. In forging a greater alignment with the unwitting counterpart and his more middle/lower economic sensibilities, the various discussions on taxation, crime and punishment, and slavery achieve more prominent emotional resonance making the actor’s growing confidence and the enforcement of his own rulings to save the Joseon people – despite the awareness of his it could bring his demise – a source of great nationalistic inspiration and strength.
Instrumental in such a portrayal is the excellent performance from Lee Byeong-heon. He conveys the arrogance, stoicism and ruthlessness of King Gwang-hae incredibly well and stands in stark contrast to his astoundingly portrayal as the foolhardy yet well-meaning doppelganger actor. Lee Byeong-heon’s comic timing is impressive as he conveys the humorous moments within the narrative with deft skill and, with convincing clumsiness, faltering through all manner of routines that never fail to inspire laughter. Yet where Lee Byeong-heon’s performance really shines is through the evolution of the actor from an unwitting clown to a man of dignity and stature, the progression of which is wonderfully subtle and well-paced and never feeling in the least bit contrived. The manner in which the protagonist evolves is great, and the internal conflict that appears over his face when making decisions that will effect the court and the denizens of the entire kingdom, in the knowledge it will result in his eventual execution, is remarkable to behold. If there is criticism to laid, however, it’s in the protagonist’s relationship with the Queen, although this is no fault of either Lee Byeong-heon nor Han Hyo-joo (한효주). The Queen merely exists to provide the counterpart with a beautiful damsel in distress to save, and the Queen’s function in the narrative doesn’t extend beyond the stereotypical role. That said, the exchanges that occur between the Queen and the actor do not detract from the narrative and are enjoyable and well-performed.
As previously mentioned, Lee Byeong-heon is phenomenal in his dual roles as both the King and the impostor, and it would be difficult to imagine that he will not be honoured with – at the very least – an acting award nomination for his incredible performance.
Yet Lee Byeong-heon is also surrounded by an eclectic group of established actors who also conduct their roles with incredible skill.
Ryoo Seung-yong is simply wonderful as the stoically loyal Chief Advisor. The actor coveys the Chief Advisor’s commitment to the kingdom with the utmost competency and sincerity, yet is also adept in comic timing as his exchanges with the King’s counterpart are consistently laugh-out-loud moments that also simultaneously serve to highlight the change in attitude towards each other. As with other features of the narrative, the subtle manner in which their relationship alters is highly entertaining as the Advisor initially admonishes the clown for his foolishness only to come to admire his tenacity alongside the audience, and Ryoo Seung-yong does an incredible job of conveying the evolution.
Similarly the Chief Eunuch, played by Jang Gwang, also expresses the change in attitude yet also serves the role of ‘the helper’ in enlightening the King’s counterpart on the issues facing the kingdom. As the more maternal of the two advisors, Jang Gwang is excellent as the subservient member of the court and brings an understated emotional core to the film, particularly in the early stages.
As the Queen, Han Hyo-joo is competent throughout. Unfortunately for her the role is generally underdeveloped and stereotypical of a beautiful woman in need of saving, yet she performs with grace and dignity.
Also worthy of mention is the loyal Captain, performed by Kim In-kwon. Initially a somewhat overshadowed character, the Captain takes a prominent position in the final act with Kim In-kwon more than adequately portraying the loyalty of a devoted man with emotion and heart.
Masquerade is a wonderfully realized and incredibly entertaining film, one that uses the basis of The Prince and the Pauper and rapidly makes it into a uniquely Korean period production. Alongside the very well-written, well-paced script is visually stunning direction and, while it somewhat lacks in scale, it conveys the colourful regal elegance with striking skill. Yet it is Lee Byeong-heon who gives the film heart with his exceptional dual performances that serve to emphasis the gulf between the classes in society and the injustices that, no-matter the era, plague the ruling elite. Masquerade is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year and is highly, highly recommended.