King Gwang-hae becomes increasingly paranoid as attempts against his life are made

Masquerade (광해, 왕이 된 남자) – ★★★★☆

Masquerade (광해, 왕이 된 남자)

Masquerade (광해, 왕이 된 남자)

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.

King Gwang-hae becomes increasingly paranoid as attempts against his life are made

King Gwang-hae becomes increasingly paranoid as attempts against his life are made

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.

The King and the imposter come face-to-face

The King and the impostor come face-to-face

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.

The long suffering Queen begins to notice the differences in the new 'King'

The long suffering Queen begins to notice the differences in the new ‘King’

Verdict:

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.

★★★★☆

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Sun-woo's arrogance leads to his downfall

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생) – ★★★★★

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생)

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생)

Contemporary action heroes are markedly different from their forebearers. Fragments of the stoic hard-boiled masculinity of the noir 1930s, the rebellious ‘anti-hero’ escapades of the ’60s, and the hyper-masculinity of the ’80s amongst others still exist yet are characterised by more psychologically flawed and vulnerable protagonists. The psychosis of the contemporary action hero is propagated further by his/her unfettered arrogance which often serves to be the source of their appeal; they may be murderous unhinged individuals, but they conduct violence with such swagger and confidence that popularity is undoubtedly assured. The most recent incarnation of James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is a prime example of such characterisation and differs incredibly from previous actors rendition of the spy. Such traits are of fundamental significance in Kim Ji-woon’s (김지운) A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생), an amazingly stylised action noir thriller that boasts an incredible performance from leading man Lee Byeong-Heon (이병헌).

Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byeong-Heon) is an enforcer for ruthless gangster and hotel owner Mr. Kang (Kim Young-cheol (김영철). Sun-woo is the epitome of diligence and loyalty, protecting his boss’ interests above all else including beating lower-tier gangsters that visit the establishment to cause trouble. Before a business trip to Shanghai, Mr. Kang orders Sun-woo to watch his young girlfriend Hee-soo (Sin Min-ah (신민아) for fear she is meeting another, younger, man. If Sun-woo confirms his suspicions, he must ‘take care’ of the situation. Yet when Sun-woo meets Hee-soo he is captivated by her, and cannot fulfill his obligations when her affair is discovered. Enraged, Mr. Kang orders his men to punish Sun-woo, setting in motion a series of events that tests both men to their limits.

Sun-woo is an arrogant, lethal enforcer for Mr. Kang

Sun-woo is an arrogant, lethal enforcer for Mr. Kang

As expected from auteur  Kim Ji-woon, A Bittersweet Life is technically fantastic with wonderful framing and composition, and superb use of mise-en-scene. The writer/director combines a multitude of different generic features seamlessly. The elegant gangster inspired ‘La Dolce Vita’ restaurant is exquisitely constructed, with a title that becomes a recurring subliminal pun throughout the film. The ultra-violent action sequences are brutal and shocking in their presentation, often accompanied by noir-esque shadows and suspense. The inclusion of romantic motifs are subtle yet moving as close up shots of minor mannerisms effect Sun-woo, that ultimately lead to his downfall. Sun-woo’s loneliness is consistently emphasised by framing devices that convey his isolation, as do the angled shots that portray the trajectory of his devolution down the gangster hierarchy. Kim Ji-woon’s renowned use of colour is on full display, from the bright white corridors that lead to the deep red and black interior of ‘La Dolce Vita’ to the continued use of bright lights surrounding love-interest Hee-soo. This subtly ties into Sun-woo’s almost obsessive compulsive disorder for switching lamps on and off several times before sleeping, as Hee-soo is constantly surrounded by light and has a penchant for lamps of all varieties.

Sun-woo escorts Hee-soo, whose subtle charms impair his judgment

Sun-woo escorts Hee-soo, whose subtle charms impair his judgment

Sun-woo is an incredibly arrogant and prideful protagonist, wonderfully portrayed by Lee Byeong-Heon. The intensity and conflict from his previous roles serves him well as Sun-woo’s narrative journey takes him from the upper echelons of the gang to crawling on his knees. And yet Sun-woo still refuses to acknowledge his feelings or to apologise, just as Mr. Kang refuses to change his stance to spare his dignity. They are mirrors of each other not just in personality and career but also in their affection for Hee-soo, and it’s ultimately that jealousy that destroys them all including the organisation. The final images of Sun-woo shadow boxing with his own reflection in ‘La Dolce Vita’ are tragically revealing, as his narcissistic spirit is forever locked in an internal love/hate battle with himself and his organisation. The other actors all convey great performances, although they are somewhat underdeveloped. Sin Min-ah conveys innocence and naivety as Hee-soo, and immeasurable sadness when her affair is brought to light. Kim Young-cheol is wonderfully sadistic as Mr. Kang and the mirror of Sun-woo, conveying real internal conflict when giving orders against his protege. As jealous second lieutenant Mun-suk, Kim Roi-ha is delightfully vindictive despite his limited character.

Sun-woo's arrogance leads to his downfall

Sun-woo’s arrogance leads to his downfall

Verdict:

A Bittersweet Life is an incredibly stylised action/gangster/noir thriller that is head-and-shoulders above other recent examples of the genre. As always, director Kim Ji-woon doesn’t disappoint, employing a variety of generic motifs to wonderful effect that keeps the film moving at a brisk pace without detracting from lead character Sun-woo’s development. Lee Byeong-Heon gives a wonderful performance as the flawed anti-hero, and despite his violent tendencies and arrogance is one of the most compelling action protagonists in recent memory. A Bittersweet Life is a premier example of the innovation of Korean cinema, and a more than worthy addition to the genre.

★★★★★

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