It’s anything but a fresh movie concept — the lookalike hired to impersonate a ruler has played out in movies ranging from Paul Mazursky’s “Moon Over Parador” and Ivan Reitman’s “Dave” to Akira Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” and William Keighley’s film version of Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.”
Yet the Korean movie “Masquerade” makes the concept feel vibrant.
This movie has humor, intriguing characters, awesome period sets and costumes and a terrific cast headed by Korean star Lee Byung-hun. Did I mention it’s a lot of fun?
The film from director Choo Chang-min follows the lead of Mazursky and Reitman in playing much of this impersonation for laughs. But “Masquerade” winds up being a serious political and historical study in how the quality of mercy can greatly improve the governing of people.
It may be predictable that the fake ruler proves better at government than the real one. But how he quickly absorbs not only the outward show of leadership but inward compassion and enlightenment is fascinating to watch.
There is even historical speculation that a real switch may have taken place during the early 17th century rule of the 15th Joseon Dynasty king. In the eighth year of his reign, the so-called “15 lost days” remain a mystery.
Why during that time did the king suddenly become more concerned with his people and less paranoid about his life and rule? Did someone masquerade as the king?
As portrayed in the screenplay by Hwang Jo-yoon, King Gwanghae (Lee) has good reason for his paranoia. Autocratic and tyrannical, the ruler rightly fears assassination. So he orders his chief secretary Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-ryong) to find a double to impersonate him.
Heo does so, discovering in a local courtesan’s house a performer named Ha-seon (Lee again), who’s a dead ringer for the monarch. Before the man can even be trained in kingliness. the real monarch is poisoned and rushed to a hiding place where he may recover.
Pressed into service, Ha-seon gets a crash course in how to play the ruler 24 hours a day. Among the shocks are the absence of the queen consort (Han Hyo-joo) in the king’s life and an elaborate ceremony with attending maid-servants over the daily evacuation of his bowels.
He soon puzzles over other aspects of the king’s life — his seeming lack of concern for his subjects and the arbitrarily harsh and lethal treatment dealt to so-called traitors including his own brother-in-law.
Before long, he starts acting the king for real, demanding more accountability from his court and less freedom to tyrannize the peasants. Naturally, the court notices and wonders at the meaning of these changes.
The inner circle of Heo Gyun and chief adviser eunuch Jo (Jang Gwang), who are aware of the masquerade, is at first angered but then starts to appreciate that the fake king is clearly a better ruler than the real one.
What is singular about Choo’s direction is that while allowing Lee to give a bravura performance as both king and commoner with great subtlety and insight, this never comes at the expense of the rest of the cast.
Everyone down to rising teen star Shim Eun-kyung playing the king’s humble taster and Kim Myung-gon as the suspicious leader of the opposition are well written and skillfully played.
The palace locations, costuming and all historical accoutrements are superb. Indeed there are only two drawbacks about this film.
One is the white English subtitles that are frequently hard to see as they get lost against many white images. Why-oh-why won’t producers invest in yellow subtitles, which always read against any background?
The other involves the few places where this film will play in North America. “Masquerade,” which opened in South Korea September 13, rolls out here in a handful of theaters. In Los Angeles, for instance, it will play only in a single theater complex, CGV Cinemas in Koreatown.
Korean cinema has come a long way since 20-some years ago when odd little horror films began to show up at festivals. Films such as “Masquerade” and last year’s historical action movie “War of the Arrows” compare with the best from any Asian country.
Distributors need to reach out beyond the Korean community and Asian film buffs. A film such as “Masquerade” deserves much wider art-house exposure.
Opens: September 21, 2012 (CJ Entertainment)
Production companies: A CJ Entertainment & Realies Pictures production
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Ryoo Seung-ryong, Han Hyo-joo, Kims In-kwon
Director: Choo Chang-min
Screenwriter: Hwang Jo-yoon
Producers: Yim Sang-jin, Won Dong-Yeon, Kim Ho-seong, Jung Ji-hoon
Executive producer: Miky Lee
Director of photography: Lee Tae-yoon
Production designer: Oh Heung-seok
Music: Mowg (Kim Jun-Sung)
Costume designer: Kwon Yoo-jin
Editor: Nam Na-young
No rating, 131 minutes