Thursday, March 28, 2013

Movie Review: Masquerade (2012)

Grade: B-

We’re spoiled when it comes to male leads these days: Korean dramas are filled with flawed, nuanced characters that change and grow as their stories progress, from Oh Soo in That Winter, the Wind Blows to Kang Ma Ru in Nice Guy.

Korean movies? Not so much, at least based on last year’s hugely popular film Masquerade. A spare, unidealized take on life in the palace, Masquerade offers a bawdy peek into what it might really have been like to be king during Korea’s Joseon dynasty. But unlike Ma Ru, its male lead actually is a nice guy—which is the movie’s biggest problem.

(Spoilers ahead)

Ha Sun starts off as a performer in a gisaeng house, making a living with his goofy impersonation of king Gwanghae. Kindhearted and silly, he seems to be the exact opposite of the self-important king. But there’s one way these two characters aren’t so different: they look exactly alike. When their physical similarities become known to the king’s closest advisors, Ha Sun is brought into the palace to take on the role of king while Gwanghae recovers from a mysterious attempt on his life.

Lee Byung Hun, soon to appear on American screens in GI Joe 2, does a fine job playing both the role of Ha-Sun and the role of Gwanghae. His body language alone is enough to distinguish between the characters: as the first, he’s loose-limbed and fidgety, and as the second he’s stiff and upright.

Masquerade is at its finest as it follows Ha Sun’s adjustment to living as king. It quickly becomes clear that being Joseon’s ruler is not the dream job we may imagine: there’s no such thing as privacy (leading to some pretty funny bathroom jokes), and it’s all but impossible for him to actually do anything—between his staff of babysitters and the corrupt infighting of the court, the king is frozen in place doing what other people want him to do.

After years on the throne, Gwanghae reacted to this lifestyle by becoming paranoid and nasty. He treats his servants as something distinctly less than human and spends most of his time with his favorite concubine, plotting ways to make her queen. So when Ha Sun steps into the role of king, it’s not long before people notice the difference—he takes an interest in the lives of his servants, bristles at the constant invasions of his privacy, and even tries to cheer up Gwanghae’s discarded queen.

And here’s where things went wrong, as far as I’m concerned: Instead of exploring how a real human being might have behaved when tempted with power, money, and status, Masquerade is content to tell the story of a nice guy trying to do nice things. When he eventually sails off into the sunset, Ha Sun is the same regular Joe he was when we met him, having turned down the throne because he didn’t want  to hurt anyone.

Ultimately, the real meat of the story was elsewhere. Masquerade closes by saying that Gwanghae ruled for three years after his experiences with Ha Sun, and then gives a list of achievements of the real-life king. Most of them have their roots in Ha Sun’s time on the throne, but Gwanghae himself must have carried on his impostor’s policies, including standing up to the all-powerful Ming dynasty. Otherwise, wouldn’t Ha Sun’s one-time actions just be footnotes to all the things Gwanghae did himself?

The movie never bothers to tell us how Gwanghae changed from a distracted, fearful playboy to a king who would speak out against the Ming dynasty for the sake of his people. Instead, it merely implies that reports of Ha Sun’s goodness were the catalyst for his personality change, prompting Gwanghae to re-examine his life and responsibilities as king.

Masquerade is an easy, engaging watch and an interesting exercise in historical fiction: According to its press materials, the script was inspired by fifteen days that are really missing from the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty during the reign of King Gwanghae. The screenwriter chose to fill these blanks with the doings of the invented Ha Sun, but I’m not sure why: in this case, I get the feeling the real thing might have been a lot more interesting.


  1. Just wanted to say how much I love your blog. I found it this morning and have spent the last few hours working my way back through your past posts to day dot. Keep it up! Fighting!

    Just wondering if you did get around to watching Bridal Mask? Despite the comparisons drawn between it and City Hunter, Bridal Mask was way more satisfying on every level, not least of which is the character development.

    Also, I liked your review of Nobuta Wo Produce. Can I recommend Liar Game (seasons 1 and 2) and Jin (seasons 1 and 2)? And yes, that is the same Jin that will live in K-drama infamy with its horribly bad adaptation with Song Seung Hun. But the original Japanese series is amazing.

  2. Question! Where did you buy your DVD set of Coffee Prince? I'm looking to buy one, and all the amazon reviews say the quality is horrible, the subs are bad for the later episodes, last episode may even have been cut, etc. I just remember you saying you had one. How was it?

    1. This is the one I ordered from Amazon, and it's great. The video quality is excellent and the subtitles are complete throughout—they're the same ones that are on Drama Fever. I ordered mine used and just got lucky that the set was in perfect condition.

      My best purchase of 2012, by far =X

    2. Purchased *crosses fingers* It's technically for my mother.. how nice to find someone who actually likes spending money on such.. lovely things. :) :) but since she will now own it, I can *borrow* it anytime.. hehehe

  3. I also ordered mine through Amazon and was directed to a private seller. It took a month to arrive from Hong Kong. It took a couple of times playing it for it to work right on my computer DVD player but that may have been the player. In some places the subs are not great but I do have the entire set of episodes. I take it everywhere with me as I continue to get cravings to watch it. This was in early 2011.

    Just finished watched the finale for Level 7 Civil Servant. It was cute, too cute unfortunately. I'm on pins and needles for the finale of That Winter the Wind Blows. Anxiously awaiting Lee Seung Gi's new drama to begin the middle of April. I'll be glad when Hyun Bin finishes with making the commercials and his fan gatherings and gets down to the business of really acting again. I sure hope it's a drama and not a movie as we don't get to see the movies for a very long time before they are available in the US. The woes of being a K-Drama addict!

  4. A few years ago I went to Seoul, and I was able to work in a visit to the actual cafe Coffee Prince was shot in! The flower mural was still there, just as I remembered it from the drama. Along with some Chinese tourists^^. Just a little piece of advice from someone who's been burned by dodgy retailers in the past -- when buying a K-drama box set, don't go by the price -- if it's cheap, it's probably a bootleg copy from Hong Kong or some such, with gibberish subtitles. If you're observant, you can often tell by the poor-quality cover photo.

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