Synopsis. Masquerade (also known as Ghwanghae, Man Became A King) is 2012 South Korean fictional historical film starring Lee Byung Hun in dual roles. He portrays King Gwanghae and the jester Ha Sun, who stands in for the King after he has been poisoned and needs time to recover. Directed with panache by Choo Chang Min. The superb story was written by Hwang Jo Yoon.
More Detail. The King, Gwanghae (Lee Byung Hun), suspects his death is eminent via poison. Scared, he asks his trusted adviser Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung Ryong) to find a look alike to put on the throne during the danger period. Heo Gyun finds a jester, Ha Sun (Lee Byung Hun), who is willing to undertake the role of king for cash. The real king and fake king meet and they decide to proceed with the plan. That night the King’s fears come to pass as he is poisoned and rendered into a coma-like state. The trusted adviser and king’s doctor hide the King to facilitate his recovery.
The fake King now must play the part for real. There is a wonderful sequence of scenes were Ha Sun discovers the pleasures and pitfalls of being King. Besides his trusted adviser Heo Gyun, Ha Sun makes sweet connections with the King’s eunuch (Jang Gwang), a servant girl (Shim Eun Kyung), and his bodyguard (Kim In Kwon). He also is drawn to and attempts to establish a relationship with the Queen (Han Hyo Joo) who is estranged from the King. With an earnest heart Ha Sun studies the laws and forms his own opinions to the surprise of his trusted adviser Heo Gyun. Ha Sun grows bolder with key decisions that stir up his enemies. They begin to plot the King’s death again. Meanwhile the King is recovered but scared to return to the throne with so many enemies. The climactic series of events involves the swap of the Kings. Will they both survive and be able to return to their worlds?
What I liked about Masquerade:
The real King, Gwanghae, and the fake King, Ha Sun, were perfectly played by Lee Byung Hun. I had previously seen Lee Byung Hun as the lead in the drama IRIS, an uneven spy thriller. Count me as pleasantly surprised that Byung Hun portrayed both roles distinctly, with flair and confidence. He managed to make the unlikable King understandable and the fake King had me from the get go with his positive outlook. I felt like I was exploring with Byung Hun the life of King, from the laugh out loud realization that a King does not go the bathroom in private to the realization that politics means compromise with your enemies. Byung Hun had wonderful rapport with the other actors, there was heart in this portrayal, our King was not cold but warm. Masquerade’s success was in large part to Byung Hun’s plausible and persuasive portrayal of the Kings.
The inner circle that the fake King gelled with contributed his success. Some knew the King was fake, some did not.
The King’s trusted adviser, Heo Gyun, was played with crafty calm by Ryoo Seung Ryong. I loved the brains of Heo Gyun as he maneuvered both Kings through the treacherous royal world. Seung Ryong delivered a performance that showed his character’s smart and heart as he grew to respect and like the fake king. Seung Ryong and Byung Hun played these two characters with dignity. There were also playful moments that had me chuckling as the adviser tutored the King. Their ending encounter was touching with the subtle respect they offered each other.
The King’s eunuch was played with quiet dignity by Jang Gwang. He was the first to see the potential leadership in Ha Sun and offered counsel that the fake King relied upon. The two actors had their characters convey the utmost respect for each other during their scenes. The evolution of their relationship was wonderful to watch.
The King’s personal bodyguard, Warrior Do, was played with impeachable loyalty by Kim In Kwon. He initially did not know about the swap in Kings. But he worked it out for himself and was faced with the decision to confront or conform. His confrontation of Ha Sun was a powerful scene and both actors gave an impassioned plea for their points of view. While this film did not have many fights where Warrior Do protected the King based on his fighting skills, if you wanted someone to protect you, this is your guy.
The King’s food taster, Sa Wol, played by Shim Eun Kyung with sweet likability. I am currently loving Shim Eun Kyung in Tomorrow’s Cantabile. The tricky part of portraying a servant girl is balancing the respect her character must offer the King with sufficient boldness to forge a friendship with him. Shim Eun Kyung portrayed Sa Wol with a vulnerability and ability to see the King as kind human being. This was a lovely friendship. When Sa Wol shared her family’s tragic story Ha Sun was touched and so was I. His promise to find her mother sold into slavery may have been impulsive but he backed his words by requesting an official search for her.
The Queen portrayed by Han Hyo Joo with dignity and a growing awareness that her King had changed. The poor Queen was stuck in a marriage where the King openly cheated, leaving her in the unenviable position of public humiliation about his affairs and a political target. I watched Hyo Joo in Brilliant Legacy / Shining Inheritance and Love 911. Here her acting was solid showing her character’s disbelief about the King’s renewed interest but her yearning that it be genuine. Ha Sun’s initial sighting of the Queen was halted when she spotted him. Like a child caught, he ducked down behind the wall. Of course his entire entourage was obliged to duck down too in this LOL moment.
Simply put, this is a well crafted story. The writer, Hwang Jo Yoon, devised a screenplay that was engaging and pushed the humanity of all the characters to the forefront. This what I will remember about this film, each character had worth, dignity and contributed to the story. Masquerade is about the fictional 15 days Ha Sun ruled in place of the real King. Those plotting against the King were only a small part of the story. Thank you Jo Yoon, plots controlled by villains is a pet peeve of mine. Ha Sun’s journey from jester to a man that had the will and passion to be an excellent King was wonderful to watch. This film caught my interest from the start through the finish.
What I did not like about Masquerade:
The ending and epilog update could have been stronger and tighter. This is a quibble over 131 minutes of an excellent film.
Often historicals are stories where “only the good die young”. Masquerade did not fall into that traditional trap. The beauty of this film is the story has heart, humor, and intrigue. Masquerade is brought to life by superb subtle acting from the entire cast. Byung Hun was the critical actor in the dual role of the King and proved his acting abilities are real. I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend Masquerade.