I feel like I’ve been watching a lot of South Korean movies lately. What can I say, though? They’re a country that seems to have no problem churning out great movies that unfortunately don’t seem to get the attention they deserve over here in the States. One of these movies is the 2012 film that took South Korea by storm, Masquerade. It was so well received there that it took home 15 wins at the Grand Bell Awards, a ceremony that can be described as the Academy Awards for South Korea. Unfortunately. it didn’t get much play here in America, just at the certain film festivals, but I’m going to tell you now that it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
In the early 1600s, the Korean king Gwanghae (Lee Byung-hun) attempted to make peace with the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties. Under a constant threat of assassination, the king’s advisor, Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong), finds a double that can be placed in the throne as a means of protecting the king, but only under extreme circumstances. He finds his double soon enough in the street performing jester Ha-sung (also played by Lee Byung-hun). One night, the king is poisoned and has to be rushed out of the palace with the his double being brought in under the cover of night. Ha-sung, as the king, soon is forced into learning his way around the court and meeting its many characters, but he is also exposed to the corrupt nature of many of its members. Against the wishes of Heo Gyun, Ha-sung makes it his mission to become an actual king for the people, even when he begins risking his own life.
There’s so much to love in Masquerade. On the surface, it is a beautifully shot movie with one of the most impressive and artistic production designs I’ve seen in quite a while. These Eastern costume dramas have such an elegance in the way they are shot and designed, which means even if you aren’t a huge fan of the movie as a whole, you’ll definitely have a lot to look at. There’s also a lot of great history and speculation in this movie about a time that went completely unrecorded in Korea’s history. It’s a clever idea for a movie and is executed very well. The bottom line, though, is that amidst all of the politics and intrigue, this is a movie about humanity and kindness.
All of these components come together to form a movie that is almost impossible not to love. There is literally something for everyone in this movie. There’s even plenty of moments that will make you chuckle. It’s a great fish out of water kind of movie, putting a jester from the streets on the throne, but that’s kind of an old idea. What really works about this movie is that we’ve all thought about something like this. Ha-sung wants to change the court and the laws to favor the people, which is what every government should think like, ideally. Who hasn’t thought that if they were given the chance, they could do a better job than whoever was in charge? We’ve all thought that. Masquerade praises that idea, and also shows that it isn’t as easy as you may think.
My only complaint with Masquerade is that it takes forever to actually get started. The film begins with some set up, which is to be expected. It then moves on to some more set up and then FINALLY we get a little bit more set up before the actual plot begins. When they story gets started, though, it becomes impossible not to watch. Like I said before, there’s a lot of political intrigue that really immersed me in the time period, but what was more important to me was the effect that the double had on the people of the palace. He brought a huge dose of humanity to a place where it didn’t seem to exist, and seeing his actions affect the characters around him made for some really interesting scenes and arcs, some of which unfortunately end in tragedy. This is a very happy movie, but for every scene of joy there is a scene of sorrow that is equally as powerful.
Simply put, Masquerade is another gem that has come from South Korea and has remained far too under appreciated. This film is just as good, if not better, than a lot of the films that come out at the end of the year that are your typical “Oscar Baits.” Like I mentioned before, this film took away 12 Korean equivalents to the Academy Awards. That has to be some kind of a record. This may not be that easy of a film to track down, but if you can it’s pretty outstanding.