Lee Byung-hun shines in the dual role of paranoid King Gwanghae and his look-alike hired to off-set assassination fears during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty
The global acclaim and box office filling career of Lee Byung-hun has seen his range demonstrated in military mystery Joint Security Area (2000), gangster flick A Bittersweet Life (2005), western The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008), and violent thriller I Saw the Devil (2010).
It seems an oddity then to state that the role which has best established Lee’s talents as a multi-faceted performer is this period drama spliced with crank comedy. However, Masquerade, a solid enough historical imagining with excess of artistic licence, is elevated by Lee’s duality of performance.
His first role is the ceremonial but increasingly obnoxious King Gwanghae, who has been driven into a sea of paranoia by his overflowing fears of being assassinated. His various aides and servants are now treading on egg-shells serving their king.
The king orders his Secretary of Defence, Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong), to find him a double to ease his assassination concerns. He finds Ha-sun, an acrobat and lewd joker, who looks remarkable like the king (exactly so for us with Lee playing this role also), who can cover for the king when he is out of the palace.
Confirming his fears, the real king is then poisoned with poppy and suddenly Ha-sun’s bit-part role becomes a full-time gig while the king is recovering. He may look the part, but a life of modest living means that Ha-sun must adapt to the pressures of the role and the decadence that comes with it.
One aspect we see in action is that, despite the riches that are afforded to the monarchy, it comes with a minimum of privacy. Ha-sun must even learn to use the toilet in front of an audience, while the overzealous adulation soon tires him.
There is some rather on-the-nose commentary about how the royals of the time were so detached from the common person. In how playing king and politics is a mix of maximum power that so readily aids pigheadedness.
A fanciful tale at the best of times, we must also soon accept that this commoner, one where it is alluded that he possesses some form of education, soon feels as comfortable as king as an employee on a supermarket checkout.
What does feel genuine is the improved relations that the more humane Ha-sun is able to build with the king’s servants. Connections that truly matters and perhaps ones that if the king himself had formed would ensure less chance that an assassination from a close aide may happen.
Lee remains the film’s big ticket attraction though. He takes on a role usually more closely linked to Song Kang-ho – that combination of seriousness and comedy timing that Song seemed to have made his own. However, Lee is his equal in that expanse here, providing a superbly rounded performance as both surly king and hapless double.