Using as a starting point a missing two weeks from the annals of 17th century Joseon dynasty ruler Gwanghae’s record, the Korean historical saga “Masquerade” inserts a fanciful but entertaining bit of court intrigue.
Under threat of assassination for his tyrannical ways, Gwanghae secretly enlists a jester-like commoner named Ha-sun to be his occasional double, a gambit that becomes full time when Gwanghae falls ill from a poison.
Writer-director Chu Chang-min’s lushly designed and photographed variation on “The Prince and the Pauper” (not to mention Ivan Reitman’s “Dave”) would perhaps be not so enjoyable save for the commanding central performance(s) by Byung-hun Lee, a skilled portrait artist of both the king’s hardened isolation and Ha-sun’s wide-eyed, proletariat good humor.
As predictable as these stories invariably are, Lee’s wonderful turn reignites the potent fantasy of peasant wisdom — if given the power — melting politically cynical hearts and legislating through decency rather than fear.
At the very least, it’s simply a joy to watch Lee-as-Ha-sun react to the absurdities of royal privilege, not to mention see those around him — advisors, a young female food-taster, the estranged Queen Consort — fall under their king’s suddenly altered and friendlier disposition.
“Masquerade.” No MPAA rating; Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes. At CGV Cinemas, Koreatown.