Masquerade was the film selected for the Closing Gala of the London Korean Film Festival, and once again it was another top choice by the LKFF team as there couldn’t have been a better and more dramatic end to this epic festival! The film opened with the King Gwanghae being dressed by the palace servants, and we watch as he transforms into the silk robed ruler of Korea. This introduction really sets the atmosphere of the film, not only is it dramatic but we get a chance to see the little details, such as the King’s nails being wiped. From the outset, the audience knows they’ll be able to take away a lot from this film. This is a perfect opening scene as it signifies the greatness of the King, and as the scene ends with a low angle shot of the King, the audience is forced to look up to him sat fabulously on his throne, with almost a holy light shining on him. This is the great ruler of Korea.
This film is about King Gwanghae (Lee Byung Hun) who becomes paranoid of being assassinated in a palace filled with corruption. He requests for his trusted Chief Advisor (Ryu Seung Ryong) to find someone who looks exactly like himself to act as a decoy so that the King can sleep in peace a few nights a week. But tragedy strikes as the King gets poisoned and in a bid to keep things calm in palace grounds, the decoy is brought in to stand in for the recovering King for 15 days. Lee Byung Hun is the actor chosen to portray the King and we see Lee exercise an amazing range of acting skills as he potentially plays three roles in this movie, the King, the Jester found to act as the decoy, and the Jester when he is pretending to be King. Lee’s acting is truly extraordinary, visually you are unable to differentiate between the King and the Jester because their dress was always the same, but he somehow managed to pull off three different characteristics just by simple looks and facial expressions.
As the real King, Lee Byung Hun is majestic, mesmerising and powerful, whereas the Jester is silly, cheerful, very human and vastly different from the confident but cold King. As we watch the pretense, you can really see the Jester transform from himself to his role in the film as the King. The minute he goes back into Jester mode, everything about him changes from the way he speaks, his expressions, right down to his posture and poise. The real King is emotionless and strict, and when the Jester first replaces the King, although he successfully pulls of the King in speech and mannerisms, we the audience can still see a certain heart behind his eyes that helps us differentiate him from the real King. But as the film goes on, the Jester becomes more confident as “King” and the line really starts to blur, and in the end, we as the audience can no longer tell who is the real King or who should be the real King, which leads to a very tense and exciting end to the film.
As a Jester who has never been to the palace, he had to learn about all the routines and happenings of royal life. This meant that as an audience we were able to discover the secrets of the palace with him. One particularly interesting moment was when the Jester was talking to the Eunuch. As the Jester is so open with people, the audience is able to see a more natural edge to the normally strict and stiff Eunuch. Because of the Jester’s curiosity, a more human side of palace life is revealed as we see the Jester bring out feelings and emotions from those around him, such as the cold Queen, courteous servants, palace guards and the moody Chief Advisor. The film was very educational, as through little scenarios we were also able to learn about the little quirky routines of the King, such as documenting the bowel movements of the King for Palace records.
From a poor Jester to ruler of the Kingdom, the Jester was like a little boy who suddenly had every opportunity he had ever desired opened to him; he was so endearing. During moments when the Jester was embodying the King, these dramatic scenes would be teamed up with adorableness as he switched back to Jester mode and flashed his Advisor a cheeky, smug smile. It was fun to see a supposed King be so cheerful and act in a somewhat childish manner, like hiding behind walls and running around the palace. Kings normally possess such serious personas; it really made ‘Masquerade’ a fun film to watch with comical elements that weren’t overly slapstick or cheesy. We especially love the fun interactions between the Jester and those close to him. We love Ryu Seung Ryong but we feel Kim In Kwon really stole the show as the Captain of the Guards. His love and devotion to the King was admirable and heart-warming, yet hilarious like some sort of historical bromance.
The whole film was so visually stunning, if you have ever been to Gyeongbokgung, a lot of the palace settings would feel very familiar. We visited the amazing palace in September, so to be able to see it come to life on the big screen is truly spectacular. Cinematically, it was breath taking, everything from the Irworobongdo (the special folding screen that sits behind the King’s throne) to the costumes, hair styling and the formations of the court were so detailed, it really felt authentic.
We could gush about ‘Masquerade’ all day but we’ll end by saying WATCH IT, it’s so well written you won’t be disappointed! As someone who has seen a lot of Korean films and dramas, there is always the fear of a frustratingly rushed or inconclusive ending. We blame very vocal netizens which lead to many directors just concluding films with fairy tale happily ever after endings to avoid upsetting anyone. However, Director Choo manages to give this movie the epic send-off that it deserved. Director Choo dared to keep it realistic and upset the audience by putting in the inevitable demise we were kind of expecting, yet manages to put in a twist that had us all cheering and shedding a tear for the man who once again steals the show with his admirable loyalty (we hope we didn’t spoil it too much!). We all left the cinema satisfied and with a spring in our step as this had definitely been THE highlight of the Festival. ‘Masquerade’ was truly beautiful in every way.