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Gwanghae (Lee Byung-hun), the 15th Joseon King from 1574-1641, tried to instill diplomacy by keeping neutral as the China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) looked to conquer his country. Establishing reforms and reconstruction, he attempted to try and make the nation more prosperous, putting an emphasis on restoring historical documents, but this was not always popular. His throne was surrounded by power struggles so the government was in a state of confusion because of cliquish politics. He became more and more angry and fearful because there were those who always wanted to take his life. This dilemma made him more and more a violent King. He eventually ordered his royal majordomo, named Heo-gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong) to act on his behalf and find someone to masquerade as the King to expose the assassination plots.
Heo-gyun begins searching for a look-alike to replace the king who plans to go into hiding. One day, he finds Ha-sun at a bar. Ha-sun is performing among a crowd of drinkers, telling jokes and making people laugh. Heo-gyun couldn’t believe his eyes because Ha-sun looks exactly like the King! Furthermore, his innate talents make for a perfect imitation of the King’s speaking style. Ha-sun is dragged from the bar without even knowing the reason why. He’s finally told, once at the palace, that he will stand in for the King for one night. The role causes him great stress but he gets though it and is sent home, successfully fooling royal visitors.
Then one day, Gwanghea suddenly collapse with illness. Heo-gyun decides Ha-sun must take the role again while the King recovers. Under the direction of Heo-gyun, Ha-sun starts to learn to like being the King, such as using his voice, his gait and how to manage state affairs, etc. But unlike the King, who is overly-sensitive and quick-temper, Ha-sun has a warm heart and strong sense of humanity. Because of this, gradually other nobles begin to doubt him. Worse, Heo-gyun is surprised by Ha-sun because he starts to follow his own voice, not the King’s.
Directed by Choo Chang-min, the story expresses each the character’s different angles as they deal with secret identities and hierarchy. Choo makes this an interesting part of the film as they slowly piece together the truth, which leads to many conflicts. Written by Hwang Jo-yoon (Old boy), the film is a dramatic story with some light comedy but is mostly touching, mixing history with fiction.
This story is especially good for showing Ha-sun’s touching character arc. At one point, while pretending to be the King, he hears the proposal of his noblemen to send Korean people to other dynasties in order to pacify the other leaders. His impassioned reply is one of the film’s best moments:
“What is a nobleman’s honor? Whatever it is, is it worth more than 20,000 people? As King, if people call you King, and that King robs and steals, he still has to save the people. My country, my people, are ten times or hundred times more important than the obsession with nobleman honor.”
“사대의 명분이 뭐요? 그까짓것이 무엇이길래 2만의 백성들을 사지에 내몰라는 것이요! 임금이라면 백성이 지아비라 부르는 왕이라면 빼앗고 훔치고 빌어먹을지언정 내 그들을 살여야겠소. 그대들이 죽고 못사는 사대의 예보다 나는 내 나라, 내 백성이 열갑절, 백갑절 더 중요하오.”
The film makes me thinks about our destiny. In the movie, the King’s destiny and the comedian’s destiny are different. Ha-sun is more of a king than the real king. Ha-sun has warm heart so he takes care of the people and treats them honesty. Gwanghae was born into the role of King without any effort and he grew up unchallenged. It makes me wonder, on the other hand, if Ha-sun had been born as a King, would he still be kind?
The film might seem familiar to English film-goers who have seen the 1993 comedy Dave, directed by Ivan Reitman about a look-alike who takes the place of the U.S. President. Both films see a funny man learn about the roles of leadership and see a change in their lives. While Dave is mostly a comedy, Masquerade is far more serious but a lot of fun to watch.
Trailer (English Subtitles)