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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Masquerade"


How replacable are we really? People like to pretend like they fit an important part in the universe, but in actuality nearly all of us are pathetically easy to replace. This isn't restricted to common people, either. Our leaders are, in many cases, quite interchangable. There's many a tale of political woe about people who believed themselves to be an essential building block in the hall of leadership- right up until they became just inconvenient enough that their "supporters" started clamoring for a replacement.

This isn't some new development from democracy, either. "Masquerade" tells the story, indirectly, of King Gwang-hae. Gwang-hae is an aggressive, psychotic bully of a King who cares very little what the people around him think. Because he's the King, unsurprisingly, most are far too scared to do anything about this. Nonetheless, given his general unpopularity, Gwanghae is predictably made victim of multiple assassination attempts.

Enter Ha-sun- a perfect look-alike who takes the King's place while the latter must recover from a bout of severe poisoning. Ha-sun doesn't really do a very good job as imitator, though he's smart enough to improvise and quickly recover from his apparent stumbles. His story would normally be a rather unremarkable one- except that he decides to start taking risks. Ha-Sun starts basing his decisions, not on what Gwang-hae would be doing, but on what Gwang-hae should be doing.

"Masquerade" has been an exceptionally popular movie in Korea this year, and looks poised to take the #2 overall box office gross, outperforming all predictions. I believe the reason for this high popularity is that, even though Ha-sun is impersonating a King, it's the small changes he makes that cause the most dramatic impact. When Ha-sun starts showing kindness to his subordinates, obviously the impact is huge because he's a King, but he's really just being nice to them because he can. Similarly, a major subplot is Ha-sun trying to romance the queen, Joong-jun. Joong-jun is unaware that her husband has been replaced by an impostor- their relationship is so estranged that when he starts acting more coquettishly than she's probably ever known, Joong-jun is suspicious, but ultimately finds the change in his attitude a welcome one.

These are all small matters we could be doing to improve our own lives, and our own relationships with other people. All it really takes is for us to show some self-awareness and admit that yes, other people (even people that might want us dead), are still people and deserve to be treated with respect and sympathy. This simple creed makes Ha-sun an easy character to identify with. Goodness knows that from our perspective he's the better King for it.

Interestingly, in this way "Masquerade" not only encourages us to be better stewards of our own behavior, but also to expect more from others. When the King can make so many people's lives so much better, with so little consequence to himself, it begs the question "why not?". Ha-sun is willing to make the world a better place even though he risks execution by doing so. What excuse do those have who are completely comfortable in their social position, and aren't at any risk of losing anything?

While "Masquerade" is an appealing and interesting film for all these reasons (and more), ultimately it falls a little short by failing to address what Gwang-hae does after returning to the throne. Gwang-hae, in spite of his beastly attitude at the beginning of the movie, is well-regarded today as a benevolent King. The implication in the movie is that Gwang-hae continued in the spirit of his impostor to better hide the titular "Masquerade", but it would have been nice to see him actually come to this determination on screen. Regardless, "Masquerade" is well-worth watching if you have the opportunity.

""Masquerade"" is directed by Choo Chang-min and features Lee Byeong-Heon, Ryoo Seung-yong and Han Hyo-joo

Review by William Schwartz. William Schwartz is an American currently living in Gyeongju, South Korea, where he studies Korean and themes in Korean media.

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