This movie contains surprisingly little content about how face reading actually works. Our hero, the slovenly Nae-kyung (played by Song Kang-ho) is basically a wizard. Aside from one late scene, where the exact topography of a person's face becomes extremely relevant, Nae-kyung's abilities are indistinguishable from magic. I can believe that people existed (or even exist today) who have the ability to tell murderers by sight. The simple existence of such a character isn't interesting. What would be interesting is an exploration of why or how they do these things.
Unfortunately "The Face Reader" doesn't give the audience that much room to breathe. We've barely finished watching Nae-kyung use his abilities to solve basic problems in society before he's practically thrust before the king and the film instead becomes about vast and complicated political intrigues in Joseon-era Korea. And all of a sudden Nae-Kyung, who wasn't exactly gung-ho about coming to the city in the first place, has a major interest in the dimensions of royal succession.
It was, perhaps, unreasonable of me to watch a movie called "The Face Reader" and expect that I'd get a movie about face reading. But even if I divorce this expectation, the giant royal subplot isn't terribly impressive either. Grand Prince Soo-yang (played by Lee Jung-jae) dresses all in black and is very evil. He goes out of his way to be a jerk to people, and so do his followers.
The trouble is, none of this really disqualifies him from the basic requirements of becoming King. Soo-yang is, by a wide margin, the most competent character in this story. His main competition is a character so naively impressionable that Nae-kyung and crew have to resort to (metaphorical) wizardry just to get the poor guy's attention. It's difficult for me to care about such an ambivalent situation, and the ending, while creative, can't escape the rather dull tropes that the narrative has decided to build its foundation on.
The film does have some bright spots. It looks absolutely gorgeous- some of the best Joseon-era backdrops and costumes I've ever seen, and a very healthy mix of environments to boot. We also get a very good sense of how these environments and costumes are designed, as we see them in the context of normal everyday life from the vantage point of passers-by. It's a really neat effect- a pity the same result could not have been achieved with the titular face reading.
The performances too, are fairly good, and the deliberately steady tone manages to avoid whiplash. This movie has the politeness to let its audience know when matters are about to get darker. Its runtime is a bit long, but it honestly didn't feel that way to me, though I did get impatient near the end because I'd just gotten so tired of the story. And therein lies the rub- however good this film's competencies, none of them can counteract the overall problem of a sluggish narrative that goes out of its way to avoid its most interesting concept. As spectacle, "The Face Reader" has a lot going for it. As an actual engaging story, there's really not that much to recommend.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Face Reader""
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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