Dreamy quest through Joseon's dynastic dreamscapes have provided modern Korean cinema with some of the most lavishly successful hits in recent years. Period features such as "The Thieves" (2012), "Masquerade" (2012), and "Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon" (2011) have stormed local theatres and attracted tens of millions of filmgoers to their vibrant and scintillating re-imaginings of Korea's Hermit Kingdom. These romanticised tellings have probed and pondered various political dramas through a curious, but altogether captivating, contemporary lens. There has already been a tremendous about of buzz regarding the string of yarns set for release this year, but that feverish frenzy was somewhat sparked by 2013's only, and hugely successful, period film: "The Face Reader".
Set in fifteenth century Korea, "The Face Reader" is a compelling tale that follows a country peasant with an extraordinary ability all the way to King's quarters and back. Nae-kyeong (played by Song Kang-ho) is a personable physiognomist who lives in the peaceful countryside with his son Jin-Hyeong (Lee Jong-suk) and brother-in-law Paeng-hun (Jo Jung-suk). Nae-kyeong's face-reading skills are unmatched and dangerously accurate, a talent that gets him the attention of a seductive Gisaeng named Yeon-Hong (Kim Hye-soo). Nae-kyeong's son decides to venture off and pursue an academic career (a path that sees him change his name due to his lowborn status), while Nae-kyeong and Paeng-hun take up the madam's offer to go and work for her in a local village.
The two country bumpkins are initially are wowed by the tastes and pleasures Yeon-Hong places before them, but the conniving mistress soon reveals her intent to have Hae-kyeong face read from dawn until dusk. However this prophetic physiognomist's remarkable abilities and wit allows him to seize on a chance to break away from his contract, and-after solving a murder case and ratting out a few corrupt officials-Hae-Kyeong and his amusing brother eventually finds themselves in the presence and service of the King himself. Hae-Kyeong's ascension and newly found status, however, gets him entangled in a political power struggle for the crown; the consequences of which threaten not only the nation's sovereignty, but also himself and those he holds dear.
"The Face Reader" hauled in an impressive 9.1 million admissions when it was released over Korea's Chuseok holiday last year. It was a well-timed release that helped Han's film become one of the most successful Korean period dramas of all-time. Like most period yarns, the film contains a healthy dose of familiar K-comedy and goofy antics rendered against lurid backdrops and stunningly detailed sets and costumes. The film transports viewers from the rolling and lush Korean countryside, to the dusty and bustling village, and then into the prestigious and polished royal chambers-all of which are visually scrumptious and deliciously detailed. Korean period features nowadays are fast-paced and thrilling; a trend that "The Face Reader" continues as Han rarely spares us a beat and he bangs his way through this entertaining Joseon jamboree.
Like so many Korean films in recent memory, prepare to have the ground beneath your feet shaken as Han's third flick does move (like our hero's own journey) from bumpkin blisses to a high-stakes melodrama without restraint. Han's emotional bait-and-switch tactics are fluidly woven into the film's rising tensions, with Nae-kyeong and his humble family finding themselves as fish out of water drowning in a poisonous political pond. This transition is appropriate and thrilling, but the slope was slippery and forced me to emotionally step back for a moment before re-immersing myself back into the dramatic action on display. Tragicomedy is a typical feature of Korean cinema, and the measure of its success in any given film comes down to a balancing act and, thankfully, Han's hand here is steady enough to prevent the tale from toppling over.
In a film that deals with deciphering the human face and judging character, it is vital that the acting is up to the task of capturing such nuanced human emotions and the different personalities set before us. The talented and versatile Song Kang-ho does indeed lead from the front, but the supporting actors and actresses took their chance to shine and helped add welcomed depth to Han's character-driven tale of treachery and treason. The dastardly Grand Prince Suyang, in particular, was wickedly brought to life by actor Lee Jung-jae, presenting a cool and cruel conspirator whose unpredictability was thrillingly evident and noxiously nuanced (a mad-king in the making that reminded me a lot of King Yeonsan in "The King and the Clown"). Jo Jung-suk and Kim Hye-soo's characters' were also a pleasure to behold, bringing along their own brand of hilarity and sexy charm that helped round-out this quality period piece.
Underneath the films energetic narrative progression, "The Face Reader" plays on the very relevant social issues of appearance and class. The film subtly incorporates, for example, Korea's obsession with image into its story; an ideological subtext that Han has naturalised to the extent that it almost goes unnoticed. Moles, scars, lips, buttocks, busts, and eyes are all at some point focused on and made apart of the theme of discerning character/one's fate through seemingly superficial means. It's pervasive, but does not consciously appear over-whelming or even that distracting-it's just part of Han's worldview here. Still, I thought it was worth mentioning as an interesting feature/theme for viewer's to perhaps take note of.
"The Face Reader" was one of the most popular films of its year and helped the Korean box office record its most successful year of all-time. Bright and bombastic at times, then shadowy and cruel at others, the film is dynamic and highly entertaining. As mentioned this flick was a huge commercial success, but that mass marketing did not come at the expense of thematic complexity or cinematic substance. This well-polished piece is excellently presented and thoroughly enjoyable, but if a criticism had to be laid it would most likely come in the form of originality. The film happily stands atop Joseon giants and contains many familiar antics and scenarios found in similar yarns. Overall, Han Jae-rim's "The Face Reader" is highly accomplished and polished addition to the genre and it's definitely worth a watch to see what all the local fuss was about.
Available on DVD from YESASIA
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