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At the heart of this South Korean historical drama is a comedy that makes no effort to hide its buffoonery. Although the trappings of Korean dynastic history will prove exotic to most American viewers, anyone familiar with Ivan Reitman’s 1993 film Dave (starring Kevin Kline) or any of the various iterations of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper will recognize the basic story: A king swaps places with a look-alike commoner who, despite some initial gaffes, begins to act in ways that uplift the lives of the people from the lower classes from whence he came. A charade originally meant to preserve the status quo ironically creates massive disorder within the system.
The events of Masquerade begin when the early 17th century Joseon Dynasty King Gwanghae (Lee) instructs his councillor Heo Kyun (Ryoo) to find a body double to provide him with protection from the constant threat of assassination. A near-perfect doppelgänger is found in the person of Ha-seon (Lee, playing dual roles), a jester who impersonates the king for popular amusement. But when the king is actually poisoned and falls unconscious for a couple of weeks, Ha-seon is called upon to fill in. The first half of Masquerade is mostly devoted to the faux pas made by the man who would be king, despite the hurried instructions whispered in his ear by the councillor and chief eunuch (Kim). But what could really prepare Ha-seon for the experience of having a roomful of female servants attending his morning bowel movements and applauding their substance? As the surrogate grows more comfortable in the role, he begins to issue his own decrees that lighten the burdens of the common people while placing higher taxes on the rich.
The film’s historical pageantry is fascinating to observe, even though the story is mostly conjecture. Competently directed, the real pleasure in this high-grossing South Korean film lies in its performances, which lighten the regal solemnity with comic warmth.