Staged against the picturesque backdrop of the ancient Joseon Dynasty palace, this exquisitely made South Korean period film works a Prince and the Pauper–based premise (the feared King Gwanghae commissions village jester Ha-seon to stand in his place when he falls mysteriously ill amid bubbling political conspiracies) for well over two hours. But it's never taxing. The brilliant Lee Byung-hun, known for his more combative parts as Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and a brutal mobster in A Bittersweet Life, plays both pauper and prince, interweaving the roles of master and fool, captivating spectators both on-screen and off. He's especially funny as he reacts to wildly dutiful servants who make sure that royal bodily discharges are not to be treated like outhouse-bound peasant discharges. As Ha-seon gets more deeply involved in his new character, he goes from merely reading the scripted decrees of his two loyal dynasty allies to issuing his own, more honorable mandates, all to the detriment of the palace’s resident doddering bureaucrats. The plot might be simplistic and unsurprising, but the seamless blend of humor and tragedy—not to mention timely political winks—makes Masquerade an enchanting gem.
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