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Masquerade (Korean title: Gwanghae)

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Masquerade (Korean title: Gwanghae)

This 2012 film is directed by Choo Chang-min and stars Lee Byung-hun as the 15th Joseon king, Gwanghae, who ruled from 1574 to 1641. It is the 4th highest grossing Korean movie of all time and won multiple Korean movie awards.

It’s a historical “what if” film. There are 15 days missing from the official records of Gwanghae’s reign; his personal diary entry says, “One must not record that which he wishes to hide.” The movie’s explanation for these missing 15 days is as follows: the king has been drugged, so a lookalike has taken his place while he recovers. The lookalike, who is a bawdy performer, has to learn how to act like a king, how to deal with servants, and go up against government ministers who conspire against him. It reminded me very much of the Kevin Kline film, Dave, a movie I really liked. I’ve also seen it referred to as the Korean The Prince and the Pauper.

I really enjoyed this film. I have seen many Korean movies, but never a costume drama. In fact, I”ve always avoided them because I thought they would be boring. This movie has the right blend of comedy and suspense, and I can see why it was so popular in Korea. I was also pleasantly surprised by Lee Byung-hun’s performance. He’s playing 2 roles-the real king and the lookalike. I’m used to him playing dark, angsty, and moody characters, so it was fun to see him being silly and cracking jokes. The supporting cast is also very strong, especially Jang Gwang, who plays the Chief Eunuch.

How can it be used in the classroom? For elementary and middle school, It’s probably not appropriate to show the whole movie, because there is some toilet humor and talk of concubines and sex, but small clips can be shown. The cinematography is beautiful and we get to see the beautiful architecture of the palace. The movie shows court life and also the political machinations of the Korean government. There is a brief mention of how to deal with the Ming Dynasty, but most of the politics is domestic--whether or not to impose the uniform land tax or national identification system.

It’s available through Netflix streaming, so I highly recommend people check it out!