As many of you know, I recently reviewed the Korean series City Hunter and used it as an example of how Asian TV has far outpaced American “entertainment” churned out by the networks. Well here is the coup de grâce for this year: Iris I & II and the spin off Athena Goddess of War. We are going to take a look at all of these espionage themed shows and may even get the opinions of Emma and Sally since Athena Goddess of War has plenty of “Girl Power.”
Anyone who knows anything about this site is familiar with our passion for Asian films. One of the central figures in these films is the famed 17th century Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Typically Musashi is portrayed as a dignified and violent, yet philosophical Ronin. Not in Ganryujima this time he is and psychotic, vulgar, violent and cruel bully, carrying with him the aura of an insane homeless man who is the center of his own megalomaniacal universe.
The movie focuses on the duel with Sasaki Kojiro on Ganryu Island. From the opening scene Musashi is clearly the villain and Sasaki Kojiro is the honorable samurai and Musashi apologist. Kojiro goes so far as to defend each of Musashi’s cruel actions as a necessary byproduct of the duels he was in. Ganryujima points out that this duel which made him the undisputed fencing champion of Japan is never mentioned in Musashi’s famous Book of The Five Rings. The film has a theory why Musashi left this out of his book; that is, he does not remember it because the fisherman taking him out to the island duel knocked him out cold with an oar and that he is mistaken for Musashi. Since the fisherman has no fencing skills, he ends up killing a befuddled Kojiro in self-defense who is unprepared for such an outlandish bout. When Musashi comes to, he has temporary amnesia that quickly vanishes—along with his disgraceful characteristics. Musashi is “re-born” as the Ronin we all know and love. It is not a great movie; however anyone with any interest in the swordsman really should take a look at this novel view of Musashi.
The film starts after Musashi has defeated Baiken, destroyed the entire Yoshioka School and he has beheaded the ten year old Yoshioka figurehead. In Ganryujima he is not traveling to the famous island to fight a duel with Kojiro. He is taking a boat ride to die. The movie makes a game of having him “forget” his swords and having the runs, but by the end of the movie, when his real personality emerges it is obvious this was not a matter of forgetting anything.
While Kojiro waits for Muashi, he explains the real reason for the duel to one of the naïve witnesses; that Kojiro is to die even if he wins the duel and that the unknowing naïve witness is to kill Kojiro should Muashi fail too. We are then walked through Kojiro’s situation of the clan using the duel as an assassination play because many of the non-mainstream retainers look to Kojiro and the Sasaki family as their leaders in a revolt. Knowing that if the central government finds out about a revolt their clan will be dissolved, they decide to sacrifice Kojiro. I’d just like to say that these Asian people are really into the clan system and I wish someone would tell me why anything can be done as long as it is in the name of the clan it is ok?
After the fisherman kills Kojiro and returns to his hamlet with a barely conscious Musashi, a mass of samurai who have come for their revenge. Now Musashi does not want to fight but is left with no alternative. First he beats them without cutting them, but after a few moments it is clear that he will have to kill them all by releasing the beast within himself. The transition from the dignified Ronin to the animal killer reminds me of Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Incredible Hulk. Like the Incredible Hulk, Musashi butchers his opponents almost gracefully. This scene alone makes the movie worth watching.
I give this film full credit for its originality; I was totally taken by surprise—which almost never happens. And while the cinematography was excellent, for some reason it had a made-for-tv-movie feel about it. For Dangerous its final fight scene (shown in full here) is spectacularly choreographed rivaling any I have seen. But again, I just can’t shake the made-for-tv-movie feel. It does not matter. As I mentioned above anyone with any interest in the legendary swordsman should take the time to view this film.
Mel Brooks said it best in History of the World “It’s good to be the king,” or is it? The Masquerade King (2012) South Korea.
Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King is an extremely popular 2012 South Korean historical film starring Lee Byung-hun as both the king and the clown so to speak. The film’s international title is Masquerade and is currently the fourth highest grossing Korean film of all time with 12.3 million tickets sold. The film is also crushing the competition at Korea’s Grand Bell Awards (the equivalent of the Academy Awards), winning in 15 categories, including Best Film, Director, Screenplay and Actor.
Historically, Gwanghae, the 15th Joseon king from 1574-1641, attempted diplomacy through neutrality as China’s Ming and Qing Dynasties set their sights on the country. He also tried his hand at other reforms and reconstruction to try and make the nation prosperous, including an emphasis on the restoration of documents, but met with opposition and was later deposed and exiled to Jeju Island. Like Nixon’s famous missing 18 minutes, the film is an interpretation of the missing 15 days in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty during Gwanghae’s reign—designated by his 1616 journal entry, “One must not record that which he wishes to hide.” It seems that leaders from all over the world understand this point.
The confusing and conspiratorial King Gwang-hae orders his crony, Heo Gyun, to find him a double to protect him from the constant threat of assassination. Heo Gyun finds Ha-sun, a lowly acrobat and joker who looks just like the king. As they feared, the real king gets poisoned. Heo Gyun uses Ha-sun to fill the role as the king until Gwang-hae can make a recovery. Thus Heo Gyun begins the task of turning this clown into the king. He fully grooms Ha-sun to look and act every bit the king. While assuming the role of the king at his first official appearance, Ha-sun begins to ponder the problems and politics debated in his court. The fake king is much more compassionate than Gwang-hae as he puts his people before politics. Ha-sun’s affection and appreciation (simply saying please and thank you) of even the most minor servants slowly changes morale in the palace for the better. Over time he finds his own voice and actually takes control of the kingdom and with the help of a eunuch governs with real insight and fair rulings. Even Heo Gyun is moved by Ha-sun’s genuine concern for the people, and realizes he is an infinitely better ruler than Gwang-hae. However, the Kings enemies, led by Park Chung-seo, start to notice the sudden change in the king’s behavior and begin to ask questions. Even the queen becomes conflicted over the real king and the fake king’s secret.
After pronouncing some sweeping reforms and making significant changes in the government, the entrenched ministers begin to plot against him. Luckily enough people are on the fake king’s side to convince everyone that there is no phony on the throne. But as the real king makes his recovery he orders that his double be killed. This upsets Heo Gyun so much that he offers to have the real king killed if the clown would stay on the throne. The clown becomes a true king in my opinion when he says he will not take the throne if it costs the life of another as he has already seen too much death and torture.
The clown king still has a problem; that is, the real king has sent his elite guard to kill him. An escape for him has been arranged and the real king’s personal bodyguard is escorting him to the ship. However the soldiers that are following catch up to the two. There the bodyguard is told to follow the King’s orders to which he responds “He is the rightful King” and fights the soldiers to the death so his companion can make his escape.
Sound familiar? That is because “The Masquerade King” is a variation of Mark Twain’s “The Prince & The Pauper” except set in Joseon era South Korea and with lots of swords.
The film became the second biggest hit film at the 2012 South Korean box office, attracting 8.2 million admissions in 25 days of release, then 9,091,633 after 31 days. On its 38th day, it became the 7th film in Korean cinema history to surpass the 10 million-milestone attendance. As of March 2013, it is listed as Korea’s all-time fourth highest grossing film with 12,319,542 tickets sold nationwide. The films writer, HWANG Jo-yeon, wrote Old Boy (previously reviewed here at JPFmovies) which is a much darker and frankly almost cruel film.
Man did I enjoy this film. It is interlaced with just enough quality humor to keep it from becoming a dark Shakespearean tragedy. Some of the scenes are priceless, the costumes and sets are dead on and the acting is really top notch. I can see why it is so popular in Korea. If you need a film to make you laugh while still maintaining a good story watch The Masquerade King.