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.