Given the pedigree of Lee Byung-Hun's most recognized works in the eyes of Western audiences, most notably his film stealing scenes as Storm Shadow in "GI Joe: Rise of Cobra" and "GI Joe: Retaliation," it is a very easy, but ultimately incredibly ignorant assumption to assume a film like "Masquerade" getting a fairly notable DVD release in the United States might fall under the umbrella of Byung-Hun's other action oriented starring roles (i.e. "The Good, the Bad, and the Weird," "RED 2," etc.) "Masquerade" is not an action film though, despite the somewhat misleading cover, but in fact a strikingly produced, incredibly solid, historical drama focused on King Gwanghae, who ruled the during the Joseon Dynasty in the very early 1600s. Quite specifically the film focuses on a period in Gwanghae's reign known as the missing 15 days and uses this as the mean's to tell a long familiar story, "The Prince and the Pauper."
Director Choo Chang-Min shows tremendous technical skill not only offering audiences a film with an eye-catching level of production design and detail, but giving Lee Byung-Hun the platform to tackle a challenging dual-role which asks him a multi-faceted performance as the stoic and quite paranoid King Gwanghae, but also an earnestly funny performance as the acrobat, Ha-sun, who finds himself before the King after being caught by royal officials crudely lampooning the honored leader in a local inn. This initial pairing of Byung-Hun against himself is an immediate taste of what's to come as the meek, terrified Ha-sun, who quivers in both physicality and voice, only to transform immediately into the embodiment of his ruler upon command. Once again, Byung-Hun cements his status as a skilled actor and vessel of charisma, winning over even the most cynical viewer who may raise unfair issue with the film treading familiar narrative ground.
Once the film establishes the identity switch (a plot point that does give appropriate justification to Gwanghae's inherent paranoia), "Masquerade" does become a familiar exercise in narrative and it's not long before Ha-sun fulfils his role as a voice of reason and empathy, far removed from a lineage of privilege and aristocracy. The film could have made it's point and wrapped up long before it's 131-minute runtime, but Chang-Min allows his characters and story develop at a natural, fluid pace, softening the often 180-degree moral stances supporting characters undergo as they become closer to Ha-sun, not to mention Ha-sun's struggle with following his heart and the need to maintain the illusion of the absent ruler. Much to my own surprise, the film's action-focused finale, while equally and skillfully filmed as what precedes it, satisfies on a visceral level, but comes off the film's only truly clichéd element: a "clean" ending regardless of the outcome for either side.
"Masquerade" doesn't break much if any original cinematic ground, and ultimately serves best as a high-water mark for the career of Lee Byung-Hun thus far, giving audiences, well, Western audiences at least, a taste for the actor's dramatic and comedic talents, proving Byung-Hun is a top all-around performer. Choo Chang-Min's direction shows the hand of a well-accomplished craftsman, evoking the rare feeling of a period film that never feels gimmicky and utilizes the setting strictly as needed for historical context, letting the script and actors remaining the focal point in his camera's lens, not lavish costumes and sets (which, don't get me wrong, are eye-catching, but feel natural and never forced). In fact, "Masquerade" comes even more highly recommended due to it taking the familiar "Prince and Pauper" tale and attaching it to a non-Western culture, resulting in a firm reinforcement of universal themes.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sports a nearly artifact free, strongly detailed, image. The color definition is eye catching, most notably early in the film during a scene where Gwanghae's golden robes are matched against an ornate golden sculpture behind him. The transfer isn't reference quality, but does manage to provide a consistently solid visual component to a well-crafted period drama.
The Dolby Digital Korean 5.1 audio track is incredibly more vibrant compared to its 2.0 counterpart with a strong soundstage. The mix is a tad too aggressive at times, with dialogue, especially sometimes intentionally murmured dialogue feeling sonically out of balance with elements of the soundtrack. In addition to the 2.0 Korean soundtrack, 5.1 and 2.0 English dubs are included as well as English subtitles.
Extras include two featurettes on lighting and cinematography as well as production design. Rounding out the bonus features are a handful of deleted scenes.
"Masquerade" is an all-around, solid period drama, mixing sweeping historical politics with occasional humor, rich character drama, and a dose of action added in for good measure. The performance of Lee Byung-Hun is reason enough to offer the film your valuable time and the technical presentation of this disc is more than adequate. Highly Recommended.