DON’T READ THE TRAILER AT FACE VALUE
Nae Gyeong (Song Kang Ho) is the most skillful face reader in the Joseon dynasty. His life turns upside down when he is offered an opportunity by Yeon Hong (Kim Hye Soo), a gisaeng/businesswoman and at Paeng Heon’s (Jo Jung Seok), his brother-in-law, insistence, he takes the job. After reading the face of one of the guests, his skills gets noticed by King Munjong and Nae Gyeong is summoned by King Munjong to identify potential traitors that threaten his reign.
After King Munjong’s untimely death, Nae Gyeong is invited by Grand Prince Suyang (Lee Jung Jae) who yearns to usurp his nephew by whatever means necessary to become King himself. When Nae Gyeong decides to remain loyal to the late King and help Kim Jong Seo (Baek Yoon Shik) to protect the young King, it not only puts his life in danger but endangers the life of his son, Jin Hyung (Lee Jong Suk).
It is one of the most infamous coups in all of Korean history. The father of the Korean alphabet, King Sejong, is succeeded by his firstborn son, King Munjong. However, he was too frail and dies two years later knowing full well that his brother has eyes on the throne. Despite Kim Jong Seo’s attempts to keep Danjong in power, Grand Prince Suyang’s factions help overthrow the government. At the mere age of 13, he is overthrown and two years forced to officially abdicate and live in exile. Suyang’s, who later becomes King Sejo, supporters were fearful of Kim Jong Seo’s followers coming to power again so he ordered that his young nephew be disposed of and was murdered at the age of 16.
After watching the movie’s trailer, I was half expecting some laughs despite the root of this dark tale. After all, I thought the movie was more about the face reader. There are a few laughs scattered here and there but they are few and far between. It’s the history that takes the forefront of this movie. Knowing that and knowing where Nae Gyeong’s allegiances lie, it’s pretty obvious that Prince Suyang is going to be the villain of the movie.
How does the movie remain to be interesting and thrilling if there are historical elements you can’t change? Well, the strength of the movie lies in the two leads. Song Kang Ho and Lee Jung Jae play an interesting game of cat and mouse which kept the thrills going. At times I thought Lee Jung Jae’s evilness might have bordered the lines of caricature but I think it was really effective to see the lengths Prince Suyang went to secure his crown. Lee Jung Jae plays him with such vigorous but frightening energy. I feel like he sneers in almost every scene. Plus, the scar on his face does not make him look any less threatening. It makes the threat to our hero all the more dire and it’s shocking when you see the choices that Nae Gyeong makes.
Out of the entire cast, Lee Jong Suk is this movie’s newbie. While I think he’s a pretty good actor, he buckles under the pressure of acting against these thespians. He’s a very necessary character in helping us sympathize with Nae Gyeong but otherwise he’s forgettable which is pretty disappointing. Nevertheless, I do think he’s got great potential for his future and I don’t think it’s fair to be too hard on him as there were a lot of weighty performances in this film.
On the other hand, I think Chae Sang Woo (The Strange Housekeeper) had a very small role as King Danjong but he was very effective. At first, he’s defiant and unwilling to believe Nae Gyeong insights about his uncle. We do see Prince Suyang worming his way into Danjong’s good graces. The look of shock and betrayal on his face is priceless once he fully grasps who his uncle really is.
Matching the film’s tone, the cinematography is dark and broody, chock full of night scenes and lightening-filled skies. While we do see a “caper” of sorts in one important sequence, this is a bleak drama with a very bittersweet ending. In that way, I felt that the trailer was very misleading. Still, the performances are pretty, damn powerful that immerses you into this chilling depiction of the Prince Suyang story.