Dave is a comedy about an everyday guy (Kevin Kline) whose resemblance to the US president finds him tasked with playing the role of the leader of the free world while the real man recovers from an illness. He’s meant to be nothing more than a placeholder, but his discovery of class distinctions both tragic and comical instead leads him to use the position and power to do good deeds for the country and for the real president’s estranged wife.
It’s a wonderful film (and Ivan Reitman’s last great one too) that itself, like many other movies, owes a debt of sorts to Mark Twain’s classic The Prince and the Pauper. Twain’s literary influence extends well beyond North America’s borders to include direct adaptations like the 1968 Bollywood film Raja Aur Runk and thematic ones like this year’s South Korean box-office hit, Masquerade.
It’s 1616, and King Gwanghae (Lee Byung-hun) is facing internal threats during his 8th year of reign. Fearing for his life he orders his men to find him a double to be his public face. They find one in Ha-seon (also Lee Byung-hun), a comical performer, and it’s just in time too as Gwanghae quickly falls ill under suspicious circumstances. Ha-seon discovers the life of a king is a ridiculous one filled with executions, official decrees and royal bum-wipers, and he decides that maybe he can do more with his new role than simply act it out…
Ha-seon bumbles his way through the first few days of his pretend reign, but the more he comes to understand how the 1% live the less he understands why. The court is riddled with corruption, the region’s taxation laws are applied unfairly and the queen’s (Han Hyo-joo) brother has been imprisoned and tortured on false charges. Ha-seon’s carefree attitude soon gives way to a moral responsibility, but his time is running out as the real king is nearing recovery and members of the court are starting to catch on to the ruse.
Director Choo Chang-min and writer Hwang Jo-yoon take their narrative cue from Twain and Dave, but the story’s impetus actually comes from history. More accurately, it comes from a gap in history. The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty are a series of records documenting Korea’s reigning dynasties from 1413 to 1865, and King Gwanghae’s section contains an interesting entry stating that “One must not record that which he wishes to hide.”
It’s followed by fifteen missing days.
This combination of inspiration and imagination results in a wonderfully entertaining look at the injustice of class distinctions that appeals and applies to the modern day quite well. It’s a fantasy of sorts in that we all want to see someone with heart and compassion attain a position of power to do real good, but the fun, wishful thinking comes with a strong sense of dramatic reality as well.
Key to the film’s success, in addition to the story itself and its sumptuous visuals, is Lee’s central dual performance. He brings the cruel and paranoid king to life as more than just a simple cookie-cutter bad guy, but it’s his portrayal of the comic Ha-seon that sells the film and makes it an affecting experience. His growth from hired performer to someone who truly cares about the people he’s reigning above is a gradual shift that Lee presents through his eyes and expressions as often as his words. Where once he was concerned solely for his own well being he now must choose possible sacrifice to save others. Viewers are more accustomed to seeing Lee in roles where he tackles obstacles with violence and action, but here neither of those are options. Unsurprisingly, he’s just as effective without them.
Just as good in smaller roles are Kim In-kwon as the captain of the guards who initially suspects a ruse before coming to respect Ha-seon and Ryoo Seung-yong as the king’s Chief Advisor who knows the truth but still finds his expectations exceeded by the actor’s unexpected kindness.
Masquerade has a gentle simplicity about it, as does Dave, in that viewers have a hopeful understanding as to what this accidental tourist in the world of the powerful and elite can actually accomplish. There are laughs to be found here, both crass and subtle, but it’s the film’s heart and awareness that will stick with viewers after the credits roll. Now go out and vote people.
The Upside: Lee Byung-hun delivers a lively and emotionally layered performance; strong sense of humor; beautiful cinematography
The Downside: All kidding aside, plot really does hew incredibly close to Dave; some unanswered questions at the end
On the Side: The film’s Korean title is simply Gwanghae, as the real king is well known even in modern day Korea.
Masquerade is currently playing in limited theatrical release