Though absent from Korean marquees this year until now, the period Korean film makes a big comeback with the release of Han Jae-rim's arresting The Face Reader. Sublimely mounted, intriguingly plotted and featuring a terrific cast, this seems the ideal film for Chuseok (Korea's biggest holiday), which it was no doubt carefully tailored for.
Nae-gyeong, Korea's most skilled physiognomist (face reader) lives a secluded life with his son and brother-in-law until one day he is recruited by the gisaeng Yeon-hong. During his time in town he becomes involved in a murder case. After solving it he attracts the interest of King Munjung who engages him to identify potential traitors in his circle. Soon after, the King dies and leaves behind a power struggle between Kim Jong-seo, the late King's advisor, and the Grand Prince Suyang, who seeks to usurp the throne from the young successor Danjong, who is still only a child. Nae-gyeong, loyal to the dead king, becomes embroiled in the conflict.
The Face Reader ticks all the requisite boxes for a tale of period King's court intrigue. It does so in a refreshing fashion by placing the impetus in the hands on non-traditional characters that would not normally be considered agents of change. Also differentiating it from dustier period dramas is its liberal blending of moods and genres. The plotting does go a little all over the place from time to time yet everything does feel of a whole as the various disparate elements never feel superfluous.
Though his star has fallen of late following the misjudged Hindsight (2011) and the unsuccessful Howling, Song Kang-ho is still one of Korea's most reliable performers. His blend of pathos, humor and dopey arrogance is just as engaging now as it ever was. His role as the face reader immediately brings to mind what may well be his most iconic performance, as Detective Park in Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder ten years ago. Song looks deep into people's eyes searching for answers, but this time he seems to have a knack for it. There's nothing different in the persona we've come to expect from him here and while he seems almost a little too comfortable at times, this is Song doing what he does best.
Unlike last year's big period Chuseok film Masquerade, The Face Reader is no one man show as Song shares the screen with a number of formidable players, each with a significant slice of screen time. Baek Yoon-shik (Save the Green Planet, 2003) exudes gravitas in a confident turn, the gorgeous Kim Hye-soo (The Thieves) is on form as the playful and conniving gisaeng, Jo Jung-seok (Architecture 101) is a strong comic foil for Song (much as Oh Dal-soo was in the previous Han Jae-rim/Song Kang-ho collaboration The Show Must Go On, from 2007) and even Lee Jung-seok (R2B: Return to Base) rises up to the task. However, the most surprising performance comes from Lee Jung-jae, who is having a great year following his role in the gangster epic New World earlier this year. As the villainous Prince, he chews the scenery to be sure, his voice raspier and more malevolent than any person's ever could be, but, nevertheless, he is superbly menacing in what may very well be his best role to date.
As good as the cast is, the film's strongest asset may be its sublime mise-en-scene. The costumes and sets are as good as we've come to expect from top flight Korea period dramas but it's the exquisite framing and gorgeous lighting that sets it apart. The film is frequently breathtaking, yet never distracting from the events on screen. It amplifies the film's plot and characters in the best possible way. The stirring soundtrack and the slick editing are also a large part of the film's success, though perhaps the infrequently called upon strobe effects could have been done away with completely.
At 139 minutes the film does feel a bit long though no individual moment ever drags, save for a slightly overblown melodramatic climax. The film is also a tad schizophrenic at times as it rushes between its various characters. It doesn't make the story any harder to follow but can make it difficult to get fully involved in certain scenes as we are quickly whisked off to the next ones.
With a denouement that is coated with a surprising amount of crimson and a bold finish, the film has the ability to surprise again and again. This is in no small way due to director Han Jae-rim, who makes his overdue return following a six-year absence. Having turned the romcom on its head in the terrific Rules of Dating (2005) and provided Korean cinema with one of its finest gangster films in The Show Must Go On, it should come as no surprise that Han has managed to reshape the Chosun period film to his own ends.
Never less than entertaining, this is commercial Korean cinema the way it should be. A lively and lavish production with a strong ensemble cast and terrific technical specs, The Face Reader lives up to its promise.
Disclaimer: I watched The Face Reader at a press screening in Seoul without subtitles. While my Korean is not yet strong enough to have caught everything, I understood the vast majority of the film.