This must be the most anticipated Korean movie of the year for me. Because I’m a sageuk junkie (on top of being a makjang junkie), and the period being explored is one I’m familiar with (thanks to The Princess’ Man), I was rubbing my hands in glee when I had my
paws hands on this movie. And because I’d been waiting for this movie ever since it was announced, I wasted no time in watching it (though the same cannot be said for writing this review).
And it did not fail to leave an impression. Deeply. It still makes me think, one week after watching. The face reading part is not so important, being a somewhat superstitious practice of the past, though there’re still loads of fortune-tellers these days practising the art of physiognomy, besides palm reading. It all boils down to the choices people make, and not what your facial features tell, literally, that history is created.
It’s been a long while since I cared this much about a movie. Even though I know how things turned out in the end (historically), it’s still an interesting watch, because the whole point of this movie is not the ending, but how we got to the ending. But first, I’ll do a brief summary of the story.
The movie opens with a it’s-a-dark-and-stormy-night scene, at an old yangban’s house. The mysterious old man is suspicious of the medicine his servants bring to him, saying that he has to be even more careful since it came from the King. He tells them that a face reader once told him of his fate…
Kim Nae Gyeong (Song Kang Ho) comes from a shamed yangban family, and lives with his son Jin Hyeong (Lee Jong Suk) and brother-in-law Paeng-heon (Jo Jung Suk) in seclusion. Jin Hyeong hates his fathers hidden talent in face reading, believing that it is shameful for a scholar to practise such a superstitious belief. One day a famous gisaeng Yeon-hong (Kim Hye Soo), together with her male-servant, comes and looks for Nae Gyeong, and confirms his talents in physiognomy. She tried to convince him to join her in the physiognomy business (which is a day business at her gibang), and she herself knows a little on this face reading practice.
Paeng-heon is attracted by the money (and perhaps also the idea of gisaengs surrounding him), and persuades Nae Gyeong to head to Hanyang to join Yeon-hong. Their plan is to leave before daybreak, before Jin Hyeong can stop them, and just to leave a letter for him, promising to earn money. However, Paeng-heon actually also persuades Jin Hyeong to leave before they do, to take refuge at a temple and study for the imperial exams, so as to fulfil his wish to be a scholar.
Nae Gyeong is strongly against Jin Hyeong to be an official, but fate has it that Jin Hyeong becomes one, and ends up being embroiled in the political fight between Grand Prince Suyang (Lee Jung Jae) and General Kim Jong Seo (Baek Yong-shik). General Kim got wind of Nae Gyeong’s abilities, and recruited him to fight against Suyang.
The Face Reader is essentially about a man’s struggle against Fate, and whether really physiognomy works. There was a scene where Nae Gyeong sneaks into Suyang’s room late at night, to add a mole on his face, in an attempt to tamper with Fate. While Nae Gyeong makes use of his abilities to choose upright court officials, as well as solve a murder case, ultimately what is not meant to be, is not meant to be. This movie gives an insight on the superstitions of Joseon, weaved into the actual historical events. Many what-ifs and postulations were also raised, making The Face Reader a movie to ponder over.
I generally detest sagueks…cos the language is convoluted (think Shakespearean English or even earlier) and I end up with a bloody headache after watching. Plus, usually sagueks have pretty bad endings. Well, Face Reader has ALL of that, but it is still a pretty entertaining watch — and 2h is bearable (and headaches free).
Like most sagueks (period dramas) of ANY cultures set in palaces or amidst imperial families, palace intrigue takes centre stage. And as usual, when it comes to power play, there is bound to be bloodshed. I am unfamiliar with the historical period which this movie takes place in, but even then, it is not difficult to follow the plot. In a nutshell: it’s 2 political factions against each other. One, seemingly the “good”, faction supports the previous (deceased) emperor and the current (teenage) emperor versus the other “bad” faction, which wants to overthrow the child emperor and take control over the empire. And as with all things politics, the good campers are not exactly nice people too. There are corrupted officers within the good faction who abuse their authority, raping and pillaging innocent townsfolk on a daily basis.
Lee Jong-suk plays Nae-gyeong’s son in this movie, the upright and idealistic but slightly naive young man who gets caught up pretty badly in the power play. Ironically, it is not his father — who is the central figure in the power tussle — that gets him in trouble (as the viewers feared) but Jin-hyeong’s honesty that eventually killed him. If you are watching juz for Lee Jong-suk, I’d advise you to forget about this movie (though Lee Jong-suk does look cute in long hair). Lee Jong-suk’s character doesn’t appear onscreen very often, and seeing him blinded and later killed by the enemy faction may be disconcerting if you are a fan.
Cute guys aside, what draws me to Face Reader is the superstitious (?) premise of face reading as determining one’s future. So changing one’s facial features implies improving/ destroying one’s future. There is a scene where Yeon-hong performs cosmetic surgery on the drugged Grand Prince Suyang, which is a tongue-in-cheek reference to modern Korea’s (and possibly the whole world’s) craze over plastic surgery and how being prettified artifically is perceived to be able to change a person’s life for the better.
The movie takes this concept and brings it further by asking: does a person’s features really matter in his future and will it really bring him/her happiness? Or is the future determined instead by the person’s actions/behaviours instead of how s/he looks? From the way the story ends, I’d say the movie supports the latter. The tragedy stems from a collection of small, seemingly innocuous decisions that were deemed to be the most “correct” approach at that point in time.
From the beginning, if Nae-gyeong had been content to stay hidden in the mountains as a simple brushmaker, if Paeng-heon hadn’t encourage Jin-hyeong to run away and study for the imperial exams…the father and son won’t be trapped in the palace and the impending power struggle. And if Nae-gyeong and Yeon-hong hadn’t improvised Grand Prince Suyang’s looks to the textbook example of a villain, Grand Prince Suyang may not have set the trap for Nae-gyeong and his son.