Its a typical weekday at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. Clint Eastwood is signing autographs just outside the hotels front window for a cluster of near-frantic fans. A parade of the wealthy and connected pass through the lobby on their way to lunch at the hotel, ground zero for industry deal-making. Inside the bar, however, no one gives even a sideways glance at the handsome, tousle-haired actor Byung-hun Lee, who at first appears somewhat unsure of himself as he speaks quietly in halting English.
Then Lee turns toward his translator and as he talks to her in his native Korean, his demeanor changes entirely. His voice grows deep and strong, he sits up straight and his eyes take on a commanding glow.
Suddenly, it makes sense that Lee is called South Koreas Brad Pitt. Its a comparison invited by his smoldering good looks, easygoing charm and mega-star status at home. In Seoul, he would be the one surrounded by frantic fans.
His 2012 film, Masquerade, is a smash hit in South Korea. Its his most ambitious and far-reaching film to date and one that just might push him to a new level of fame in America.
Masquerade, showing Sunday at the Douglass Theatre, is Lees first period film and marks his first crack at playing two characters in one movie. The sweeping historical drama, which also contains some seriously funny scenes, is set in AD 1600 in the royal palace of Koreas Joseon Dynasty. Lee plays both King Gwang-hae and Ha-seon, a low-brow peasant performer who is recruited to pose as the king during a period that the king fears someone is trying to assassinate him.
Gwang-hae is a deeply controversial figure in Korean history. He is believed to have been a harsh, even cruel ruler, but it is also thought that he was responsible for enacting humanitarian and visionary policies. The film imagines a scenario where the good policies were the work of a sympathetic body double. Lee plays both characters to great effect. The Times Robert Abele praised Lees commanding central performances.
The most important thing is that (the double) has to be loved by the audience, says Lee, who imbues Ha-seon with a palpable warmth and brings him to life with skilled physical comedy that borders on slapstick.
I was worried about the comic scenes, Lee says. They were risky. Too much physical comedy could be considered a farce and not sophisticated. Getting it just right, controlling it, was really hard.
Thats because at heart Masquerade is an earnest film about the inherent goodness in humans, with Ha-seon emerging as a hero of the people. Its a tear-jerker thats not afraid of the occasional fart joke.
When: 2 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Douglass Theatre, 355 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Information: 742-2000 or Maconfilmguild.org