Palace intrigue and bureaucratic reform in 15th Century Korea are deftly handled in The Face Reader. Kang-ho Song as always is fun to watch as the titular character, who winds his way from poverty and disgrace to the heights of power and back again. Director Jae-rim Han keeps the story simple enough for non-Korean audiences to follow this Korean period drama, which makes it a good introduction to the genre.
Quilla over at kudalakorn.com remarked regarding my review of Secretly, Greatly about how easy it is to be distracted by pretty faces on film. Sure is. But it isn’t really a distraction. One of the distinctive features of film has been its ability to showcase faces close up for us to review, and it is very natural for us when presented with them to read them and judge them like we would judge the faces of strangers or anyone we meet socially. We’ve been looking at faces as a species since before we learned how to walk upright and well before we thought about making stone tools. If Lisa Zunshine is correct, we enjoy reading novels because they present social puzzles for us to solve by gaining access to the inner thoughts of characters. We probably enjoy movies somewhat because they present faces for us to read, free of the risks involved with, say, actually having to meet a dangerous assassin. That the faces are usually appealing is hardly a side benefit. Director Jae-rim Han and co-screenwriter Dong-Hyuk Kim invite us to indulge our social habit in the period drama, the Face Reader, a relatively straightforward tragedy about a man tasked with weeding out conspirators for a Joseon monarch in the 15th Century.
Kang-ho Song (Snow Piercer, The Host, J.S.A.) plays the physiognomist of the story, Nae-kyung. He is a very good fit for the role, given that he possesses one of the more expressive and familiar faces in Korean film. Equal parts drunk fool and sober wise man, Nae-kyung is the scholarly son of a disgraced former court official exiled to the countryside. With few prospects of restoring the family name so that he or his son can enter the bureaucracy, he lives his life near starvation, making what he can from trapping and selling brooms. He also reads faces, and from a quick study of a face can identify personality traits, good and bad. Even by the standards of medieval Korea, physiognomy is hardly an esteemed science, and Nae-kyung’s son (Jong-suk Lee, a face worth reading, indeed) declaims that it is beneath a scholar to make money that way. The skill does attract the attention of a Kisaeng (a courtesan) who invites him to Seoul to work at her establishment. Although he is a popular attraction, Nae-kyun soon finds himself involved with police work and the 15th century equivalent of human resource screening tests. Like all pseudo-sciences, physiognomy works best if people are willing to believe it and nothing makes people susceptible to belief than unsettled times and anecdotal success.
The trouble comes in the form of a succession problem at court. The elderly King Munjong (Tae-woo Kim) is dying and will be leaving the throne to his 12 year-old son. Worried that his son will be deposed in a coup, the king tasks Nae-kyung with identifying ambitious and ruthless men at court. Satisfied with the results, the king gives our reader responsibility to protect the crown prince after his death. From such humble beginnings, Nae-kyung finds himself involed in the highest reaches of palace intrigue, first as an observer and finally as an active participant. The highlight of the action comes when Nae-kyung attempts to alter the face of one of the contenders for power in order to discredit him, in a very audacious bit of 15th century plastic surgery.
As an historic thriller, the Face Reader works by keeping it simple. The court is divided into only two camps, one surrounding the Grand Viceroy Kim (Yoon-sik Baek), also known as the Tiger, and Prince Sooyang (Jung-jae Lee), known as the Wolf. While the production is lush and full of detail, this isn’t the type of period drama that requires a lot of knowledge of the power relations of the many types of offices, schools, and traditions of Joseon government. There are many types of hats worn at court, but it isn’t crucial to learn what those hats mean in the hierarchy of privilege and authority to follow the story. We are freed from that to take a close look at some of the faces.
Instead, the history of the Face Reader is meant to be the setting to explore several themes raised by the physiometry, such as the judgements we pass on people and the limits on the ability to tell the truth or even see that truth when it may be staring us in the face. Our face reader, despite his initial success, is subject to manipulation, power, and familial concerns which cloud his objectivity. His chief adversary, Prince Sooyang,forces him to take a side in the simmering conflict between Tiger and Wolf, and once he does, he is no longer an objective practitioner. At some point like many of us, family needs and the desires that others have for power, wealth and honor are overwhelming for Nae-kung. He turns out to not be that much different from the other sycophants in the movie when faced with that wave. He loses his ability to be candid, and is trapped into falling in line. Unfortunately, a face reader who just tells someone what they want to hear is not very useful or dangerous. I’m not certain what I would do when facing Nae-kyung’s dilemma, since the powerful circles of the court claim to want the truth spoken, but will punish truth tellers and liars alike. Both Nae-kyung and his son are the victims of shifts in the tolerance for the outspoken.
The performances in the Face Reader are uniformly on point, but Song and Hye-soo Kim stood out for me in their scenes together. I especially liked that Hye-soo was cast as a woman with power in her own right who did not have the need to fall for Nae-kyung’s charm. She was a partner and had friendly affection for him, but as there was no reason to add a love interest, she is free to look after her own interests. I thought Jung-jae Lee was a little over the top as the primary antagonist of the film, but then the character probably demanded that. Sooyang clearly can’t hide his desire for power and outside of dishonor of treason, has no reason to cover his ambitions. It is an unrestrained performance for certain.
I would recommend the Face Reader as an introduction to the period Korean drama. The plot is simple to follow, but exciting enough as a thriller to keep one’s interest in the outcome, and not too complicated that one may lose focus on the fabulous costumes and set pieces while trying to figure out what everyone is up to. Motives are clear, and to be honest, it is good to watch a thriller that isn’t complicated by a love story addition or over-reliance on swordplay to keep interest levels high.