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The Face Reader - Movie Poster
Original Title:

South Korea 2013

Drama, Period

Han Jae-rim

Song Kang-ho
Lee Jeong-jae
Jo Jeong-seok
Baek Yoon-sik
Lee Jong-suk
Kim Hye-soo
Kim Ee-seong
Chae Sang-woo
Lee Yoon-geon
Jeong Gyoo-soo

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The Face Reader

Story: Nae-gyeong (Song Kang-ho) can read people's faces, yet he lives secluded in the countryside with his brother Paeng-hon (Jo Jeong-seok) and his son Jin-hyeong (Lee Jong-suk) and sells brushes. However, one day he is visited by the female head of a house of pleasure (Kim Hye-soo) who offers him lucrative work in town as a face reader. Jin-hyeong doesn't like to see his father read faces, but since he is going into town himself in order to pass the exam of a royal official, Nae-gyeong secretly agrees to the deal. Soon after he has drawn the attention of the royal court and the high-ranking official Kim Jong-seo (Baek Yoon-sik) starts to get interested in his skills. Now that Nae-gyeong serves Kim even the king himself calls for the face reader. The king wants Nae-gyeong to take a look at his closest servants and brothers and tell him who could be trying to unthrone him in the future. The most ambitious of them seems to be prince Suyang (Lee Jeong-jae) and soon deadly intrigues become apparent at the royal court. Nae-gyeong has no experience in this new world and needs to learn how to handle things with care.

Review: After the success of "Masquerade" the year before there was a strong need for another big budget flick that made the cash register ring during Korean Chuseok holidays. And "The Face Reader" managed to do precisely that. Considering the sets and props as well as the star-studded cast it would have been odd if "The Face Reader" hadn't hit the mark, though. In technical respects there is nothing to find fault with, acting-wise there is nothing to complain about either, of course, only the screenplay can be accused of displaying a certain unfocusedness, which especially breaks through towards the end. Yet, there are smart intrigues, captivating dialogues and well drawn characters. Therefore, the aforementioned problems shouldn't prevent anyone from watching this period movie, if you like the genre.

The Face Reader - Film Screenshot 11

What's unusual in "The Face Reader" is that there is not really one single individual standing in the center of events. In a way Nae-kyeong without a doubt fills that spot, but as things progress the focus shifts, which actually is a good choice. Moreover, Nae-kyeong isn't anyone who normally would serve at the royal court which makes him a character you can easily relate to. Furthermore, this fact occasionaly also allows some more comedic scenes finding their way into the drama. Particularly the first hour is pretty lighthearted and thus manages that a rather long introduction is astonishingly entertaining. After that attention more and more turns to other characters of the story and this leaves a positive impression at first.

The Face Reader - Film Screenshot 12

Being especially appealing is that the introduction of the several individuals and their respective political goals they are after is got across in a way for us to easily grasp everything going on. You won't be getting overwhelmed by too many faces and names and you soon have a rough idea about who has what kind of attitude towards who. Acting-wise Song Kang-ho ("Memories of Murder", "Secret Reunion") may take the reins most of the time, being the veteran that he is, but often enough his opponent and villain Lee Jeong-jae ("New World", "The Housemaid") outshines him, as he always remains despicable, but in a truely sophisticated manner. Not everyone manages to pull that off and in fact Lee is just the right guy for this kind of role. You can even tell reading his face...

The supporting cast doesn't want to be outdone by not working on a high quality level either. Especially Baek Yoon-sik ("The Taste of Money", "Save the Green Planet") once again stands out. It's also thanks to the fantastic actors that "The Face Reader" is full of strong moments. Many scenes simply have a special intensity which at the end you will look for to no avail, though. Here things start to become too melodramatic and that harms the movie even to such a degree that you can't really suffer along with the characters. A soundtrack made use of too heavily in those scenes is also the reason why the commercial nature of the movie suddenly becomes apparent in a rather unpleasant way.

The Face Reader - Film Screenshot 13

Director Han Jae-rim ("The Show Must Go On", "Rules of Dating") knows his craft and composes every single frame with a lot of details. That's mesmerizing, yet it almost gives the pictures something artificial - as can be seen in the scene where a traitor who wants to save Suyang's life is received by the king's brother while in the background bolts of lightning can be seen above the palace. Nevertheless: The sets and the costumes are great and are proof of the undoubtfully high budget. Yet, we don't really know what kind of message "The Face Reader" wants to convey in the end. It's almost as if a knot is unravelled and there are several threads we could follow. Despite that, a running time of 138 minutes, which seems a tad too long, and some forced melodrama "The Face Reader" remains a well done period movie.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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