Take a Drink: for every face-reading
Take a Drink: for animation
This kind soyouthinkyoucandancegif
Take a Drink: whenever somebody eats
Take a Drink: awww… puppy!
Take a Drink: awww… vicious betrayal!
Take a Drink: whenever you need to steel your nerves in the third act
Do a Shot: whenever somebody takes Song Kang Ho’s word for it (essentially) to a ludicrous degree
By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Face reading is one style of physiognomy- determining personality and fortune by observing physical characteristics- which as a long, surprisingly influential cultural existence in many Asian countries, even up to the present (my wife told me big Korean corporations will sometimes have a face reader on their interview panels).
I’m more of a phrenology guy myself…
The Face Reader is set in the always popular Joseon Dynasty, where a retired master of the art (Song Kang-ho) is drawn back into the business by a cheeky brothel madam (Kim Hye-soo) and soon finds himself climbing the ladder until he’s an advisor to the King. When the king passes, though, he’s caught in between two powerful men, The Tiger (Baek Yoon-shik) and the Wolf (Lee Jung-jae) and their competing plans for the young heir to the throne.
As usual for Korean period dramas, The Face Reader boasts great production values, with the costuming and production design beautifully shot with DP Go Nak-seon’s top-notch camerawork, which especially shines at night. This is as sleekly made as any Hollywood joint, and manages some shots that rise above even that level.
The film starts slowly, with some pleasant but hardly side-splitting humor and demonstrations of Song Kang-ho’s face-reading talent which my wife was quite right I just had to take for granted to survive the film. Just when I was giving up hope, though, director Han Jae-rim’s larger plan started to come into focus, and pay off in devastating, positively Shakespearean ways. What he’s interested in is the nature of fate-even if you can see things in advance, should you try to change them? Can you? In the end, the face-reading is irrelevant- Song’s talent just makes him blind to, and a victim of, larger forces at work, and the way Han goes about destroying the world and sense of security he’d spent the whole film building up is breath-taking.
The acting is also uniformly strong, with Baek and Lee both doing excellent jobs personifying their namesake predators in their struggle for power and Jo Jung-suk excellent as Song’s brother-in-law and longtime partner whose actions unwittingly set a lot of gears in motion. Song is the center of the film, though, in an unshowy but essential role. His almost conceited confidence gives off some Sherlock vibes at the beginning, which coupled with is good nature and optimism make his later desperation heartbreaking.
Sherlock, or: Fun with High-Functioning Autism
The beginning really should’ve been firmed up by cutting a solid 20 minutes or more. Song and Jo’s comic misadventures at the brothel really drag, and didn’t contribute much at all to the narrative endgame. Also, the first demonstration of his face-reading talents are just… horrifying, as he “solves” a murder with precisely zero evidence, sending a man to his likely death through the power of bullshit. Yeah, you kind of have to take face-reading for granted to enjoy the film, but this scene stretches that too far.
It’s also helpful to know the history of some of these characters to properly appreciate the film. Korean audiences know that The Wolf is a historical asshole, but to outside viewers his entrance will feel thunderingly unsubtle, and that’s not the only moment that would’ve played better with a bit more nuance and ambiguity.
Hmm, wonder if he’s a bad guy?
The Face Reader is a well-produced historical drama with a sneakily-powerful endgame in mind. Stick around for it and you won’t be disappointed.