The ancient art of physiognomy gets entertaining exposition in “The Face Reader,” though it’s the vicious but gripping court intrigue that shapes this South Korean costume drama from maverick helmer Han Jae-rim. Charting the rise and fall of a fortuneteller who reads people like an open book, but remains blind to sea changes behind the corridors of power, this stately but not overwrought production is an elegant vehicle for a cast toplined by Song Kang-ho and Lee Jung-jae. Domestic B.O. has exceeded $61 million, but the heavy historical background will relegate the film to a fringe affair Stateside.
Han may have only three completed titles to his name, but he’s a technically polished helmer who pushes the envelope in his treatment of mainstream genres. His “Rules of Dating” (2005) explores controversial sexual politics under the guise of a romantic drama, while “The Show Must Go On” (2007) blends comedy with violent gangster hijinks in an off-kilter manner. With “The Face Reader,” he turns the Joseon dynasty palace saga, a Korean TV staple, into a philosophical inquiry into whether character determines fate or vice versa. With subtle irony, the film depicts how an attempt to reconfigure one’s destiny results in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Nae-kyung (Song Kang-ho), the son of a once-illustrious government official, possesses the extraordinary gift of being able to tell people’s character and future by their facial lineaments. Since his father’s fall from grace, the widower has been banished to the countryside where he struggles to feed his teenage son, Jin-hyeong (Lee Jong-suk), and brother-in-law, Paeng-heon (Cho Jung-seok). His chance to put his talent to use and restore his clan’s glory arrives when Yeon-hong (Kim Hye-soo, getting short shrift in a decorative role), the madame of a bordello, hires him to provide fortunetelling services to her clients.
No sooner has Nae-kyung moved to the capital city of Hanyang than he becomes a celebrity. Even ailing King Moonjong (Kim Tae-woo) entrusts him with the task of discerning the faces of traitorous courtiers. However, he is swept into a deadly power struggle between the country’s two most influential men: vice premier Kim Jong-seo (Baek Yun-shik), nicknamed “the Tiger,” and the King’s brother Prince Su-yang (Lee Jung-jae), nicknamed “the Wolf.”
As is customary for Korean period sagas, the narrative dawdles over scenes of rustic humor and some lame, bawdy banter for well over 30 minutes before delving into the titular subject. Nae-kyung plies his skills in a way that incorporates sleuthing elements and sometimes resembles forensic science. But the film only heats up at the midpoint, when Su-yang makes an electrifying entrance that conveys his predatory nature with just one slow-motion shot of his swaggering mink coat. Plots and counterplots arrive in quick succession in the second and third acts as the yarn gallops toward its brutal climax.
As the sharp-eyed, agile and rapacious Su-yang, Lee gives a vividly lupine performance. Having perfected his louche playboy act in “The Housemaid” and “The Thieves,” he obviously relishes the heavyweight role of ambitious Machiavellian, playing the haughty aristocrat so well he acts like he’s entitled to any act of felony. Baek (“The Taste of Money”) delivers an equally mettlesome performance as Su-yang’s archnemesis Kim, going beyond mere impersonation of a tiger’s physical traits to invest the character with guts, tenacity and strength.
Though Song is watchable in his role as an unsuspecting pawn, he is somewhat overshadowed by Lee and Baek. Nevertheless, his character gains tragic momentum as he strives to earn his son’s respect by pledging loyalty to the young crown prince Danjong (Chae Sang-woo), knowing that by doing so, he would jeopardize Jin-hyeong’s newfound career as a civil servant, and even endanger his life. Thus, a touching parallel emerges between the King and Nae-kyung, who, despite their great difference in rank, are just fathers worried about their children’s survival in a treacherous world.
Tech credits, especially the meticulous palace decor by Lee Ha-jun, are richly appointed.