You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Face Reader’

This stately but not overwrought Korean production is an elegant vehicle for its strong cast.


Song Kang-ho, Lee Jung-jae, Baek Yun-shik, Kim Hye-soo, Cho Jung-seok, Lee Jong-suk, Kim Tae-woo, Chae Sang-woo, Jeong Gyu-su.

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.

Film Review: 'The Face Reader'

Reviewed at Busan Film Festival (market), Oct. 9, 2013. Running time: 139 MIN. Original title: "Gwan sang"


(South Korea) A Dreamwest (in U.S.)/Showbox/Mediaplex (in South Korea) release and presentation of a Jupiter Film, Showbox/Mediaplex production. (International sales: Showbox/Mediaplex, Seoul.) Produced by Joo Pil-ho, You Jeong-hun. Executive producer, You Jeong-hun.


Directed by Han Jae-rim. Screenplay, Kim Dong-hyuk, Han. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Go Rak-sun; editor, Kim Chang-ju; music, Lee Byung-woo; production designer, Lee Ha-jun; costume designer, Shim Hyun-seob; sound (Dolby Digital), Choi Tae-young; re-recording mixer, Leem Dae-ji; choreography, Park Jung-ryul; makeup, Lee Seo-jin; special effects, DND Line; special effects supervisor, Park Yo-seo; visual effects supervisor, Yang Il-seok; visual effects, Digital Idea.


Song Kang-ho, Lee Jung-jae, Baek Yun-shik, Kim Hye-soo, Cho Jung-seok, Lee Jong-suk, Kim Tae-woo, Chae Sang-woo, Jeong Gyu-su.

More Film

  • Italy's Notorious Pictures on Buying Spree

    Cannes: Italy's Notorious Pictures on Buying Spree Takes 'Vivarium,' Ups Production (EXCLUSIVE)

    Italian distribution, production, and exhibition company Notorious Pictures is on a buying spree at the Cannes Film Market where they’ve acquired four high-profile titles, including Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots sci-fi-fier “Vivarium,” which world-premiered in Critics’ Week. On the production side the expanding outfit has teamed up with Belgium’s Tarantula Productions on Islamic terrorism thriller [...]

  • Marco Bellocchio The Traitor Cannes

    Director Marco Bellocchio Talks About Cannes Mafia Drama 'The Traitor'

    Cannes veteran Marco Bellocchio’s vast body of work spans from “Fists in the Pockets” (1965) to “Sweet Dreams,” which launched at Directors’ Fortnight in 2016. The auteur known for psychodramas and for bringing the complexities of Italian history, and hypocrisy, to the big screen is back, this time in competition, with “The Traitor,” a biopic [...]

  • Director Tudor Giurgiu on Transylvania Film

    Director Tudor Giurgiu on Transilvania Film Festival Opening Film ‘Parking’

    CANNES–A poet, a romantic, and a stranger in a strange land, Adrian is a Romanian immigrant working as a night watchman at a car dealership in Cordoba. After leaving his old life behind, he falls in love with a Spanish singer who offers him a shot at reinvention. But when a money-making scheme by his [...]

  • Their Algeria

    Lina Soualem’s ‘Their Algeria’ Wins First Docs-in-Progress Award

    CANNES–Lina Soualem’s “Their Algeria” won the inaugural Docs-in-Progress Award, a €10,000 ($11,300) cash prize given out by the Cannes Film Market’s Doc Corner with the support of the Intl. Film Talent Association (IEFTA), which was presented Tuesday at a ceremony at the Plage des Palmes. Soualem’s directorial debut was chosen out of the 24 works-in-progress [...]

  • Film Review: The Orphanage

    Cannes Film Review: 'The Orphanage'

    Amusing, at times poignant Bollywood re-creations are used in “The Orphanage” much as Afghan director Shahrbanoo Sadat mixed folklore with realism in her award-winning “Wolf and Sheep,” in both cases to add heightened levels of cultural significance and an element of fantasy as necessary correlatives to hardscrabble lives. While Sadat’s second feature is something of [...]

  • Three Identical Strangers

    Film News Roundup: 'Three Identical Strangers' Feature Adaptation Taps 'Bohemian Rhapsody' Writer

    In today’s film news roundup, “Three Identical Strangers” is moving ahead, Skeet Ulrich has been cast with Tom Hanks, the “Minions” sequel has been titled and “Vegas Dave” is getting a movie. MCCARTEN ATTACHED “Bohemian Rhapsody” screenwriter Anthony McCarten will write and produce the feature adaptation of the documentary “Three Identical Strangers.” Raw, Film4 and [...]

  • Bong Joon-ho, Choi Woo-shik. Director Bong

    Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' Earns Five-Minute Cannes Ovation

    Just days after the announcement of the selection of “Parasite” for main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho warned members of the local press not to expect his film to win the Palme d’Or. He also suggested that the film was “hyper local” and possibly difficult for foreign audiences to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content