Hello Asia! KOFFIA 2015 Film Review - The Face Reader (South Korea, 2013)

Korean historical dramas are one of my favourite genres - their insight into Korean history, royal hierarchies and language are boundless, and they provide a visually rich and compelling landscape for stories much more relatable to a western audience than you'd expect. The Face Reader is no exception - enthralling, intriguing and most certainly entertaining. I've since found myself trying to read the faces of my housemates, clients and even my cat, but I've yet to have any luck.

Set in the Joseon era, Nae-Gyeong (Song Kang-Ho) is a very skilled face reader - he is one who can tell a person's habits and personality just from looking at their face. After his son Jin-Hyeong (Lee Jong-Suk) leaves to study to become a public officer, even though the odds are stacked against him due to his family's low stature, Nae-Gyeong is sought out by a gisaeng (courtesan) called Yeon-Hong (Kim Hye-Soo) to work at her establishment in Hanyang (now Seoul). The pull of money is too strong for Nae-Gyeong and his brother-in-law Paeng-Heon find themselves in high demand, even solving a murder case with his face-reading skills. When word spreads, Nae-Gyeong is summoned to the palace at the behest of Kim Jong-Seo (Baek Yoon-Sik, the second most powerful man in the county, to hire public officers with trustworthy faces. As he becomes increasingly involved in the politics of the country, his position becomes more and more dangerous.

The Face Reader won six awards at the 50th Grand Bell Awards, and it's not hard to see why. Director Han Jae-Rim took out the gong for best director, lead actor Song Kang-Ho the award for best actor and the flick won the title of best film, pulling in US$61 million at the Korean box office.

The film follows a standard progression for Korean period cinema from comedy to drama to tragedy, as well as an unusual linguistic progression from a modern and casual speaking style completely at odds with the historical setting, to a very formal and traditional style of speech much more befitting of the time and place. It's a subtlety that is almost impossible to communicate with subtitles, but would be very distinct and obvious to a Korean audience and is absolutely worth mentioning.

It's almost impossible to pick just one standout cast member in this instance as each acted skilfully and believably, and their team effort made the experience a joy to watch. The "bromance" between Song Kang-Ho's Nae-Gyeong and Jo Jung-Suk's Paeng-Heon, was charming to watch, the pair believably very close and unafraid to clash as they set out to become rich and famous together. Conversely, Lee Jung-Jae's conniving and ambitious Prince Sooyang was the perfect bad guy - the wolfish casanova of death, willing to do whatever it takes to ascend to the throne. Of course, lead actor Song-Kang-Ho delivers as the halfway out-of-his-depth, halfway superhuman-fortune-teller who, despite enjoying the luxury and prestige of assisting the court, will always put his family first.

The score, composed by Lee Byung-Woo features the expected orchestral sounds, but to great effect - using lilting woodwinds and pentatonic phrases to paint the picture of the peaceful countryside life, slow and sad strings in moments of loss and bold brass to punctuate action.

Shot with flattened highlights and shadows to give a filmic appearance, the movie was lit beautifully, dramatic and subtle, with a huge focus on the face to best express the emotions of the characters. The film does seem to drag a little at over two hours in length, but with so many characters and the detailed levels of Korean nobility it would be difficult to pare it down any further.

I feel that The Face Reader might be a complicated introduction to Korean cinema, and wouldn't recommend it to anyone who didn't already have a basic grasp on Korean history and its accompanying culture, but for the initiated it is a wonderful example of Korean period drama, a tale at times both hilarious and heartwrenching and a look into a world very different to our own.

Review score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Running Time: 140 minutes (w/English Subtitles)

The Face Reader screens at KOFFIA in Melbourne on the 6th of September and Canberra on 5th September.

KOFFIA continues in Melbourne from September 3 – 10, Canberra on September 5 and 6, Perth from September 17-20 and Adelaide from September 24 to 27.

For more information, the complete film program and tickets visit