Film Review: Han Jae-rim’s “The Face Reader”

Article by Christopher Bourne

Han Jae-rim, though he has only made three features so far, is now one of my favorite Korean filmmakers, who has mastered the art of taking familiar film genres and turning them on their heads. “Rules of Dating” (2005), underneath its romantic-comedy veneer, was a caustic take on the war between the sexes, while “The Show Must Go On” (2007), combined violent gangster-film tropes with domestic comedy to create a volatile, off-kilter mixture. Now Han returns from a six-year absence in a huge way with “The Face Reader,” a massive-box office hit that transforms its familiar Joseon dynasty-era costume drama trappings into an existential inquiry into the nature destiny and character. There is none of the fusty, mannered atmosphere that often afflicts period pieces; “The Face Reader” always feels fresh and contemporary.

The story here deals with the ancient art of physiognomy, or “face reading,” which as practiced in the film, seems like a cross between fortunetelling and CSI-type sleuthing. Nae-kyung (Song Kang-ho), a master of this art, lives in countryside seclusion with his teenage son Jin-hyeong (Lee Jong-suk) and brother-in-law Paeng-heon (Cho Jung-seok). Nae-kyung has had to lay low in disgrace after the branding of his father as a traitor. But word still spreads of his face-reading abilities, and this brings giseang house madam Yeon-hong (Kim Hye-soo, disappointingly underused) to visit him. Very impressed by his abilities, she hires him to provide face-reading services for her clients. This has Nae-kyung and Paeng-heon moving to the capital Hanyang, while Jin-hyeong pursues a civil service career against his father’s wishes.

Notwithstanding Yeon-hong’s tricking Nae-kyung into drunkenly signing an onerous contract, the news of Nae-kyung’s great abilities reaches the royal court, where the ailing King Moonjong (Kim Tae-woo) enlists Nae-kyung to use his face-reading skills to determine who is plotting against him. After the King dies, Nae-kyung becomes embroiled in the power struggle between vice-premier Kim Jong-seo (Baek Yoon-sik) and the King’s brother, Grand Prince Suyang (Lee Jeong-jae), who schemes to usurp the throne from the deceased King’s very young successor. The side of the battle Nae-kyung chooses to support will prove to have significant and irreversible consequences for him personally.

At 139 minutes, “The Face Reader” is somewhat overlong, and could have greatly benefited from a much tighter narrative construction. Also, having to juggle its many characters proves to be detrimental to its pacing, especially in its later scenes. Still, this remains a superior period yarn, handsomely mounted and terrifically acted. Song Kang-ho gives a typically moving and committed performance, while Lee Jeong-jae impresses as a ruthlessly lupine villain.

“The Face Reader” screens on July 7, 5:15pm at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the New York Asian Film Festival, with actor Lee Jung-jae in person. Lee will also appear at the festival for his dedicated sidebar program, “Korean Actor in Focus: Lee Jung-jae,” where two of his previous films will screen: “Il Mare” (2000), and “New World” (2013). For more information, visit NYAFF’s website:


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