The Face Reader is a beautifully crafted and hectic period drama full of political intricacies, which yet says little about actual face reading…

The Face ReaderThree main reasons might have led you to watch The Face Reader, and unfortunately, one of them, the most important one actually, fails to meet expectations.

Firstly, The Face Reader is a period drama, and as any connoisseur of Korean series and films in the genre would attest, there is a sort of captivation attached to it, for the beautiful sets, landscapes and costumes it promises. There is no doubt it is something South Korean production companies are good at. And, fortunately, The Face Reader definitely provides the chance to enjoy beautiful visuals, be it for the Joseon-era backdrops, rich diversity of locations and sumptuous costumes. Although the story starts in the Korean countryside at the research of the famous Face Reader, it quickly (too quickly maybe) shifts to an urban environment, and especially (and almost solely) to courts and imperial palaces. The wardrobe and refinement of the behaviours and lifestyle of the characters follow accordingly. Another aspect of period films are the political intrigues that usually take place. Although similar to other films of the genres, the specific power struggle that takes place and the strategy embraced by each character brings a different and refreshing light on the genre.

Secondly, The Face Reader is Song Kang-ho first period movie ever. He has indeed starred in a wide diversity of genres, from western to science fiction and crime. But all these stories were either set in the present, future (Snowpiercer) or in a relatively present past (The Good, The Bad, The Weird was set in 1940s, A Little Pond during the Korean War and The President Barber also in the second half of the 20th century). As Joseon-era period dramas and films are famous for the heavy customs and formalized communication, it is definitely intriguing how his previous experience in extravagant roles would allow him to fit in. Not surprisingly, he plays quite an original character, definitely lazy, and yet a very talented physiognomist and a caring father. From that perspective, Song is a great addition to the film, bringing in his ability to make audiences laugh. A contradiction in his character might however disappoint: initially against getting involved in politics and desiring to remain away from the city hurdles, he changes his mind in an instant. And this happens at several times during the film. Although we can understand the effect desired would be a naïve, easily swayed, wandering soul, the audience cannot be fooled. But that’s more a problem related to the script than Song Kang-ho himself who is as good and funny as ever.

The Face Reader Press StillShot 7Thirdly, The Face Reader is about… face reading, as if you did not guess, right? Well, at least, it is supposed to be. And indeed a big part of the premises is focused on introducing the face reader and his skills. Yet, we hardly get a chance to understand how face reading really works and how he actually proceeds. A few drawings are let to see, but Nae-kyung never gets into the details of his technique. Is it a science or wizardry? We do not get to it. Instead, the movie tends to focus on the typical political intricacies of the genre. We understand that’s a necessity when a story is set in a Joseon court, but still, we could do with less about the political backdrop, and more about our face reader, how he got the skills, his past, his motivations, his endeavours…

As for the actual royal succession subplot that actually takes the essential of the film, it is relatively thin. It especially tends to be a little simplistic, discriminating between a loyal and powerful subject of the Emperor, Kim Jeong-so (Baek Yun-shik), and an evil Prince Sooyang (Lee Jung-Jae) waiting in the dark an opportunity to take over the throne. It could be either because the filmmakers thought a simpler subplot would not disturb the audience from the main plot, as if the story about the face reader was already too complicated, or to enhance the supposed skills of the face reader – who guesses right every time: a bit suspicious, isn’t it? Actually, there is no need to be a face reader to notice that Kim has an honest personality while Sooyang is wicked. The film makes it so clear from almost the start.

All in all, The Face Reader starts from an intriguing unusual theme to slide to a relatively conventional period action. Not that we did not enjoy it, but more could have been made out of that topic. In any case, solid acting, sumptuous sets and costumes, and well-paced still provide a good entertainment.

The Face Reader is screened this Friday May 30 at 6.25pm at the Prince Charles Cinema as part of the Terracotta Far East Film Festival 2014. No distributor has been announced yet for the UK.


[usr 3.5]

관상, Gwansang, Lit.Physiognomy. South Korea 2013. Directed by Han Jae-Rim. Starring Song Kang-Ho, Lee Jung-jae, Kim Hye-soo, Baek Yoon-sik, Cho Jung-seok, Lee Jong-suk, Jeong Gyu-su. 139 mins. In Korean with English subtitles.

Note: this review was initially published on

Related Article