‘Tis the year for Japanese occupation era films in South Korean Cinema, it would seem – there has been a flood of them, with the most noticeable – The Age of Shadows (2016, Kim Jee-woon) – even selected as South Korea’s candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film of the 2017 Academy Awards.
The Last Princess falls into this category, but due to its liberal spin on the main characters and their lives, this film can hardly be placed back-to-back with other, vastly more accurate period dramas where historical events and accuracies play the primary field (though The Age of Shadows also hardly fits that description). The Last Princess is a period melodrama, where the story, based on Kwon Bi-young’s novel, merely borrowed certain historical events and the general outline of the life of Princess Deokhye to bring the already tragic story to a completely new melodramatic level – I guess that sort of project was to be expected from director Hur Jin-ho who made his name by (co-)writing-directing some of the finest Korean melodramas, such as One Fine Spring Day (2001), April Snow (2005) and Happiness (2007).
Tragedy strikes very early on in the heavily fictionalized story where the young Princess Deokhye bears witness to the death (or murder, if you will) of her own father, second-to-last king of Joseon, portrayed by Baek Yoon-sik – even from the get-go, the film is packed with (short) appearances of well-known and respected Korean actors. We also learn fast that in The Last Princess, evil bears the face of one Han Taek-soo (Yoon Je-moon), the Korean general and Japanese sympathizer – he is the hand of Princess Deokhye’s ill fate.
It is during her forced stay in Japan that the core of the plot takes place – the spirit of the now adult Princess (Son Ye-Jin) has been badly damaged by the attempts of the Japanese government to rein her in and use her to further their control over Korean people. She finds the only solace in her loyal lady in waiting, Bok-soon (portrayed by the always spectacular Ra Mi-ran). Of course, no melodrama would work without a little bit of a forbidden love story in the mix – love buds (but fails to fully blossom) between the Princess and her once husband-to-be Kim Jang-han (Park Hae-Il), who re-appears under a different name as her guard – he is determined to protect her while working with the resistance to help the royals defect to Shanghai (with Go Soo in the surprising appearance as Deokhye’s nephew and one of the leaders of resistance, Prince Yi Wu). Once the chess pieces on the board are set, they start moving – suprisingly fast, but in the most melodramatic ways possible.
Director Hur was the one who (after watching a documentary about the Princess’ return to Korea) came up with the idea to make the her story into a film and has (besides directing) again co-written the screenplay which he based on Kwon Bi-young’s novel Princess Deokhye; in 2012, at Busan International Film Festival, his project received the green light and ample support from Korean Film Council – and has been finished in the beginning of 2016, then received a wide release in Korea in the summer – and was a smashing hit at the box office. The full circle concluded with the film being screened at this year’s BIFF “Panorama – Korean Cinema Today” section.
There are certain things that work very well in the movie – like the costumes and the superbly crafted sets; there are even a few moments of well-timed humour that offer relief during the heavy melodrama, along with a couple of action sequences in the second half, but this is first and foremost a tear-jerker piece. This is also where some criticism is necessary – while overall, acting by all involved – especially by Son Ye-jin, who really put her all into the role of Princess Deokhye, while the subtlety of Park Hae-Il’s officer Kim also deserves praise – was on a high level, there were moments where melodrama was simply in an overdrive; and by pushing it too far, and in a few sequences, for too long, the film lost a bit of its charm. This is a common problem in many Korean melodramatic productions – highly charged emotions are basically called for, while going too far on that tangent presents the constant danger – and only a select few have managed to find the right balance.
The Last Princess is a film that focuses more on the trials and the slow loss of sanity through repeated loss and isolation that the Princess goes through than on the occupation itself, giving the film an overall personal note. It is a film that you should see – but make sure to prepare lots of tissues.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Ho Film