The Last Princess (Deokhyeongju)
Korea (2016) Dir. Hur Jin-Ho
One of the moe painful chapters in Korean history was the Japanese occupation at the turn of the 20th century, Many films have been made about this already, dramatising the effects it had on civilians, military personnel, resistance fighters, and even artists. As he title implies, this story concerns those one would think were untouchable – royalty.
In 1919, ten years into the Japanese occupation, the reigning monarch Emperor Gojong (Baek Yoon-shik) is resisting all attempts work with the Japanese Imperial Army to the ire of pro-Japanese ministers. To remove the king, he is assassinated by poisoning, the chief suspect being General Han Taek-soo (Yoon Je-moon). Six years later, 13 year-old Princess Deok-hye (So-Hyun Kim) is forced to go to Japan for her education.
Having completed her education, Deok-hye (Son Ye-jin) yearns to return to in Korea but Han continues to deny her freedom. Fortunately, an old friend Kim Jang-han (Park Hae-il) turns up – an a officer in the Japanese army he is in fact working undercover for a Korean resistance group in Japan. When Deok-hye learns of her mother’s passing, Jang-han promises to help her and her brothers flee to Shanghai.
Bio-pics are always tricky to make as the onus is on the filmmaker to make what could be a dull story palatable for paying audience, especially when they concern historical figures, so liberties are often taken with the facts. To the credit of Hur Jin-Ho, he opens up The Last Princess by openly admitting the historical accuracy has been compromised for the sake of poetic drama.
Even so, the basic facts are still in place and the story that unfolds is an unquestionably fascinating if shamefully tragic saga of a woman whose life as a member of the last royal family of Korea was anything but the fairytale existence we usually associate with princesses. With no regal authority and only recognised as royalty by the most loyal of Koreans in Japan, Deok-hye’s title was soon to have no meaning in her homeland too.
Deok-hye was not alone in suffering as she had two brothers also exiled from Korea – Yeong (Park Soo-Young), who grew up in Japan retaining his royal status, and Yi Wu (Ko Soo) who was able to hide away in Shanghai. Yi Wu is working with the resistance group Jang-han is a part of and vows to help his family escape, but Yeong had married a Japanese women and was a high ranking general in the Imperial army, thus was a bit of a ditherer about leaving.
The real reason behind moving Deok-hye to Japan was not only to keep anti-Japanese sentiment to a minimum in Korea but also to manipulate the media into thinking she had endorsed Japan to quell any ill-feelings for good. General Han is a loathsome, smirking, self-serving turncoat not above blackmailing Deok-hye to bend to his wishes, though she is able to subvert some of this plans through her own iron will.
Quite how Han managed to gain so much power is never explained beyond his cosying up to the Japanese – when he is first seen in 1919, he is a mere low ranking officer. Six years later, he is an unimpeachable minister capable of overruling whatever influence Deok-hye may have as a princess. From reading the true history of this saga, Han appears to be a fictional composite for this film, just like Jang-han was, replacing many real life figures congruent to the story.
We’ve already seen in other films like Age Of Shadows, Battleship Island, and even The Handmaiden how the Japanese Occupation of Korea is a fertile subject for tense thrillers, which is something this film embraces, as unlikely as this seems. It isn’t something we would expect from the opening act with everyone dressed in archaic Korean attire as is this was the 16th century but it isn’t long before the comparative modernity of the 1920s dictates the aesthetic instead.
Such a shift in dynamic should be jarring and ruinous to audience investment but Hur Jin-Ho smartly picks is spots by slowly building to the action set pieces, beginning with an assassination attempt of Han at a public rally to act as distraction as the big escape plan is put into action. Hur has clearly studied numerous period films with similar scenes which he has faithfully replicated but skilfully executed that we don’t mind, and certainly won’t complain as it gives things a bit of zest.
Yet none of this prepare us for the emotionally draining second half as we head towards the end of World War II and Japan’s surrender, the news Deok-hye has long waited for as she can now return to Korea. Unfortunately, if life is a bitch then Han is her husband and the suffering must continue, as if Deok-hye hasn’t been through enough. I used the term “shameful” earlier on and it is in this part of the film where it applies the most, the focus now shifting to the political ramifications of Deok-hye’s exile.
Hur’s approach of telling this story as a drama-cum- espionage thriller should undermine the historical tragedy and poignancy of Deok-hye’s life, but the portrayal of her as a woman trying to keep her dignity, regal decorum and national identity intact under such extreme adversity and oppression is effective in making Deok-hye more of a sympathetic character had this been a straight by the book account.
It also has a lot to do with the stunning lead performance from Son Ye-jin as Deok-hye, taking her from early 20s to old age in compelling fashion, yet we can’t overlook the younger predecessors, So-Hyun Kim and adorable Shin Rin-ah, both of whom are vital in laying the foundation for the woman she would eventually become.
Dependant on whether you can excuse the veracity vs. fiction ratio, The Last Princess is another stylishly made yet substance heavy Korean period drama brimming with anger, sensitivity and above all, respect for its subject.