A scene from the film "The Last Princess" / Courtesy of Lotte Entertainment
By Yun Suh-young
There are few films based on history that are engaging, entertaining and moving at the same time. "The Last Princess," released Wednesday, settles itself in that very rare category.
Spanning the tragic life of the last princess of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), director Hur Jin-ho of "Christmas in August" (1998) and "Happiness" (2007) does a masterful job in bringing out the emotional details from the tale of Princess Deokhye.
Princess Deokhye, also known as Yi Deok-hye, was born as the only daughter and the youngest child of King Gojong, the last king of Joseon. However, when the Joseon Kingdom was colonized by the Japanese, her father Gojong was poisoned to death in 1919. Five years later, the little princess was sent to Japan by the Japanese to attend a school there at the age of 13.
After finishing school, Deokhye (Son Ye-jin) struggles with all her might to return to her homeland but is constantly denied and prevented from returning to Joseon by a pro-Japanese general Han Taek-soo (Yoon Je-moon), who pushes her to succumb to the demands of the Japanese.
Poster for "The Last Princess"
When Deokhye is leading a dreadful life in Japan against her will, Kim Jang-han (Park Hae-il), her friend from childhood whom her father had requested to take care of her (and had hoped he marry her), shows up in front of Deokhye at her brother King Yeongchin's residence in Japan. King Yeongchin was also forced to be educated in Japan and had since been prevented from entering Joseon.
With Kim Jang-han's appearance, the film starts to become an action thriller with elements of a wartime movie. Kim, an independence fighter disguised as a Japanese officer dispatched to guard King Yeongchin, secretly plans an asylum operation to move King Yeongchin and Princess Deokhye to Shanghai where the temporary Korean government is set up.
Dramatic scenes come one after another as Kim Jang-han tries to lead Korea's last remaining imperial family into exile. Attempts fail, however, after being discovered by Han Taek-soo. Deokhye is then forced to marry a Japanese count, in 1931, in an effort by the Japanese to erase the history of Korea's imperial family.
It is only 30 years later in 1962 at the age of 50 that Deokhye finally sets her feet in her home country, suffering from schizophrenia, divorced, and had lost a child as her only daughter committed suicide after Deokhye's divorce.
From beginning to end, "The Last Princess" is a tear jerker, not in a far-fetched way, but in a way so subtle that you don't realize you're crying until you feel it trickle down your cheeks. The tears are unforced, but in a sublime way, the film keeps you flooding with tears while empathizing with Deokhye's pain and longing to return to her country.
It is also a very well-made "faction" (fiction added to a true story), based on an eponymous novel by Kwon Bi-young, as Kim Jang-han is a fictional character but plays a pivotal role throughout the plot. His appearance adds tension and thrills to the half-true, half-fiction story.
"What is most difficult is to move the audience naturally," said actor Park Hae-il, during a press conference after the screening. The film did that perfectly and much of it is attributed to the superb acting of the cast.
Director Hur said the reason he made this film was because he couldn't erase the scene when Princess Deokhye arrived at the Incheon airport after watching a documentary about her on TV. He wanted to portray her later life as not being lonely, but being surrounded by people who loved her, as can be seen in her arrival scene in his film. His intention is well depicted, and it is that feeling of warmth that is felt throughout the film.
Some very well-made films are often buried beneath blockbusters. This one, hopefully, won't be ignored by the audience this summer.