The Last Princess

Director:  Hur Jin-ho
Year: 2016
Rating: 6.0

Country: Korea

This quite effective period film takes on the life of a historical figure, Princess Deokhye, the last member of the Royal Joseon family when she passed away in 1989. At the beginning of the film, there is a note saying the filmmakers took some liberties with history. Don't they always. After watching the film, I read about the Princess and the film stays within the bounds of reality but certainly did some finagling by merging two characters and adding a few episodes in the life that I am not sure if they are true - at least what I read did not mention them. This is based on a book about her life by Kwon Bi-young. It is tragic for the most part though in some ways her life was even more depressing and glum than the film.

It is directed by Hur Jin-ho, who is famous for his personal dramas such as in the wonderful tear inducing Christmas in August, One Fine Spring Day and April Snow (which featured the same actress as in this film). This is not an intimate film - the canvass and the historical events are too big and the main character is a Princess, which puts her in a different class. Hur tells a reverential tale of her sacrifice. And a patriotic one. There have been a lot of those being made in Korea over this past decade. While it feels a bit cheesy in America now to make a patriotic film without a note of cynicism, the Koreans lap it up. Much of it is aimed at the Japanese for their occupation of Korea from 1905 to 1945. This film covers much of that period and the Japanese as one expects don't come out looking very good, but interestingly it also focuses on the many Korean collaborators. The main villain of this piece is one who after the war is over goes home to become part of the Government while the Princess languishes in Japan.

Let's go back to the beginning. The film is told in two strands - the life of the Princess - and a Korean newspaper man who goes in search of her in the early 1960's when she was all but forgotten by Korea. Deok-hye was the daughter of the King Gojong (ruled from 1863 - 1907) and a royal consort. The Japanese take over in 1905 and very likely poisoned the King and then removed the rest of the Royal family- including the Princess - to Japan. She had been promised in marriage to Kim Jang-han but that all falls apart after the King is dead - but Kim (Park Hae-Il - in loads of terrific films) turns up in Japan as part of the Japanese Imperial army - but in truth is working for the Korean underground. Another aspect of the film is all the slave labor that was brought from Korea to work in Japan. At the end of the war many went home but many stayed and still live in Japan and after all these years there is still a stigma against them.

The director was able to make a stone cry in some of his earlier films and he hits some emotional wallops here as life gets very painful for the Princess - and then at the end of the war she is not allowed to return because the government did not want any royalty to return and perhaps try and claim authority. It isn't till 1961 when the reporter looks for her and then gets permission to bring her back. In the film this is Kim Jang-han loyal to the Princess to the end in order to add some pathos but in reality it was someone else. The scene of her return at the airport - which is accurate to fact - now a broken old lady - is a killer.

Beautifully shot, wonderful sets and interior decorations and costumes - but it is the understated performance of Son Ye-jin as the Princess that makes the film work and gives it the emotional ballast that it needs - or otherwise it would just be too cold or too overwrought. She hits a perfect tone here - royal yet understanding of where her life was and what she had to do to survive. The film is a bit stiff as historical films about a nearly sainted character can be - it lacks any humor - has a tinge of Korean period TV dramas to it - the good Koreans are very good and the collaborators are downright rotten. But 45 years pass in two hours and it is very interesting period in history but depressing at the same time.