A Royal Test of Endurance: A Review of The Last Princess
The Last Princess (Deok-hye Onju)
Director: Hur Jin-ho
Writers: Hur Jin-ho, Lee Han-eol, Seo Yoo-min, based on a novel by Kwon Bi-yeong
Starring: Son Ye-jin, Park Hae-il, Go Soo
North American premiere: November 15, 2016
It’s no secret that the world has an endless fascination with lost royals, alive or dead or exiled. Many of their names are familiar to us, especially those of European dynasties, but perhaps less familiar is the story of Yi Deok-hye. Born to the last Korean king before Japan’s colonization of Korea, Deok-hye was the last princess of the Joseon era, and the subject of a new historical melodrama featured at this year’s Reel Asian Film Festival.
The film explores her childhood and subsequent exile to Japan and the fight to bring her back to her homeland, sans the romanticism that follows films like this to a glamorous ending. Here, Deok-hye is plagued by betrayal on all sides, and her future is a block in a trembling tower of nationalism and revolution. The film is based on Kwon Bi-yeong’s novel Princess Deokhye. Director Hur Jin-ho guides material into a story of intense power struggles, continuing Hur’s steps away from films like April Snow and One Fine Spring Day.
Indeed, it’s easy to see that familiar touch in the first few moments of The Last Princess, as we are introduced to a very young Deok-hye, her childhood not quite clouded over in the wake of Korea’s annexation to Japan. Her father King Go-jong is still an imperial presence, refusing to bend every principle he believes in to follow Japanese rule. All too quickly, the king is removed from Deok-hye’s life in a traumatizing death scene.
The first 20 minutes of the film fade into Deok-hye’s move to Japan, with nary a glance back at her teen years before we see her again at the edge of adulthood. Kim So-hyun’s few scenes as the teenage Deok-hye are powerful nonetheless. Her glances are steel, back stiff, and anger implacable as the Korean courtiers push her into submission.
It is in adulthood that Son Ye-jin takes over as Deok-hye, a well-guarded prisoner in Japan. She is trotted out to “encourage” her people’s compliance with the Japanese regime, kept silent and leashed under threat of never seeing her mother Lady Yang again. Son Ye-jin is undeniably winsome in the role, despite having been worn down by years of gaslighting and pressure–there is an honesty in her gaze as she looks out at her people that comes through the screen more easily than the nationalistic propaganda surrounding her. We believe her when she says she wants to help her people.
Her ability to actually do that is still challenged, however, by both circumstance and active resistance. Deok-hye’s story is told parallel to a 1960s storyline, in which journalist Kim Jang-han searches for her in Tokyo. Their fictional romance was the least interesting piece of The Last Princess to me, as I didn’t feel much chemistry between Son and Hae Il-park. I was more interested in the revolutionaries trying their best to get Deok-hye home, and how their successes and failures affected the princess. Her existence is a quiet revolution in itself, and in how it affects her fellow Koreans, and Hur frames it as such, even knowing her eventual fate.
Deok-hye’s life in this film is not about the glory of being royalty, but the challenges of holding on to one’s legacy and heritage in the face of violence. We see it in her early refusal to bow to the Korean courtiers who served the Japanese, in her rejection of the kimono they want her to wear, in the speech she gives to her people and the defiance of her every breath. It’s an endurance that can’t be stifled or suffocated, but which will certainly inspire pride in a woman who wanted only to be home, and who never knew if she would.