The Last Princess (덕혜옹주, Hur Jin-ho, 2016)

last-princessReview of Hur Jin-ho’s The Last Princess first published by UK Anime Network.


Filmic biopics of real life historical figures are not generally known for their fierce adherence to fact, but The Last Princess (덕혜옹주, Deokhyeongjoo) is unusually honest in its approach in the sense that it includes a brief opening statement to the effect that the film pays very little attention to historical veracity. Hur Jin-ho adapts the story of Korea’s last princess, Yi Deok-hye (Son Ye-jin), as recounted in a novel by Kwon Bi-young, whilst indulging the genre he’s best known for – romantic melodrama. Another of the recent spate of films to address Korea’s colonial past, The Last Princess is the story of a woman who was fiercely loyal to her homeland, even in the face of harsh opposition and final rejection by the very people she’d been striving so hard to protect.

Told in a non-linear fashion, The Last Princess spans the majority of Deok-hye’s life from her opulent childhood in the royal palace to her eventual repatriation to Korea in the mid 1960s. In 1919, nine years after Korea had been annexed by the Japanese, Deok-hye lives in the palace with her loving father, the former Emperor (Baek Yoon-sik), and her mother, the concubine Lady Yang (Park Joo-mi). Her carefree days soon end when she witnesses her father’s death by poison and comes to understand her precarious position as puppet royalty of a subjugated regime.

Her life, and those of her remaining family members, is largely in the hands of a traitorous civil servant, Han (Yoon Je-moon), whose fierce loyalty to the Japanese emperor knows no bounds. Deok-hye is unwilling to assist him in his desire to use her as a tool to promote the “Japanisation” of the country and so is packed off to the mainland to study with the promise that she can return to live with her mother in Korea after her studies have ended. Needless to say she does not return.

In a touch of cinematic romanticism, the film elides two characters into one in the otherwise fictional character of Kim Jang-han (Park Hae-il). The son of a resistance fighter loyal to the emperor, Jang-han was betrothed to Deok-hye when they were both children and later returns to her as an adult in Japan where he is active in the Resistance, before coming back to find her years after the war. Jang-han hatches a plan to help Deok-hye and the other royal family members escape for exile in Shanghai but the the pair are eventually separated.

Recalling other recent Korean Resistance movies Age of Shadows and Assassination, The Last Princess has its share of action as Deok-hye and Jang-han attempt to escape the Japanese occupation and foster the revolution from abroad. The villain of the piece this time around is not so much the Japanese but the Koreans who willingly helped them as as exemplified here by the odious Han. Han is the most typically melodramatic character and only lacks a moustache to twirl to complete the effect. Hellbent on ingratiating himself with the Japanese, Han is determined to harness his princess’ appeal to sell the virtues of the Japanese state. When Deok-hye resolutely refuses to play along, he threatens her family members and friends in an attempt to force her compliance but finds her love for her country too strong to be bent by his egocentric cruelty.

Sent away and kept a virtual prisoner far from home, there is little Deok-hye is able to do in service of her nation. Introduced to the Resistance operating in Japan, she begins to see a way to help and eventually finds herself taking a stand when blackmailed into reading out a propaganda speech in front of a collection of forced labourers. Beginning the speech in Japanese as ordered, Deok-hye finds she cannot continue and eventually makes her real feelings known in Korean as she instructs the people in front of her not to give up, she will be right along side them fighting to regain their homeland. In a touch of Casablanca inspired drama, a chorus of Arirang suddenly springs up among the crowd, much to the consternation of the Japanese officers expecting a show of contrition, as the Princess herself is whisked off to pay a heavy price for her “betrayal”.

The Last Princess forces its heroine through constant loss – of her home, of her position, of her family, of a future, of love, of a child, of happiness, of her mind, and most importantly of her nationality. Deok-hye never wanted to be Japanese, did not travel to Japan of her own volition, and did her best to resist even at great personal cost. Nevertheless she finds eventually finds herself barred from her homeland due to opposing political concerns when the fledgling Republic fears the misuse of a powerful symbol like a royal family to frustrate the democratic future. Played with wonderful sensitivity by leading actress Son Ye-jin, Deok-hye suffers as her nation suffers, longing for independence both personal and national but finding only new cages everywhere she goes. Despite the unconvincing ageing makeup of the latter part of the film and an overly intrusive score, The Last Princess is an impressively produced prestige picture which plays its melodrama credentials to the max but is also undoubtedly moving in recounting the tragic story of its heroine whose constant misuse and lack of agency mirror much of the history of the nation she holds so dear.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Good Rain Knows (호우시절, Hur Jin-ho, 2009)

a-good-rain-knowsHur Jin-ho’s A Good Rain Knows (호우시절, Howoosijeol) was originally developed as a short intended to form part of the China/Korea collaborative omnibus film Chengdu, I Love You which was created as a tribute to the area following the devastating 2008 earthquake. However, Hur came to the conclusion that his tale of modern day cross cultural romance required more scope than the tripartite omnibus structure would allow and decided to go solo (Chengdu, I Love You was later released with just Fruit Chan and Cui Jian’s efforts alone). Very much Korean in terms of tone and structure, Hur uses his central love story to explore the effects time, memory, culture, and personal trauma on the lives of everyday people.

Smart suited businessman Park Dong-ha (Jung Woo-sung) has arrived in China as part of the Korean efforts to provide assistance in rebuilding after the 2008 earthquake which took thousands of lives and caused mass destruction. Met by a genial Korean ex-pat acting as his guide, Dong-ha takes in some sightseeing including a park dedicated to Tang dynasty poet Du Fu. As it turns out, an old university friend is also working at the park museum as a multilingual tour guide. There is more than a little unfinished business between Mei (Gao Yuanyuan) and Dong-ha though time has been passing all the while, throwing up obstacles every way you look to try and frustrate this serendipitous reunion.

Though the film is a collaborative effort between China and Korea, the bulk of the dialogue is spoken in English as Mei doesn’t speak Korean and Dong-ha doesn’t know any Mandarin (the pair apparently studied in the US and each returned to their home country separately, subsequently losing touch). Truth be told, the English is not always successful leaving both actors a little adrift – something which is not helped by conflicting Chinese and Korean acting styles. However, in someways this slight hesitance only adds to the restrained quality of their romance as each frequently adds tiny phrases of their own languages, becoming lost for words or trying to find exactly the right thing to say at the right moment.

The romance between Mei and Dong-ha never quite got going in their student days and seems to have taken on the status of a great lost opportunity. Time has moved on and they’re both different people. Student Dong-ha wanted to be a poet but now he’s a company man, even if a slightly conflicted, melancholy and romantic sort. Mei’s life has followed a more natural course though she too carries a deep seated sense of sadness caused by more recent personal tragedies. Both are left in a place of needing to relearn how be themselves – Dong-ha by getting back to writing and Mei by (literally) getting back on a bike but these are more natural, personal problems rather than the familial or social concerns which are the usual barriers to a successful melodrama romance.

Beautifully photographed, A Good Rain Knows takes its cues from Du Fu when it comes to the poetic, filling the screen with its vibrant green scenery. Of course, this contrasts strongly with the ruined buildings Dong-ha visits as well as the upscale hotels and restaurants, but the natural surroundings at least lend a healthy feeling of earthy wholesomeness to the proceedings. Hur has opted for a Korean orientated viewpoint, framing Chengdu as the slightly alien place it is to Dong-ha filled with bizarre foodstuffs and awkward conversations but nevertheless also an opportunity to reassess the current course of one’s life. A mature, realistic romance, A Good Rain Knows ends on a note of hopeful ambiguity – wisely avoiding the big romantic finale, Hur undercuts the inherent melodrama with wistful melancholy, the possibility of a happy ending is still in sight but there are no easy answers here, only a need for time and commitment.


Original trailer (English subtitles)