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)

Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Lee Joon-ik, 2016)

2016-03-12-1457751627-4889573Review of Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Dong-ju) first published by UK Anime Network.


Lee Joon-ik’s previous film, The Throne, was a big budget period affair examining the well known story of tragic prince Sado who was, in a sense, murdered by his own nation as personified by his  father, the king, for failing to bow to a tyrannous regime. Lee’s followup, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet, charts a similarly melancholy path in its exploration of the life and times of its titular wordsmith, unhappily born into an age of anti-intellectual fervour with only the desire to write verses. Yet another of the recent films to address the Korea’s colonial history, Dong-ju, like its hero, may be the most contemplative as it raises a number of questions not only about the nature of resistance but also of its intrinsic values.

Growing up in a Korean religious settlement in Manchuria, Dong-ju (Kang Ha-neul) and his cousin Mong-gyu (Park Jung-min) have been largely cushioned from the effects of the Japanese occupation, but are aware it’s only a matter of time before their village loses its special status and is swallowed by the powers at be. Both boys have literary aspirations with the more bombastic Mong-gyu opting for prose and the dreamier Dong-ju committed to the far less well received world of poetry. Firm friends as they are, literary rivalry aside, each is bound for a different course as Mong-gyu becomes increasingly involved with the independence movement whereas Dong-ju’s rebellion remains largely on the page.

After travelling to Japan as students, both Dong-ju and Mong-gyu are arrested for insurrection and incarcerated in the notorious Fukuoka prison where they are used as human subjects for experimentation. Regularly dosed with mysterious injections which blister the skin and weaken the constitution, neither lives long enough to see the return of their nation’s sovereignty just a few weeks later with Japan’s defeat at the end of the war.

Beginning with Dong-ju’s prison interrogation, the film is largely told through flashback as it follows the course of Dong-ju’s life from his adolescence in the village to domestic university and finally to Japan where he faces constant threat as an alien Korean in the land of the oppressor. Both he and Mong-gyu are committed to the idea that conscientious literature can change the world, even founding a student magazine dedicated to progressive texts. Mong-gyu, however, does not place the same faith in the art of poetry as does his friend, and eventually decides to head to China to join the left-wing arm of the Resistance movement in exile, only to become disillusioned with their extreme tactics.

Despite his loss of faith in Communist dogma, Mong-gyu remains committed to the idea of direct action and the eventual ushering in of the egalitarian revolution preceded by the expulsion of the Japanese. Far from opposing the draft of Korean students into the Japanese army, Mong-gyu plans to harness it to fill the army with capable, trained fifth columnists who will use the skills they learn in a foreign army to retake their homeland. After a brush with the ruling regime, Dong-ju tries to join the more active side of the resistance alongside his friend but is rebuffed. Mong-gyu knows his friend is not a born soldier and is much more valuable as a poet than on the front lines.

Dong-ju’s poetry is often not overtly political, anti-Japanese, or even anti-colonialist, but it is written in Korean – a daring act of political resistance in itself. During this era, Japanese was the dominant language, used in all official institutions and most schools (Dong-ju and Mong-gyu’s excluded because of its special religious status). One of the problems Dong-ju faces during his interrogation is that he delayed adopting a Japanese name much longer than was wise and subsequently continued to disseminate literature in Korean. When language is suppressed and nationhood denied to the extent that even names have been erased, what other means is there to reclaim an identity other than literature, and of literature what more powerful than poetry?

Dong-ju’s resistance to the brutalisation of of an oppressive regime is entirely internal. He writes in his native language about the things which matter, of his loneliness and youthful anxiety much of which is born of the uncertainty of his times. During his interrogation he is forced to sign a confession of his “crimes”, which he does, but with equal amounts of pride and shame as he wonders if his commitment to literature was time well spent when his comrades were dying in the streets. Was it responsible of him to commit himself to poetry rather than to medicine with all of its more immediately humanitarian benefits, or should he have thrown away the pen for the gun and joined the combatants in the armed struggle?

Mong-gyu, by contrast, feels only shame when he signs his papers which amount to a list of failed manifesto promises. Yes, he did plan all of these things but realised none of them, placing the lives of his friends in jeopardy as his did so. Perhaps he, like Dong-ju, should have agitated for social change through culture, rather than trying to fight an empire using only the empire’s cast offs.

There are no real answers to these questions, Korea regained its independence thanks to the collapse of the Japanese overseas empire rather than armed insurrection or the gradual enlightenment of the citizenry. Both men are left with a lingering sense of shame and impotence at having been unable to accomplish more in their cruelly shortened lives. Yet as for Dong-ju, there is rebellion enough in his poetry which bares all of his own soul as he suffered the torment of a poet forbidden from poetry, writing in a language proscribed by those that would seek to destroy the essence of his culture.

Filming in a crisp, washed out black and white, Lee imbues his world with a sense of melancholy and lost potential as two young men find themselves at the mercy of their times, fighting for their own independence as distinct from that of their nation but once again being denied. A necessarily sombre film unafraid to acknowledge the darkest edges of the colonial period, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet is a celebration of the enduring power of the poetic form as exemplified by Dong-ju’s beautifully heartbreaking lines.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Age of Shadows (밀정, Kim Jee-woon, 2016)

age-of-shadowsWhen the country of your birth has been occupied by another nation, what do you do? Do you fight back, insist on your independence and expel the tyrants, or quickly bow to your new overlords and resign yourself to no longer being what you once were? Kim Jee-woon becomes the latest director to take a look at Korea’s colonial past with the Resistance based thriller Age of Shadows (밀정, Miljung) which owes more than a little to Melville’s similarly titled Army of Shadows, as well as classic cold war spy dramas The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The film opens with an impressive set piece in which two Resistance members, Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), and Joo (Seo Young-joo) are betrayed whilst trying to sell a Buddhist statue. Joo is captured but Jang-ok makes a run for it as what looks like the entire Japanese garrison of Seoul chases him, running gallantly over the picturesque Korean rooftops. Cornered, Jang-ok is confronted by Korean born Japanese policeman Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), once a Resistance member himself and a former comrade in arms of Jang-ok. This is the point Jung-chool’s carefully crafted collaboration beings to fracture – his friend, rather than allow himelf to be captured, shouts “Long Live Korea” and blows his own brains out.

His mission a failure, Jung-chool is then moved onto the next investigation which aims to dig out the Resistance top brass in the city. Jung-chool’s Japanese boss Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants him to infiltrate the cell headed by antique dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) in the hope that it will lead them to head honcho, Jung (Lee Byung-hun). However, Higashi also saddles him with a very young but high ranking Japanese official, Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), to “help” him bring in Woo-jin.

In Jung-chool’s final conversation with Jang-ok, his friend berates him for the decision to turn traitor and work for the Japanese rather than against them. Jung-chool asks him if he thinks independence is a credible aim, implying he’s long since given up believing in the idea of the Japanese ever being overthrown. Jang-ok evidently believed in it enough to sacrifice his own life, but other comrades have also abanoned the cause and actively betrayed the movement in much more serious ways than Jung-chool’s pragmatic side swapping.

Even if Jung-chool has decided that if you can’t beat the Japanese you may as well join them, he’s coming to the realisation that his superiors, even if they’ve previously treated him warmly, will never regard him as equal to the Japanese personnel. Hashimoto’s sudden arrival undercuts Jung-Chool’s career progress and reminds him that he serves a very distinct purpose which may soon run out of currency. Higashi, having seduced Jung-chool with promises of a comfortable life and praise for his skills, does not trust his Korean underling enough to send him out on his own. This personal wound may do more to send him reeling back to the other side than anything else, especially as his “replacement” Hashimoto is a crazy eyed psychopath who has half a mind to burn the entire city just to be sure of getting his man.

A man who’s been turned once can be turned again and so mastermind Jung decides to prod Jung-chool in the hope that he’ll become an asset rather than a threat. As he puts it, what’s more frightening than feeling your heart move and Jung-chool’s certainty has already been shaken. Song Kang-ho perfectly inhabits Jung-chool’s conflicted soul as his old patriotic feelings start to surface just as he begins to truly see his masters for what they are. Always keeping his intentions unclear, Jung-chool is the ideal double agent, playing both sides or maybe neither with no clear affiliation.

Like Army of Shadows, the final nail in the coffin is delivered by a sentimental photograph. In this chaotic world of betrayals and counter betrayals, there can be no room for love or compassion other than loyalty to one’s comrades and to the movement. Yet against the odds Woo-jin comes to trust Jung-chool implicitly, certain that he will finally choose the side of freedom rather than that of the oppressor. The relationship between the two men provides the only real moments of comic relief, though others members of the group are less well defined including an underwritten part for Woo-jin’s Chinese love interest (Han Ji-min) who isn’t permitted to do very much other than model some elegant twenties outfits.

Maintaining tension throughout, Kim intersperses psychological drama as betrayal piles on betrayal, with intense action sequences including a particularly claustrophobic train based game of hide and seek. Inspired by real historical events, Kim does not claim any level of authenticity but sets out to tell the story of the double dealing inside a man’s heart as he weighs up duty and self interest and asks himself how far he’s willing to go for the sake of either. The age of “shadows” indeed, these are hollow men whose identities have been eroded, living only for today but in certainty of the bright tomorrow. Kim’s examination of this turbulent period is both a big budget prestige picture with striking production values, and a tense, noir-inflected thriller in the mould of Melville, but also a nuanced human drama unafraid to ask the difficult questions which lie at the heart of every spy story.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Silenced (경성학교: 사라진 소녀들, Lee Hae-Young, 2015)

the-silencedThe Silenced (경성학교: 사라진 소녀들, Gyeongseonghakyoo: Sarajin Sonyeodeul) has all the classic genre aspects of the boarding school horror story familiar to fans of gothic literature everywhere, but this is no Victorian tale of repressed sexuality and hallucinatory psychosis. What The Silence does is take all of these essential elements and remix them as a metaphor for the horror of colonialism. Surrounded by quislings and forced into submission in order to survive, how does the essential soul of an oppressed people survive? The Silence would seem to argue that perhaps it can’t, but can evolve and learn to resist its colonisers even if it has to bend to do so.

Korea, 1938. Teenage girl Ju-ran (Park Bo-Young) is dropped off by her rather cool step-mother at a hospital school before her parents relocate to Tokyo. On arrival, Ju-ran switches to her Japanese name of Shizuko which raises a stir among her new schoolmates because another girl with the same name previously occupied her new bed before disappearing suddenly without a word of goodbye. Her physical resemblance to the previous Shizuko, coupled with her ill-health, provokes mistrust among the other girls, especially top girl Yuka and her minions. Shizuko is now expected to get used to all of the school’s arcane rules and regulations as soon as possible or risk harsh punishment. This includes “treatment” for her illness which involves frequent distribution of pills, injections, and other experimental courses. Before long Shizuko begins to notice odd behaviour among the girls, some of whom begin to disappear.

After a lengthy series of diplomatic manoeuvres beginning in the Meiji era, Japan annexed Korea in 1910 beginning a period of direct rule which would continue until the end of the Second World War. During this period, Japanese became the dominant, official language and mainland Japanese culture sought to displace that of the indigenous Korean society. The school, as an official institution, is careful to follow these regulations to the letter. Each of the pupils has a Japanese name which becomes their “official” designation, the Korean identity is “buried” with Korean birth names used only with close friends whose trust is certain.

Similarly, the school’s official language is Japanese with lessons and official business always conducted in the appropriate language. Linguistic shifts suddenly become an interesting phenomenon as the girls continue to talk to each other in their native Korean in the school room and out (even if sticking to Japanese names) but maintain order by obeying commands in the language of authority. The headmistress generally sticks to Japanese, at least when she’s at the lectern, but notably switches to Korean when addressing a girl personally or when she wishes to appear kind and non-threatening rather than authoritarian. This point is further brought home when one girl descends into a fit of rage and attacks another, ranting and raving in Japanese whilst gripping the other girl’s throat. Korean is both the language of kindness and friendship as opposed to the coldness and violence of the official Japanese, and a tool to be manipulated in order to create a false sense of camaraderie between colonised and coloniser.

The school is staffed by collaborators working with the Japanese authorities and training these young women to be model Japanese citizens. Part of their classwork involves a large embroidery project sewing beautiful pink cherry blossoms onto a map of Korea – a motif which is later chillingly repeated by sewing those same flowers onto the body the body of a collaborator. Tokyo has become a kind of magical wonderland paradise and the school even offers the girls hope of advancement there through winning a competition based on physical ability in which the school will select the two most promising candidates and dispatch them to the capital. The headmistress, once the final mystery has been exposed, begs the Japanese military forces to put their faith in her because she is determined to become a loyal Japanese citizen and leave this backward Korea behind forever.

The main thrust of the narrative centres around the interplay between these teenage girls who stand in for a subjugated people, ruled over by their collaborating teachers. Shizuko (Ju-ran) strikes up a friendship with Kazue (or Yeong-duk to restore her Korean name), previously the best friend of her predecessor. The two girls become closer though the the disappearance of the previous Shizuko always stands between them. Beginning to solve the mystery, the two girls are the only opposition to the ruling regime as they accept the various “benefits” of their treatment and education, and return to use them against their oppressors. The girls’ innocence has been corrupted by their experiences, but this same corruption is the very thing which allows them to take a stand for their independence.

Though the supernatural is posited as the ultimate enemy, the solution of the mystery leads straight back into the political realm rather than any less Earthly kind of evil. Director Lee Hae-young generates a supremely creepy atmosphere from the opening sequence onwards which empahises the gothic aesthetic and inescapable presence of something dark lurking in the shadows. Though using minimal instances of jump scares, supernatural episodes, and hallucinatory images, the film pushes its horrors into the real world even if the solution it ultimately offers is more akin to a superhero origin story than a revolutionary uprising. Beautifully photographed, The Silenced is the story of those denied a voice realising they have the right to rebel but like any gothic horror story paints its central battle as an ongoing, unwinnable fight against the darkness.


Original trailer (select English subs from settings menu)