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)

Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (가려진 시간, Um Tae-hwa, 2016)

vanishing-timeWhen no time passes, does anything change? Yes, and then again, no, if Um Tae-hwa’s Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (가려진 시간, Garyeojin Shigan) is to be believed. Dealing with the nature of time, connection, and faith Um’s film is a supernaturally tinged fairytale which never seriously entertains the more rational explanation offered by the naysayers, but is filled with the innocence of childhood and the essential naivety of adolescence. Melancholy, though somehow uplifting, Vanishing Time neatly avoids the pitfalls of romantic melodrama for a genuinely affecting coming of age story as its heroine is forced to make peace with her traumatic past through accepting the loss and sacrifice of her present.

Thirteen year old Su-rin (Shin Eun-soo) is an orphan, living with her step-father who has just moved to a small island where he is engaged in the construction work on a new tunnel. Sullen and lonely, Su-rin does not get on with her step-father whom she holds responsible for the death of her mother in a car accident. All Su-rin wants is to disappear into another world. In fact, she even has her own blog dedicated to exploring possible portals to alternate dimensions and the best methods for provoking an out of body experience. Needless to say, Su-rin does not fit in at school and has immense trouble making friends, especially when they stumble across her online activity and brand her a weirdo.

Su-rin does, however, bond with another boy, Sung-min (Lee Hyo-je), who (though not actually an orphan) lives at the orphanage. Sung-min seems to have some success with the methods Su-rin suggests for out of body experiences and the pair gradually build a up friendship complete with a secret written code and strange rituals. Though Sung-min’s friends Tae-sik (Kim Dan-yool) and Jae-wook (Jeong Woo-jin) don’t want any girls around, Sung-min convinces them to let her come when they sneak into the cordoned off construction area to witness the tunnel blasting. Whilst there, they discover a secret cavern in which there is a strange glowing egg at the bottom of a pool. The boys steal the egg and ponder over what it is until Tae-sik remembers a story his grandfather told about a time stealing goblin that turns children into adults and adults into old people by means of an egg found in a mysterious cave which only exists at a time of a full moon.

When Su-rin emerges from the cavern after nearly being buried by an explosion, the boys have vanished. The community begins to fear the worst – everything from child abduction to an industry conspiracy to cover up a blast related accident, but some time later Su-rin is approached by an older man who claims to be Sung-min.

Um begins the film with the lens cap of a camera as a woman gives a perfunctory voice over explaining that this is the record of her three month psychiatric evaluation of the teenager Su-rin which she hereby offers to us in the hope that we will understand her. When the lens cap comes off, a black and white montage sequence follows detailing the police investigation into the disappearance of the three boys before flashing back to Su-rin seated in front of the camera. It’s clear that Su-rin is sticking to her story, but also that she hasn’t been believed, has not managed to save any of her friends, and is, in some way, suspected of collusion in the events which have engulfed her.

Filmed with earthy browns and greens, the overall atmosphere is one of fairy tale with its supernatural rituals and stories of goblins which feast on time and misery. Obviously very affected by the death of her mother and by her resultant loneliness in having only the step-father she refuses to bond with, Su-rin has already retreated into a fantasy world despite being unable to actively cross over through any of the possible methods she explores in her blog. Bonding with Sung-min through their shared experimentation, the pair attempt a summoning ritual in which they each leave messages for a possible visitor – hers a question about her mother, his a wish that he grow tall and make enough money to retire by thirty. Su-rin’s question goes unanswered, but in the best fairy tale tradition Sung-min is going to get what he asked for, only in the most terrible of ways.

When the boys stop time it first seems like a paradise. They can do whatever they like, running round town stealing slices of pizza and peeking up ladies’ skirts but the novelty quickly wears off when they realise they’re stuck in this ever unchanging world with no means of escape. Thinking ahead, the boys study hard soaking up all the available knowledge in this completely silent universe whilst also stockpiling cash so they’ll be prepared if the hands on the clock ever start turning again. Trapped inside this bubble for more than a decade, the boys have grown into men but in body only. The lack of ongoing experience has also trapped them inside their fourteen year old minds rendering them adrift in either place. Some of them find escape in other ways yet tellingly, time comes only when despair reaches its critical mass.

Um’s painterly vision of the time stopped universe is a beautifully constructed one in which the suspended forward momentum of objects is depicted as a kind of anti-gravity where manga and crisp packets hover in the air while even the heaviest furniture can be trailed on a string like a balloon. Repeated motifs of Su-rin looking at her shadow and the occasionally strange angles give the picture an off kilter atmosphere which further brings out the creepy fairy tale quality of the abandoned Western-style cottage in the woods and its European gothic aesthetics.

Only Su-rin is prepared to believe Sung-min, convinced both by her gut instinct driven by the recognition of their original connection and the hard evidence of their unique code and the scar on Sung-min’s arm. The film never seriously entertains the “rational” explanation offered by the police, but focuses on Su-rin’s desire to restore her friend to his rightful place in society by ensuring he is recognised as Sung-min, the boy who disappeared and has returned as a man. Gang Dong-won, pale and gaunt, gives off just the right level of eerie uncanniness as this strangely innocent man-boy, desperately wanting to go home but having no home to go to other than Su-rin. A tale of innocent, selfless love, Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned is a melancholy, often dark exploration of the journey into adolescence captured with a beautiful, surrealist eye and a beating human heart.


Original trailer (English subtitles – select from settings menu)

The Priests (검은 사제들, Jang Jae-Hyun, 2015)

The Priests PosterThe era of hero priests might be well and truly behind us but at least when it comes to the exorcism movie, the warrior monk resurfaces as the valiant men of God face off against pure evil itself risking both body and soul in an attempt to free the unfortunate victim of a possession from their torment. To many, the very idea sounds as if it belongs in the medieval era – what need have we for demons now that we posses such certain, scientific knowledge? There are, however, things far more ancient than man which are far more terrifying than our ordinary villainy.

The Priests (검은 사제들, geom-eun sa-je-deul) begins with two Italian clerics in the Vatican discussing the somewhat taboo subject of exorcism and demonic possession. They have been made aware of a serious case in Korea and, as they can’t get in touch with the Korean exorcism department, head out there themselves for a little pest control of their own. However, the enemy they were facing proves too strong for them as they become involved in a multi-car pileup allowing the demon they’ve trapped inside a small dog to escape and migrate to a better humanoid host.

Now we turn to the Korean church authorities who are also worried about a young girl who appears to be displaying the symptoms of demonic possession. Their leader repeatedly tells them he will not “officially” sanction any kind of action whilst making it clear he wants them to go ahead and deal with it. No one knows much about exorcism so they reluctantly turn to the maverick preacher Father Kim who, as it also turns out, is a friend of the girl, Young-sin. Matters have reached an impasse as the demon inside Young-sin tries to make her commit suicide by jumping from her hospital room window in order to migrate to a more robust host, leaving her in a comatose state.

Anyone with any basic knowledge of exorcism in the movies knows that you need a young priest and an old priest so Kim gets a sidekick in the form of the equally unusual Deacon, Choi, who is not exactly a model student at the seminary. Choi is initially quite excited to be assisting in such an arcane ritual even if his chief job title is “pig sitter” and his new “boss” is a gruff and world weary man who he has also been asked to spy on just in case this is all down to Kim acting “inappropriately” with an underage girl rather than a visitation from an even more ancient evil. Needlessly to say, Choi quickly discovers Father Kim has been speaking nothing but the truth and he is in way over his head.

Though this is a Catholic crisis bound up with Christian cosmology and centuries old rites, this is still Korea and so Eastern concerns seep into the Western religiosity. The night Kim has chosen for his final assault coincides with the Buddhist feast of the Hungry Ghost when the dead return to visit the living and one of the criteria that made Choi a prime choice for the role of the assistant is that he was born in the year of the Tiger and therefore supposedly more spiritually sensitive. In a quest to help the girl, all avenues are being explored so shamanistic rites are also performed (though with little success) and Kim seems to have a kind of professional respect for his shamanic counterpart even if the two obviously disagree on some quite fundamental things.

Thanks to its double layer of exoticised mysticism, The Priests quickly works up a supernaturally charged atmosphere though its eyes are strictly on entertainment rather than exposing any deep seated social concerns.The possessed girl calls forth animals, speaks in tongues offering bizarre and disturbing prophesies, and eventually projectile vomits blood and snakes all over a painting of the Virgin Mary yet the film never aims for the shock factor that defined Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Though tagged as horror, The Priests is not particularly frightening (jump scares aside) but does manage to evoke a kind of ever present dread in the face of this unfaceable threat.

Despite the heavy atmosphere, Jang is careful to allow the occasional comic episode providing a welcome break from the seriousness of the war against ancient evil. Impressive action sequences including the early serial car crash and later chase sequence add to the urgency of the situation whilst also alleviating some of the ever increasing tension. Though he visits some dark places, Jang’s world view is not as bleak as Friedkin’s as we’re left with a feeling of restitution, once the original threat removed, though we obviously know that other such threats remain. The heroic ending allows us to forget this for a moment as we enjoy the right and proper victory of good over evil, neglecting that this is but one of many battles in an eternal, celestial war.


Reviewed at a Teaser Screening for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival to take place in November 2016.

US trailer with English subs:

The Throne (사도, Lee Joon-Ik, 2015)

the throneWhich one is worse, the son who tries to kill his tyrannical father, or the tyrannical father who executes his own son and heir? A collection of sad stories all round, Lee Joon-ik’s The Throne (사도, Sado) is a historically inspired tale of familial conflict played out on a national stage. Where another nation might have entered into a bloody civil war, this very private tragedy keeps its bloodshed within the palace walls but still does not lack for cruelty.

Told in a non-linear fashion, The Throne takes inspiration from the 1762 incident in which the ageing King Yeongjo has the Crown Prince, his son later named Sado, executed in the most brutal of ways – confinement inside a heavy wooden rice chest placed inside the castle courtyard where he will be denied food and water until events take their natural course. In flashbacks we see that the king did love his son once but as the boy grew older and became something other than what his father desired of him, his love turned to disappointment and then to fear and disgust. The legends say that Sado was a madman – a murderer or deviant who needed to be eliminated, or just the victim of a conspiracy, but his anger with his father is easily understandable even if it hadn’t been for a seemingly crucial episode where he was forced to endure a feat of painful endurance which almost cost him his life and, perhaps, provoked something akin to madness.

Yeongjo is an austere man, devoted to scholarship. He began Sado’s kingly tutelage at just two years old but even if he was a bright little boy he eventually grew bored with his father’s educational regime of dull rote learning and constant tests preferring the relative freedom of outdoor life with swords and arrows and far less judgement. Sado likes to paint too, but this also falls under his father’s definition of pointless frivolity and so is just another thing which earns him nothing but disdain from the man who would make him king.

Things come to a head when Yeongjo suddenly declares he wants to retire as a ruler and abdicate in favour of his son who is anything but ready. Settling on a regency agreement sounds like the ideal compromise but turns out to be quite the reverse as Sado is merely a stooge for his father who only uses the situation to perpetually humiliate him in front of his courtiers. Sado himself has different ideas to his father about how things should be done in that his father’s emphasis on keeping peace at court had largely resulted in deferring to the more powerful lords at the expense of the poor which is one way to rule country, but perhaps also the most selfish.

When Sado has a son who seems to be everything his father isn’t, tension only rises as Yeongjo first rejects the boy as an infant only to later seek deposing his son in favour of his grandson. Simply put, Sado is now surplus to requirements and despised by his father who also happens to be the king so things are not looking good for him even if he hadn’t descended into a kind of madness which, like Hamlet, briefly cleared and allowed him to stay his hand rather than kill a king where compassion proved his weakness.

Added to the historical intrigue and the tragic misunderstandings between fathers and sons, The Throne adds in a comment on the vagaries of rigid social systems which set out correct and incorrect ways of living, even down to the the ties on the hem of a pair of trousers. Sado wasn’t cut out for his father’s life of dry book learning and calculated appeasement. He was an artist and an athlete – a man of action who might have made a fine king at any other time but could never have been what his father wanted him to be (which was essentially just another version of himself). Yet no deviation can be permitted in this extremely regimented kingly court where a single misspoken word or misplaced action can be enough to seal your fate.

When prompted for a kind of explanation at the end of the film, Sado repeats one of the teachings from his father’s books – that in the end laws and decorum are less important than the men that stand in front of them. He placed the man before the idea but was not rewarded with the same degree of feeling – only a cold and dispassionate application of the law. In part an exploration of a historical event which is both personal and national tragedy, Sado is the time old story of a father and son who are unable to understand each other, snatching only a few brief moments of connection before the inevitable separation. A partial posthumous pardon only serves to deepen the tragedy of a son driven mad by his father’s unpredictable cruelty and even if the film ends on a note of melancholy reconciliation with the past, the central message of fathers attempting to force their own world on their unwilling sons is one that rewrites itself with each passing generation.


Reviewed at a “teaser” screening for the London Korean Film Festival.