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)

The Himalayas (히말라야, Lee Suk-hoon, 2015)

HimalayasBecause it’s there. As good a reason as any for doing anything but these were the only three words of explanation offered by George Mallory in answer to the question “Why climb Everest?”. In Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the heroine reacts in a similarly philosophical fashion when asked “Why do you want to dance?” replying with the question “Why do you want to live?”. What makes some people prepared to dance until their feet bleed and their toes break, and sends others to the peaks of snowcapped mountains staring death in the face as they go, is something which cannot be fully explained in words but cannot be denied by those who hear its calling.

Korea’s most well known mountain climber, Um Hong-gil (Hwang Jung-min), was undoubtedly one who heard the call and The Himalayas (히말라야) is his story (more or less). Based on his real life exploits, the film charts his continuing successes as an international climber until a foot injury forces him to remain on a more usual altitude, but the real heart of the story is in his growing relationship with rookie Moo-taek (Jung Woo) who’s every bit as fearless as he is. Together the pair scale the peaks of the world’s highest mountain ranges until it’s finally time for Hong-gil to hang up his pick and keep his feet on the ground for good.

However, tragedy strikes as one of Hong-gil’s closest friends is suddenly killed after getting caught in an unexpected storm. The mountain ranges of the world are littered with the corpses of unfortunate climbers who got into difficulty and couldn’t be rescued. The bodies remain where they fell, becoming one with mountain itself in a lonely climbers graveyard, frozen and perfect for eternity. Risking your own life to retrieve the lifeless body of a friend may seem like a perverse, irrational thing to do, yet understandable. Wracked with guilt and grief, Hong-gil assembles a team and embarks on a sentimental journey to bring his friend home, and, ironically, learn to let him go.

What starts off as a sports movie with its training sequences and tough coach inspires maverick rookie routine branches off into the classic expeditionary adventure format before falling into its unexpected home genre – the melodrama. Though in one sense a kind of biopic, the realm aim is to get those tears rolling as these brave men and women risk all for glory and comradeship in pushing the limits of the human condition far past their breaking points.

Hong-gil himself is, despite his gruff exterior, a dreamer and idealist in love with the soulful purity of the mountains. His is a journey of self discovery as he tells us that there is no pretence when it comes to mountain climbing. When you’re up there alone, just you and the vast snow covered emptiness, all of your masks and defences fall away. Hong-gil climbs the mountain to explore landscape of his own mind. He also objects to the often uttered phrase “conquer” a mountain as he believes the mountain gives you permission to ascend making this way of thinking disrespectful and even likens the mountain itself to woman when bemoaning Moo-taek’s pointlessly noble romantic gesture by stating that you don’t conquer the “mountain” you console it.

For all that, the real world is ever present as we see in one particularly awkward marketing pitch in which Hong-gil is trotted out as a model to have the prospective sponsor’s logo plastered all over him in the hopes that they will fund an expedition. When someone raises the very sensible point that this could look very bad for them should one of the climbers die with their logo on their chest, the marketing guys slowly start peeling them all off – velcro solves everything, it seems.

The team also becomes a marketing tool for their nation, carrying the Korean flag around with them for any photo opportunities which might present themselves. When tragedy strikes and the remainder of the Korean expeditionary group refuse to go after their fallen friend (the right and practical decision given the weather conditions and the low probability of success), base camp puts out a message over the radio in English pleading for help. The British contingent continue with their crosswords and cups of tea, steadfastly ignoring the emotional mayday call. The Chinese at least begin reassuring each other that it’s far too dangerous to contemplate.

The Himalayas begins as a comedy but the laughs fall away once the tears start rolling. Though it may affect a poetic tone the philosophical meandering is generally at the service of the melodrama which is very much underpinned by male bonding, pride, honour, debt and responsibility. Hong-gil’s “Human Expedition” is one of grief stricken madness but a perfectly understandable one in which he both needs to atone for “abandoning” his mountaineering brother and come to terms with the fact that the death zone has claimed another sacrifice. Often impressively filmed, The Himalayas suffers from its extremely melodramatic, sentimental tone which is only exacerbated by the intrusion of its loud and syrupy score. Anchored by strong performances from its leading players including Hwang Jung-min as the tough yet sensitive Hong-gil and Jung Woo as the young firebrand Moo-taek, The Himalayas spends too long at the destination rather than on the journey and ultimately fails to make either its character drama or expeditionary environment sufficiently engaging.


Seen as part of a teaser programme for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2016.

US release trailer:

Ode to My Father (국제시장, JK Yoon, 2014)

ode_to_my_father_stillReview of JK Yoon’s Ode to My Father (국제시장, Gukjeshijang) – first published by UK Anime Network.


Of late, we’ve seen a lot of films attempt to trace the history of a nation through the story of one man and his family which ultimately becomes a metaphor for the that of the land itself. Many of these have come from China which shares something of the turbulent history that has affected the Korean peninsula over the last hundred years. In Ode to My Father, director JK Youn has tried to pay tribute both to his own father and to all the fathers of modern Korea who underwent great difficulties and suffered immensely in the hope of building a better, happier, future for their own children.

Mostly we view events from the point of view of Duk-soo – an old man at the beginning of the film who has made a success of himself and is surrounded by a large, loving family though seems to retain a kind of unresolved sadness. When we travel back with him, he’s just a small boy fleeing his homeland with his parents and siblings. As the oldest, he’s put in charge of his sister only to have her cruelly snatched away from him during the final escape. This event colours the rest of Duk-soo’s life as he carries with him both the tremendous guilt of having failed to protect his sister and of losing his father has he went back to look for her. The remaining family members gather together at the small imported goods shop belonging to an aunt which becomes another motif of the film.

Growing into manhood, Duk-soo is now the man of the house with both his siblings and his mother to provide for. Making countless sacrifices which see him abandoning his own dreams and travelling abroad to seek better paid work – first in the coalmines of West Germany and later the warzone of Vietnam, Duk-soo puts his family before himself every single time. Working tirelessly, Duk-soo grows up but inside he’s forever the little boy on a boat watching his father drift away him and desperately hoping he’ll some day miraculously turn up at the shop with a smile and an improbable story.

This is a story of painful separations and the shockwaves they send through the rest of one’s life and of all the lives throughout history. Having fled the Chinese and the communists in the North, Duk-soo and his family are excited about the prospect of being able to go home at the “end” of the war. However, this is a war which is still not technically over, merely suspended by a truce, and Duk-soo will never see his hometown again. Eventually, during the ‘80s, 30 years since Duk-soo was separated from his father and sister, a nationwide campaign is held to try and re-unite family members forced apart by the traumatic events of the 1950s. Entire squares in the city are covered with people desperately looking for each other wearing signs with their relatives’ names and point of last sighting, clothing etc all in the hope of finally finding each other again. Needless to say, some of these people are luckier than others and there are tears of both joy and sadness.

Still, all in all, Duk-soo and South Korea made a success of themselves even if there’s a resulting ache from the great wound which has split the nation in two. Much of the story is universal – a father’s love for his family, but Ode to My Father will obviously speak loudest to Koreans who can identify more strongly with the historical context. Yoon has also injected some humorous incidents involving real life Korean historical celebrities which may mystify international viewers even if they’re sign posted well enough that one gets the gist of it anyway.

Unabashedly sentimental and oftentimes overblown, Ode to My Father nevertheless succeeds in tugging at the heartstrings in all the intended ways. A paean to the post war generation and all that they endured in building the modern Korea that their children could live in without fear or hunger, Ode to My Father is in the end far too sugary but also, it has to be said, affecting.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.