Following the death of her emperor father, Deok-hye (Son Ye-jin) – the last princess of Joseon dynasty – is forcibly relocated to Japan as part of that country’s ongoing occupation of Korea. Trapped in Japan alongside her brother, Deok-hye struggles to return home to her people – and to assist in the resistance efforts against Japanese rule.
In recent years South Korean cinema has seemed relatively obsessed with its forced occupation period, in which the Empire of Japan annexed the whole of Korea from 1910 to 1945. The Last Princess, being a biographical picture set during this period, naturally covers it, however recent years have also seen the likes of Assassination (2015), The Silenced (2015), The Handmaiden (2016), The Age of Shadows (2016) and Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (2016) all use the occupation period for everything for historical flavour to entire storylines. Whether it is due to revived nationalism within South Korea, a general exorcism of lingering frustrating over the occupation, or simply a trail of films trying to copy one another’s success, I cannot say with any authority. It does, however, make for a fairly crowded mini-genre at the moment, and that challenges The Last Princess to make a big impact on its audience.
The bottom line is that while The Last Princess is handsomely produced and worthily put together, it has an innate lack of agency and drive to make it function in the manner that its premise would suggest. Its greatest problem is the true story upon which it was based. The real Princess Deok-hye was indeed relocated to Japan under the claim of her continuing her studies, married a Japanese aristocrat six years later, and was denied re-entry into Korea until 1962. She also suffered terribly from mental illness during her adult life; a factor that the film includes, but delays considerably in order to present her as a resistance figure instead.
The debate over historical accuracy in biographical films is a perennial one, and those whose opinions on historical features hinges on their accuracy should be wary of the liberties taken here. Writer/director Hur Jin-ho shifts and replaces events, and combines real people into amalgam characters. The most obvious of these is Kim Jang-han, a nephew of the Joseon emperor’s chamberlain promised as a husband to Deok-hye. In the film Kim goes on to become a journalist instrumental in bringing Deok-hye home to Korea; in real life that task was achieved by a journalist named Kim Eul-han. The role is played by Park Hae-il, with younger versions of the character played by Yeo Hoe-hyun and Lee Hyo-je. He does a charismatic job, and plays the middle-aged version of the character – by then a disabled war veteran – as effectively as the younger, more passionate version.
Deok-hye herself is played by Son Ye-jin, with younger versions played capably by Kim So-hyun and Shin Rin-ah. She is a tremendously emotive actress, with wide sorrowful eyes that brilliantly capture the princess’ pain and anguish over her predicament. Sadly sorrow and hopelessness are almost entirely what Son is required to play. The critical flaw of the film is the degree to which Deok-hye becomes a passive victim of history and circumstance, rather than an active participant in it. History is effectively working against Hur Jin-ho in developing the story, and while he surrounds Deok-hye with plenty of intrigue, drama and sudden bouts of violence, it all tends to flow around her rather than be in any way affected or changed by her actions. The production design is handsome, as is the photography. The performances range from competent to great – Yoon Je-moon is a trifle hammy of the film’s nominal villain – and the historical background is effective and worth exploring. The story that ties it all together is just tediously sedate. The Last Princess is not a bad film by any means, but it is ultimately a rather ordinary one.