Friday, 11 November 2016

The Last Princess (2016)

More Korean cinema today and almost certainly next week as well, as the London Korean Film Festival gets under way. To be quite honest I wasn't particularly looking forward to the above historical movie, since I was expecting some sort of beautiful but quaint costume drama of ancient times. Instead this true story begins in 1925 and is therefore a 'modern' telling of the fate of the last princess of the Joseon Dynasty, Yi Deok-hye, a now largely forgotten historical figure.

Beginning when she was a youngster in her father's court, she witnesses his death by poisoning by pro-Japanese agents working for Korea's annexation by Japan (a historical fact). At the age of thirteen she is reluctantly forced to go to Japan to 'study' like her elder brother, the heir to the throne, who has never returned. In Japan she is treated with some respect but used as a political pawn to further the enslavement of her countrymen. She yearns to go home, especially when she learns that her beloved mother is ill, but promise after promise is broken, her loyal servant is dragged away, and she is told that she will never again set foot in Korea. Her childhood friend Kim Jang-han to whom she was meant to be betrothed, but now an officer in the Japanese army, hatches a plan to help her and her brother escape. However his careful planning and their fraught flight ends in tragedy and her recapture.

Forced into a loveless marriage, she again attempts to return to her country when Korea regains its independence after World War II, but is crushed to learn that her name is on a forbidden list, the new government fearing that the Dynasty might be re-established through popular support. Years pass, but Jang-han has never given up the hope of finding her again and eventually traces her to a mental asylum where she has been imprisoned, gradually losing her beauty and her wits. He eventually manages to shame the political leaders in Korea to permit the return of this broken woman.

The outlines of the plot are delineated above but these bare bones don't begin to suggest how the film plays out like a gripping thriller. We want to root for the feisty princess and we feel let down each time she is thwarted; we sense her heartbreak. When she eventually is allowed to return, we wonder whether she is 'all there' but are moved to tears (or at least choked up) when she visits the former Imperial Palace, now a museum, and has a vision of past times featuring her beaming father and mother and herself as the young, mischievous, and innocent child she once was. I didn't recognise radiant lead actress Son Ye-jin from previous movies, but she gives a restrained yet moving performance as she ages, forcing us to remember this now forgotten Princess.
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