Updated: Jul 2, 2021
A tragic story nearly forgotten by a nation, "The Last Princess" is based on the true story of princess Deok-hye as one of the last family members of the Joseon dynasty.
This movie is an account of how Princess Deok-hye, who was exiled by the Japanese when she was only thirteen, struggles to remain a steadfast symbol of pride for her country while abroad and in captivity. Before she is finally allowed to go home to Korea some 38 years later, she has to endure a forced marriage, residence in an asylum, many deep betrayals, and accept the worst fate of any royal: the pain of watching one's country suffer from afar.
Even without a background in contemporary Korean history, viewers will find that this film's strength lies in its ability to convey the important highlights of Deok-hye's life and the weight of her struggles, much like any other well-made royal biopic. It's also refreshing to see a Korean movie with historical content that does not pummel you with patriotic agenda or use extremely biased caricatures to drive the "us-versus-the-world" mentality (they do tend to go a bit overboard with these themes sometimes). The Last Princess is also unique in a sense that it is a welcome break from all the machismo-driven cinematic versions of history, and shows how a love for country can be demonstrated in the gentler, quieter things, even if one is deemed as a hollow puppet with nothing to offer.
The film is a welcome addition to the historical dramas that other notable Korean directors have made recently, notably Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden, Choi Dong-hoon's Assassination, and Kim Jee-woon's Age of Shadows, all of which depict interesting variations on the theme of colonial atrocity and rebellion. These, including The Last Princess, are important in that they have shifted the simplistic narrative of linear Japanese atrocities to a fairer picture that now includes the involvement of Korean lackeys and betrayers, as well as the consequences of their disloyalty. But while these other directors choose to come down with a heavy hand and fuel their films with opulent sets, costuming, and world-building, The Last Princess stands out as their quieter, more introspective older sister, and opts to explore the rich inner life of its protagonist instead of weaving and zigzagging through an elaborate and suspenseful plot.
While the historical accuracy of a film like this is always contestable, Son Ye-jin's performance as the helpless royal metaphor is not, and it is her delicate acting and nuanced handling of the sensitive subject material that makes this film a pleasure to watch. The bonus, of course, is that the film benefits from the steady hand and rather romantic vision of esteemed director Hur Jin-ho, who directed the '90s melodrama classic Christmas in August (a film that is studied to death in Korean film schools because of its careful storytelling and nuanced characterization). Jin-ho's steady and sensitive style, combined with Ye-jin's deft ability to make you FEEL things, is a wonderful mix, and will make you hurt long after the movie has ended.
All in all, The Last Princess is an enlightening, but sometimes difficult, watch for the weekend.
*Also, wait for the final scene, where her royal maids greet Deok-hye after waiting for nearly 40 years. I am not crying. You are.