[Review] The Last Princess/Princess Deokhye – 덕혜옹주

TEARING OUT THE PAGES OF THE PRINCESS’ DIARIES

Born in 1912, when Korea was ruled by Japan, Princess Deokhye (Son Ye Jin) is the youngest daughter to Joseon’s last king, King Gojong (Baek Yoon Shik).  Her father dies under suspicious circumstances and then she’s forced to move to Japan at 13 at the directive of Han Taek Soo (Yoon Je Moon), a pro-Japanese official.  Princess Deokhye is used a political puppet for the Japanese regime and her isolation from Korea makes her feel homesick.  One day, Kim Jang Han (Park Hae Il), a suitor picked by her father, appears in Japan.  Having enlisted in the Japanese army as a spy, he begins to formulate a plan to smuggle the royal family out of Japan to Shanghai, the site of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea.

When a friend first told me about this film, I had to look up who Princess Deokhye was, as I typically do for movies and shows about historical events and biographies.  I was taken aback by the incredibly sad life she lived.  If Russia had Anastasia, I would say that Princess Deokhye would be Korea’s equivalent when it comes to the mystery as to her whereabouts.

When it comes to historical films, I do feel that filmmakers are obligated to do their research and incorporate enough factual elements that is relevant to the story and its characters based on the available historical research.  To put it in different terms, why make a movie about a historical figure when you can write a completely fictional story, right?  However, I also believe that one of the most important jobs of the filmmaker is to tell a compelling story.  So the filmmaker is playing a balancing game as to what elements they can embellish and it’s up to the viewers to decide whether the deviation from the truth is distracting or if there is enough substance there to resonate with viewers.

In regards to this film, it appears that the film deviates from the truth as far as what I could uncover online.  I could spend weeks doing research and reading various texts but unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of time on this one subject.  So as a disclaimer, I open the floor of the comments section if there are readers who have knowledge to more accurate information.  However, here are some broad strokes regarding the history I could uncover in a short time, the Cliff Notes version.

It’s not clear if Princess Deokhye made speeches to the Joseon people to promote the Japanese government.  After all, she exhibited symptoms of mental illness shortly after her mother’s death.  It seems even less likely that she made speeches that roused up a crowd of Joseon people living in Japan.  I suppose the point the film was trying to make was that she, herself, was a symbol of the anti-Japanese sentiment but it’s not clear if she had an active role inspiring this sentiment.

Unlike the film, Princess Deokhye was allowed to attend her mother’s funeral but was not allowed to attend in proper funeral attire.  It was in the 1930’s when Deokhye had been in and out of various mental clinics and hospitals.  She had married So Takeyuki, a Japanese aristocrat, and they eventually divorced in 1953.  Their daughter disappeared in 1956, and it is assumed that she committed suicide.  Compounded by grief, it seems that Deokhye was committed to a mental hospital and was moved around to various facilities around Japan, which explains why it was difficult to track her whereabouts.  As marginalized as So Takeyuki was to the Japanese government, I think he was also a quite complicated character and there is something very thought-provoking in the way Kim Jae Wook plays him.  The film doesn’t take sides when it comes to Takeyuki but rather paints him to be a helpless puppet.

Kim Jang Han, played by Park Hae Il in the film, is an amalgamation of two historical figures, Kim Eul Han and Kim Jang Han.  It is true that King Gojong betrothed his youngest daughter to Kim Jang Han when they were just children.  However, it was Kim Eul Han, Jang Han’s older brother, who became a newspaper reporter and rescued Princess Deokhye from the mental hospital in Japan.  Kim Eul Han, and most likely Jang Han as well, attended the same kindergarten that King Gojong set up in the palace for his beloved daughter.  Eul Han had said in news reports that he could not forget his childhood classmate so it prompted him to seek out what had happened to her.

It is true that President Rhee Syngman did not want Princess Deokhye to return because he thought it would destabilize the newly formed Republic of Korea, away from the ideals of the former Korean monarchy.  However, when Princess Deokhye was finally allowed to return to Korea, her aging court ladies were at the Kimpo Airport to formally bow to her.  There are documentaries featuring footage of her return and it is quite an emotional scene.  After Princess Deokhye returned to Korea, So Takeyuki comes to Korea to try and meet with her but was denied by the court officials.

As for the acting, I think both Son Ye Jin and Kim So Hyun do a beautiful job in portraying the title character.  The film’s strength is in bringing a human element to the princess’ circumstance but the emotional heart of the film doesn’t always come from the title character herself.  It comes from the eyes of her loyal servants, like Kim Jang Han who refused to give up his search for her and get her back home.

However, my heart goes out to Ra Mi Ran who plays the ever loyal court lady, Bok Soon.  The scene where they are painfully separated by the cruel Han Taek Soo is especially heart wrenching as Bok Soon’s lighthearted spirit and steadfast love for her princess truly does leave a whole in our hearts.

Then when they are reunited at Kimpo Airport, we are overwhelmed with emotion as we get try to overcome the years of loss and helplessness these two friends must have felt.

As for Yoon Je Moon, he is certainly excellent at playing a despicable character.  My mother always says that it’s not the Japanese imperialists who are the enemy here.  In fact, the greater enemy is the ally who sells out his or her own people.  The film doesn’t make any excuses for his actions but as devastating as it may sound, it also does sugarcoat the reality that many of the individuals had gotten away with their crimes for many years after the occupation.

As for the pacing of the film, I think the film glosses over big chunks of time which is very disruptive to the flow.  I get that there probably isn’t much known about what she did and how she was, especially when mental illness fully takes hold, but I do think that this is where the film could have taken creative licenses.  I also felt dismayed by the major action sequence in the film for its implausibility.  Kim Jang Han’s plot to smuggle Princess Deokhye out of the country is uncovered by Han Taek Soo and as they try to escape, a chase ensues.  It ends up at a remote beach and I find it highly improbable that if this happened in real life, both individuals would have survived.  It would have been more advantageous for Han Taek Soo to say that the princess died during a kidnapping attempt and therefore rid him of his pesky babysitting position.  Also, to have Kim Jang Han go down in a blaze of glory only to surprise bring him back at the end to rescue the damsel is clichéd.  At its best, the scene is distracting, at its worst, the scene is poor attempt at creativity.

The movie is beautifully cast and the princess’ real story is quite interesting.  However, the creative holes that the film tries to incorporate detracts away from the other positive elements.  In fact, it feels like the film is trying too hard to make this another film about the sins of the Japanese imperialists.  Yes, that history is part of her history as well but I think it does her disservice to assume that it’s her entire story.

Rating

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