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(Movie Review) Life is swept away in historical turmoil in 'The Last Princess'

All News 15:25 July 29, 2016

By Woo Jae-yeon

SEOUL, July 29 (Yonhap) -- A human being is nothing more than a speck in the random, mystifying trajectory of history.

But for Deokhye, the last princess of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), life must have been so harsh and totally incomprehensible to the point where she couldn't maintain her sanity. Life was something to endure, not to live.

"The Last Princess," a historic film based on the best-seller "Deokhye Ongju" by Kwon Bi-young, tells the story of Deokhye's ill-fated life that failed to go in tandem with the fate of her motherland.

Forced to leave Joseon at the age of 13, a number of desperate attempts to come back home kept being foiled. Even when her country was liberated from colonial Japan, she was denied entry to Korea as then-President Rhee Syng-man feared returning royalty might undermine his authority.

On Wednesday, director Hur Jin-ho, best known for romantic films like "Christmas in August" and "One Fine Springday," said he was deeply saddened when he watched a documentary a few years back about the tragic life of Deokhye.

Through the film, he touches upon "How can life so mercilessly throw such tough luck at one helpless woman," a mystery that painfully puzzled him all along.

The director has a proven track record in weaving a love story from a delicate web of emotions that each character experiences. In the film, he confirms his reputation with the help of Son Ye-jin who pulled off, yet again, an outstanding performance of portraying the unfathomable depths of the emotional ups and downs of Deokhye.

In an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Thursday, the actress said she gave her all in the film.

"I used to maintain a critical viewpoint about my own films," she said. "For this one, I don't have any regrets for what I could have done differently."

As with most historic films, the line between what really happened and what did not is blurred in this one too. The director peppered tantalizing fictional elements into the series of historical happenings.

Independent fighter-turned-reporter Kim Jang-han, played by Park Hae-il, is the most dramatized character.

His name is referred to only once in historical documents as Deokhye's fiance. King Gojong, Deokhye's father and Joseon's 26th and penultimate monarch, made her engage Kim when she was still very little because he was worried about the safety of his daughter. By doing so, he thought Japan wouldn't be able to force her to marry a Japanese man.

In the fictional parts of the movie, Kim persuades her to flee Japan and join the government in exile in Shanghai. During the botched attempt, the two get separated from each other and lose contact for decades. Kim, who never gives up on her, later plays a critical role in tracking down the missing princess in a mental hospital in Japan. He persistently persuades the South Korean government, still weary of the prospect that she could pose a threat to its rule, to bring the poor woman back to her hometown.

Until her early teens, Deokhye lived a happy, stereotypical princess life that matches those in Disney fairy tales. For his doting daughter, whom he had when he was near 60 years old, the king ordered a kindergarten to be built inside Deoksu Palace in 1916. He even brought in a handful of kids to attend the school so that the princess didn't feel lonely.

Her short-lived happiness and her life's acute similarity to the misfortune of Joseon under Japan's brutal rule are sure to strike a chord with many Korean moviegoers.

In one scene, Deokhye suddenly makes an impromptu, emotional speech to forced Korean laborers in a factory in Japan, going against what she was ordered to say.

"We have a home to return to. I won't give up till the end," Deokhye tells hundreds of skinny, ragged workers who break down in tears upon hearing her speech.

In another scene, she opens a Korean language class for kids in a makeshift tent.

The film may have been good enough without playing the nationalism card. After all, the life of Deokhye in itself is dramatic enough.


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