Yi Deok-hye, the last royal member of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, spent her whole life in captivity and exile, an archetypal damsel-in-distress with no fairy-tale ending. “The Last Princess,” directed by Hur Jin-ho (“Christmas in August”) with the old-school romanticism of Hollywood classics like “Anastasia” (1956), focuses on her desperate attempts to return to her homeland. A heart-rending lead performance by Son Ye-jin graces the heavily wrought melodrama with true pathos. Since opening, the film has reigned at the domestic box office and should crown its run with multiple overseas releases, including a Stateside bow.
The screenplay by Hur, Lee Han-eol, and Seo Yoo-min, based on Kwon Bi-young’s novel of the same title, spans the protagonist’s life, from her pampered childhood in Seoul’s Changdeok palace, to enforced residence in Japan and repatriation in old age. It’s part of a recent wave of colonial dramas helmed by Korea’s most prominent directors (Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden,” Kim Jee-woon’s “The Age of Shadows,” Choi Dong-hoon’s “Assassination”) that have shifted from condemning Japanese atrocity to exposing the iniquity of Korean lackeys of imperialism, revealing how, instead of being tried for treason, they went on to run the government in the “liberated” country.
In a prelude set in 1919, fourteen years have passed since Japan forcibly annexed the Korean Peninsula, but King Gojong (Baek Yun-sik) still strives to assert his sovereignty. Although the bulk of the narrative takes place in Japan, the sequence demonstrates how Deok-hye’s early years in Korea shaped her identity. Scenes of Gojong’s doting love for his youngest child intensify the trauma of the moppet witnessing her father poisoned to death, with the event possibly planting seeds of mental instability in her adult life. Even as a teenager, Deok-hye (Kim So-hyun, a stunning Son lookalike) bridles at being used as a propaganda tool of the Japanese, refusing to wear a kimono at an official ceremony. For her defiance, colonial lackey Han Taek-soo (Yoon Jea-moon) forces her to go to Japan for schooling.
The story proper starts in Tokyo, where the grown-up and gorgeously turned-out princess (Son) re-encounters Kim Jang-han (Park Hae-il), to whom she was betrothed in childhood. Ostensibly a high-flying officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, he actually works with Deok-hye’s nephew Prince Yi Woo (Go Soo, cutting a dashing, aristocratic figure) in the underground independence movement. Time after time, they try to devise a scheme for Deok-hye, her brother, Crown Prince Yi Eun (Park Soo-young), and his Japanese wife, Princess Masako, to escape to Shanghai. Yet Han keeps thwarting them.
For a director who’d rested his reputation on gentle, introverted, contemporary love stories like “April Snow” (which also stars Son) or “Happiness,” Hur generously doles out flag-waving nationalism and torrid romance in equal measure. Still, audiences will be easily swept along by the compelling historical background and the character’s fates. For instance, a scene in which Deok-hye gives a speech to Korean slave-laborers, though melodramatic, is deeply stirring because it’s depicted as the moment when the young woman discovers her role as an inspirational figurehead for her downtrodden nation.
In depicting the political treachery that ruled her life, Hur defines Deok-hye’s ordeal in terms of repeated loss — her country; her father; her mother, whose deathbed she couldn’t’ attend; her devoted lady-in-waiting Bok-mi (Ra Mi-ran); and literally everyone she grows to care about, until her sense of self and grip on reality finally dissolve. Her suffering reaches the breaking point in a truly wrenching parting scene at the beach, the climax of a secret operation, which sets hearts racing like the best spy thrillers.
The period narrative is interwoven with a 1960s thread, whereby Kim Jang-han, now a journalist in post-independence South Korea, goes back to Tokyo to look for Deok-hye. Just as Jang-han’s romantic interest in his fiancée was fictional, it was a reporter named Kim Eul-han who was instrumental in lobbying President Rhee Sing-man to repatriate the princess. However, by merging the two figures, the script gives continuity to the protagonists’ love, adding emotional heft to the reappearance of Deok-hye after nearly 30 years. That the new republic forbade the return of the royal bloodline in order to consolidate its own legitimacy is well documented in the film. Here it serves to reinforce the princess’s tragic fate of being spurned by her own country.
Son, whose beauty and choice of overtly commercial projects have often eclipsed her acting talent, gives a career-best performance, encompassing Deok-hye’s bright-eyed determination to fight for personal and national independence, and her gradual loss of hope in the face of insurmountable odds. It’s a pity, though, that Hur hasn’t explored in depth the entangled issues of family ties and national interests governing the relationships between Deok-hye, Prince Eun, and Masako.
While attempting none of the fantastical opulence of Park’s period sets, the production is still radiant with elegant period detail, from vintage vehicles to the fusion of East and West in furniture and costumes that was much in vogue during the colonial age. Nam Na-yeong’s editing gives a clear structure to a narrative packed with events, while Choi Yong-rak’s stormy orchestral score comes crashing through relentlessly at all key moments.