The Korean royal line came to a bumpy and unceremonious end at the start of the 20th century. Emperor Sunjong ascended the throne in 1907, after Japan forced the resignation of his father Gojong. Then, just three years later, Korea was officially annexed by Japan, and at this time the monarchy was abolished. The royal family no longer exercised any power, nonetheless the lives of these individuals went on. In 1912, Gojong and his concubine Yang Gui-in had a baby girl whom they named Deok-hye. Gojong felt a special attachment to his young daughter, but after his death in 1919, her life entered a long period of uncertainty and drift.
The Last Princess is the story of Deok-hye, who grew up in a palace in Seoul but then found herself in Japan for much of her adult life. It should be said at the outset that the film’s plot is based not so much on historical fact as on a popular novel which embellished and re-imagined her life experiences for a mass audience. In doing so, The Last Princess seeks to tell, through Deok-hye and her devoted admirer Jang-han (Park Hae-il), the story of the trauma and lingering scars of Japan’s long occupation of Korea. The fact that many of the events depicted onscreen never actually happened seemed to bother few viewers upon its release: the film was a big hit, selling 5.6 million tickets.
Even those with little knowledge of or interest in Korean history can enjoy the movie, for two points in particular. The first is the emotional intensity of the filmmaking. Director Hur Jin-ho is beloved by many fans in South Korea for the way he reinvented melodrama in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Christmas in August and One Fine Spring Day are stories about people coping with tragedy, while falling in and out of love. By focusing on the everyday details of charismatic but otherwise ordinary people, Hur created a new, understated aesthetic for Korean melodrama that proved influential.
Years later, Hur Jin-ho is at a very different stage of his career, and at first glance The Last Princess might seem to be the opposite of his former style. Grand gestures and elaborate sets have replaced the ordinary settings of his early works. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that this too is a new kind of melodrama, at least for Korean cinema. There may be grand gestures, but these are set within a more subtly drawn emotional backdrop. It’s a highly controlled style of filmmaking that has more in common with classical Hollywood melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s than it does with other contemporary Korean melodramas.
The second reason to watch this film is for the performance of Son Ye-jin. After having become famous at a young age for her clean image and pretty face (she also starred in Hur Jin-ho’s third film April Snow), Son has really pushed herself dramatically in recent years, in films like the 2016 political thriller The Truth Beneath. Her role in The Last Princess is less of a departure from her previous screen image, but her commitment to this role was extraordinary. (This is true behind the camera as well: in pre-production, when the film’s financing was about to collapse, she stepped forward and saved it by investing her own money.) The fictional Deok-hye is a woman whose very right to make life decisions has been taken away. Tossed about like a bottle in a stormy sea, she is nonetheless given life and emotional independence by Son’s vibrant performance. Before the film opened, it was easy to imagine any number of actresses in the lead role. But this is no longer the case: Son took this role and made it completely her own.