Review of Princess Deokhye
Review of Princess Deokhye
  • Jiin Ashley Kim
  • 승인 2016.08.29 19:41
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She watches her father, the last king of Joseon to be exact, fall over dead, his eyes going blank and blood trickling down his lips. Forced to go to Japan, she lives there against her will until the war ends. When she tries to go home, however, she is told that President Rhee Syng-man has barred re-entry of all members of the royal family for stability of the newly formed Korean government. Many years later, when she is an old woman suffering from mental illness, is she finally allowed to return home.
This is the story of Princess Deokhye, the last princess of Joseon, and the main character of the history-based movie Princess Doekhye, which was released in Korea this summer. A sad film about an honorable princess suffering from Japanese and ‘Chinilpa’ atrocities during colonialism, Princess Doekhye tugged on my heartstrings as an individual who identifies as Korean. However, some parts of the movie seemed to draw on blatantly emotional nationalistic sentiments, to the point that I found it uncomfortable or awkward. I thought the movie was sad, but failed to capture the complexities of colonialism.
I understand that parts of Princess Doekhye made people angry or sad. The story was objectively a sad one, and from a Korean perspective, the injustices Princess Doekhye suffered from colonialism, especially because of pro-Japanese officials, were infuriating. However, during moments where the movie evidently aimed to evoke these emotions, I wondered whether the surge of national pride and fury I was feeling were based on an accurate account of events that occurred during colonialism, and whether any movie could unravel the layers of narratives that existed during Japanese colonialism of the Korean peninsula.
In reality, there is no evidence that Princess Deokhye participated in the Korean independence movement as she did in the movie. Many critics also mention that members of the royal family enjoyed rights and privileges as the elite in Japan during the colonial era, but since we do not know their circumstance and feelings at the time, I think this fact is irrelevant.
However, there is value in noting that Princess Deokhye was indeed a member of the royal family, who had access to food and education during the colonial period. Her experiences during this time were much different than the experiences of lower class Koreans, and in truth, the experiences of many low-class Japanese who worked in Korea at the time.
As Carter Eckert, leading American scholar in modern Korean History, notes in his book Offspring of Empire, the physical effects of colonialism had perhaps more similarities between members of the same economic and social class, whether Korean or Japanese, rather than between members of the same nation. (He was talking about the poor Japanese immigrants who had come to Korea in search of work when the Japanese had claimed Korea a part of Japan, and suffered with other Korean farmers in the rice-shortage and poverty,)
Of course, this does not diminish the struggle for independence of many intellectuals or political leaders during the colonial period. However, I wonder if Korean nationalism could be evoked within the audience in more graceful and thoughtful ways. Princess Deokhye seemed awfully one-dimensional and simplified to me when there are countless other details that could have been considered in Princess Deokhye’s story, and the colonial context itself.

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