LKFF 2018: The Princess and the Matchmaker Review
The Princess and the Matchmaker is the first feature film directed by Korean director Hong Chang-Pyo and written by screenwriter Lee Hyung-Duk. This colourful Joseon-era romantic court intrigue is the second in a loose projected trilogy from Jupiter Film (My Wife Got Married) centred around Korea's fortune-telling traditions, following Han Jae-rim (The Show Must Go On)'s The Face Reader (2013) and preceding Park Hee-gon’s Feng Shui (2018). Despite being branded as a basic romantic comedy, The Princess and the Matchmaker has the strengths of what makes Korean cinema so atypical and likeable, while containing a clever feminist message.
In 1753, a time of drought, the King (Sang-kyung Kim, Memories of Murder) is advised to restore celestial balance by marrying off his daughter, Princess Songhwa (Shim Eun-kyung, Sunny). The independent-minded Songhwa is herself desperate to escape the confines of the royal palace for an advance peek at her would-be suitors - but she finds her perfect match in a wise, honourable astrologist, Seo Do-Yoon (Lee Seung-gi, Oneului yeonae), tasked with testing her compatibility with the four candidates.
In line with one of the themes of this year’s London Korean Film Festival, giving a fair share to womens' voices, The Princess and the Matchmaker offers a strong feminist point of view through the representation of its main character, a princess who is forced to be married under the preposterous pretext of Astrology. If the starting point of the film is fairly basic, it actually uses this pretext to confront the mentality of the time with those of our contemporary society, and to propose an interesting reflexion about the relationship between man and woman.
To illustrate their point, the director and his screenwriter have chosen to use the structure of a tale (a princess is forced into marriage to an unknown man, each suitor being introduced in turn by an explanatory panel). And if the film is adorned with all the elements of the genre, as in any good tale, there is also a morality element which can be derived from the princess encounter with each suitor, all representing various negative aspects in men (maturity, womanising, violence or self-seeking attitude).
However, far from the representation of princesses in tales, Songhwa can deal with situations on her own, and when severely incapacitated, in partnership with Seo Do-Yoon. In that aspect, The Princess and the Matchmaker offers a feminist message which clearly contrasts with the representation of supposedly strong women in recent films. For instance a film like Wonder Woman, used all the clichés of feminist cinema but didn’t address any of the issues related to the representation of women in cinema by having its main character, a literate and intelligent princess well, never make use of her vast knowledge, and even sometimes acting stupidly when confronted to elements outside of her universe leading to the audience to laugh at her expense. In contrast, while many comical elements are brought, in The Princess and the Matchmaker, by Songhwa’s inexperience with the world outside of the palace, she is never the subject of mockery by Hong Chang-Pyo. As a result, her relationship with Seo Do-Yoon becomes more realistic because based on mutual growing respect for each other.
It is also a film which subverts aspects of the genre by its substance but also by its form, regularly outsmarting expectations by veering into action or thriller at times. It is full of imposture and masquerade but at its core, it tells the story of a woman whose name may have been struck from the annals, but whose comic adventures mark her as ahead of her time.
In that respect, The Princess and the Matchmaker greatly benefits from its cast led by Shim Eun-kyung as Songhwa. She is particularly at ease throughout the various elements of the film, and greatly enhances the relationship between Songhwa and Seo Do-Yoon, and with her father, the King (the former not being particularly charismatic).
Hong Chang-Pyo’s directorial debut is also visually extremely enticing, benefiting from gorgeous cinematography by Hyung-deok Lee (Train to Busan), and drawing the audience into its world through the use of various sensorial elements, from the richness of the fabrics’ textures used for the costumes to the odours depicted on screen, for instance young Songhwa’s bath or the dried flowers in her friend’s shop.
Unfortunately the film doesn’t totally free itself of its nature and it is regrettable that it doesn’t go further in its ideas, making it an undeniably clever demonstration of the savoir-fair of its director and screenwriter but one that does not address its message with more punch.