Sadly, “The Princess and the Matchmaker” is not one of them.
Directed by Hong Chang-pyo, the flick marks the hallyu star’s return to the silver screen after being discharged from his mandatory military service last year.
Filming was finished in 2015, but the movie was kept under wraps for nearly three years. Looking at the final product, it is not hard to guess why.
The story follows Joseon-era princess Songhwa -- played by Shim Eun-kyung. The kingdom is plagued by a severe drought and believing that his daughter’s marriage will solve the problem, the king orders his men to investigate the compatibility -- or “gunghap” -- between the princess and four candidates for marriage.
|“The Princess and the Matchmaker” (CJ Entertainment)|
Gunghap refers to the practice of seeing how well a marriage would work out, based on names, birthdays and other elements. Lee plays an expert in the art of gunghap, who sets out to see which candidate is the perfect match for Songhwa. Along the way, however, he does not realize that one of his companions is the princess, who disguises herself as a commoner and tries to see for herself which man she might marry.
It is not really a period drama, but a rom-com set in the Joseon era. Ironically, the message is surprisingly progressive: One should look for what one’s heart desires, rather than follow what is demanded by his or her situation.
“I wanted to make (the movie) different from the existing period films. Rather than being centered on men or struggle for power, I made a light-hearted and funny love story,” said Hong during the premiere of his first feature-length film.
Shim, who plays the playful and active princess, said the message about love was what she liked about the movie. “I came to think about love once again through this film,” she said.
On paper, the films seems to have a lot of potential. But though it could have been a cute and funny film, the results are sub-par.
At times, the movie seems confused as to whether it wants to be serious or funny. Laughs are few and far between, and the most hilarious scenes were not by design, but by lack of it.
“If you take away love in life, what else is there?” is actually a relevant line and was clearly intended to tug at the heartstrings of the viewers, but the theater actually erupted in laughter as it looked so misplaced and forced. The chemistry between the two leads is lacking, and it is very difficult to imagine them as people in love.
Lee’s lackluster performance was not such a surprise because this was only his second movie.
More disappointing was Shim Eun-kyung, because she took so well to her comic role in “Miss Granny.” Her transformation as a 70-something in a 20-year-old’s body was absolutely precious.
Clad awkwardly in hanbok, however, Shim is neither funny nor natural-looking in this film. If anything, she seems lost, which is almost a tragedy considering her abilities as an actress.
For some reason, the movie is being promoted as the second coming of “The Face Reader,” which was the highest-grossing and one of the most highly praised films of 2013. It seems downright cruel to even make the comparison, as the period piece had an excellent plot, superb acting, a relevant message and tonal shifts that balanced seriousness with fun. Indeed, the “serious” movie of five years ago had more funny moments that the supposed “comedy.”
It is hard to say the talent is not there. Lee is not a bad actor in TV dramas, and Shim -- when used right -- can be exceptional. But Hong’s attempt making a movie that is both serious and loveable has resulted in it being neither.
“The Princess and the Matchmaker” hits theaters next Wednesday.
By Yoon Min-sik