This is the text for my introduction to a screening of The Princess and the Matchmaker at the London Korean Film Festival on the 4 November
Hong Chang-pyo’s feature debut The Princess and the Matchmaker is a period film about stars, political harmonisation, and sexual liberation.
Let’s start with the stars. Set in 1753, during King Yeonjo’s 29th year on the throne, The Princess and the Matchmaker concerns the evolving relationship between the princess Songhwa (Shim Eun-kyung) who must be married off to avert national drought, and the astrologer Seo Do-yoon (played by Lee Seung-gi) who is recruited to determine which of Songhwa’s suitors will be the perfect match.
This is the second in a loose trilogy produced by Jupiter Films, all set during the Joseon era, and all highlighting Korea’s varied traditions of fortune-telling. The first, Han Jae-rim’s The Face Reader, focused on gwansang (or physiognomy), and the third, Park Hee-gon’s newly released Feng Shui, looks at pungsu (or geomancy). The Princess and the Matchmaker is concerned with saju, the Korean system of astrology, borrowed from China. All that a skilled practitioner of saju requires is the year, month, day and hour of birth to divine a person’s overall destiny, and compatibility with others for business arrangements or marriage. So amid the film’s comedy, romance and court intrigue, there is a notable prominence given to astrological readings, which are used, abused, falsified, clarified, stolen and weaponised, all as a crucial part of political and personal decision making, in a film whose characters are seeking an ideal future for themselves and/or others.
The film’s original Korean title, Gung-hap, means literally ‘Marital Harmony’, referring to saju expert Do-yoon’s efforts to find a match made in heaven for Songhwa. In fact, Songhwa’s name will not be found in the Korean annals, for she is a fiction, invented for the film – but her father King Yeonjo was a real historical figure and a devoted Confucian, and while this is not mentioned in the film, he famously introduced a policy known as “Magnificent Harmony” in an attempt to reduce factional strife in his court and his country. So here a fictive quest for marital harmony complements and reflects an actual quest for harmony of the state, in a well-matched merger of the political and the personal.
Meanwhile, Princess Songhwa is independent of mind, refuses to be cloistered, and insists on playing a more active rôle in the marriage arrangements being made for her by men – all of which marks her as embodying an emerging spirit of feminism in what is otherwise very much a man’s world. Songhwa’s wilfulness is also her progressiveness – it both sets her at odds with the rigid patriarchal structures in which she has been raised, and also holds out the possibility of change and a better future, beyond the confines of the palace. Accordingly, while Songhwa and Do-yoon seek ‘marital harmony’, what this fantasy romance in fact finds is something more akin to the modern notion of sexual equality. It is a liberated future that is written in the stars.
© Anton Bitel