Seen in Jeonju

Love (1968)

23rd March 2011

68-017~3It has been very hard for me to sit down and watch movies the past couple of weeks let alone write anything. I think I won’t be giving any more homework for a little while. I need time to catch up. I did, however, get a chance to see KTV’s offering of classic Korean cinema last week, director Kang Dae-jin’s Love starring Moon Hee, Shin Yeong-gyun, Kim Ji-mi and Lee Soon-jae. Any one of these great actors could carry a film–and Moon Hee was one of my favorite actresses. The plot, according to the Korean Film Archives, goes something like this: Love is permanent. An-min is in agony by the knowledge that his wife has an incurable disease. Nurse Sun-ok, who feels sympathy toward him, falls deeply in love. But An-min does not accept her love. At the end, his wife dies, and he only thinks of her. Accordingly, Sun-ok leaves the hospital for the sake of An-min with tears in her eyes.  Wait… what was that first line? Love is permanent? Ummm.. I don’t mean to sound cynical–and its not often that I do– but even I have a hard time swallowing that line.  Then again, within the context of this film, love does seem to continue without change for all the characters. That above synopsis also claims ‘At the end’ the doctors wife dies and the nurse leaves in tears.  What? Didn’t the person who wrote that watch the whole movie? That sad event happens at about the halfway point in the film. Here is what really happens…

The first part is right, Nurse Seo Soon-ok (her name is better written with double ‘o’s rather than a ‘u’ to get the right pronunciation) does indeed love Dr. Ahn. He in turn loves his slowly dying wife (played by Kim Ji-mi), the mother of his two children. And it is true that Ahn rejects Soon-ok’s love even though his feelings run deep for her. However, she does not leave him in tears. Instead, she sacrifices her feelings and volunteers to care for his ailing wife and act as a governess for his children (while maintaining her job at the hospital and studying to be a doctor)   But when his wife coughs her last cough and Dr. Ahn Min mercilessly fails to rebound into Soon-ok’s arms, the nurse finally has to give up. As she is rapidly approaching her mid-twenties, remaining single is not an option of course, and poor Nurse Seo is quickly married to a man whom she does not love.  He loves her with all his heart, but he has an even greater love. Alcohol.

Soon-ok’s wedding night consisted of getting scolded by a mother-in-law her hates her and forbids her to study medicine and waiting for her husband to show up. When he finally does finally stagger home, he is so drunk he passes out without his husbandly duties. In fact, it is strongly suggested that they never sleep together. But that does not stop Soon-ok from becoming a mother–which might seem difficult given the prior sentence. But it was relatively easy. While visiting the hospital she used to work at and talking with Dr. Ahn, a woman comes in with a sick boy. Soon-ok helps in the emergency and the woman thanks her and explains that she is a single mother, the boys father having disappeared long ago. But when the mother learns Soon-ok’s name, she realizes that this was the woman her old lover had been obsessing about for years and that she is now married to him. The mother slips away, leaving a note for Soon-ok to raise the boy with her husband/the boy’s father. One would think there would be a lot of implications and issues to be addressed here, but the movie does not touch on them. Instead, in the very next scene, Soon-ok’s entire family–drunk husband, hardened mother-in-law and stepson–are packing up and rushing to Manchuria as her husband is fleeing from some unsavory characters he had crossed.

Life is hard in Manchuria  as Soon-ok becomes the sole bread-winner in the family. I have to assume that some time has passed as she opens her own hospital and people are now addressing her as ‘doctor.’  She gains the respect of the entire albeit small community she lives in and has a loving relationship with her son, but her home life is still miserable.  While I thought that Soon-ok’s suddenly becoming a mother was handled too quickly by the script, the next part made my head spin. In short order, her husband is murdered and her mother-in-law winds up dead. These two major events happen within three minutes of each other and it is impossible to meassure how much time has actually passed for the characters.  Soon-ok seems on the verge of giving up the ghost herself and winds up very ill in the hospital. Her spirits are lifted however, when her brother shows up to take her home and her will to live becomes even stronger when told that Dr. Ahn is dangerously ill with pneumonia.

And so, Soon-ok is reunited with Dr. Ahn and his children. The movie ends with Ahn Min, looking much older,  shuffling back into the house leaning heavily on Soon-ok who promises to nurse him back to health and never leave again while the three children play in the yard.

The movie had a skewed idea of what love should be and the ideal woman. Soon-ok was certainly depicted as the ideal– she was a virgin and a mother, nurse and governess, caring and nuturing.  Her own thoughts and needs took third place behind those of her true love and the duty to her family. The movie whitewashes the fact that she was silently lusting after another woman’s husband in the first half of the film by having Ahn’s wife wholely approve of Soon-ok–even inviting her on what she knows will be the last trip with her husband (who nixes the plan and does not allow Soon-ok to go).   What passes for love in this movie seems almost like obsession. Not merely Soon-ok’s feelings for Ahn Min– who keeps giving her false hopes as with the note he attached to a wedding gift he gave her which read ‘Think of me when you look at this.’ Is that what you really want to tell a woman on her wedding day? and one you have already told that you don’t want to be with?  Soon-ok’s husband also suffers from obsession for his wife. He would follow her around before they were married begging her to consider him and, despite all his faults, he genuinely did love her even though she could never return his feelings. Even in the end, the love Soon-ok feels for Ahn seems more platonic than the love a couple should feel–almost as if Ahn now has a mother-figure to look after him and care for him while he is ill.

This movie is far too heavy on the melodrama and the pacing is way off. The two-thirds of the movie crawl by as Soon-ok suffers in silence and then, in the last part, things go by so quickly we have no idea how much time is passing.  Time in general was an issue. The issue with the medical license I assumed Soon-ok earned and the fact that Dr. Ahn is very grey by the end of the movie implies that years have passed. But Ahn’s children do not age at all which makes it feel that mere months have passed and was very confusing. As much as I like Moon Hee, I think I will give this movie a pass if I ever have the opportunity to see it again…

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