Seen in Jeonju

Love Marriage (1958)

12th February 2012

58-047~3romantic comedy dvd setLove Marriage, directed by Lee Byeong-il and released in theaters back in 1958, is a part of the Romantic Comedy DVD Set (right), a collection featuring 3 romantic-comedies from the 1950s.  The other two movies in the set are Holiday in Seoul (1958) and A Female Boss (1959). The former film is quite good and I had watched it almost as soon as I received the DVD. I admit that I put off watching the latter and Love Marriage. Reading the descriptions of them, I felt that they probably had not aged very well and would seem too dated.  Well, there is no denying that the film is dated, but I should have given them a chance earier because they are in no way bad. In fact, in today’s film there are quite a few good points, interesting characters and some fascinating views of the rapidly changing society of post-war Korea.  It is true though that the entire premise may seem a little… archaic, but it was fun nonetheless.

The story focuses on the three daughters of Dr. Ko, eldest Sook-hee, Moon-hee and youngest Myeong-hee their various romances. When the movie opens,it is four years earlier and we are at the wedding of Sook-hee to Seung-il. We follow the pair to their honeymoon destination. There, Seung-il is struck with a sudden bout of guilt and confesses to his bride that she is not his first love but that he never regreted breaking up with his ex. He begs forgiveness which Sook-hee readily gives. She has been bought up in a very progressive home, but apparently had never read Tess of d’Urbervilles for she freely admits that Seung-il is not her first either, and that in her case, her first love died suddenly.  Oops… It is a good thing that they hadn’t unpacked yet because Seung-il is out of there faster than a bat out of hell.  Sook-hee returns home alone and retires to the second floor of the family home and stays there… for four years!

Sook-hee’s mother blames herself and her husband for allowing the pair to marry for love instead of following traditions and arranging the marriage. She vows that she will not make the same mistake twice and takes control of Moon-hee’s love life. Step one, get rid of the tutor who has been teaching Gwang-shik, the Ko’s only son who is struggling with English in middle school.  The growing affection between the two must be nipped in the bud if she is to go through with her plans of marrying Moon-hee off to her friend’s son Wan-seob who has recently returned from studying in the USA and is now a manager of a nylon company.  As attractive as that sounds, Moon-hee is having none of it and she also shuts herself upstairs in the house, hardly ever coming out and eating very little.

That leaves Myeong-hee, the bright, stubborn and thoroughly modern youngest daughter of Dr. Ko.  She is so modern that shortly after we are introduced to her, she comes into the room wearing capri pants .. three years before Mary Tyler Moore made them famous on the Dick Van Dyke show.  She has more than a liberal sense of fashion. She also has very liberal ideas about woman. She will never marry, she announces, because all men are stupid and she dreams of entering politics where she will outwit every representative in parliment.  But for now, she is in her last year of high school. Her parents are not worried about her proclimations for, although they admit she is more than a match for almost any man, she will have to marry after she graduates.  And her father has the perfect candidate, his woman-hating assistant Yeong-su. If anyone can win his frozen heart, he figures it would be Myeong-hee.

While those introductions make it sound as if the movie will be nothing short of antique, it is the characters, situations and scenes that make it good. Take, for instance, the upstairs space. We are told a strange story about the upper floor of the house. Gwang-shik tells his tutor that the room is haunted by the ghost of a woman, so abused by her mother-in-law and unhappy in her marriage, that she took her own life there. Gwang-shik even admits to being afraid of his oldest sister as she moves around like a woman more dead than alive. Moon-hee eventually joins her sister and we can see that despite its overly busy decor, it is a place of somber isolation with an atmosphere akin to a convent. More than anything, this is due to actress Choi Eun-hee who masterfully plays the role of Sook-hee.

Sook-hee’s change is dramatic from when we had first seen her. At her wedding and honeymoon, she wears decidely western clothes, however in the upstairs room she wears nothing but hanboks.. and white ones at that. White is a symbol of mourning and you can tell she has not smiled in the entire four years she has been there. The clothes in the movie are symbols of the characters thoughts and philosophies.  Sook-hee, when believing in love and the free will to choose, followed western fashions, as do her sisters who believe they can date as they wish. But once she returns home, she adopts the traditional dress of Korean women and with it their more conservative thoughts. Her mother, for her part, only wears the hanbok.  Myeong-hee has insights into this and, in a clever bit, mixes the two fashions of traditional and modern with eye-searing resutls, as her father keeps urging her to wear modern clothes while her mother has ordered her to wear a hanbok to meet a potential husband.

The characters discuss clothes more than once and Wan-seob at one point talks about how American women pick styles to reflect their characters. This sends the older woman into peals of laughter which only increases when the young man continues that in American their is a belief of ‘ladies first.’  Characters throughout the movie sprinkle English into their conversation as well to show how modern they are. Maybe you remember Kim Soo-mi in the movie Unstoppable Marriage in 2007?  Her character liberally used, and butchered English, to raise herself up in the eyes of others. That happens here as well and while it seems odd, it never tips into being ridiculous until the golf scene. There the audience can feel just how pretentious the characters are being dressed in glaring golf styles and speaking English constantly to show off. The movie then uses the grounded Yeong-su to pull everyone back in and remind the wayward Myeong-hee that she is a Korean woman and she needs to stop acting like a foreigner.

Even the all but forgotten Gwang-shik is a greater meaning. Near the end of the film, he walks off leading his father and traditional grandfather by the hand. His mother calls out to “Take care of your grandfather!” to which he readily agrees and the way the shot is framed we know right away that the mother’s plea was not directed so much at Gwang-shik as to the youth of Korea so they do not forget the generations past as they move forward with the changing times.

Love Marriage is a film that deserves a second and deeper look. It is much more than a rusty old love story, but a drama full of contrast and symbolic imagery where progressive ideas clash with tradition and somehow both come out in a good light. It might not be as deep as something like The Aimless Bullet which would eventually follow and paint a very bleak picture of that era but, as the box says, it is a comedy.  Many of the better known Korean films of this era dealt with poverty or the differences between the haves and have-nots. In Love Marriage, there is no such struggle and everyone in it is clearly in the upper tier of society. It may be hard to track down, but finding the DVD will provide a very different look at life in Korea in the late 50s than some of the more serious films of the time were doing.

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