Seen in Jeonju

Drifting Islands (1960)

19th March 2012

drifting islandsIt was with high expectations that I started watching Drifting Islands this past Sunday.  After all, it is part of the excellent Landscape After the War DVD collection which included The Widow, Flower in Hell and Money. Each of the films in this set looks at the struggle to survive in a country freshly out of a devastating war and in the throes of confusing and often painful changes. However, I was a little disappointed with this movie. It may have been the running time, at 124 minutes, may have been too long and the film could have been trimmed or it may have been the changes made to the movie from its source material. You see, Drifting Islands was based on a novel by Park Kyeong-ri… but the director wanted to make the movie more melodramatic and to create a love story based on the ideal of love rather than the realism of the novel and of Korean society at the end of the 50s when it was written. The movie focuses on Kang Hyeon-hee and her struggles for survival, not just for herself but for her elderly mother and young daughter as well. In doing so, she opens a coffee shop which instantly lowers her social status. This may be a point that would seem strange to people who have never been to Korea, or those who have only been in Korea for the past few years. Before Starbucks, Angel In Us, Tom and Tom, Cafe Benne and dozens of other coffee shop chains colonized Korea, the expression “coffee shop” was interchangable with “dabang.”  These days, in Korean movies and dramas, you will often see “dabang girls” delivering coffee on the back of scooters to customers who call them and they have a reputation for being friendly for a little extra money. This is not the case with all dabangs, but just how “friendly” depends on the place for which they work .  In the movie, the establisment of  Ms Kang..or Madame Kang as she is called by her customers… is above reproach, although one or two of her employees do not help the reputation of coffee shops at that time. Kang’s former classmates even ask her cattily, after being invited to visit the shop, if it is the type of place a lady can visit.  Women of breeding simply did not go to coffee shops without risking their reputation.

But Kang Hyeon-hee has another fact working against her that lowers her social status even further. She is a single mother. At the time, it was not uncommon for women to be raising children alone…the war had claimed the lives of many fathers. However, her daughter was born out of wedlock. Both she and her boyfriend were struggling university students who started to live together to save money.  Their baby was an accident and there was not time to get married when the war broke out.  Hyeon-hee’s mother does not condemn her daughter for her choices and loves her grand-daughter, perhaps more than Hyeon-hee does. When advising one of her employees on an unwanted pregnancy, Hyeon-hee tells her to “get rid of it and live your own life.”  Not quite the words one would expect to hear from a doting mother nor one who named her coffee shop ‘Madonna’ which brings to mind images of a loving, self-sacrificing mother.

Then again, Hyeon-hee says a lot of things that may have  been surprising at the time and were perhaps leftovers from the source novel. For example, when discussing chastity with one of her employees, Hyeon-hee states bluntly “Chastity isn’t important” and even her addition of “but [sex] should be together with love” does not mitigate just how far removed her stance is from the ideal of ‘one love” that is often seen in films from around the world.  Later, a male character states the “Chastity is the most important thing to a woman” showing clearly the 1950s ideal of romantic love from a male perspective. 

According to the information supplied by KOFA with the DVD, the novel was popular for the very reason that it was based on reality. In the novel, Hyeon-hee gives up all notions of romantic love with a married man and settles for stability with a different man before giving up on him as well and choosing simply to live for herself.  In the movie, the undying love between Hyeon-hee and the married Sang-hyeon is the most important aspect of the film. Sang-hyeon takes some drastic, life-changing steps to ensure that their love will have a chance.  The second man who holds a prominent part in the novel, is reduced to a kindly, family friend whom I was not aware was meant to be in love with Hyeon-hee. 

While the story was watered down to cater to what audiences of 1950/60s melodramas expected–idealized love– there were some great performances in this film. Outshining both lead actors was Uhm Aeng-ran in the supporting role of Gwang-hee. Her character was hopelessly in love with a selfish, drunken poet of limited prospects. Her story even gains precedence over the main plot at one point in the film as Gwang-hee’s life becomes a “what if…” version of Hyeon-hee’s.  What if Hyeon-hee had had an abortion? What if Hyeon-hee had taken that extra step with the coffee shop and become a “fallen woman” –her words– as she threatens to do on more than one occassion.  Through Gwang-hee’s tragedy, we can see what would have happened, as well as the dangers the filmmaker (or novelist) felt inherent in  straying too far from what was socially acceptable.

I am not sure who is the actress, but Miss Yoo in the coffee shop is made into an interesting bit character through talent of the woman playing her. She does not have many lines, but her glances, expressions and body language elevate her and give her more of a personality than some people who have much more screen time.

This is not a bad film, but one I think I would have enjoyed more if I were actually familar with the novel and were able to compare and contrast the two while watching.

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