Seen in Jeonju

A Country Affair <1984>

17th January 2013

A Country Affair <1984>– Directed by Kim Eung-cheon. Starring Jo Yong-won , Choi Yoon-seok and Hwang Joon-wook . Running time: 95 minutes. Originally released May 26, 1984.

country affairDue to her mother’s battle with cancer and the need to be near a specialist in that disease, young Shin-ae is uprooted from Seoul and sent far down the peninsula to the island of Eulpo off the coast of Yeosu.  If this move distresses her, one would never know because Shin-ae always shows herself publically to be a bright, positive and confident young lady who seems not to have a care in the world.  Money is certainly not an issue for her or her mother and Shin-ae is always dressed in the best clothes and even has her own autobike that she plans to ride around the island and to her new school. However, she does not start out by making the best impression on her new neighbors, classmates or school adminstrators.  For example, on the boat to Eulpo, she is approached by a man in his thirties who appears to flirt with her. She lies and claims to be a college student and able to smoke or drink if she wishes, only to discover that man is Mr. Han, one of her high school teachers. Another teacher, Ms Kang, takes what seems like a personal dislike of this priviledged young woman. Ms Kang is in charge of morality and life ethics of the students and she finds Shin-ae’s expensive clothes and long hair offensive as well as her frank way of speaking.  And then there is Hoon, the son of Dr. Kim whom Shin-ae and her mother are boarding with for the foreseeable future.  He is about the same age as Shin-ae but finds her casual way of speaking to him offensive and he resents how Shin-ae and her mother get along so well with his father, appearing like a ready-made family while he still misses his deceased mother. 

The problem with Hoon is rather easily solved as he soon finds himself falling in love with Shin-ae.  His father points out that he barely knows the girl and recommends he cool his heels for a while, but the two naturally begin to grow closer and spend some time together.  Shin-ae’s initial lie to Mr. Han is also easily forgiven although her second lie to him is a little more difficult to let slide.  In order to get out of cutting her hair, Shin-ae lies to Ms Kang saying that Mr. Han had allowed her a month’s grace period and that she could get away with having long hair for the time being.  Mr. Han covers for Shin-ae, preventing her lie from being exposed, but that causes resentment to build up in the crowded classroom.  The other girls are regularly inspected by Ms Kang for make-up, hair length, clothes styles and even perfume. The fact that Shin-ae appears to be getting preferentional treatment does not go over well with most of the other students but she does manage to make one close friend.

Shin-ae complicates the issue by growing a little too close to Mr Han.  To apologize for lying, Shin-ae goes to Mr. Han’s room and spends several hours cleaning it while he is out. She brings him flowers, invites him for ice cream and takes long walks on the beach with him.  Inadvertantly, she develops a full-blown crush on her teacher and his responses to her seem to give her hope that her feelings are reciprocated. She believes the only thing keeping them separated is the fact that he is the teacher and she is a student, but that is something that will not be an issue forever.

Meanwhile, the girls in Shin-ae’s class have had quite enough of this teacher’s pet and decide to teach her a lesson. While on a field trip in the hills, one clique of girls attack and overpower Shin-ae who had wandered off on her own after submiting her essay. Armed with a pair of scissors, the bitter girls make short work of Shin-ae’s luxurious locks.  When the teacher finally arrives on the scene, Shin-ae is sobbing alone, her hair butchered and much of it scattered around the forest floor. This is made even more poignant as Shin-ae’s essay is read over the images where she explains there was a reason she was insisting on long hair.. and it was here that I was pleasantly surprised. The movie does give a valid reason–which I will reveal shortly because, let’s face it, this movie will never be released on DVD with English subtitles– and it is one I should have seen coming but never considered. Like her jealous classmates, I had assumed that Shin-ae was hanging on to her long hair out of a combination of vanity and a sense of superiority. I believed that she thought that since she was from Seoul, a far more progressive city than the town of Eulpo, and she was trying to teach the country-folk the new, better ways of living.  Boy, was I wrong about her. The reason that she wanted long hair– and wanted to grow it out for just one more month– is that her mother will be starting chemotherapy soon and she wanted to make a wig for her mother in case she lost her hair in the treatments! 

I was very impressed by that revelation. In short order, her classmates apologize, Mr. Han and Ms Kang convinced not to resign because of this incident and the end of the school term comes. I thought the movie was ending here but was surprised to see that I was only a third of the way through. The script then made it clear that they were going to spend the rest of the movie dealing with the very uncomfortable-to-watch relationship between Shin-ae and Mr. Han.  In reality, it is not so bad. We the viewers know that Mr. Han is in a relationship with Miss Kwon, another teacher at the school, but this fact is unknown to the students. However, what we are shown are Shin-ae’s fantasies about her and Mr. Han. While I know that it may not be uncommon for a young student to have a crush on a teacher, it seems completely wrong to be privilege to these intensely personal feelings for a man that is completely inappropriate for her. And these daydreams are made worse because the older man takes on the role of pursuer of the teenager. 

When Shin-ae finally realizes that Mr. Han has no real interest in her and wil soon marry Miss Kwon, she has an emotional breakdown and collapses unconsious in the wet sand on the shore. How long she lay there is unknown, but we next see her, still unconscious, hooked up to an IV in the hospital fighting for her life against a high fever, with the all-but-forgotton Hoon loyally and hopefully remaining by her bedside, his love for her still strong despite her attraction to someone else. Will she recover? Will Hoon’s unrequited love be rewarded?  Or will she sink from coma into death and leave everyone to mourn the loss of her bright presence?  After the events of the horrible haircut, this whole situation seems tacked on as an afterthought and, in fact, is very anti-climatic. The last thirty minutes of this film manages to lower the overall quality of the script which was relatively well-paced and well thought out in its first hour. Because of that, the movie moves, in my estimation, from being good and easy to watch to rather forgettable and a little dull in its finale.

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