Seen in Jeonju

The Life of Ok-Rye (1977)

9th January 2010

life of okryeOriginally posted July 30, 2007–One of Korea’s most recognized names in directing films is Im Kwon-taek. He is perhaps best known for his more recent works such as Low Life and Chunhyang but he has been around for years. Ask most Korean men over thirty about their favorite movies and they will certainly list Im’s Son of the General  series among them and he gained quite a bit of critical acclaim with his masterpiece Seopyeonje.

However, Im Kwon-taek has been around a long time, debuting sometime in the early 1960’s. He rarely mentions his older films because he claims to be embarassed by them. I, for one, think that is a shame.  Although his older works, generally gangster/action films or melodramas, do tend to be a little simple–they reflect the film-making techniques and formulas of the times. This is nothing to be ashamed of, but rather provides an interesting look history–both of when these films were made and when they take place.

In the case of The Life of Ok-Rye, the viewer is treated to something that is both interesting and entertaining (which, as we know, are not necessarily the same thing). The entire film takes place on Cheju Island. When we first meet Ok-Rye, she is working as one of the island’s famed women divers, harvesting seafood from the deep to support her enormous family. She has something like seven or eight siblings and a sick father. Because times are hard, Ok-Rye’s parents accept an offer from a family on another part of the island and allow Ok-Rye marry their son, sight unseen, for a sum of money. 

Ok-Rye dutifully travels to the family’s house on a mountainside with her uncle who arranged the union and that very evening she finds herself participating in a marriage ceremony. Both she and her uncle receive a shock when the groom turns out to be severly handicapped. Uncertain what to do, Ok-Rye continues with the ceremony while her drunken uncle’s loud protests are quickly silenced with the offer of food and spirits.

Unable to uncurl his legs or arms, Ok-rye’s husband is carried from place to place by friends or various family members.  On the night following the wedding ceremony, everyone’s unease is palpable. Her in-laws clearly love their son and are worried that this wedding will not work, her husband who has not yet spoken to her seems as if he might be mentally challenged as well and Ok-Rye entertains thoughts of running away.

But, as it turns out, Ok-Rye’s husband not only very intelligent, he is extremely kind. Ok-Rye returns the kindness as well and begins a physical therapy program on his arm. Both mother and father-in-law treat Ok-Rye as they would their own daughter and life seems good—until Ok-Rye’s father comes to visit. One look at his son-in-law’s shrivelled limbs and he is dragging Ok-Rye back home.  Ok-Rye is now torn between duty to her husband and duty towards her parents.

Eventually, Ok-Rye chooses to return to her husband without her father’s blessing and for awhile life is good. She becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, but that same day her father-in-law dies.  From that time on, Ok-Rye’s life becomes a constant struggle.  She has an infant to take care of, her mother-in-law has fallen ill and cannot get out of bed, and her husband, who also cannot leave the house, is becoming suspicious of Ok-Rye believing that she may be having an affair with his best friend who is helping her on their farm.  Soon the entire village comes to believe that she is having an affair and she is ostracized.  How she copes with all of these problems is the subject of the second half of the film.

The movie is quite good and better than many similar melodramas of the times.  For example, Lee Yoo-seob’s movie Sister (1973) is so meladramatic that it is laughable. So many random and horrible things happen to main character of that film that it slips headfirst into the ridiculous and it is almost unwatchable. However, Im Kwon-taek handled Ok-Rye’s problems in a logical way–they build on each other and each of her setbacks are not met with an overblown deluge of tears or by the main character bemoaning her fate. In fact, the theme of The Life of  Ok-Rye is that we can overcome any adversity we encounter through hard, honest work and a quietly positive outlook on life.

The Life of Ok-Rye may not be for everyone. The slow-motion flashback scenes may set  modern viewers to daydreaming themselves. But it is certainly worth a look and offers a better than average example of a melodrama from decades past.

Comments are closed.