Seen in Jeonju

The Evergreen Tree (1961)

10th January 2010

evergreen treeOriginally posted April 18, 2009–There is no denying that the late Shin Sang-ok was one of the best and most important directors during Korean cinema’s  ’Golden Age’. His works such as The Red Muffler, Mother and the Houseguest and The Thousand Year Old Fox. At a time when the Korean film industry became mired in cookie-cutter melodramas due to government control, Shin was able to continue to create excellent works that would draw international attention. The Evergreen Tree screened as part of a retrospective at the 53rd Cannes International Film Festival and, at the time of its release, won numerous awards. It was also released in the late 80s on video as part of the Shin Sang-ok collection which included the movies listed above. However, the Evergreen Tree was not included in the recently released DVD set of Shin’s works. After re-watching the film last night, I can understand why it was passed up–at least for now.

The film is set in the 1920s when Korea was under the colonial rule of Japan. Yeong-shin (played by the Choi Eun-hee–Shin Sang-ok’s wife) and Dong-hyeok (Shin Yeong-gyun) graduate from college with a cause. They plan to bring education and modernization to farmers living in the rural area of their birth. When they arrive, the pair immediately gets to work, Dong-hyeok builds a village hall and starts aiding the farmers while Yeong-shin tries to gather the children to form a school. However, the villagers at first resent and resist the pair. It is not until one child, Ok-bun, takes the inititive and and learns to read under Yeong-shin’s care that the villages trust the pair and allow their children to be taken from the fields and taught reading, writing and math.

As their success grows, the pair comes under scrutiny by the Japanese officials and their supporters in the area. Dong-hyeok is arrested and Yeong-shin is forbiddent to have more than 30 students in the village hall she has been using for teaching.  Truthfully, the hall she has been using is too small and the officials were not entirely in the wrong in limiting her class size.  Yeong-shin begins construction of a school building on her own and soon has the entire community pitching in. They complete the school in time for Dong-hyeok’s return. However, exhausted from the work and the stress, Yeong-shin collapses and dies leaving Dong-hyeok to carry on her work alone.

This is definitely NOT my favorite work of Shin. The story strikes me far too much of being like the ‘New Village’ propaganda even this film was made just before that policy officially began. However, the film was popular enough to spawn a remake directed by Im Kwon-taek in 1978 and the film, Viva the Island Frogs (1972) borrows heavily from this movie as well although no credit is given to the writers of Evergreen Tree. For me, the saving grace of this film is the acting. Choi Eun-hee delivers the performance of her life as the impassioned Yeong-shin and she fairly glows while she is delivering her lines. The ever-present Heo Jang-kang and Do Geum-bong appear and it was nice seeing them in roles where they were not the villains of the piece. Shin Seong-il also appears in this film and is many scenes, but usually in the background. It was still early in his career and he did not yet have the star power that he would later acquire so most of his scenes in this film are non-speaking parts.

If this film were to be released on DVD, I would not pass it up. However there are many more movies I would select before this one.

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