My mother and her guest

The 1960s Korean film My mother and her houseguest (Sang-ok 1961) was remade in 2007 by Yeong-Song into of a film of the same title. Both films deal with the relationship between the mother and her child as they start living with a stranger from Seoul who’s visiting town, but both films are complete opposites from one another. By contrasting the narrative, genre and characters of each film, I will show how Korea has shifted into a more feminist nation, and left Confucian values behind to become a more Westernized nation, that is still identifying their credos and beliefs, but has become a stronger nation after the IMF crisis.

Ok-hee is a six year old girl whose character serves as a voice-over narrator in the 1960s film. She fails to comprehend the concept of a widow, and doesn’t understand why her family cannot communicate properly, which in her mind (and as such, the audiences mind) leads them to live an unhappy life. She hides in the closet to teach her mother a lesson, and in that moment the director makes her the carrier of one the film’s message: sometimes you need to see the world through a child’s eyes to achieve peace of mind and blithe. The director also judges the stigmas of the society the characters live in by making innocent remarks like Ok-hee not understanding why Mr. Han was so upset, a statement the audience finds amusing as it is clear he is upset because her mother has rejected him because of the social norms of the time. Ok-hee gives a rose to her mother with a huge smile on her face and lies to get her to talk to Mr. Han. She doesn’t care about the expectations of being a widow or the social norms between men and women, she only wants both adults to be happy and start a family. She even tells Mr. Han that she wishes he was her father sometimes, and again the director is exposing the idea that if the world was as easy as a child would hope so, then everyone would get what they desire. By giving Ok-hee the narrator’s power, Sang-ok manages to present an unbiased view the world, and let the audience critique or agree with the events happening on the silver screen.

In the 2007 version Ok-hee is a 15 year old girl, with a 30 year old mother, and whose marital status is unclear, but it seems her father left them throughout most of the film until it is divulged that she is a widow near the end of the film. In this version Ok-hee is a more self-centered character, only caring about grades and wishing for loneliness as a way to stay away from her mother. She even states that “the worst thing you can do is compare me [Ok-hee] to my mother”. The main difference between the two films, is that the 15 year old Ok-hee actually starts liking the guest (in this film he is named Duk-geun) and starts competing against her mother for recognition. This act for attention might be a rebellious teen performance, but it relates to Korean women maturing earlier and seeking independence at a younger age. She wants to be seen as a woman, and not a child by Duk-geun. In one scene she even dresses in her mother’s dress to try and demonstrate to the visitor that she is in fact, a woman. Today’s Korean women are “economically self-sufficient. Often they provided the main economic support for the family while the husband did subsidiary work–took care of the children and did household chores–in sharp contrast to the Confucian norm.” (Country Studies) In this picture Ok-hee is a stand-in for most Korean teenagers, as girls now want to become women faster, as they now have all the advantages a man had 50 year ago, unlike the original film.

In both the 1960s film and the short story by Chu Yo-Sop, the mother doesn’t accept the offer of remarriage because of the social stigma widows have. In the film she tells Ok-hee to go to Seoul and be happy there, as she feels she is stuck in her widow’s home with her mother-in-law because of Confucian norm. She always follows the Confucian ideologies of etiquette between men and women, never talking to Mr. Han and becoming increasingly flustered at his advances. She is constantly surrounded with people who decide to remarry, like her maid with the egg vendor, and her friend at the boutique store, a plot device that the director added for the feature as it was not present in the short story. By setting the mother in the midst of change the director manages to predict how Korea was going to function outside of the Confucian conservative values, and for that matter the Catholic idiosyncrasies, as the mother’s unhappiness is juxtaposed with the maid’s glee in the end. This example of love is meant to demonstrate how successful a marriage can turn out to be if one does not take into consideration social norms and other people’s gossip.

In the 2007 film the main discourse of the 1961 version was irrelevant, as remarriage and divorce were becoming a part of everyday life. Divorce experts in South Korea say that: “Social stigmas that used to make couples reluctant to break up have faded as the country has become more prosperous and less bound by tradition… the number of divorce rates… has almost doubled in the decade” (Herskovitz). From the start of the film the audience is informed that the mother is looking desperately for love, and she becomes increasingly nervous and ruffled when she finds out a doctor is staying at her house. Her main dilemma begins when she has to balance being a mother and a woman at the same time. She has a very immature man constantly claiming that he can be a good father to Ok-hee and a good husband, but even though she wants “the gift of a family” for Ok-hee, she doesn’t love this man so she cannot commit herself to someone she cares nothing for. Her character also dreams of being a student at school, as she didn’t complete her studies, but she has to face reality by starting her own place and being both a diligent mother and business woman. She represents what third wave feminism is all about where women are encouraged to “build their own identities from the available buffet… Women can unapologetically celebrate a plate full of entrée choices like soccer mom, career woman, lover, wife…princess, or sex symbol.” (Rocklear-Gladen). By the end of the film, she works on a better earning job than her husband and has achieved happiness by being a capable woman of the 21st century.

Although the film follows the Hollywood romantic comedy guidelines of boy meets girl – boy falls in love with girl – boy loses girl – boy ends up with girl after changing, the film changes the gender roles of both protagonists and it is Hae-Ju who falls in love with the boy first, and tries seducing him by singing karaoke to him and giving him presents and food. This gender role reversal technique has already been used in Korean films like My Sassy Girl and 200 pounds of beauty to represent how the female role is changing in relationships and portraying them as strong and seductive, a role normally reserved for men in romantic comedies. Women today are the ones doing the first move, and this celebrates their femininity as they can take control over their lives even faster now, and fall in love with the people they care about instead of a pre-arranged marriage. A peculiar aspect of the film is that Hae-Ju never condemns Ok-hee for trying to seduce Duk-Geun. In the karaoke scene it seems like she enjoys having the competition of her daughter, and even dresses up in one of Ok-hee’s dresses to mock her daughter without words, and show Duk-Geun how immature Ok-hee really is. She is playing a game with Ok-hee for this man’s heart and she does it to feel better about herself. The audience doesn’t know who the man is going to choose, as he seems interested in both, as he constantly praises Ok-hee for being cute, but ends up falling in love with Hae-Ju. By doing this the director makes a statement about growing old in Korea, where even if more attention is paid to Ok-hee’s beauty, in the end the man chooses the mother for her maturity and control. Femininity is praised as sexiness and beauty is not made of looks, but it involves the whole person’s attitude and kindness.

The femininity that Hae-Ju portrayed was different than the one the mother showed in the 1961 film, but then again, they were aiming at two very distinct kind of men. Mr. Han was a very respectful and conservative man, who represented the westernized ideologies of the people from Seoul. He believed in teaching Ok-hee art so she could thrive as an artist, and constantly asks her to think critically by saying things like: “why do you think that is?” He is a stranger to the house though, and poses a threat to the already set peace of mind set in the widow manor. It could be interpreted that his role in the film is to promote change in the house, and be tempting for the mother, who does not want to change her idealist and peaceful setting. He embodies what a good father should be, and yet, the mother still rejects him because of her own conservative values, and the gossip of the town. Mr. Han also has very similar dogmas to Ok-hee as all he wants is to live a happy life, but just seems stopped from doing so by society itself. In this film the main antagonist is society and the conservative values of the time, and the melodramatic events occur as the protagonists deal with western philosophies changing their mentality and Korea during the 60s.

Duk-geun on the other hand is the polar opposite of Mr. Han. He is a con man who steals from elderly women, and the only thing he cares about is money. In a sense he represents the post-IMF crisis Korean man, who castrated from his position of power, has to find any available way to find money as the system has failed him. He seems to have all the characteristics of a man crushed by the monetary system in the IMF crisis of 97: distrustful, as he doesn’t even trust his own partner in crime with the money; arrogant, he bluntly states: what am I going to do with a country girl; and resentful. All of these characteristics can be seen in the main male protagonist of a post-IMF film like Peppermint Candy, but Duk-geun also masks his bad side to charm women and take money from them. As the film progresses he starts realizing the impact that he has on these women’s lives, and realizes that family should come first, not money. This is where the films are the most similar: they both regard family as more important than money. Duk-geun gives up his con life to live as a flower delivery guy because he realizes he can be happy with Ok-hee and her mother, with or without money. This idea of family being more important than status is present in a lot of post-IMF films since many families suffered and had to live with low incomes. They overcome their differences because of love, and that’s what makes them a stronger couple in the end.

It is interesting to see that the same theme was present in the 1961 film, because Sang-ok realized that family was not a value that could be messed around with, and it was something that had to be valued and respected. In the original film the mother could have gone to Seoul, but realizes that this is not what is best for Ok-hee because being the daughter of a remarried widow was still shunned in South Korea. Although this speech was not present in the film, in the short story the mother states: “When you grew up, we wouldn’t be able to find you a good husband… other people would say you’re just the daughter of a loose woman” (Yo-sop 103) This is not said in the film because the mother in the 60s was in the heart of change, and she did not know what was going to happen in later years. The mother regards change as dangerous, a natural feeling as Korea was going through military leaders and unstable political ideologies during the 50s and 60s. She puts her family first, and sticks to her conservative values as not to hurt her own daughter in the future when she was looking for work.

Forty years later those ideologies are no longer present, and a woman has to deal with being a series of identities, as third wave feminism present, and they have to satisfy each one of them to fully realize what it is to be a woman of the 21st century. Even if the values of people in Korea have changed towards a more Westernized ideology, people still need to regard family coming first, even in rough economic times. The differences in the films are what define the shift in Korean beliefs from the 60s until now, but it is the similarities in themes, which focus on family over everything, that demark what truly defines Korean identity, and what is going to make the nation stronger in the long run.

Word Count: 2277

Bibliography

Chu, Yo-Sop. “Mother and the Boarder.” A Ready-Made Life: Early Masters of Korean Fiction. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998. 89-106. Print.

Herskowitz, Jon. “South Korea cools off on hot-headed, speedy divorce  | Reuters    .” Business & Financial News, Breaking US & International News | Reuters.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2009. <http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE50C1N620090113&gt;.

Rockler-Gladen, Naomi. “Third Wave Feminism: Personal Empowerment Dominates This Feminist Philosophy | Suite101.com.” Feminism | Suite101.com. N.p., 3 May 2007. Web. 10 Dec. 2009. <http://feminism.suite101.com/article.cfm/third_wave_feminism&gt;.

“South Korea Changing Role of Women    .” Country Studies. Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2009. <http://www.country-studies.com/south-korea/changing-role-of-women.html&gt;.

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