I may not be an expert on Korean cinema, but this seems to me to be one of the standouts of this era of filmmaking along with Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid of the year before (which I haven’t yet seen, but which will show up on the Criterion Collection). The director and his lead actress (also his wife), Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, have their own fascinating stories quite separate from this film — they were kidnapped in 1978 by North Korea on the orders of Kim Jong-il so as to bring prestige to that country’s film industry — and this story is told in the British documentary The Lovers and the Despot (2016).
A film told largely through the eyes of a young child, Ok-hee (the ubiquitous Jeon Young-son, who appears in many of these 1960s films), who at six is bright, chatty and seemingly guileless in her attachment to her widowed mother (Choi Eun-hee) and the lodger who takes a spare room in their home (Kim Jin-kyu). Soon enough we realise that in fact she has her tricks too, and there’s a lot of humour (she can be very funny) and compassion in the way she helps to match-make her mother with the guest, contrary to societal expectations around how widows should act in Korean society of this period (it’s set in the 1920s I believe). There’s a lot of play around lying and truth-telling, there’s careful etiquette about when two unattached people can be in the same space together or seen talking, lots of avoidance of eye contact, and then at length the sweep of melodrama as the home’s maid falls pregnant to an itinerant egg-seller, and has to move out for propriety’s sake. The film never becomes harsh like some of its characters though, and there’s an underlying warmth to the story that suggests a future for the characters that is only ever hinted at.
Director Shin Sang-ok 신상옥; Writer Lim Hee-jae 임희재 (based on the novel by Cho Yo-sup 주요섭); Cinematographer Choe Su-yeong 최수영; Starring Choi Eun-hee 최은희, Jeon Young-son 전영선, Kim Jin-kyu 김진규; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Korean Cultural Centre, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.