In modernizing South Korea, a rom-com where love wins out in the end | Film Review by Bo Brown (Winter 2020 issue)
The Love Marriage (Ja-yugyeolhon, or “Free Marriage”), Directed by Byung-il Lee, Screenplay by Yu-san Ha and Ji-hyeon Kim, 1958, Korean Classic Film’s YouTube Channel
Even if it were not filmed in black and white, it would be easy to tell The Love Marriage is an old film. Like many Korean films of the 1950s, the presentation owes as much to stage plays as it does to the vocabulary of cinema. These films are light on now-common film techniques, such as odd camera angles, dramatic lighting, or innovative production design.
Instead, characters usually face one another around a central area, lining up in the frame, as if on stage. Also, as though on a stage, the characters and dialogue generally move horizontally so the audience can follow the action from one character to the next. There are few close-ups; this is not a showcase for a particular actor who is expected to emote up in our faces. There are scenes, and we are meant to look at everyone, to see everything.
Most scenes in Love Marriage take place in the front room of the Ko house or in mother’s frilly sitting room, placing it squarely in the domestic sphere. These sets are fairly well decked out; it looks like they had a decent set budget, or as is more likely, they had access to studio sets and good set dressers. There are several outdoor location shots establishing the greater world, and the Ko home is presented as agreeably well-to-do, a place of ease and comfort.
Even when scenes take place elsewhere —- Dr. Ko’s office or the honeymooners’ hotel room —- there is a domestic feel, provided by plush-looking furnishings covered with homey soft goods and the soothing sound of radios or vinyl records playing pleasant music. We are meant to feel comfortable, to settle in and listen for the cozy revelations. It might seem like nostalgia, but it could be argued the film’s theme of the importance of family and tradition in changing times is still very much relevant, and not just in Korea.
The movie opens with a happy marriage. Eldest daughter Suk-hee (Eun-hee Choi) poses with her husband for a nuptial photo on the impressive stairway of a municipal building with a rather large wedding party. They are plainly happy, but on their wedding night, Suk-hee makes an unwise confession and her spouse leaves her, running off to America.
To be fair, she was responding to a similar revelation on his part. One might expect there to be a lot of drama flaring up around this circumstance, but the movie deals with it in an unexpectedly evenhanded manner. The opening story is being told by Suk-hee’s mother to her friend, and the mother notes that the man might have expected something more romantic from his true love.
In any case, we learn that four years have passed. Suk-hee, publicly humiliated by her husband’s fleeing from the marriage, hid in her bedroom this entire time, only emerging recently. Divorced, she does not seek companionship from a new man. She reads quietly. She mopes in her room. She takes long walks to mope about outdoors. The traditional dress she wears reinforces an image of a woman in the last stages of her life. She is dressed like her mother and along with her lifeless face, she looks like ghost of her previous self.
The fallout of this situation is that Suk-hee’s mother has decided that the traditional practice of arranged marriages is wiser (in which parents arrange the couple’s marriage and the couple get used to the person they marry. This scene establishes she was talked into abandoning that stance when Suk-hee wanted a so-called love marriage, and she is not going to get caught out again. She reflects that she and Dr. Ko have an arranged marriage, and it could not have turned out better.
As it happens, this is not untrue. They are clearly satisfied, happy, and loving toward one another. So we can hardly blame her for trying to avoid heartache and rely on her own experiences and wisdom to sort out appropriate grooms for her remaining daughters.
However, as the story unfolds, we see Mrs. Ahn failing in this goal. She discovers second daughter Moon-hee has a secret relationship with a handsome, shy tutor who has been working with one of the sons of the family. Mrs. Ahn, once burned, puts an abrupt stop to that. She loses the unsuitable suitor, but the fallout is another brokenhearted daughter.
Geum-seong Seok plays the mother Mrs. Ahn. She is the most naturalistic character in the film. As did most actors of her generation, she appeared in many studio movies; at least 120 from the late 1930s to her last film in 1990. With her deep voice, heavy brow, and round face, she exudes competence and disapproval in turns, with a healthy dose of humor. Seok was definitely from a group of female Korean actors of that time who always manage a believable portrayal, memorable without being flashy or outlandish. She is delightful and shines as the heart of the family in this film.
The girls’ father, Dr. Ko, has a more scholarly approach, probably coming from his background as a medical researcher. He sees both the wisdom of the old ways, but recognizes that times are changing and his daughters are entitled to choose for themselves. His solution ingeniously combines desires for personal choice with the life experience of parents in choosing possible matches. Dr. Ko is played by Nam-hyeon Choi, and while his performance is more stilted than that of the mother, it fits in with his role as a reputable doctor. He loves his children, but treats them and everyone else with respect and a certain amount of distance, and is treated the same in return.
While Mrs. Ahn tries to force the cosmopolitan son of a family friend onto her mourning second daughter, Dr. Ko sets about engineering a match between his headstrong youngest daughter Myeong-hee and the doctor’s lab assistant, a coolly distant man with issues of his own.
College student Myeong-hee (Mi-ryeong Jo) epitomizes the modern Korean girl of that time. Articulate, daring, and romantic in equal parts, Myeong-hee loves to love things. She loves the fire of composers like Chopin and Beethoven and murders them on the family piano with some regularity. She loves to wear modern western dress, and she loves to state her personal viewpoint. One small clever thing (never mentioned in the film) relates to the ubiquitous Korean habit of putting on indoor slippers immediately upon stepping indoors. While everyone else in the household is satisfied with flat-soled, plain house slip-ons, we see Myeong-hee clipping about in a trendy little pair of cork-wedge heeled sandals with a chic flower decoration. She has flair. She has opinions. She is not interested in marriage at all, and she wants everyone to know it. Of course, all viewers of any romantic comedy could tell her where that’s going.
The male suitors, including Suk-hee’s husband Seung-il (So-min Seong), the tutor Jun-cheol (Hyeon Choe), and Dr. Ko’s assistant Yeong-su (Am Park), are pretty much interchangeable in this movie. Even Mrs. Ahn’s choice, Wan-seop (Yong Lee), who takes a hilarious turn as the obligatory poor sap who is merely useful in everyone else’s machinations, is of the same type. They are nice enough young men, all attempting to be happy but still do what is idealistically right and just, and merely different enough to account for differing tastes of the various daughters involved. The actors all do a fine job, it’s just that they are not the main attraction. The emphasis here is on the family unit itself, not any of the guys who want to become a part of it.
One performer we should note is Grandfather Ko, played by Seung-ho Kim, considered one of Korea’s finer actors. As a staunchly conservative grandpa, he appears on occasion to stir up (or dampen down) the festivities. He also provides sounding board for family son Gwang-sik, played winsomely by Gwang-su Park —- who is fortunate to have scenes with other characters showing him in a better light. It is not the fault of this pair that their dialogue together is not very interesting, because an elderly man and his young grandson are not generally the focus of a romantic comedy.
This film is squarely in the romantic comedy universe. Nobody would be surprised to learn that in the end, everything works out satisfactorily, even after some quite dramatic bumps in the road.
As a matter of social commentary, the case might be made that Love Marriage is an attempt to assess and critique changing social mores, to look at the relationships between parents and children in a new, modern light. But in the end, it is light, fun, and escapist. That was true for those viewing it when it came out, and it is true for us today. Anyone who wants to spend some time in a happy world where father still knows best, mom is a shrewd pragmatist who nonetheless has a sense of humor, and love conquers all, could do worse than The Love Marriage.
Reviewer’s note: An excellent print of The Love Marriage is available on the Korean Film Archive’s wonderful YouTube channel Korean Classic Film.)