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Early Korean Film Steps

November 19th, 2006 (09:27 am)

© 2006 D. Gordon

A few days ago I was talking about reincarnation, fate, and karma with a Taiwanese-American woman. We had both grown up with the concepts, but my understanding comes from a derivation of the 1960s counterculture version, whereas she had grown up with the ideas as an integral part of her self-definition. What she told me was interesting: incidents are predetermined in life, but personal actions – good and bad – determine the actual impact of those incidents. A bad car accident may be in your future; but volunteering at the homeless shelter may mean walking away with a few scratches, while siphoning a few thousand from the office books may mean permanent disability. Things will happen, but how they happen can be influenced by the individual.

This conversation occurred just before I caught The Wedding Day, a 1956 South Korean film by Lee Byeong-ho. The film is part of the Korean Film Archives Collection of DVDs, a series of historical films put out by the Korean national film archive, and was recently released in an all-region, Korean / English language version (and even the extras have English subtitles! Yay!).

The description of the film, which is what made me buy it, is pretty straightforward: a titleless upperclass family, after arranging a marriage between their daughter Gapbun and Mieon, a noble son in the next valley, are told that the groom is lame. In order to avoid bringing a cripple into the family (in this world disability equates to inferiority, and Gapbun is an only child so must produce a healthy heir), but also avoid breaking their promise to the nobility, they decide to spirit Gapbun away and fool Mieon into marrying the daughter's maid Ipbun... only to find out on the wedding day that the prince is handsome, articulate, and far from disabled. And the wedding must proceed to avoid losing face.

This sparse description covers the entire film, more or less, but doesn't come close to filling in the actual plot or resolution – and this is where karma comes in. The father's drive to arrange the marriage is driven purely by greed and a belief that he's fulfilling his duty by marrying his daughter into nobility. The mother is extremely aware of social distinctions, continually putting down Ipbun for being a maid. Gapbun is friendly enough to Ipbun and to her peers in the village - until she finds herself betrothed to a prince. Ipbun herself is devoted to her mistress and only wants to serve her in her new life, but the family decides that she's to be married to another servant whom she doesn't love. So Gapbun does marry her prince, which was always in the cards - but it's Ipbun-Gapbun, not the real Gapbun. There are all sorts of shifts on the cosmic scales of justice, as the family sets themselves up for the punishment of losing what they most desire, while the selfless Ipbun is rewarded for her innate goodness. And that is what the movie's really about.

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One of the interesting things about this movie is the clear ties running from it to a number of modern Korean films. There's the idea of the humble maid joining with the good and handsome noble son, straight out of the national tale of Chunhyang (in fact, Cho Mi-ryung, who plays Ipbun, had played the lead in Chun-Hyang Story the year before). There's also the sweeping view of the Bookam Mountains, and electric black and white contrasts of the reeds in the fields, presaging the screen candy and vivid colors of a movie like Forbidden Quest - you can almost visualize what this would look like in color. There's deftly handled comedy, especially in the character of the senile, partially deaf grandfather, a tradition that shines today in The Host; in fact, The Wedding Day is regarded as a comedy pioneer in South Korean cinema[1]. And comedy is partially connected to holding up hypocritical "social betters" to ridicule, as seen in King and the Clown. It's clear that what's going on today with hallyu didn't come out of nowhere, and it's a pleasure to have a chance to see some of its roots.

[1] Not a pioneer in a vacuum, either; the Korean Film Archive points out that this was the first Korean film to win an award at an overseas film festival (Best Comedy at the Asian Film Festival).