Earlier this year, I did a mini-marathon of films from South Korea, all of which were post-2000, for the simple lack of any Korean films on the list prior to then. Well, except one. Kim Ki-young’s Hanyeo is that lone film, a bastion of classic Korean cinema; from what I’ve found, it is often regarded as one of the best Korean films of all time, and it did a large part to open Korean cinema to the world of the West. For any of these reasons, or perhaps for some other reason I couldn’t identify, I was excited to see this one, and my expectations were a little higher than most. Now, having seen it, if I were to go back and do it again, I’d probably watch it a little sooner than I did, and not leave any time open for me to build expectations. It wasn’t just that the film didn’t meet them, it was that the film seemed to be so all over the place that to form any pre-conceived notions about how I wanted the film to be was not only unfair to the film, it was misguided, in that the film didn’t have a fully-defined structure or complete image of what it wanted to be.
The film is the story of a music teacher at a non-descript “factory” for young girls. After a subplot involving two students who send him a love letter, one of the students ends up setting him and his wife up with a desperately needed housemaid. Of course, things end up not being quite as simple as the family and the housemaid living their lives as normal, and soon the housemaid has shaken the foundation of the family with her conniving ways. I expected this to be somewhat along the lines of a combination of Rebecca and The Servant, with the housemaid joining the household and sinking her claws in, manipulating to meet her ends, but that wasn’t what I got. Really, I’m not too sure what I got; the film seemed to not know what to do, or how to do it. There’s bits and pieces of several different stories that flit in and out of the narrative whenever they see fit, never conforming to a complete narrative because there never is one. Sure, the stories are technically connected in that the characters interact with each other and set up the various other plotlines, but it was kind of like finishing a jigsaw puzzle by pounding in pieces that don’t fit together; it ends up being a whole object, but it’s just not built right. The film does border on the blunt and melodramatic a few times; at one point, for instance, when news is delivered of a character’s passing, the music blares out a loud note of horror, as if this were a shocking game-changing revelation, which (even though it did come into play with the events that followed) it really wasn’t. Also, when the action starts to get heated, the acting from the players involved gets really, really heavy and over-the-top, and the score would once again reflect this. Not to mention some of the directions the story goes in, which up the melodramatic ante exponentially, to the point that I couldn’t even get immersed in the film after a certain point; it was just too unbelievable (and the obvious overdubbing did little to amend this). Also, one final note; I hated the little boy in this film. He was nothing but a spoiled little brat, who liked teasing his crippled sister and ordering the housemaid to do things for him just to be repugnant, and whenever he was on screen, I just wanted to punch his face in. I don’t know to what end this characterization served the greater story, but it was damn near impossible to ignore.
Actually, I was mistaken; there is one more final note to bring up, and to do so I should go over once again how I write my reviews. Depending on the research I’ve done, I’ll either write the opening paragraph as I watch the film, or after it; the middle section is comprised of the notes that come off the top of my head as I’m watching the film, edited and arranged, and then the closing paragraph I write after everything is over. Thus, this paragraph that you’re reading now is the paragraph that I am writing as the film has just finished, and thus why there has been no mention up to now of this film’s ending. I specifically didn’t add mention of it to the end of the middle section, because the ending of this film deserves to be singled out, and not in a good way; I try my hardest to avoid discussing spoilers in the films I review, but I’ll make an exception here – the ending of this film literally completely invalidates the entire rest of the picture, and comes within spitting distance of the “it was all a dream” trope that is so reviled in today’s moviegoing culture. I won’t say any more than that, but to discuss this film without discussing the ending would be to discuss Fight Club without once ever bringing up Brad Pitt or the character he plays; it would be not even half of a discussion. Sometimes, I feel obligated to give any readers that might see these reviews a heads-up as to the content or character of the films themselves, and this is a pretty hefty example. So, all in all, a disjointed film with no real cohesiveness to its narrative, coupled with an ending that borders on the insulting, and not even the mildly impressive technicals could save this one for me. It’s not as overtly bad as I may make it out to be; it’s just frustrating, especially when you try and dig underneath the crust of the film and find a random assortment of stuff where there should be solid structure instead.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10