Sunday, May 4, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW | Surface and underground: A discussion on the themes of Our Sweet Days

Surface and underground:
A discussion on the themes of Our Sweet Days

Chang-Ho Bae’s One Sweet Day (1987) deals with human interactions on different levels– intrapersonal, cultural/ traditional, and ideological. On the intrapersonal level, we see Young Min (Sung-Kee Ahn) trying to win the object of his desire Hye Rin (Sin-Hye Hwang) but had to struggle because of his incapacity in terms of confidence and experience; On the cultural/ traditional level is the issue of marriage; and finally the exemplification of western influence. In addition, there is an underlying discussion on the issues of critique on modernity and feminism.

Young Min’s struggles
We see from the movie how this man badly wanted to meet the object of his affection but always falls short of the masculine characteristics expected of him. In his conversation with Hye Rin, he cannot properly say that he wanted to have a date with her, until the girl finally took the initiative and said they’ll meet at the restaurant. Then at the restaurant, troubled by fear, the guy becomes clumsy spilling tea at the girl and would not order much because he has no money. Then at their conversation, he confessed to the girl (this is the first date) that he wants to marry her.
Yes, I think this is ridiculous. Telling a girl that you want to her when you haven’t known her that well plus the fact that the only thing you can order is a bottle of OB beer. However, you’ll pity the guy because you’ll feel his sincerity. He is neither handsome nor rich but he is willing to take his chances. The only thing is he got a laugh for an answer. The audience is given a glimpse of the poor guy’s feelings with point-of-view shots seeing the girl, stealing glances at her, never knowing if he’ll be successful or not which we knew later was a futile effort.

Perhaps the reason that made Young Min’s character poignant was the continuous display of his lonely world. At school, we see him writing alone in an empty classroom with only a window to see the world outside. He played basketball alone. At the hospital, he was alone too after his father left him. Then he was just there, staring outside, looking at the window obscured by the cold of winter but despite all this solitude is his strong feelings for the girl.

Just getting married
Young Min’s father raised him alone, and as the friends of his father puts it, the father needs to be happy too. That’s the time Young Min was pushed to get married, in his father’s words, “you need to get married early…” This particular emphasis in Korean culture to get married and have a family can be quite confounding to foreigners. In most countries, people find partners because they feel it is the right time, not because it must be done out of pressure. According to Cho (n.d.) Korean marriage is an affair between two families. Well the guy never really intended to forge a relationship with the girl’s family, neither the father but the pressure perhaps roots from the custom of the people. Once the guy gets married then the father would be free. Considering that this movie was done in 1987, Koreans are still conservative and very traditional in keeping a family and all that comes within it. There may be several reasons why marriage is given importance but perhaps it is more of keeping up with the custom, after all, no one would like to be the gossip of the town.

From theater to 7 Up
Of course, how can we miss several names of Western people in the film like, Stanislavski, Audrey Hepburn, Mozart and Brahms. Also unforgettable are the topics on Broadway, the use of French and American song as background, the soda drank with eggs at the park, and even the set design at the restaurant which is undeniably Western with all the chandeliers and Christmas tree present.

There are many interpretations to this I suppose but why show so much Western influence in a movie that talks about Korean tradition on relationship and wedding? The juxtaposition is simply bothering. Even during the scene of the guy waiting for the girl, then the girl comes out then the song “My Serenade” by Frank Sinatra plays. The movie again, was set in 1987, the same time South Korea founded democracy and changed its election system. It was the same time that South Korea has leaped from the shadows of its authoritarian past into a more civil and free country. If for anything, the movie may be opening its doors to a more liberal society.

Character development: a critique on the love of modernity
However, the movie seems to work on the borders similar to that of Madame Freedom. The character development of the two protagonists couldn’t be more obvious. The guy, weak and solitary at the beginning strives to have a better life and finally achieved his goal. The girl, determined and strong at the beginning, became a failure and later on died.

Well, considering the patriarchal stance of Korea, I’m not surprised about the fate of the guy. This may also allude to the history of South Korea which somehow suffered and strived much like the guy did. The girl on the other hand could well criticize the country’s fascination to the Western world, particularly the United States. The folly of the girl when she chose to be with the bum doctor only shows how South Korea may be deceived from its dependent on foreign countries.

Women on the frontlines: feminism in Korean movies

However, the question that only remains is that why women are always depicted as weak, passive, idiots, evil, and all the negative traits in most Korean movies. One speculation is that women being nothing as objects of desires, mothers to children and wives to husband have no value. When the girl died at the end and the daughter was born, we see a statement here: there is nothing to fear because woman will always dispensable. And why is the father single? It seems that the absence or death of a woman never mattered in the movie. But if the male protagonist died, then heaven and hell will be raised creating a big disturbance to the lives of so many characters. And yes, there was no male death in the movie.

To sum it all up, I want to restate the important points. On surface level, we see a number of issues in the movie. The male leading character’s lowliness was magnified in the movie to raise the character of the girl. Through point-of-view shots, we see the world through the man’s eyes – obscured and unstable. Marriage has been a prominent theme in the movie and it would be the be and all of it. The guy chases the girl, the girl refuses, the guy strives, the girl gives in, the guy is happy, the girl dies. Although marriage in this movie has been ideal which makes it implausible, there is that sense of wonder why tradition would be juxtaposed against western influence. In addition, western influence was also noticeable in this movie from musical scoring to set design to quips on famous western people. In a deeper discussion, the sense of patriarchal society, building of nationhood and feminism were evident in the movie.

Works cited:

Joyce Cho. (n.d.) Korean marriage custom. Retrieved May 4, 2008 from

Sunhyuk Kim. (2002) Civil society and democratization in South Korea. In Charles Armstrong (ed.) Civil Society, Democracy. Routledge.

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