Married life stinks. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Available on Vimeo. Approximately 92 minutes.
Geum-Soon had always been a sporty person, and she had become a pretty successful volleyball player until she got an arm injury. One of her biggest fans, Ju-Tae, found her and took care of her during her recovery. Long story short, Geum-Soon got pregnant, the two of them quickly got married, and Song-Yi was born. While other people in their early twenties may be ready for marriage and family, Geum-Soon and Ju-Tae are most definitely not.
The movie starts out with Song-Yi waking up her parents in the middle of the night. She cries, screams, and whines incoherently. And then so do they. It turns out that she needs feeding. During the breastfeeding, Geum-Soon doses off and accidentally headbutts her daughter, who promptly starts crying again. This incident takes place less than two minutes into the movie, and it was about that time that I decided that I would love this movie regardless of the rest of it.
In any case, Geum-Soon and Ju-Tae are exhausted when the morning comes. This is a particularly bad day to be tired because it is Ju-Tae’s first day as a corporate drone. And Geum-Soon manages to burn the back of his only white button down shirt. That sends Ju-Tae into a childish tantrum, but he eventually gets over it by the time he is at work. Meanwhile, Geum-Soon goes to watch a volleyball game (lying to Ju-Tae over the phone about staying at home) and then going over to her parents to take a nap while her irritated mother looks after Song-Yi. This all turns out to have been a bad idea, as Ju-Tae’s parents will be coming over to visit the next day at 5:00 AM for some reason. It is unclear whether they had told Ju-Tae already or not, but Geum-Soon is in a panic. His parents are pretty strict. And, in Korean culture, the daughter-in-law can be treated like dirt. So Geum-Soon has to show herself to be a worthy addition to the family and fulfill her wifely duties of cleaning up the apartment and cooking a meal that Ju-Tae’s parents particularly like. Geum-Soon’s mother is not particularly sympathetic to her plight.
Geum-Soon goes shopping for food, but when an elderly lady starts cooing over Song-Yi (and mistaking her for a boy), Geum-Soon gets so creeped out that she forgets to buy the fish, which is the main ingredient in the meal. She does not realize this until she is in the middle of cooking, and she desperately calls up Ju-Tae to ask him to stop by a market to buy the fish. Ju-Tae sort of agrees, though he is in the midst of the ancient Korean business tradition of getting utterly plastered with the boss and coworkers. And he has trouble holding his liquor. He tries to leave when he thinks that they are done, but they drag him to another club and get him totally wasted.
Sometime during the night, Geum-Soon gets a call from Ju-Tae’s phone, but it is not him on the other end. It is some guy who works at some little club. He claims that Ju-Tae has drunk $1,700 worth of alcohol and Geum-Soon needs to come with the credit card. Geum-Soon does not know it at the time, but Ju-Tae has just become the victim of the scam where people guide people who are already drunk to their clubs or bars, drug them, pretend that they drank all this alcohol, and then charge them. It turns out, though, that Ju-Tae did not have his credit card on him, so Geum-Soon needs to come and pay the bill. Unfortunately, the man on the phone is a bit of a moron, and gives Geum-Soon directions to the club that would be nearly impossible for anyone to remember. And before he can give her clearer instructions, the phone runs out of batteries. And instead of calling her with another phone, the man…well, doesn’t. All Geum-Soon remembers from the instructions is the name of the club and that she has to go to a specific convenience store. So, she goes out into the night, carrying Song-Yi in her little baby backpack.
This movie is hilarious. I have to put that out there from the outset. There is broad physical comedy, situational absurdity, character humor, and just silly fun. Of course, it being an outright comedy as opposed to a drama with darkly comedic aspects probably made it a hard sell in South Korea. Well, whatever. If you can tell yourself that you can put up with a whiny and jumpy protagonist, you will have yourself a pretty good time.
I actually really enjoyed the character of Geum-Soon, as played by the wonderful Bae Doona. Geum-Soon did not want to get married, but had to due to the unplanned pregnancy and the stigma against single motherhood. She does her duties as a wife when she has to, but wriggles out of them when she sees an opening. She is not fleeing adulthood; she is already trapped in it and is simply trying to loosen the restrictions. Yes, Geum-Soon and Ju-Tae need to grow up, but maybe a little bit of support and leeway would actually speed up the process. Geum-Soon whines a lot and gets spooked or distracted, even when she cannot afford to. She is not dumb (at least not compared to other people in this movie), but sometimes she is not quite aware of the consequences of her actions. This does not make her a bad person, just highly flawed. It may seem impressive when a perfect person acts perfectly, but it is much more difficult for an imperfect person to be self-sacrificing. And what happens when a flawed person is dealt the massive responsibilities of adulthood? That person will make mistakes. But adulthood does not tolerate such mistakes. Or maybe it does, and the fear of adulthood makes everything seem so much more terrible than they are. Sometimes, it is impossible to tell. This impossibility surrounds Geum-Soon as she wanders around the streets of Seoul, just as it overwhelms her as she struggles to adjust to married life. It can often be difficult to discern who is dangerous and who simply looks scary.
The streets of Seoul make up a world of men. Men of power and women of less power. Geum-Soon does what she can to help a couple of women who seem to be going through struggles of their own on the streets, but one good deed backfires badly and it sends a whole lot of dangerous men after her. One of the many running gags in this movie involves people mistaking Song-Yi for a boy, probably because she looks very big. This is mostly elderly people, and they claim that this baby boy is destined for great things, like being a general or…a thief? It is pretty telling when one elderly person has to change his words of praise as he is giving it and sheepishly calls her a princess. The only person to recognize Song-Yi as a girl is one of the young employees at the convenience store, and that is because Geum-Soon is changing her at the time. This difference in expectation has hit Geum-Soon as well, with becoming a wife and mother effectively ending her volleyball career. She might also see her future with Ju-Tae in how her own parents have turned out, seemingly surly and bitter. Yet, sometimes, the qualities that made her an insufficient model wife and mother actually helped her on her quest to rescue her hapless husband. And her fear of one thing makes her temporarily ignore her fear of something else. She does not so much navigate through this world of dangerous men as much as she barrels through it, creating chaos in her wake. And whenever there are little opportunities for her and other female characters in this movie to do what they want to do, they go with gusto. Those looking for an essay on gender roles in modern East Asia will probably be disappointed, but the themes are there for those who want to see them.
Anyone looking for ninety-something minutes of a good time could do much worse than this movie. It is no award winner or anything, but it is bursting with lively energy and glee. And maybe you might feel a slight twinge of sympathy for the characters for whom adulthood came too soon. Or not. In either case, I recommend it.
WTF ASIA 44: Matrubhoomi (India: 2003, approx. 93 minutes)
WTF ASIA 45: The Machine Girl (Japan: 2008, approx. 97 minutes)