What is a young woman to do when her husband dies? Well, there are a few options. One is not ideal, one is highly questionable, and one is very very bad.
Available on Youtube as The Seashore Village, though in snippets. Erm…it WAS available in full, but that video was recently set to private and the other full version not only lacks English subtitles, but also has some music playing loudly over the audio. Approximately 93 minutes.
On an island village by the sea, a group of men go out on a pair of fishing boats. This is what the men in this village have done for years and this is what they will do for years to come. At least in theory. Unfortunately, they get caught in a huge storm, and only a few of them return to the village alive.
One of those did not return alive was Hae-soon’s husband. They had gotten married only ten days earlier and now he is gone. So now, she lives only with her new mother-in-law and brother-in-law, who is one of the few men on the boat to survive the storm. Hae-soon is in deep grief, not just for her husband, but for her sense of identity. She had finally become a wife, the best thing for a woman to be; and now she is not. Still, she acts like a good Confucian woman and stays with her new family. Her mother-in-law is a widow as well, and understands Hae-soon’s feelings. So, she tries to make things as comfortable towards Hae-soon as possible while dealing with her own grief for her son.
In being a dutiful daughter and sister, Hae-soon tries to look and act the part. There are, however, two things that make it difficult. First, there is a sub-community of fishermen’s widows in the village, who regularly wade into the shallow waters for sea creatures to sell and use as food. Hae-soon is reluctant to join then, as it could imply that she has given up on her husband. In more practical terms, though, they have given up the image of being proper ladies. In going into the waters, they wear clothing that is tight around the waist and bares their legs. I know, right? Scandalous. They are also often quite crude and rowdy. Hae-soon feels extremely uncomfortable around them. Actually, she had considered working with them to supplement the family income back when her husband was alive, but he had shot down that idea, saying that she should not go around baring her body like they do.
The other thing making it difficult for Hae-soon to be a proper woman is a man from elsewhere named Sang-soo. It was actually he who ordered Hae-soon’s husband to get on the boat, even if he himself did not get on. It is not entirely clear whether Sang-soo was a friend of the family before the events of the movie, but he certainly inserted himself into the lives of Hae-soon and the family after seeing her with her husband. After her husband’s death, Sang-soo almost immediately starts pursuing her. He is extremely pushy, and treats her attempts to resist him as either annoyances or challenges to overcome. The other widows seem to know that Sang-soo has his eyes on her, and encourage her to go with him. It is unclear whether they know how aggressive he is, as Hae-soon seems too ashamed to talk about what he is doing.
The movie starts off with a shot of a train. There is no context provided. The movie does not show where the train is in reference to the village. The implication, for me, is that time and progress marches on while this village is stuck in the past. The opening narration seems to suggest that the story of a woman being widowed to the sea has been going on for an eternity. The early scene with a boy and his mother suggests that the next generation will probably end up repeating the cycle. Hae-soon was destined to become a widow sooner or later; it merely happened to be sooner. Perhaps this is meant to be a metaphor for war and how it swallows generation after generation of men. The Korean War stopped only twelve years before the release of this film, and did not actually end.
Through this isolation and tradition of tragedy, however, small pockets of independence have grown. The group of widows may pay lip service to mourning their husbands, but they do not always act that way. Again, they are crude, sensuous, and encouraging of pre-marital affairs with any man who would pay them attention. There is even a pair of somewhat older widows who actively and overtly flirt and grope each other. The other women mock them as crazy, but are too amused to even consider stopping them. This behavior would be unheard of for widows of men in higher positions or in places that were more directly connected to the larger South Korean society. They may talk about being unsatisfied with their lot in life, but they seem genuinely happy. They certainly seem to be happier than Hae-soon or a young pregnant woman who lost her husband to that storm and seems to be losing her mind. Perhaps if Hae-soon were more open with these widows in the first place, she would not have found herself so easily pulled and pushed towards a predatory man like Sang-soo.
The movie itself can be seen as quite subversive and ambiguous. A more straightforward movie could either treat the relationship between Hae-soon and Sang-soo as more obviously romantic or more obviously abusive, but this movie allows for some disturbing uncertainty, though I cannot say if that was deliberate or if I am merely reading more into it than was intended. There is a thread of hypocrisy regarding the actions of Sang-soo and how they are reflected in other men who wish to possess Hae-soon. It even extends to her late husband. Back when he told her not to go around showing her skin, he immediately started taking her clothes off for sex. Of course, this being 1960s South Korea as opposed to 1990s South Korea, the movie cannot show sex, so it will sometimes cut to footage of waves crashing on the shore. There are a lot of shots of waves crashing on the shore in this movie. And, thus, sex.
For a movie about such a dark subject, it is surprisingly not presented as sad, which kind of surprised me given most of the South Korean films that I had watched before and after watching this. To be sure, this is another movie that is not an easy sit, but it can be a good one.
WTF ASIA 76: Headshot (Thailand: 2011, approx. 106 minutes)
Available in Australia, Canada, the United States, and maybe a few other countries.
WTF ASIA 77: Headshot (Indonesia: 2016, approx. 119 minutes)
Available in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and maybe a few other countries
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