"My Heart" was released in the Summer of 2000 and directed by Bae Chang-ho, who was by far the best Korean director of the 1980s (there wasn't much competition) and written together with and stars his wife Kim Yu-mi. I watched it in my Korean Film class. I was surprised how good it was because usually this type of movie can be very emotionally manipulative and saccharine, this movie struck just the right town and was very touching, warm, and full of insights into Korean society. Here is my response to the film that I wrote up for class. I will need to develop some of these ideas into a short paper by next Monday. These were written with an undergraduate audience in mind.
While the confucian society portrayed in the 1920s segment was highly segregated by sex and highly patriarchal, it was women, and specifically the mother-in-law, who inflicted all of the physical and mental violence upon the daughter-in-law. That is, women were inflicting pain on themselves. There are a few clues in the dialogue about why the mother-in-law was doing this; it’s because she herself was treated in this manner (if not worse) when she first entered the husband’s family. So we have a circle of abuse in which the older women inflict pain on the younger women (although this violence is certainly misdirected and is perhaps is an acting out of their frustration at their station in life).
When the husband brings home his classmate, whom he has met at University, the protagonist responds in the same way that she was treated; with violence. She heats the ondol floor to unbearable temperatures to inflict pain on the new woman and express her anger and frustration. She continues the pattern of violence that exists in the household. However, when she follows the woman and her husband into the fields and sees them passionately kissing in the moonlight she realizes that they love each other and one of the following 1) that she has 정 for her husband 2) that she has 정 for the woman because they have common sufferings due to their sex or 3) that they her husband and the other woman have 정 for each other. I’m waffling a bit on this but I’m leaning towards the third possibility.
Whatever the case, her realization has a transformative effect and afterwards she treats women with respect, courtesy, and deference. 정 has allowed her to break the cycle of abuse and to (literally) leave the patriarchal system of relations that perpetuated it. The scene where she watches her husband and another woman together and accepts their relationship is the key to the her character and to the movie. It is the point at which she goes from a 2-dimensional character meant to illustrate Joseon neo-Confucian society to a fully formed character capable of free will and independent action. This transformation is accomplished through 정.
I was curious how she was able to move to all these different houses? It seemed like whenever she left she ended up in a new house. Where did these houses come from? And then when she moved in with the potter she just left her old house and moved into his. Did she sell the house or just abandon it?
What the film seems to be saying is that the only option for positive action available to women at this time was to exit the system. There was no way to live happily within the Confucian system and so an exit was necessary. We see the protagonist exit the situation she was in twice, once after her husband divorces her and again after her next husband dies.
We also see the girl who comes to stay with the protagonist exiting the terrible relationship she has ended up in by being sold to the cow raising person (cow farmer?). Unfortunately the girl was only able to exit for a short time before her husband finds her and takes her back whereas the protagonist was able to permanently escape the neo-Confucian patriarchy.
It is ironically only when the protagonist is outside of the patriarchal household that she is able to follow the Confucian tenets of loving your husband and loving your son. She does both honestly and with real affection and 정 and the film is perhaps critiquing the Joseon society which held up Confucian values but, through the patriarchal social order, prevented these values from being organically expressed as they were with the protagonist.
At the end of the movie, the scenes between mother and son were very poignant and touching, but they were almost ridiculously so. I kept thinking that the Confucian rules had gone into a feedback loop where no progress could be made. There needed to be some external element added to get out of the loop.
What I mean by this is that the son was following the Confucian tenet of honoring your parents. He wanted his mother to eat first, he wanted her to have all the best food, he wanted to take care of her as much as possible. But at the same time the mother was following the Confucian tenet of providing for and loving your offspring. So the mother wanted the son to eat first, and have the best food, and she wanted to take care of him as much as possible. Both of these rules can’t be obeyed and, in effect, they cancel each other out. (i.e. if no one will eat without the other person eating first than none of them will eat!) As I said, it was very poignant, but at the same time it was almost annoying how much they cared for each other.
On the technical side of things, I noticed that the 180 degree rule was broken three times in the film. Twice when the mother-in-law was yelling at the daughter, and then once at the end while the protagonist is eating with her son. The first two looked very deliberate, but the last one might have been by accident?
You can read about the 180 degree rule on wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/180_degree_rule) but basically it describes a normative way of shooting a scene and it is almost always followed in movies like this one where the style of the film is meant to be as unobtrusive as possible (the ‘invisible style’ of the Hollywood studio system). The rule is sometimes broken for effect, and I think that’s what is going on here. Possibly to cause an unsettling, disjointed effect during the scenes with the mother-in-law.