Posted on 18 October 2011.
Park Nam-ok made a mark on Korean cinema history by being the first Korean woman to direct a film. However, it was an under-appreciated effort at the time it was made and there was no real interest in the film until the 1st Seoul Women’s Film Festival ressurected it. At the time it was made, Park could only get one theater to screen it because she was a woman and even when she finally got it released, it was only for a four-day period. But it was still an amazing accomplishment considering the times. Park Nam-ok was born in 1923 in Hayang, the third of ten children in her wealthy family. She demonstrated a strong character, enjoying sports such as shot-put as well as movies and literature. After graduating high school, she wanted to go on her own to study in Japan, but her family refused to let her go. Instead she had to enrol in the Home Economics Department at Ehwa Women’s College. She wound up leaving school while fighting her parents’ wishes that she marry. Instead, she became a film critic for the Daegu Daily Newspaper. After Korea was liberated from Japan, she joined the Joseon Film Company as a script editor, but again her parents forced her to return home in the hopes to get her to marry. When the Korean War started, she edited newsreels for the army. She did eventually marry a playwright who had written the scenario for The Widow which she began making into a film. She had a child at the time, but lacked a willing babysitter, so she used to go to work with her daughter on her back. Park only made the one film. She divorced her husband and started a film magazine called Cinemafan in 1956 but again her parents got her to give it up and convinced her to work for her brother-in-law at Dong-a Publishing. After 21 years there, she moved to the USA to be with her daughter who was living there and she remains there to this day.
The movie The Widow was made at a time when money was in short supply. While director Park may have felt that less than many people living in Korea in the mid-50’s, her characters are frequently concerned about and motivated by the thought of money. The learn that the title character, widow Lee Shin-ja, is in need of money because her daughter’s school is “bleeding her dry” and the teacher has informed her daughter not to come if she cannot pay. Having no source of income of her own, Shin-ja has been relying on her husband’s friend, Lee Seong-jin, to support her but the man’s wife has become suspicious of their relationship. Shin-ja’s best friend and neighbor, a prostitute, tells her that she could be getting a lot more money if she takes the friendship with Seong-jin to the next level. Later, again while talking to her friend about money, she forgets to watch her daughter who is playing in the beach. The child nearly dies as a result and only the quick action of Taek saves her.
Normally in these early films, the lead character is a pillar of chastity. Widows were expected to remain single as according to traditions, they were still married even though their husbands were dead. However, while Lee Shin-ja outwardly appears this way, she gradually changes throughout the movie. When we first meet her, she always wears traditional-style clothing. Often in early Korean films, what the female character wears determines the type of morals she has. For example, when we meet the prostitute, she is wearing pants which definitely brings her character into question if one is familar with films from this period. Shin-ja’s clothes style changes with the decisions she makes. After taking to living with Taek as his common law wife, Shin-ja adopts Western style clothes which we see often in early Korean film as a sign of declining morals (such as in The Coachman and The Aimless Bullet). Although Shin-ja learns to drink during the film she does not hit rock bottom and smoke as the prostitute does. Women smoking in Korean films was saved for either very elderly grandmothers who had earned the right or women who were considered the villain of the movie or, at the very least, someone whose character needed changing.
At one point in the movie, Lee Shin-ja calls herself a bad mother and her neighbor, Mr. Song is quick to disagree. However, I have to take issue with that. Shin-ja is a terrible mother. Normally I would not be so quick to judge, but she our heroine gives away her daughter for no more reason than the child has become an incovenience! Giving up children happens sometimes in Korean films like in the I Hate You But Again series or the One Love where the father and mother are separated and one parent is better able to support the child than the other, but this is not the case in The Widow. While she is poor, Shin-ja raises her daughter lovingly. After she meets a man whom she wants to live with, her daughter has suddenly become “a burden” and she asks her lover Taek if she should “make her go live with Mr. Song?” By this time, she has opened her own sewing business and is making sufficient money to support her child.. which she does.. but she has no interest in having her daughter around.
There is one frustrating point while watching this otherwise engrossing film. The last part of the movie is damaged. The last scene is missing off the end of the film so we do not see what happens at the end. Even more annoying is that in the ten minutes prior to that, the sound was lost so we can see what is happening, but we cannot hear any dialogue. Fortunately, I was able to read a description of how the film ends, but it was very vague. Even without knowing the exact ending, I think most people could guess that it would not end happily. Considering her actions, Shin-ja fails to live up to being an ideal wife/mother/woman and therefore, according to cinematic rules, she must be punished for these transgressions.
However, although Shin-ja fails to live up to the ideals 1950 society expected of her, the movie never paints her as the villain. Neither is the prostitute ever blamed for her actions because her methods of making money were very limited at the time. Had this film been directed by a man, I think the prostitute would have come off far worse. Instead, Park made the main and supporting female characters very human and while we may not agree with their actions, we can understand them.
I am puzzled about the Korean title the film was released under on DVD. The poster above shows the title to be Gwabu-ui Noomool which means “Tears of a Widow” in big red letters. Underneath that, in parentheses and in Chinese characters, it says ‘Mimangin‘ which I understand was the name of the screenplay. Clearly the film title was the former no matter what the screenplay was called. Why then was the DVD released under the Korean title Mimangin? I have not been able to find any mention as to why one title was chosen over the other. However, that does not change the English title which has always been simply The Widow.
The Widow is available on DVD, but only as part of the Landscape After The War Collection which also contains The Flower in Hell (1958), Money (1958) and Drifting Island (1960). It is worth tracking down to see what life in Korea was like in the years immediately following the Korean War.