Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Korean Cinema Classics: Lee Yong-min's "A Happy Day of Jinsa Maeng"

A Happy Day of Jinsa Maeng (Maeng Jinsa-daek gyongsa). 1962. Directed by Lee Yong-min. Written by Oh Yeong-jin. Produced by Lee Seong-geun. Cinematography by Yeong Kim. Edited by Yu Jae-won. Music by Kim Dae-hyeon.

Cast: Choi Eun-hee, Kim Seung-ho, Kim Jin-kyu, Gu Bong-seo, Kim Hee-gap.

(Note: The following is an expanded version of notes written to accompany a screening of the film earlier this year at Korean Cultural Service, which I introduced and after which I led a post-screening discussion.)

Jinsa Maeng, the patriarch of a village household in the Chosun era, is obsessed with his social status and constantly schemes to elevate it. To this end, he arranges to marry off his daughter Gahb-boon to Mi-un, the son of Minister Kim, a member of the nobility in neighboring Doraji Village. Jinsa Maeng is showered with lavish gifts sent by Minister Kim, and considers it a minor detail that he has never actually seen the man that will soon wed his daughter. Ib-boon, devoted servant to Gahb-boon, hopes to serve in Minister Kim’s home. In sharp contrast to the greedy Jinsa Maeng and the vain, superficial Gahb-boon, Ib-boon is a warm and pure-hearted woman who embodies the traditional Confucian virtues of chastity and loyalty. However, her values are soon to be tested. A visiting scholar from Doraji Village spreads the rumor that Mi-un is crippled with polio. Jinsa Maeng refuses to allow his daughter to marry a lame man, and forces Ib-boon to pose as Gahb-boon and marry Mi-un in her place. Everyone soon learns that all is not what it seems.

As Ib-boon, Choi Eun-hee gives a lovely and riveting performance that is this film’s major strength. This luminous star of the 1950’s and 1960’s is best known for the films she made with her husband, the great director Shin Sang-ok, such as A Flower in Hell (1958), Seong Chunhyang (1961), and My Mother and Her Guest (1961). The rest of the film’s cast deliver great comic performances, especially Kim Seung-ho as Jinsa Maeng. Kim also portrayed the same role in an earlier filmed version of this story.

A Happy Day of Jinsa Maeng, a delightful comic fable, is the second of three film adaptations of a story written by Oh Yeong-jin in 1942. It was originally performed as a stage play in 1944, and was first filmed in 1956 by Lee Byeong-il as The Wedding Day. Following Lee Yong-min’s version in 1962, it was filmed a third time, as Wedding Day, by Kim Eung-cheon in 1977. This practice of retelling popular stories is a fairly common one in Korean cinema history. The 1962 film features beautiful color photography, and engaging visual and narrative detours from this quite simple tale. Some examples of this include the musical sequence celebrating Gahb-boon’s marriage, and the very funny scenes with Jinsa Maeng’s hard-of-hearing, narcoleptic father. While the film is rooted in the unique characteristics of Korean culture and history, comparisons can be made with certain Western stories, especially the identity-swapping scenarios of some of Shakespeare’s comedies.

Lee Yong-min was born in 1916 in Seoul and studied film at the University of Japan. He worked as a cinematographer before his debut with the documentary Topography of Jeju Island in 1946. A Happy Day of Jinsa Maeng was the rare comedy in an oeuvre that mostly comprised thrillers based on Korean folktales, such as A Flower of Evil (1961) and Headless Lady (1966). Lee Yong-min’s other films include: The Gate of Hell (1962), A Bridegroom from a Grave (1963), A Devilish Homicide (1965), Devil and Beauty (1969), and Black Ghost (1976).

A Happy Day of Jinsa Maeng can be purchased from HanBooks.

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