History of every country is always a very important part for its people’s self-identities. History of a person’s Motherland is what builds this person’s idea about their country, themselves, their society and their future. It is proved by many observations that people’s mentality is affected by their social and political surroundings greatly. This is why children are to study history at schools and this is why historical events so often occur on the screens of the TV. Historical, economical and political issues create the atmosphere and development of the society and enforce certain processes happening on the social level. The situation in the South Korean Society of the 1970s was very challenging, especially for people coming from working class and villages. The war between the South and the North that happened in the 1950s was exhausting for South Korean people.
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The country’s economy was devastated and a wave of poverty and unemployment took over the society. Of course, this caused massive changes in the behaviors of Korean people forced to look for ways of surviving in the difficult conditions. Both men and women were facing many obstacles on their way. Living a decent life and having a family at the same time was not always an option. Needless to say that Korean cinema reacted to these social and economical circumstances and started to create melodramatic films depicting the horrible realities of simple Korean people. One of examples of such films is “Yeong-ja’s Heydays” made in 1975. This film tells a story of a man and a woman, whose lives are very typical for that period of time; it also shows the sacrifice people had to give in order to survive in the world around them.
The economical situation in devastated post-war South Korea created a big gap between the rich and the poor. Rich people’s lives were just fine. They actually were getting better because the poverty among the working class people provided the employers with a huge number of workers, whose labor was very cheap. Out of desperation people would agree to all kinds of jobs as long as they were paid at least something. The employees were often neglected and mistreated by their bosses because the workers had no rights at their workplaces. The bosses were aware that as soon as an employee is fired, there will be no problem to find another one, who will also agree to a hard work and no rights. Getting married and having children was seen as something that would create even more financial problems, people were not in a hurry to start bearing responsibilities they did not feel to be able to handle.
In Korean films of the 1960s and the 1970s, fallen women and veterans are very common characters. First of all, many men were sent to the front during the war between the North and the South. Secondly, another party of men went to participate in the Vietnam War. These two tragic events made Korea lose a great deal of male workers that had the capacity to help their country and provide for their families. Besides, even the ones that survived the wars and came back home were not always able to return to normal lifestyle. They were too traumatized emotionally and physically, which is why most of them sunk into depressions and could no longer function as valuable members of the society. Due to that, many women were left to raise their children and help their aging parents alone. The inability to earn enough money and bad conditions of work forced many women to lose their dignity and start working as prostitutes.
After the Korean War had thrown the country to the cultural chaos, the Korean cinema started to actively reflect the issues occurring in the society of that time (Jeong Crisis of Gender, 108). This time was called the Golden Age of the South Korean cinema that produced many outstanding films, which are popular and still interesting today (Chung, 139). Most of the films made in the 1960s and the 1970s are socially realistic melodramas that tell the stories of young couples or families facing lots of difficulties and living through exhausting series of troubles caused by the economical and political conditions in the country of that time. These themes are never too old and never out of fashion, because families all over the world keep struggling with the harsh reality and inability to find a decent job and provide for the family.
Korean film makers picked up on the most important social issues and contradictions, the characters of their melodramas are forced to choose between money and a chance to survive, and personal dignity, love and friendship. These films are so touching and deep because the issues raised in them will never stop being important. The period when the cinema had freedom of expression did not last long in Korea. As soon as military government took over the country’s systems, a very strict control for everything produced in the film making studios was established. The film directors and their teams were under a lot of pressure because the censorship was very limiting. In some cases the producers could be sent to jail for wrong images and scenarios in their films.
The movie called “Yeong-ja’s Heydays” that was released in 1975 is one of the most outstanding creations of the South Korean film makers of that time. It contains all the main characteristics of melodrama created during the South Korean Golden Age in cinema. It tells the viewers a story of two young people that accidentally met before the Vietnam War, and then it shows the changes that happened to them within several years. The film depicts a typical South Korean society of the period of nation rebuilding and postwar industrialization (Jeong Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema, 130). The main characters are Chang-su and Yeong-ja. Their first encounter happens when Chang-su comes to his boss’ house to bring a parcel; he stays for a short meal and sees Yeong-ja, the young, shy and good-hearted house maid. The stories of both characters are very different and soon their life paths move apart.
Chang-su is sent to the Vietnam War and Yeong-ja is fired from her boss’ house after being sexually assaulted by the owner’s good-for-nothing son. Both characters struggle to live better lives and find their place in the world. When they bump into each other for the second time, Chang-su is back from the war, he is an exhausted and sad former soldier and Yoeng-ja is a handicapped prostitute. The creators of the film demonstrated that young people are powerless against the social, political and economical circumstances that swallow them and reduce them to the level, when they would sacrifice everything in order to survive. Both Yeong-ja and Chang-su had to give up their happiness for the sake of survival.
I think that the moment that shows the powerlessness of the simple people against the circumstances is when they both are in their boss’s kitchen and they witness the fight between the boss and her son. Rich family does not even notice the presence of the workers; simple people mean nothing to the wealth owners. This is why the rich guy can easily rape Yeong-ja and change her whole life, throwing the woman into the vortex of poverty and sufferings and Chang-su gets sucked into the realities of war that keep him away from his beloved woman and make the two people drift apart forever. The film creators often show the close ups of the faces of the main characters, their eyes. This is done in order to make the audience understand how much the reality and circumstances can change people and that Chang-su and Yeong-ja are not the only couple that was broken by the harsh conditions of people’s lives. These two young people are the representatives of the whole generation of Koreans coming from poor class that had to struggle and fight for their lives. The film creators demonstrated that in the situation that was dominating the South Korean society of the 1970s simple people from working class had very little chances of defeating the circumstances and achieving happiness.
The film shows that the South Korean citizens went through a time, when no sacrifice was enough to make their lives better, this is why thousands of young people ended up getting frustrated and losing themselves in the massive and all-consuming depression.
Chung, Hue Seung. “Toward a Strategic Korean Cinephilia: A Traditional Detournement of Hollywood Melodrama”. South Korean Golden Age Melodrama: Gender, Genre, and National Cinema. Ed. Kathleen McHugh, Nancy Abelmann. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005, 117-150. Print.
Jeong, Kelly. Crisis of Gender and the National Korean Literature and Cinema: Modernity Arrives Again. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2011. Print.
—. “Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema: The Coachman and The Stray Bullet”. Journal of Korean Studies 11.1 (2006), 127-162. Print.