Review: Shin Sang-ok’s “A Romantic Papa”



Shin Sang-ok’s 1960 feature A Romantic Papa was the first production from his newly established company, Shin Films. Shin had already established himself as one of the most successful Korean producer/directors with such films as A Flower in Hell (1958), a hybrid melodrama/neorealist film set in a U.S. Army base, and depicting the lives of the so-called yanggongju, or prostitutes who served U.S. soldiers. A Romantic Papa was no less successful, a remarkable fact considering that this film was one of Shin’s most boldly experimental works. In this and the films that followed during the 1960’s, his most creatively and commercially fertile period, Shin managed to retain his popularity while continuing to experiment with genre and narrative structures, as well as introducing such technical innovations to Korea as color cinemascope (1961’s Seong Chunhyang) and sync sound (1968’s King’s Father). A Romantic Papa infused the family melodrama genre (which included elements not dissimilar to many of Ozu’s films, although most likely this wasn’t a direct influence) with stylistic elements that tugged against this structure: a melding of theatrical and cinematic space, and parodies of other popular film genres, such as romantic melodrama, historical drama, and “literary” films. Shin achieved this by almost entirely jettisoning plot in favor of a loose, episodic structure, essentially a series of set-ups and punchlines.

The film begins very much like a play, with all of the major characters introducing themselves directly to the audience, standing against a dark curtain:





All these characters are appropriately introduced in a hierarchical fashion. Kim, the titular “Romance Papa,” was played by Kim Seung-ho, a popular actor of the time who essayed the father role in many other films (including others for Shin) and television series. This portly man with a booming voice is the patriarch of this large clan, but he is an authority by tradition only. He is considered senile (at 52!) by his family, and called “Romance Papa” because of his sentimental nature. His wife (Joo Jeung-nyeo) frequently argues with him and loves to puncture his authority with dismissive and withering remarks, although it soon becomes clear there is no real rancor; it’s become a comfortable pattern they have fallen into, which their children eagerly encourage. The parents are followed by the eldest daughter Eum-jeon (Choi Eun-hee, Shin’s wife and a star of many of his films) and her fiancé Woo-taek (Kim Jin-kyu), a meteorologist whose profession becomes the butt of jokes. The eldest son Ue-jin (Won Nam-gung) has secretly dropped out of college to pursue a filmmaking career, and his girlfriend Mary is an actress on the film he is currently working on. The middle daughter Gob-dan (Do Geum-bong) studies English at college and is embarrassed by her father’s low wages, which put her at a lower standard of living than her schoolmates. The fact that she studies English becomes a significant detail, since English words are used at key points, starting with the English of the film’s title, and later in the film where the words “girlfriend” (to describe Mary) and “boyfriend” (to describe Woo-taek) are used. Baruen (Shin Seong-il), the youngest son, suffers from an acute inferiority complex in relation to his older brother Ue-jin, since he is forced to live on his brother’s hand-me-downs (a detail that reinforce the fact that this is far from a rich family), and feels like a hand-me-down himself, or in his words, a “remnant.” An early scene in the film in which he and his brother argue over shoes serves to illustrate this point. (More on this later.) Ebbun (Um Aeng-ran), the youngest daughter, whose name sounds like (and I think actually is, if my hearing is correct) yeppun, the Korean word meaning “pretty,” makes fun of her parents for giving her that name, since she obviously is pretty. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that Shin Seong-il and Um Aeng-ran, who play siblings in this film, were in fact a real-life couple.) The film’s extended family is encompassing enough to include not only Mr. Lee (Kim Seok-hoon), Papa’s favorite co-worker, but most amusingly, a house thief (Joo Sun-tae) who will appear later in the film.

This opening establishes the narrative strategy of the rest of the film, a series of set-ups that will receive their pay-offs later in the film. A Romantic Papa is essentially an episodic series of extended comic riffs that flesh out the characters and situations that have been laid out so succinctly at the beginning. Shin greatly admired classical Hollywood montage techniques and emulated this in his films, which makes it all the more remarkable that, at least in this film, he used these techniques to such radically experimental ends, leaving us with a very different impression than a typical Hollywood film. The effect is much closer to television drama, and this episodic structure and style of characterization survives in the form of many of today’s Korean TV series.

The front of the traditional Korean house where most of the film’s scenes take place looks very much like a stage set:



This theatrical presentation of the family home conveys the notion that this is a very orderly and controlled space, a site of comfort and respite from the often cruel and chaotic world outside. Papa insists on keeping the realms of work and home strictly separated; late in the film, when he finds the rest of the family working jobs in the house, he demands that the work signs on the door be taken down. Shin often shoots his characters from low angles:



Again, á la Ozu. The camera moves very little, just enough to follow a character or a movement. The characters move in and out of the large family room and into smaller, more private spaces. Much of the humor occurs when these boundaries are breached, as in one scene where the children cheer on their parents as they argue. Shin sometimes also crowds the frame with as many of the family members as he can, to underline just how populated this small house is:





After the opening, after the family leaves the house in the morning (except the mother, of course, who stays behind), there is a quick succession of short scenes, establishing the non-home spaces which each family member inhabits: Papa arriving early to work, lovingly arranging flowers for the office, which his boss steals; Ebbun haughtily snubbing an admiring boy on the bus ride to the school (even a brief scene such as this has a pay-off – the boy later sends Ebbun a hilariously ardent love letter); Ue-jin as an assistant director, filming a typical melodramatic scene with fake snow; Baruen in wrestling class (in later scenes, he often is holding some sort of exercise equipment); Gob-dan and her friends discuss going hiking, and she complains that she can’t go because she doesn’t own a pair of pants that she can wear. Even the smallest details and character traits echo in later parts of the film, and the fact that the film is nearly plotless helps to emphasize these small details, and Shin carefully builds them to create a rich tapestry that resonate in a very artful way. In a way, this aspect of the film brings to mind (though the style is very different) Hong Sang-soo’s films, since he very similarly transforms very ordinary details into quite lovely patterns.

One example of how the smallest situations are spun into something quite funny occurs when Baruen complains about the hand-me-down old shoes he has to wear, and asks his father to buy him new ones. Ue-jin asks for new shoes also, and tries to pass his old shoes once again to Baruen. The conversation expands into a philosophical debate and a historical discussion. The banter between these characters is punctuated with very subtle camera and character movement, and illustrates the relationship between the characters, and also between them and the rest of the family, all of whom get a chance to chime in:






The mother’s jealous reactions to what she imagines is Papa’s interest in other women occasions a couple of humorous scenes, for example in a brief bit where the film delves into psychic space as Papa visualizes, and the film shows us, the directions his wife gives to a gisaeng’s (a female entertainer analogous to Japanese geisha) house. His reveries are angrily interrupted by his wife, who demands to know why he is so interested in where this woman lives.

Shin also parodies the film industry in a scene where Ue-jin reads his screenplay to the rest of the family, and while his original story is the sort of tragic melodrama prevalent in Korean films at the time, in which the lovers commit suicide since that is the only way they can be together, his parents rewrite the script into their own versions. They cast themselves, naturally – Papa as a venerable poet, complete with a beret, and his wife as the nagging scold in a historical drama. In this and the other examples I have cited above, Shin is able to encompass many forms of storytelling into this scenario (scripted by Kim Hee-chang, based on his own novel) within the very elastic structure he has created. All is not light humor, however; darker shades occur in the latter scenes of the film, in which a crisis occurs that directly affects Papa’s ability to provide for his family, and he ends up trudging through the streets, robbed of the liveliness he had earlier in the film. But the family is his savior, and all conflicts are resolved in the end. A Romantic Papa is one of the most impressive films of this prolific major director of the so-called “Golden Age” of Korean cinema, generally considered to be the 1950’s and 1960’s. It also fascinates with its exhilarating sense of play and its beautiful, generous spirit, and is an excellent introduction to the films of Shin Sang-ok.

A Romantic Papa is part of the “Shin Sang-ok Collection” box set released by the Korean Film Archive, in a typically well-made package. The set consists of five of Shin’s films from the 1960’s. The others are his masterpiece Mother and a Guest (1961), Seong Chunhyang (1961), Deaf Samryongi (1964), and One Thousand Years Old Fox (1969).