Review: Shin Sang-ok’s “Mother and a Guest”

One of four films Shin Sang-ok released in 1961 (the others were Seong Chun-hyang, Prince Yeonsan, and Evergreen Tree), Mother and a Guest remains one of his most celebrated and enduring films. Flush from the success of Seong Chun-hyang, Shin’s big-budget adaptation of the classic pansori tale that was a massive box-office hit, he decided to embark on a more intimate, small-scale project, and Mother and a Guest, an adaptation of a beloved short novel by Joo Yo-seob, scripted by Im Hee-jae (who also wrote the screenplay for Seong Chun-hyang), perfectly fit the bill. A potent melodrama revolving around the perennial conflict between traditionalist and modern values, the film centers on the titular mother, a young widow (portrayed by the luminous Choi Eun-hee, Shin’s wife and frequent star) whose largely self-imposed moral strictures are upended by the arrival of houseguest Mr. Han (Kim Jin-kyu, a popular actor of the time who also appeared in several of Shin’s films), a friend of her brother-in-law who awakens desires in the widow she thought were long dead, or perhaps never experienced. This slowly evolving love story is refracted through the perspective of the widow’s six year-old daughter Ok-hee (Jeong Young-seon), an adorable moppet who is one of the most endearing characters of her kind ever portrayed on film. She introduces herself and her family at the beginning of the film and provides a running voiceover throughout. This aspect of the story is a carryover from the original novel, which is also narrated by this character. In fact, the original cut of Mother and a Guest was adapted very faithfully from the source material. However, Shin ran into a problem when this version resulted in a running time barely longer than an hour, which was considered too short for release. As a solution, Shin and Im added a subplot involving a relationship between the widow’s domestic servant (Do Geum-bong, another frequent Shin star) and an egg vendor (Kim Hee-gab), which serves as a comic counterpoint to the melodramatic main plot. Other elements were added that broke with the young daughter’s point of view, such as a key scene between the widow and a fortuneteller (Heo Jang-kang), and a brief scene in which the widow poses in front of a mirror wearing a man’s hat.

Mother and a Guest, much like many of Shin’s other films, brilliantly combines a seemingly self-effacing and invisible style derived from classic Hollywood montage with complex and nuanced characterizations and visual parallels and contrasts that enhance this deceptively simple tale. The central heroine, as embodied by Choi Eun-hee, functions as the self-sacrificing, traditional woman common to Korean melodramas of the time, which was a particular specialty of Choi, who played this sort of woman in many films, for Shin and other directors. In this film, however, she goes far beyond this typical characterization to convey much deeper shades to this portrayal. One example is the scene in which she parades before the mirror wearing Mr. Han’s hat, after she chases her maid out of his room. She takes advantage of this brief private time to display a saucy, irreverent and sexy side to herself, free – however briefly – from society’s (and her own) constraints on behavior, expressed visually by wearing part of a man’s clothing. Even her own insistence on wearing the hairstyle and dress of a married woman even though she is a widow becomes less a capitulation to patriarchal, Confucian standards than an expression of her incredibly strong will – there is much evidence in the film that others see the mother, as well as the other inhabitants of the “widow’s house” (so called because all the women, including the maid and the mother-in-law, are all widows), as somewhat peculiar and behind the times. The rigidly moralistic beliefs of both the mother and her mother-in-law, which make it impossible for the mother to fully express the love she clearly feels for her boarder, are portrayed in the film as a function of class. While the widow and the houseguest are kept strictly separated through most of the film (one exception is a scene in which Mr. Han holds a sick Ok-hee in his arms while her mother sits beside him), the maid and the egg vendor are much freer to act on their attraction to one another, going all the way sexually (though of course, screen standards being what they were in Korea at the time, this happens off-screen) after a very funny scene in which the egg vendor cures the maid’s indigestion with his “medicine hands” and then proceeds to use those hands for more carnal purposes, leading to the maid’s pregnancy.

This sort of plot mirroring is reflected visually throughout the film – Shin in fact places characters in front of mirrors in key scenes:



One example of the film’s visual parallels is an early scene in which Mr. Han and Ok-hee go on a plein air painting outing, during which they stand on a hill, and Ok-hee calls out to her mother in the distance:



— a sequence echoed in the film’s last scene, when Ok-hee and her mother watch the train which will carry Mr. Han to Seoul, far from their rural village:



Mother and a Guest, which Shin did not consider to be his best film (many, including myself, would beg to differ; Evergreen Tree, which I have not yet seen, was Shin’s personal favorite) is a charming, lyrical work whose delicate beauty unfolds with each viewing. It is one of the great classic works of Korean cinema, as well as world cinema. It is available on DVD as part of the “Shin Sang-ok Collection” box set, which also includes A Romantic Papa (1960), Seong Chun-hyang (1961), Deaf Samryongi (1964), and One Thousand Years Old Fox (1969).

Mother and a Guest screens at the Museum of Modern Art on September 19 at 7pm as part of “Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today,” MoMA’s annual survey of contemporary and classic Korean cinema, which runs from September 19-30. For more information on this series, visit MoMA’s website.