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'My Mother, the Mermaid' a tribute to Korean mothers

2004/06/28 | 278 views | Permalink | Source

A typical Korean mother, or "ajumma", is tough. She defies misfortunes and poverty. She doesn't care about her looks or well-being as long as she can raise children and send them to good schools. She hangs in there even if her husband continually guarantees loans for his friends when he can ill afford to do so.

"My Mother, the Mermaid", which opens on Wednesday (June 30) nationwide, opens a fantasy door to the largely ignored world of Korean mothers who have led difficult lives, sometimes forgetting about their own beauty and romantic past.

The film opens with a fantastic image of female fishing divers swimming like mermaids on Jeju Island. But the scene suddenly shifts to that of a Korean mother named Yeon-soon (Goh Doo-shim) crying and screaming at a funeral.

The funeral is for a friend of her husband, who left behind a great deal of debt. Yeon-soon's husband, who never rejects a call for help from his friends or neighbors, guaranteed the debt for the Dead Friend.

Under the notorious personal loan guarantee system, known as "bojeung", he has to pay back all the debt, which means Yeon-soon's life, already laden with poverty, will only get worse. This story is very common among Korean mothers in their 50s or older.

Yeon-soon's husband works at a post office, but he never brings home enough money. So Yeon-soon works at a public bath, scrubbing and massaging clients. She doesn't care that it is a low-status occupation. She just scrubs her clients diligently to make money and cleans the bath when all the guests are gone.

Veteran actress Goh Doo-shim's performance is superbly realistic. It seems that Goh was born to play a Korean ajumma who overcomes all obstacles to raise her family. At a restaurant, she loudly asks for additional side dishes and grumbles about the owner's lame excuse of having run out of food. The audience may wonder how director Park Heung-shik captures such fine details in his portrayal of a Korean mother.

Meanwhile, Na-young (Jeon Doh-yeon), daughter of Yeon-soon, hates her poverty-stricken life and is especially ashamed of her mother, who has no reservations whatsoever about her job. Worse, her mother spits all the time for no apparent reason.

Not wanting to repeat her mother's life, Na-young is determined not to marry. Working at a post office, Na-young daydreams about a trouble-free life, and her prospects seem to be improving since she is scheduled to visit New Zealand to attend a training course.

Then bad news breaks out. Na-young's father, who is sick, suddenly quits his job at the post office and disappears without leaving any message. Though Na-young is worried about her father, she cannot miss the once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit New Zealand. So she heads for the airport, and the airplane takes off.

Then the film jumps into the fantasy world - a world where Na-young meets her mother, who is 20 years old and a diver on Jeju Island. While the film does not explain how Na-young ends up there instead of New Zealand, the young woman witnesses how her mother fell in love with her father.

Actress Jeon Doh-yeon plays both Na-young and Yeon-soon in her youth. Her portrayal of 20-year-old Yeon-soon is fairly impressive. Her dialect sounds funny while generating an aura of innocence, and her facial expressions evoke playfulness. It appears that Jeon is quite comfortable playing a shy diver who has a crush on a handsome postman named Jin-kook (Park Hae-il).

The scenery depicted in the film is pure and beautiful. So is the love of Yeon-soon. In addition, why Na-young's mother spits all the time is explained: Without any equipment, she has to spit after diving into the sea. But Na-young just sees how her mother forms a relationship with her future father.

All this suggests the fantasy is Na-young's psychological journey into the past. She doesn't change the past; instead, she learns to understand it. The film breaks ground in telling a story that relies on fantasy and yet refrains from indulging in simple nostalgia.

Director Park failed to impress either critics or moviegoers with his debut work, "I Wish I Had a Wife" (2001), largely because of its boring storyline, despite the casting of Jeon, one of the top-rated Korean movie actresses. This time, however, Park's latest flick will likely strike a chord with Korean daughters (and possibly sons), who are deeply proud of their hard-working mothers, though their mermaid fins have turned into towels at a public bath.

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