Starring: Son Yae-jin (Joo In-Ah), Kim Ju-Hyeok (Noh Deok-Hoon), and Joo Sang-Wook (Han Jae-Kyeong). Written by Song Hye-Jin (original novel by Park Hyun-Wook) and directed by Jeong Yoon-soo.119 minutes.
Before the mid-1990s, very few Korean movies featured a wife leaving an unhappy marriage. Of those that did, either she would ultimately return to her husband, tail between her legs, or she would face an untimely death, so great was the inevitable spiral into destitution and despair.
So, when Kim Tae-kyun (김태균) directed The Adventures of Mrs. Park (박봉곤 가출사건; 1996), who not just successfully pursued her lifelong dreams of becoming a singer, but found new romance with a second husband too, he softened the subversive social message by making the movie into a romantic comedy. But even then, he would later confess to Cine 21 magazine, he was extremely concerned at how audiences might react to such “an unexpected ending”.
Fast forward to 2008, and My Wife Got Married, about a woman who demands 2 husbands, was one of the most popular movies of the year, and even won Son Ye-jin the Blue Dragon Film Award for best actress. Not quite a comedy, and sparking minimal complaint or controversy (although women were careful not to publicly identify too closely with her character), it’s difficult not to see it as a sign of how quickly and irrevocably Korean attitudes had changed in the preceding decade. I’ve projected feminist empowerment onto it ever since.
It’s somewhat ironic then, that it turns out that the movie is *ahem* actually told exclusively from the perspective of the main male character, Noh Deok-Hoon…
*Minor spoliers follow*
Opening in Spring 2002 with Deok-Hoon bumping into Joo In-Ah on the subway, next they’re at a coffee shop, where he reminisces about missing his chance to ask her out back when they worked together, and speculating with his male coworkers about whether she wore a bra or not (as one does). Discovering a shared love of football, specifically the rivals Real Madrid (him) and FC Barcelona (her; expect many ensuing football/relationship metaphors in the movie), soon they’re having drinks, then sex at her place.
In a surprisingly erotic scene, Deok-Hoon has the best sex of his life, and instantly makes such an emotional, almost spiritual connection to In-Ah that it’s easy to see how wounded he would be by what audiences already know will come. But, by no means does she merely humor him in response. So, even without that benefit of hindsight, it’s no surprise that they do genuinely fall in love.
This is more important than it may sound. Because, before falling in love, first they are lovers (what an oxymoron!), with one scene in which she encourages him to very explicitly talk about his sexual fantasies — he struggles to think; she’s well aware of hers — hinting at her much greater sexual subjectivity, and willingness to act on it. Considering that just 13 minutes in, audiences were — à la Basic Instinct — reflexively craning their necks to get a better glimpse of her exposed(?) nipples, it would have been very natural and easy for writer Song Hye-Jin to have continued on that salacious, titillating basis, portraying In-Ah as a emotionally manipulative nymphomaniac that can’t be satisfied with just one man, with all the double standards that that implies.
Instead, as soon as we’re shown that they’re in love, In-Ah also says that despite that, she can’t guarantee that Deok-Hoon will be the only person she loves for her entire life. Her surprise at his umbrage with that seems both authentic and naive (a constant theme), as is her not realizing how he might feel at her continuing to drink and socialize until all hours as if she were still single.
Not that she can’t or shouldn’t mind you. Rather, it’s how secretive she is about it that is the problem, never answering her phone; it’s only when he eventually, desperately confronts her at her apartment after one such session that it seems to click. Only slightly drunk and still impeccably dressed, you sense maybe she is only testing him when she retorts that she was sleeping with someone. Either way, he leaves her.
After a month of moping around, he’s encouraged by a friend to forgive her, but also to ensure it doesn’t happen again by marrying her and then knocking her up. Surprised at his call, let alone his marriage proposal, she takes a lot of persuading, only finally acquiescing during a World Cup game.
Those that were here that magical summer, will surely understand.
Domestic bliss ensues, only briefly interrupted by her moving to a different city for 4 days a week for the sake of her job; after all, such arrangements are completely normal for millions of Koreans. This movie being what is though, soon his world comes crashing down when she reveals that she’s not just fallen in love with a second man — Han Jae-Kyeong — there, but she would like him to also be her husband — not just boyfriend — just as Deok-Hoon is in Seoul. Angry, emotional, and this time also physical confrontations follow, with Deok-Hoon resolving not to let her to “win” by divorcing her.
Let’s pause for a moment here, as many viewers may well have needed to take a deep breath at this point in the movie. Because, victim or perpetrator, likely most would also been affected by cheating spouses, partners, or parents at least once in their lives. Equally likely, they resolved to never let it happen again, or to them. So, if Deok-Hoon returning to In-Ah the first time didn’t already, his acquiescing to this new arrangement surely brought many of those same feelings of rage, hurt, impotence, and frustration back to the surface.
Or perhaps I’m just projecting? Either way, frankly, if I wasn’t already committed to a review, I would have stopped watching at that point, for the same reasons I turn off most Korean dramas within 10 minutes: it’s difficult to be sympathetic to — or interested in — a character you constantly want to grab by the shoulders and just shake some damn sense into.
Yet, for a time, the trio — well, technically two duos — does seem to work, providing one takeaway message that polygamy (specifically, polyandry) is neither as absurd nor as evil as it’s usually assumed to be. Moreover, in the process the movie pointedly questions many of Korean society’s double standards regarding marriage, especially how prostitutes and mistresses are tolerated for men while wives languish at home, resigned to continuing their loveless, sexless marriages out of financial dependence and fears they will lose custody of their children (yes, these are generalizations; but they can’t be merely be dismissed as such either). Many reviewers erroneously claim these are shared by Deok-Hoon; however, but for sneaking glimpses of In-ah’s breasts at work, then complaining of her not wearing a bra in public (after sleeping together just one time!), he’s only guilty of firmly believing in monogamy. Indeed, he’s the one that repeatedly lashes out his male friend’s hypocrisy, although it’s true that he could have done so with much greater gusto with his brother’s.
However, no matter how positively it portrays polyandry, the movie also demonstrates how unfeasible it is in a society where it’s both illegal and there’s strong social prejudices against it. And, with that coming from a movie which can be described as a romance only by default (to those reviewers that call it a comedy, I’m perplexed at what they laughed at), you’re left wondering what the point of the 2 hours was exactly.
*Major spoilers follow*
Specifically, it’s the birth of a daughter that starkly demonstrates how the trio’s arrangement simply can’t be sustained in the face of family and official obligations. Questions of paternity aside (In-Ah wants him to love the child regardless of the who is the father, so never reveals that. Later, it’s Jae-Kyeong that reveals that they always used contraception when they were together), it soon becomes apparent that Deok-Hoon and Jae-Kyeong’s families are none the wiser.
This facade comes tumbling down when Deok-Hoon’s colleagues in Seoul see In-Ah, Jae-Kyeong, and daughter in a magazine article written by (unknowingly to them) the latter’s cousin, and assume that he’s secretly gotten a divorce. Fearing he’s slowly but surely losing both wife and daughter, and partially out of spite (really, he hasn’t felt in control of his life since the start of the movie), he responds by crashing the first birthday party Jae-Kyeong’s family has for “their” daughter.
In response, In-ah disappears with her daughter, and her two husbands — this is much more believable than it may sound — come to live together and even become friends; as they say, they have nowhere else to go. When a postcard from Spain arrives 5 months later, the movie ends with both of them joining her there to watch football games and live happily ever after, as if somehow questions of employment, visas, schooling, custody rights, and social prejudice didn’t also apply there.
Was it too much to ask that the movie delved a little more into some of those questions? Do any movies know any Korean movies that do cover alternative living arrangements a little more realistically, but are still entertaining? Thanks!
Update, Feb. 3: By coincidence, today The Atlantic had an interesting article titled “When Taking Multiple Husbands Makes Sense,” with the byline “Historically, polyandry was much more common than we thought.”