Korean cinema of the 1960s was a tightly controlled affair. The authoritarian government of Park Chung-hee had instituted the Motion Picture Law of 1962 which insisted on a studio system with stars under contract and a turnover of at least 15 films a year. The law intended to increase the amount of films produced for mass consumption, giving free reign to the melodrama and thereby accidentally undermining its more censorious aims. Nevertheless, The Seashore Village (갯마을, Gaenma-eul), adapted from a novel by Oh Yeong-su and part of the “literature film” genre for which director Kim Soo-yong would remain famous, goes much further than one would reasonably expect given the conservative nature of Korean filmmaking across the ages. A story of village life with all of its various superstitions and primitive practices, Kim’s film is a daring exploration of female sexuality and the collective power of women away from men.
An opening voice over introduces us to a melancholy fishing village where the life is hard and the people resigned to loss. The boats depart to great fanfare, but just as they are leaving someone remarks that he’s had a bad dream – bad dreams are one of many bad omens for sailors. New wife Hae-sun (Ko Eun-ah) doesn’t wait to watch her husband disappear over the horizon, she takes to the clifftop shrine of the Dragon King and prays for his safe return.
Her prayers are unanswered. A typhoon strikes and Hae-sun’s husband, along with another sailor, is killed. So young a widow, Hae-sun becomes an awkward problem for the villagers. Sang-su (Shin Young-kyun), a shady drifter, begins making subtle overtures which eventually turn into outright harassment and attempted rape. Hae-sun likes the family she married into and wants to stay true to her husband’s memory, but the forces of nature conspire against her.
While Hae-sun is a classically “good” woman who rejects the advances of Sang-su, the other village wives feel rather differently. Everyone except Hae-sun’s widowed mother-in-law (Hwang Jung-seun) knows about Sang-su’s obvious desire for Hae-sun but they see nothing wrong in it. Rather than the conservative atmosphere of the middle-class urban melodrama in which bodies of surrounding middle-aged women act as enforcers of moral discipline, these literal fishwives are of an earthier disposition. Many of them have been widowed with husbands lost at sea – the way they see it, you’d best take your pleasures where you can and there’s nothing wrong with a quick roll in the hay if it eases frustration and aids productivity. They laugh at Hae-sun’s prudery and marvel at her ability to carry on as normal after losing her husband not because of the grief, but because of the lack of intimacy.
It might be 1965 outside of the village, but the old ways still rule here even if they’re on their way out. In the old days, women did not remarry – a serious problem in a small village with few men around to replace those lost at sea. Hence, women have learned to live alone, supporting each other in place of men and often forced to do without them. In a surprising development, Kim flirts with the taboo of lesbianism – something which is addressed half-jokingly by the gossipy widows but eventually gives way to a literal roll in the hay with half the village women looking on in hilarity rather than horror. The women joke about living together but lesbianism does seem to be presented as an imperfect solution to their present problem in the lack of satisfaction available to them due to the absence of men. Far from a taboo, sexual desire is a normal part of life in the village – something ranked alongside eating and sleeping and no more or less embarrassing than any other bodily function. The widows crave men and are unafraid to say so even if some of them are content to make do with each other in resignation to their awkward status as older single women.
Hae-sun is in a slightly better position given that remarriage is apparently no longer so much of a taboo. Unfortunately that presents a problem for her as all she wants to do is stay with her family just as she is. She doesn’t like Sang-su and his increasingly aggressive behaviour towards her is unlikely to change that but nevertheless she eventually finds herself given to him almost against her will. Despite becoming a wife once again, Hae-sun’s beauty continues to curse her by causing problems between men wherever she sets foot. The problems, however, are definitively on the male side – men long to possess her, with violence if necessary, and ruin themselves in their immoral pursuit of a “pure” woman. The village widows rejoice in their earthy pleasures, finding comfort and release in each other but the male impulse, by contrast, is always towards conquest and control, domination rather than mutual support.
Life in the village is hard and often sad, but the women are happy and optimistic. They live the lives that are given to them, and do the best they can with what they have. The very antithesis of the lurch towards modernity, the simple life of the villagers harks back to something purer and more honest without the pretension of urban civility and apparently free from the political concerns of the day. Bold in its outlook, The Seashore Village is a surprisingly progressive effort from the Korea of 1965, subverting its “primitive” setting to present a positive picture of female power and sexuality.
Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Soo-yong box set. Also available to stream for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.