MOVE THE GRAVE STILL 1The patriarchal society refuses to release its grip on four disgruntled sisters in Jeong Seung-o’s debut feature Move the Grave (이장, i-jang). Unearthing the buried past is indeed what the sisters find they have to do when their father’s “eternal” resting place is ring marked for a new development, but there’s nothing quite like unexpected family reunions for throwing present and past into stark relief. Cheating spouses, surprise pregnancies, pre-marital discord, and the old favourite money woes conspire against familial unity but female solidarity is perhaps the only weapon at their disposal in an overwhelmingly sexist environment.

Eldest daughter Hye-yeong (Jang Liu) receives the grave relocation notice on an extremely bad day. Her naughty, headstrong son Dong-min has been reprimanded for being disruptive in school yet again, and her employer has intimated that it if she intends to take extended leave they expect her resign rather than return. Nevertheless, she has to sort this grave thing out so she calls her sisters – unhappily married Geum-ok (Lee Seon-hee), soon-to-be married Geum-hee, and university student Hye-yeon (Gong Min-jung). Meanwhile, their only brother Seung-rak (Kwak Min-gyoo), refuses to take their calls on a general basis and has never given any of them his address – something which causes a problem when the women arrive at their uncle’s house. A deeply conservative man, he refuses to move the grave without the eldest son present, sending his nieces all the way back to the city with the instruction to bring their brother back with them though they have no idea where he is.

The relationship between the sisters at least is relatively stable – they may not see each other often or particularly enjoy each other’s company but are, perhaps superficially, well acquainted with each other’s lives to the extent of suspecting there is probably more going on with each of them than anyone wants to talk about. This is especially true of Geum-ok who has brought a suspiciously large suitcase for a day trip and come alone without any of her family members. Geum-hee, meanwhile, constantly bickers about money – asking pointed questions about possible compensation and taking petty potshots at Hye-yeong over the high paid job she hasn’t had time to tell them she’s effectively been fired from for daring to ask about maternity leave.

The conservative, authoritarian, and sexist uncle has presumably made his peace with Hye-yeong’s divorce and career as a working single-mother, but continues to exercise his patriarchal rights over his nieces, insisting that their presence is less essential than that of their spoilt little brother who only ever contacts them when he needs money. Tellingly when Seung-rak is finally forced to appear, he is feted and fussed over with a lavish meal cooked by his aunt while the nieces remain a secondary consideration. Recalling their difficult upbringing, they lament that Seung-rak had the best of everything – his own room, new clothes, and a bowl full of food at dinner while the four of them always had to share. Faced with such criticism of the “traditional” family, the uncle finally erupts, asking what right “you women” think you have to talk so much, and what’s wrong with staying in the house all day doing chores anyway? 

Though the older sisters are minded to bite their tongues, committed feminist Hye-yeon isn’t going to let him get away with such outdated claptrap. She loudly takes him to task, pointing out that their father made their mother so miserable that she expressly asked not to be buried with him, while also having a word with Seung-rak about his irresponsible treatment of his former girlfriend who needs him to make an important decision but seems reluctant to consider getting back together which might be what he wants but then it’s difficult to know because none of the men in this family do much in the way of talking.

Meanwhile, Geum-hee remains pre-occupied about money because her husband-to-be is dragging his feet over her proposed budget for married life. He thinks they can shave it further by ignoring his parents’ birthdays and not buying them Christmas presents, but also that they can save on daily expenses by simply “fetching” things like toothpaste and toothbrushes from his mother’s house. Adulthood, it seems, has not quite come home to him. In the end the sexist uncle and the feckless Seung-rak are forced to stand down and respect the decision the sisters have come to about the grave, but the women remain largely powerless to resist the other forces of patriarchal oppression in their lives from unfair employment policies and stigma surrounding single motherhood to society’s general refusal to accept sexual equality. The aunt’s parting words to the unhappy crowd at the docks that they “only have each other” have a mildly chilling quality, but the family does perhaps emerge with a greater sense of intimacy and a gentle solidarity as they finally put the past to rest and prepare to move forward into a less stressful future.


Move the Grave screens on 6th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival

Short interview with the director (English subtitles)