Five years after the end of the Korean War, South Korean society was both economically unstable and battling the increasingly authoritarian government of Rhee Syngman. Nevertheless, there was perhaps an aspiration for a brighter democratic future which many hoped would materialise after the protests which eventually brought down Rhee’s regime in 1960 but unfortunately led only to the even more repressive Park Chung-hee era. Released in the same year as Flower in Hell, Shin Sang-ok’s A College Woman’s Confession (어느 女大生의 告白 / 어느 여대생의 고백, Eoneu Yeodaesaengui Gobaek) is perhaps a reflection of that aspiration in its broadly humanist condemnation of an inherently unfair, rigidly patriarchal society which forces good people to act in ways which offend their sense of justice solely in order to survive.
From a poor family, law student So-young (Choi Eun-hee) finds herself in dire straits after her grandmother who’d been supporting her and paying her tuition fees suddenly dies. She tries to find a part-time job that will let her carry on with her studies, but is either turned away or placed in difficult situations with men who abuse her trust. A sleazy boss interviewing her for a secretarial position pauses after hearing she’s a student after part-time work to suggest a “night job”, crudely leaning over as he offers her money to become his mistress. So-young slaps him across the face and leaves, but faces something much the same from the husband of her landlady who promises to stop pressuring her for the back rent in return for sexual favours. She turns him down too, but even though he backs off in fear she’ll tell his wife that he tried it on, his suddenly relaxed attitude only makes her landlady suspicious.
At her wits end and about to quit school, So-young turns to her comparatively better off friend Hee-sook (Kim Sook-il) who dreams of becoming a novelist. Hee-sook brings up a diary she’s been reading that was found in some old furniture sold to her family’s store which recounts the sad life story of a girl who was seduced and betrayed by a man who left her to marry a wealthy woman. With too much time on her hands, Hee-sook has identified the man in the diary as prominent politician Choi Rim (Kim Seung-ho) and taken it upon herself to send him a letter telling him that he has a daughter named So-young from the love of his youth. Despite the fact that the diary says the woman’s baby died, Hee-sook suggests So-young pose as Choi’s long lost daughter so he’ll support her through the rest of uni. So-young is not convinced, but finds herself heading over to visit Choi after exhausting all her other options and being reluctant to go back to the boarding house without money. Choi absentmindedly turns her away, only to think better of it and send his secretary after her, but she ends up getting hit by a car trying to avoid yet another creepy old man who sees her in distress in the street and offers her money for sex.
Creepy men are indeed everywhere. Even the wily Hee-sook finds herself bothered by an unpleasant man in a cafe who repeatedly pesters her even after she makes a point of ignoring him and pointedly switches seats. He doesn’t give up even after So-young arrives, abruptly offering to buy both women dinner, after which Hee-sook ushers So-young out declaring that this cafe is too “weird” to stay in any longer. Men are, it seems, content to exploit the desperation of vulnerable women for their own satisfaction. As So-young puts it in trying to defend another woman after she’s successfully become a lawyer, “vulgar men see women only as objects to satisfy their sexual desires”.
This feeds back in to the sin the otherwise kindhearted Choi is trying to expiate. He made a choice in his youth, sometime in the colonial era, to abandon a woman he claimed to love to make a dynastic match. Though it’s not clear whether or not he knew there was a child, he seems to harbour a deep sense of guilt over his decision to essentially use two women in different ways. Faced with the “resurfacing” of So-young, he immediately explains everything to his wife (Yoo Gye-seon) but tries to pass it off as “all in the past” while earnestly asking her to help him make amends by accepting So-young into their home in place of the daughter they apparently lost. She fires back at him that it must be very convenient for men who can forget about things that are “all in the past” while women have to live the rest of their lives with the harm that they cause. Choi doesn’t argue with her, but nor does he ask for forgiveness, only understanding. Mrs. Choi answers that she ought to tell him no in revenge for the all the wrongs he’s done her (this appears not to be a terribly happy marriage), but agrees that it’s not So-young’s fault and so of course she can come because “it’s the right thing to do as a human being”.
Mrs. Choi, however, remains suspicious, unconvinced by So-young’s story but also by her distance from her. That could of course be explained by embarrassment in being the child of the “other woman”, but Mrs. Choi is right to sense guilt in her reserve as she becomes ever more conflicted about the necessity of deceiving people who have been nothing but kind to her. It’s this sense of guilt which is intensified after she becomes a lawyer and achieves her dream of helping other disadvantaged women by defending a single-mother, much like the woman from the diary, who was seduced and betrayed by a man whom she later killed in a crime of passion. In her passionate defence of the extremely repentant Soon-hee (Hwang Jung-seun) is who is around the same age as she is, So-young reflects on the relative similarities between them and that the only reason they are standing in their respective positions is circumstance.
“The purpose of the law is not only punishment but to awaken goodness in all our hearts” So-young reminds the judges, determined to offer “an earnest plea on behalf of desperate women”. Soon-hee admits her guilt and asks for no leniency, but is brought to tears as So-young outlines the social factors which explain why she found herself stabbing the man who had caused her so much suffering and then got on with his life without giving her a second thought. Her only transgression being sex before marriage, Soon-hee did everything else right but was condemned to a life of poverty and forced to consider sex work in order to buy medicine for her sickly baby. As a pure hearted woman, she can’t go through with it and considers robbery instead (apparently a “lesser” crime) only to bump into an old friend but be too ashamed to ask her for help.
Earlier on, after her graduation ceremony, So-young had explained her ambitions to help women and children in poverty to Choi’s kindly secretary Sang-ho (Choi Hyeon) who has obviously taken a liking to her. He’s broadly supportive, but reminds her that if she wants to improve society perhaps she should think about fostering greater social change through political action (as he is perhaps doing), but she shakes her head and points out that he’s never known what it is to be hungry or desperate and that there are people who need the kind of help that only she can give them, such as women like Soon-hee. Yet in defending another woman she’s reminded only of her own “sin” in having wilfully deceived Choi and his wife, burdened by the need to keep her secret and convinced the only thing she can do is to confess all.
Yet Mrs. Choi proves unexpectedly supportive, explaining that she’s known all along that So-young lied and has come to love her as a daughter anyway. She can see how happy she makes Choi who is proud and excited to have such an amazing young woman in his life, and finding out the truth would only break his heart. So-young’s confession would be for herself alone, to ease her own conscience, while the burden of carrying this secret is perhaps the price of her happiness. In an odd way, So-young has repaired their marriage, and with her success in the courts has perhaps completed the integration of their family with the implication that Sang-ho may later join it too. Fiercely condemning the evils of a patriarchal society, A College Woman’s Confession suggests that the literal truth might not be as important as the emotional, and that a rigid morality serves no one, while offering the vision of a brighter, more equal society founded on compassion and understanding rather than cold authoritarian paternalism.
A College Woman’s Confession is the first of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.