In melodramas of the post-war era, the good suffer nobly but often find their goodness ill rewarded by an increasingly amoral society. Shin Sang-ok’s A Sister’s Garden (姉妹의 花園 / 자매의 화원, Jamaeui Hwawon) is, perhaps, a little different despite its rather mild critique of a society preparing to head into rampant capitalism, allowing a magnanimous entrepreneur to become the pure hearted saviour of an equally pure woman while her weak willed lover remains petulantly on the sidelines unable to defy outdated social codes to claim his right to happiness.
In fact, this is in many ways Mr. Bang’s (Kim Seung-ho) story. It’s him we first meet getting off a swanky Korean Air plane signalling his position as a member of a new class of jet-setting elitists. He is, however, kindhearted which is why his first thought is to pay a visit to Dr. Nam (You Chun) who cured him of a serious illness. Unfortunately, Dr. Nam has now been laid low by the same illness himself. His business has suffered, he’s sold his clinic, taken a job at the hospital, and even mortgaged his house to a persistent loanshark. Unfortunately, all the stress has got to him and soon after Bang is able to meet with Dr. Nam he collapses and dies, breathing his last words to his assistant, Sun-cheol (Kim Seok-hun) who had been like a son to him, to the the effect that he has already arranged a marriage for eldest daughter Jeong-hui (Choi Eun-hee) to an artist named Dong-su (Nam Gung-won) and hopes that Sun-cheol will watch over his younger daughter Myeong-hui (Choe Ji-hui) and much younger son Chang-sik (Ahn Sung-ki).
This last request will cause a series of problems among the young, the first of them being that it’s extraordinarily insensitive because Sun-cheol is himself in love with Jeong-hui who is also in love with him. Both of them are, however, good people which is why Sun-cheol wastes no time telling Jeong-hui about her father’s last words while she is minded to obey them even if her primary concern is the family finances seeing as she is now the sole provider for her siblings and there will be no more money coming in. With the loanshark still breathing down their necks, Jeong-hui is in danger of losing the family home.
The other major problem is Myeong-hui who unlike her sister is a thoroughly modern woman, thoughtless and selfish in a childish sort of way. Unaware of the family’s financial situation, she hoped to use some of the money from selling the clinic to open a dress shop and is put out to realise there isn’t any because the clinic was only sold to pay off debts. Meanwhile, it’s also quite obvious that Dong-su, an equally naive son of a wealthy family, prefers Myeong-hui and almost certainly intends to marry her not her sister. Dong-su thinks he’s hot stuff in the art world and is going to make a lot of money selling paintings, which is optimistic whichever way you look at it.
This awkward love square creates a series of problems of its own as Myeong-hui convinces herself that her sister is jealous of her relationship with Dong-su while also knowing that she has been silently in love with Sun-cheol for many years. Sun-cheol, for his part, feels himself indebted to the Nams and allows the debt to come between himself and true entrance to the family through marrying Jeong-hui. He saves their house through selling his own, but times being as they are Jeong-hui still needs to find a job which is another problem because she is an upper middle-class woman raised for marriage. She gave up school to keep house after her mother died and has no qualifications, even if qualifications could help a woman in need find a good job in 1950s Seoul. She asks Bang for help, and he offers her a frankly insulting opportunity as the head hostess at a sleazy bar he owns where businessmen go to have discreet fun without their wives.
Jeong-hui wasn’t going to take it, but in the end she has little choice, allowing the married Myeong-hui and Dong-su to move into the house to look after Chang-sik while she lives at the bar. Sun-cheol, still afraid to speak his heart, is judgemental and filled with resentment, entirely unsupportive of Jeong-hui’s position or her proactive decision to try and change it even if changing it means hovering on the fringes of the sex trade. Myeong-hui also, perhaps because of her selfishness and naivety, fails to understand the sacrifices her sister has made on her behalf. Worried that Myeong-hui and Dong-su may have re-mortgaged the family home that she is actively debasing herself to save, Jeong-hui asks her sister to reassure her that the deed to the house is safe. Myeong-hui had been thinking of doing just that so she fires back cruelly that Jeong-hui has everything “easy” and can’t understand how hard it is for her, which is a strange thing to say given that Jeong-hui has become a bar girl solely to keep a roof over her sister’s head.
Myeong-hui and Dong-su continue to make mistakes, Dong-su convincing his friend to embezzle money from his company to plough into the dress shop even though it’s a loan they can’t repay and threatens to get them all in hot water. Jeong-hui has to sort everything out again, but that puts her in further debt to Bang to whom she is already substantially indebted because he convinced her to take a loan to pay back Sun-cheol who didn’t even really want paying back. Uncharitably, Bang’s behaviour looks suspect. He makes a prim upperclass woman degrade herself by plunging her into the sleazy underbelly of a burgeoning economy and then burdens her with debt to be able to manipulate her better. Perhaps he gets a kick out of that, but soon feels guilty seeing someone who so obviously does not belong in one of his bars forced to drink with clients and play nice with the customers. On the other hand, perhaps there really were no better jobs available for a woman without qualifications and he only wanted to help.
Ultimately, Bang turns out to be the good guy, falling in altruistic, selfless love with the innocent Jeong-hui who always does the right thing and acts with absolute integrity. Debt, once again messes everything up. Bang decides to propose to Jeong-hui, which practically speaking is a good option in the situation, but makes it clear that he is not forcing her and will continue to help and support her whatever she decides. But how is Jeong-hui to refuse someone who has been so “kind” to her without a sense of betrayal? Sun-cheol, meanwhile, is prevented from declaring his feelings because of the “debt” he feels he owes to the Nam family, not quite good enough for Jeong-hui but also the custodian of her father’s last words which were that she should marry Dong-su. Myeong-hui and Dong-su meanwhile think only of themselves, acting with selfish recklessness. Only when Jeong-hui comes through for Myeong-hui and tells her of Bang’s proposal does she begin to grow up and realise that her sister may throw away her own happiness for the sake of her family’s in marrying a rich old man out of a sense of hopelessness and obligation.
Contrary to other melodramas, the solution is Bang’s and Bang’s alone. He makes the decision to release the youngsters from patriarchal control by essentially canceling out Dr. Nam’s last wishes by telling Jeong-hui that she should try to be happy with Sun-cheol while giving her the financial means to do so by gifting her the bar to run as her own, making her both business owner and career woman as well as wife. He absents himself in recognition that age has to give way to youth, pushing the youngsters to pursue personal happiness rather than serve outdated ideas of duty or filial obligation. Jeong-hui’s goodness wins out, but only because it was recognised by Bang who decides to set her free by cancelling not only her literal debt, but the entire idea of indebtedness in giving her permission to seek her own happiness rather than feeling obliged to prioritise that of others.
A Sister’s Garden is the third 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.