“Literary Film” had become a kind of genre of its own in Korean cinema, both embracing and rejecting the nation’s taste for melodrama with differing degrees of artiness. Director Yu Hyun-mok, however, was not generally associated with the kind of affectation coupled intense sentimentality that sometimes marked the worst examples of the genre but with a unique brand of cinematic realism which attempted to address the social issues of the day whilst still getting past the censors who were hot on politics but increasingly lax on sex and violence. Nevertheless, The Daughters of Kim’s Pharmacy (김약국의 딸들, Kim yakgukjib daldeul) is a “literary film” adapted from a novel by Park Gyoung-li and set firmly in the recent past. Yu eventually gives in to the inherent melodrama of a small family battling a legacy of pain and destruction, but tellingly subverts it by discarding the tragic ending of the original novel for something that offers a degree of hope albeit in an all but hopeless world.
The film begins at the close of the Joseon Dynasty as a young man runs into another man’s house and desperately reaffirms his love for a woman who is now married to someone else while he is also married to woman from his village. The woman refuses to see him while he pleads with her, sobbing, but when her husband returns home unexpectedly he doubts his wife’s virtue. Threatening her and then chasing off the lover, the husband kills him by accident and is forced to flee while the woman takes poison and kills herself in her misery leaving her son, who will later become Kim the pharmacist, orphaned and alone, and the family forever “cursed” by her unquiet spirit.
18 years later Kim himself is forced into an arranged marriage which he wanders away from on the wedding day, leaving his aunts to wonder if he hasn’t been “possessed” by the vengeful spirit of his late mother. Despite the “curse” the marriage is successful in that it is not particularly unhappy and produces four daughters who are each of age when the story begins thirty years after Kim’s wedding.
The central heroine, Yong-bin (Um Aing-ran), is a “modern woman” of the colonial era, taking advantage of a shift forward into a progressive new world by leaving her tiny home village for university in Seoul. Though she longs to be free of the primitivism of her origins with its shamanistic rituals and patriarchal traditions, she is also of an elegant, conservative disposition and loves her parents deeply – something that provokes conflict in her desire for the comforts of home and the promise of away.
Of the other three daughters, each represents a particular kind of trap of the age. The oldest, Yong-sook (Lee Min-ja), has given birth to a child out of wedlock and lives alone independently raising her son in penury. Meanwhile third sister Yong-ran (Choi Ji-hee) is no longer a child but continues to loll around the house showing off her legs and posing provocatively. Her father is thinking of marrying her off to a local fisherman who has taken a liking to her, but the plan is scuppered when it is revealed that Yong-ran has been taking frequent nighttime excursions to the graveyard in the forest for secret trysts with one of the servants. When they are discovered, Kim chases the man away leaving Yong-ran publicly shamed and heartbroken. Eventually she is married off to someone befitting her social class only to discover that her new husband is impotent thanks to an opium addiction. She is routinely beaten and abused but can do nothing to escape her life of violence and terror. Yong-oak (Kang Mi-ae), the youngest sister, will eventually suffer a similar fate if one more usual, when she marries Yong-ran’s fisherman suitor only to find him rough and resentful as the fishing industry continues to fluctuate.
When Yong-bin’s mother (Hwang Jung-seun) meets her at the harbour on her return from Seoul she mentions the family curse by way of bemoaning their increasing ill fortunes. Yong-bin dismisses her mother’s concerns, preferring to think that its one’s own deeds that determine one’s future, but her mother sadly shakes her head and repeats that it’s all fated. Yong-bin’s modern way of thinking will increasingly come into conflict with her superstitious upbringing, but there’s no denying her family has had a run of bad luck – one which is only set to intensify as time moves on.
This is the central tragedy – the Kim family, trapped in the past, is unable to move beyond its “curse” and whether fated or not is set to destroy itself through outdated thinking. Though it is undoubtedly not the message the film is intended to convey, it’s impossible to ignore the degree of unhappiness which has been caused by the system of arranged marriages and the convention that true feelings must be suppressed in order to maintain ancient social codes. The Kims’ “curse” comes from the death of a woman scorned in love and betrayed by a prideful husband. If only she had been allowed to marry the man she chose, there would be no curse, no violence, no fear. As long as personal happiness is undervalued, there will be only suffering and misery for all but most particularly for the young women of Korea.
Yong-bin, an urban sophisticate, knows this more than most. Her father thinks he ought to marry her off first so he can marry off Yong-ran whose precociousness is beginning to alarm him. Yong-bin, however, wants to finish her education before submitting herself to a lifetime of servitude as someone’s wife and later mother. Her father has his eye on a match – the son of a usurious loanshark who is also a Japanese collaborator. Luckily, Yong-bin likes the man her father has chosen and sees only a romantic fantasy in marrying a childhood friend despite a warning from another mutual acquaintance that Hong-sub is a timid yet ambitious man – a dangerous combination which is unlikely to yield much happiness. She is going to get her heartbroken in more ways than one, her illusions of innocent romantic destiny shattered and her heart wounded by a spiritual as well as physical betrayal by the feckless Hong-sub who turns out to be not the man she thought he was but the one she was warned about.
Yet there is something in Yong-bin’s modernism that cannot be denied. This being the colonial era, the influence of the Japanese is felt even in this tiny village. Kim has sold the family pharmacy because of the influx of Western medicine coming in through Japan. He invested heavily in fishing, but the Japanese are ruining that too through invading local waters and overfishing them. Yet Kim still thinks of himself as a feudal lord with a real duty towards the people of his village. When his boat is ruined in a shipwreck and many sailors killed, he feels he must compensate the victims’ families who are now without the means to support themselves. This leaves him open to exploitation by Hong-sub’s usurious father who is in big with the Japanese who are, to an extent, the route cause of all these problems. Hong-sub’s father laughs when Kim declares his need of extra cash to support those who’ve suffered because of his failed fishing venture, thinking his sense of duty merely stupid but also seeing that it’s another hook for him to exploit that brings him closer to his goal of harnessing Kim’s ancestral estate with its large amount of farmland and property.
The Japanese play into a small sub-plot in which Yong-bin’s cousin (Shin Seong-il) is engaged in the resistance movement and eventually leaves for a covert mission in Japan. Before he leaves he introduces Yong-bin to a friend, Kang-geuk, who has been arrested and is being carted off to Japan for trial but has apparently fallen in love with her based only on his friend’s stories and a photograph. She’s back to a romantic fantasy once again and gravitating towards the spectre of arranged marriage which the film has already done such a great job of discrediting. It is, however, the perfect symbiosis of the film’s themes allowing Yong-bin to embrace both sides of herself. Meeting again after the liberation and a succession of terrible tragedies for the Kim family, Kang-geuk responds to Yong-bin’s intention to leave her hometown forever by asking her to name a place which is not tinged by loss and tragedy, and of course she can’t. Suddenly, her village doesn’t seem so bad anymore.
The “curse” is broken in being acknowledged and Yong-bin exercises her freedom to choose, consenting to a marriage, and making a decision to stay rather than being forced to leave. Yu’s comparatively hopeful ending in which Yong-bin nevertheless places herself back within a patriarchal value system stands in sharp contrast to that of the novel in which the Kim family’s failure to reconcile themselves to modernity provokes their downfall, but there is only so much hope in this hopeless world and Yong-bin, like her surviving sisters, will continue to suffer in an existence which offers little else to Korea’s oppressed women, remaining complicit in her own misery.
Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Yu Hyun-mok boxset. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s official YouTube Channel.