The Korea of 1964 was one beginning to look forwards towards a new global future rather than back towards the turbulent colonial past, but the rapid leap forward into a new society had perhaps left an entire generation behind as they prepared to watch their children reject everything they’d strived for in search of “modernity”. 1964’s The Body Confession (肉体의 告白 / 육체의 고백, Yukche-ui Gobak) is the story of one such woman. Widowed young, she turned to sex work in order to support her three daughters in the hope that sending them to university would win them wealthy husbands only for her daughters to encounter the very problems she worked so hard for them to avoid.
The heroine, a veteran sex worker known as The President (Hwang Jung-seun), has become a kind of community leader in the red light district largely catering to American servicemen in the post-war era. While she labours away in the brothels of Busan, her three daughters are living happily in Seoul believing that she runs a successful fashion store which is how she manages to send them their tuition money every month. The President goes to great lengths to protect them from the truth, even enlisting a fashion store owning friend when the girls visit unexpectedly. Nevertheless, she is becoming aware that her position is becoming ever more precarious – as an older woman with a prominent limp she can no longer command the same kind of custom as in her youth and is increasingly dependent on the support of her fellow sex workers who have immense respect for her and, ironically, view her as a maternal figure in the often dangerous underworld environment.
This central idea of female solidarity is the one which has underpinned The President’s life and allowed her to continue living despite the constant hardship she has faced. Yet she is terrified that her daughters may one day find out about her “shameful” occupation and blame her for it, or worse that it could frustrate her hopes for them that they marry well and avoid suffering a similar fate. Despite having, in a sense, achieved a successful career in the red light district, The President wants her daughters to become respectable wives and mothers rather than achieve success in their own rights or be independent. Thus her goal of sending them to university was not for their education but only to make them more attractive to professional grade husbands.
The daughters, however, are modern women and beginning to develop differing ideas to their mother’s vision of success. Oldest daughter Song-hui (Lee Kyoung-hee) has fallen in love with a lowly intellectual truck driver (Kim Jin-kyu) who has placed all his hopes on winning a literary competition. He is a war orphan and has no money or family connections. Meanwhile, second daughter Dong-hui (Kim Hye-jeong) has failed her exams twice and developed a reputation as a wild girl. Toying with a poor boy, she eventually drifts into a relationship with the wealthy son of a magnate (Lee Sang-sa) but fails to realise that he too is only toying with her and intends to honour his family’s wishes by going through with an arranged marriage. Only youngest daughter Yang-hui (Tae Hyun-sil) is living the dream by becoming a successful concert musician and planning to marry a diplomat’s son.
The three daughters have, in a sense, suffered because of their mother’s ideology which encourages them to place practical concerns above the emotional. Song-hui is conflicted in knowing that she will break her mother’s heart by marrying a man with no money or family but also knows that she will choose him all the same. Dong-hui, by contrast, enthusiastically chases Man-gyu for his money but naively fails to realise that he is selfish and duplicitous. In another evocation of the female solidarity that informs the film, Man-gyu’s fiancée Mi-ri eventually dumps him on witnessing the way he treats Dong-hui, roundly rejecting the idea of being shackled to a chauvinistic man who assumes it is his right to have his way with whomever he chooses and face no consequences. Like Song-hui, Mi-ri breaks with tradition in breaking off her engagement against her parents’ wishes and reserving her own right to determine her future.
Yang-hui, whose future eventually works out precisely because of the sacrifices made on her behalf by her mother, turns out to be her harshest critic, rejecting The President on learning the truth and attempting to sever their connection by repaying all the “ill-gotten” investment. Her wealthy husband, however, turns out to be unexpectedly sympathetic in pointing out that her mother has suffered all these long years only to buy her future happiness and that now is the time they both should be thanking her. Meanwhile, The President has become despondent in realising she is out of road. There is no longer much of a place for her in the red light district, and she has nowhere left to turn. Only the kindly Maggie, another sex worker who has been a daughter to her all this time, is prepared to stand by her and take care of her in her old age.
The gulf between the two generations is neatly symbolised by the surprising inclusion of stock footage from the April 19 rising against the corrupt regime of Rhee Syngman which led to a brief period of political freedom before the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee took power in 1961. The poor intellectual author whom The President dismissed, eventually becomes an internationally renowned literary figure after being published abroad while the wealthy magnate’s son turns out to be a louse. The President staked her life on the old feudal ways of ingratiating oneself with privilege by playing by its rules, but the world has moved on and it’s up to the young to forge their own destinies rather than blindly allowing those in power to do as they please. Sadly for The President, her sacrifices will be appreciated only when it’s too late and her desire for her daughters to escape the hardship she had faced misunderstood as greed and snobbishness. There is no longer any place for her old fashioned ideas in the modern era and her daughters will need to learn to get by on their own while accepting that their future was built on maternal sacrifice.