Daughter-in-Law (민며느리, Choi Eun-hee, 1965)

Domestic power struggle meets oppressive patriarchal social codes and entrenched class prejudice in Choi Eun-hee’s lighthearted marital drama, Daughter-in-Law (민며느리, Minmyeoneuli, AKA The Girl Raised as a Future Daughter-In-Law). One of the biggest stars of Korean cinema’s golden age, Choi was only the third woman to direct a feature film and the first to direct herself as the leading lady, adapting a popular radio serial in which a pure hearted young girl finds herself suffering while patiently fulfilling the role of a dutiful daughter-in-law to a tyrannical middle-aged woman. Though the film may eventually reinforce traditional gender roles and the patriarchal norms of the conventional marriage it also subtly undercuts them in its final bid for female solidarity as well as in the surprisingly frank depiction of the sexually active relationship between the middle-aged in-laws. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the film opens with a montage sequence of a young woman doing laborious household tasks while the title song muses on the difficulties of married life. For young Jeomsun (Choi Eun-hee), the problems are compounded as we discover she was in effect sold into marriage because of her once wealthy family’s poverty and as her intended husband is still only a child is treated as an unpaid housekeeper by her harridan of a mother-in-law, Mrs Kim (Hwang Jung-seun). “Serve your parents and respect your husband, that’s this country’s way” Mrs Kim reminds her, continually dissatisfied with everything but mostly that she isn’t getting enough respect or attention as the head of the household (in the domestic sense at least). 

As thoughtlessly cruel as she often appears to be, Mrs Kim’s behaviour can perhaps be seen as merely an attempt to leverage the only power she will ever have as the matriarch in her own house, a power made all the greater by the fact her son is still a child and her future daughter-in-law only afforded a liminal space within the family hierarchy. She continually reminds her husband (Kim Hie-gab) and Jeomsun that she too had a mother-in-law who treated her badly, often making her work through the night, and so her treatment of Jeomsun is a way of paying down the system, a facet of the “custom passed down through the generations”. Having been badly treated herself, she relishes her new sense of power and treats her daughter-in-law badly as misdirected payback for her own youthful suffering. 

Jeomsun herself has internalised a sense of the system’s righteousness, fully believing that she must do her “duty” as a good daughter-in-law even when her own mother points out that her in-laws are hardly doing their duty when they wilfully mistreat her. Added to notions of patriarchal subjugation is a further class dimension that leaves Jeomsun at their mercy because she has become impoverished, her mother having consented to her marriage only reluctantly in an attempt to avoid having to sell the family house. Jeomsun had been in love with a local man, Sugil (Park No-sik), but felt their union was impossible while her father was alive because he was of a lower social class and continues to believe it improper even after his death with only her mother lamenting that she wishes she had found a way that her daughter could have had a happier life marrying a man she loved. For his part, Sugil attempts to buck the system by continuing to pursue her, hoping to “buy” her back off the Kims after raising money while the marriage remains unconsummated and therefore unofficial. 

Choi’s age, then in her late 30s though presumably playing the part of a young woman in her late teens or early 20s, further adds to the incongruous inappropriateness of her position in the household as the future wife of a boy who is still quite clearly a child. Yet the young master, Bokman, appears to dote on her, often taking her side against his mother but in the end unable to defend her, too afraid of Mrs Kim to tell the truth and risk having to take responsibility for his actions preferring to let Jeomsun pay for them instead. In an interesting role reversal, it’s Mr Kim who is the perpetual peacemaker, a kind and patient man who quite clearly loves his firecracker wife despite her harsh demeanour. The slightly comedic depiction of their cheerfully active sex life as a middle-aged couple is perhaps at odds with the often prudish times, but also softens Mrs Kim’s otherwise difficult character until such time as she’s tricked into a moment of self-realisation in the recognition that her resentment of Jeomsun is really a reflection of her maternal jealousy and therefore entirely unfair. 

It’s this momentary epiphany that brokers an opportunity for a new female solidarity not only between Jeomsun and her mother-in-law but also with her own mother who must then find the magnanimity to forgive Mrs Kim for treating her daughter so badly in the first place. What began as a tale of patriarchal cruelties, a young woman sold as a wife to a spoilt child at the expense of her own romantic fulfilment, ends with a wilful reversal of the “custom passed down through the generations” as Mrs Kim agrees to cede some of her power in treating her daughter-in-law as more of an equal while making space to welcome her mother, another mother-in-law, into her home. “We all have to live according to our duties” Jeomsun had sadly explained to her former love, yet what she discovers is that duty is a two way street and lies perhaps more in mutual compassion than in slavish devotion to outdated tradition. 


Daughter-in-Law is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Korean Cultural Centre UK’s Korean Film Nights: Filming Against the Odds where it will be followed by Choi Eun-hee’s second film as a director A Princess’ One Sided Love on 27th May. Other films streaming in the season include Park Nam-ok’s The Widow (streaming throughout), Li Mi-rye’s My Daughter Rescued From The Swamp and Lee Seo-gun’s Rub Love (both 10th June).

A Sister’s Garden (姉妹의 花園 / 자매의 화원, Shin Sang-ok, 1959)

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.