Three Sisters (세자매, Lee Seung-won, 2020)

Lee Seung-won’s lightly humorous family drama is not an adaptation of the Chekhov play, but like its namesake does find Three Sisters (세자매, Se Jamae) trapped in the past, their lives “messed up” by the demands of living in a patriarchal society. A showcase for the three actresses at its centre, Lee’s drama works towards a gradual sisterly solidarity brokered by an awkward confrontation with the source of all their trauma but also lays bare the radiating consequences of unchecked male failure as the three women struggle to lead successful adult lives in the shadow of their childhood suffering. 

Opening with a black and white sequence in which two young girls run hand in hand quite clearly away from something bad rather than just for the joy of it, Lee switches to the present day in which oldest sister Hee-sook (Kim Sun-young) is an anxious middle-aged woman perpetually making apology for her existence, while middle sister Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri) is a cooly controlled deaconess and mother of two, and little sister Mi-ok (Jang Yoon-ju) is an unstable drunk and struggling playwright married to a moderately wealthy greengrocer with a teenage son from a previous marriage. 

They have all quite obviously chosen different methods in effort to suppress the effects of their childhood trauma, raised as we later realise in a violent home abused by their drunken father but apparently expected to put up with it out of filial piety. A half-sister Hee-sook finds herself apologising for anything and everything, filled with intense shame for her very existence. Mi-yeon by contrast has chosen order, devoutly religious she maintains high standards for her family but is filled with barely repressed rage unable it seems to express any other emotion. On realising that her professor husband (Jo Han-chul) is having a highly inappropriate affair with a much younger student she reacts with both violence and cunning, unilaterally putting a stop to his philandering while subtly letting him know that she knows and has dealt with it. Further emasculated, he tries to get some kind of normal reaction from her, hoping she will shout or hit him but she continues in the same calm and controlled fashion as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, in another echo of her father’s violence she finds herself taking out her frustrations on her young daughter, Ha-eun (Kyung Daeun), who rebels against her need for order by refusing to say grace. 

Mi-ok by contrast has in a sense chosen chaos, drinking herself into oblivion while often ringing Mi-yeon in intense confusion unable to recall a seemingly unimportant detail from their mutual past. Taking on the big sister role, Mi-yeon finds herself in a similar position with Hee-sook who apparently doesn’t remember an event that was important to her of their dining together in the same cafe they are currently visiting back when she first came to the city and Hee-sook worked in a nearby office. Later the three sisters will attempt to visit another cafe that Mi-ok had struggled to remember but will find it closed, their past perhaps locked to them but in a sense also pushing them towards a happier future as they reaffirm their sisterly bonds after living lives of highly individualised suffering. 

Failed by a feckless father, the three women find themselves at the mercy of problematic men Hee-sook apparently re-victimised as the wife of an abusive partner who returns periodically to extort money and undermine her self-esteem, while Mi-yeon attempts to evade subjugation by dominating her husband only to find him rebelling against her through an extra-marital affair. Only Mi-ok seems to have made a better marriage to a mild-mannered, patient and caring husband but is also accused of marrying him for his money while taken to task by others for her “failure” to play the part of the conventional wife and mother, her ability to do so perhaps corrupted by her traumatic childhood. “Just treat them with love” Mi-yeon ironically advises seconds after unfairly scolding her own daughter, simultaneously explaining that no one learns to be a mother, though of course in some senses they do, and that anyone can be one as long as they work at it. Nevertheless, after confronting the source of all their pain and suffering the three women manage to rediscover a sense of solidarity that perhaps allows them to reclaim their agency and live better, more fulfilling lives free of the shadow of the past. 


Three Sisters screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Way Back Home (비밀의 정원, Park Sun-joo, 2019)

Can you ever really “move on” from trauma, or do you simply have to learn to live with it? The heroine of Park Sun-joo’s Way Back Home (비밀의 정원, Bimil-eui Jeong-won) thought she’d made peace with the past by trying her best to forget it, but an unwelcome intrusion reminds her that it’s not only the echoes of something terrible that happened to her when she was very young that shaped her life, but everything that happened afterwards. Now preparing to move into a new phase, she realises that in order to start a new family she’ll have to repair her fractured relations with the old. 

As a high school student, Jeong-won (Han Woo-yun) was abducted and raped by a stranger who was never caught. 10 years later, she’s in her mid-20s and is preparing to move into a family home with her husband, Sang-u (Jun Suk-ho), a carpenter who works with her uncle (Yoo Jae-myung) and aunt (Yum Hye-ran) in their studio while she also has a job as a swimming instructor. The couple are currently trying for a baby, but Jeong-won recently had a miscarriage and fears that the assault may have affected her ability to bear a child despite the doctor’s assurances that there is nothing medically wrong. Then, she gets an unexpected phone call from a detective in her hometown informing her that they’ve had a hit on the DNA from her case and think they’ve caught the man who raped her but need her to come in and verify a few details. 

Not really wanting to revisit the past she’d convinced herself she’d moved on from, Jeong-won ignores the policeman’s calls but after he contacts her mother (Oh Min-ae) and turns up at her door, alerting Sang-u, she has no choice but to face the matter head on. Sang-u is understandably blindsided, not quite sure how to deal with this very sensitive new information, wanting to be there for his wife but frustrated that she doesn’t seem to want him involved. He tries to talk to her about it, but she flatly explains that it’s not something she’s prepared to discuss with him. 

Intellectually understanding that his wife needs space, Sang-u can’t help but feel shut out, hurt that Jeong-won doesn’t feel comfortable allowing him into this extremely vulnerable space. Jeong-won begins to pull away, pretending that everything’s fine, getting on with packing for their move as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, he begins to piece things together, realising that her past trauma must have something to do with her strained relationships with her mother and So-hui (Jung Da-eun), the younger sister she always seems to be reluctant to see. 

The traumatic event in itself is not the central source of Jeong-won’s suffering but the sense of rejection she felt from her family along with an internalised shame. Jeong-won’s mother sent her to live with her uncle and aunt because she thought it might be easier to move on in a different environment, but all Jeong-won felt was that her family no longer wanted her around. Jeong-won’s aunt thinks the reason she doesn’t want to see So-hui, who is around 10 years younger and therefore around the age she was at the time of the attack, is resentment in feeling that her mother sent her away to protect her younger sister from the social stigma of being involved with a case of sexual assault, but as might be expected the situation is far more emotionally complex than anyone is able to intuitively understand. 

So-hui, meanwhile, is also hurt, travelling to the city on her own to make sure her sister is alright because she isn’t answering her calls. Fearing rejection, Jeong-won distances herself from Sang-u, mourning the relationship she had with him which was founded partly on the fact he didn’t know and therefore existed in world in which the assault had never happened. She resents being worried over because other people’s concern only reminds her of her victimhood. During his summing up at the trial, the prosecution lawyer argues that Jeong-won’s life stopped in 2008 while her attacker went on living guilt free, leaving her to suffer alone. Jeong-won might not quite agree with that assessment, she thought she’d moved on and lived an otherwise happy, normal life despite the terrible thing which happened to her, but if she wants to move forward she will indeed have to face not only the source of her trauma but the familial fracturing which followed it, finding the way back home through emotional openness and understanding along with a willingness to be vulnerable in a place of safety.


Way Back Home screens on March 11/15 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Introduction to the film by director Park Sun-joo from the Busan International Film Festival (activate English subtitles from the subtitle button)