A hot button issue at the centre of the tradition vs modernity debate – who knows best when it comes to love, a bevvy of relatives with lifetimes of experience behind them or the youngsters themselves still filled with youthful idealism? Then again, as the wise father of Lee Byung-il’s The Love Marriage (自由結婚 / 자유결혼, Ja-yugyeolhon) points out, perhaps both options are bad. An arranged marriage may not work out for a variety of reasons, and a love match may only result in heartbreak, but perhaps there is a third way after all – something which he intends to figure out through gentle manipulations of his lovelorn daughters and feisty conservative wife.
Inverting the normal pattern, Lee opens with the wedding. Dr. Ko’s (Choi Nam-Hyun) eldest daughter, Suk-hee (Choi Eun-hee), has scandalised her family by marrying for love, making a modern future in a modernising world. However, her new husband, Seung-il (Seong So-min), is pensive. He has something he feels he needs to get off his chest to start married life on the right foot. Seung-il confesses that he was once in love before, somehow believing this is a terrible secret which his new wife needs to know. Suk-hee is of course sympathetic and understanding, she never assumed herself to be marrying someone without a past. In an effort to console him she makes a confession of her own. She too was once in love with someone else – the older brother of a school friend who died tragically years ago never knowing of her deeply held affection. Despite his earlier plea, Seung-il is horrified, abruptly walks out on his new wife on their wedding night, and sails to America to make a new life for himself alone.
Flashforward four years and Suk-hee, humiliated, has retreated to her bedroom, seldom leaving the house and only then to walk along the paths she used to take with Seung-il when she does. Dr. Ko has two more daughters – Moon-hee (Lee Min-ja) and college student Myeong-hee (Jo Mi-ryeong), as well as a young son, Gwang-sik (Park Gwang-su), still in school. Ko’s wife, Mrs. Ahn (Seok Geum-seong), is convinced all Suk-hee’s problems are down to getting married for love – after all, Mrs. Ahn was always against it. To prevent the same thing happening again she plans to find good matches for her other two daughters, hoping to set Moon-hee up with the son of one of her best friends, Wan-seop (Lee Ryong), who has recently returned from studying abroad. Moon-hee, however, has taken a liking to the timid college student who has been tutoring Gwang-sik, Jun-cheol (Choe Hyeon). Meanwhile, Myeong-hee has also developed a fondness for Ko’s assistant, Yeong-su (Park Am).
The times are changing, but only to an extent. Mrs. Ahn doesn’t like it that they’re changing at all. The romantic destiny of her daughters was, perhaps, one of the few things over which she exercised complete control and control seems to be something she is reluctant to give up. Suk-hee’s decision to get married for love is a new one – a rejection of the oppressive pre-war system of total deference to one’s elders in favour of exercising her individual right to choice. Her choice, however, did not work out, in part at least because of some very old fashioned ideas embedded in the head of Seung-il who is unable to cope with the idea of his wife as a real flesh and blood woman rather than the idealised picture of passive femininity he had conjured for himself.
Love and marriage enter a conflict with each other. Ko and Mrs. Ahn have extremely different temperaments but seem to have built a happy and harmonious home for their four children, raising love between them as they go. Yet not all arranged marriages work out, especially when relatives might not have their children’s future happiness as a priority. Meanwhile, young people in love might not be best placed to make serious decisions about a long term future whilst caught in the throws of passion. Ko, otherwise sympathetic, has his doubts about Moon-hee and Jun-cheol, not because of Jun-cheol’s “weak” character which is his wife’s chief complaint, but because he worries that though they are in “love” they have not yet reached an understanding of each other. Rejecting both ideas – the hyperrationality of the “arranged” marriage, and the emotional volatility of the “love” match, Ko wonders if there isn’t a way to meet in the middle, that if the older generation could perhaps guide the youngsters towards a series of likely candidates they believe to be well suited, love might blossom in a place it can take root.
Ko, quiet yet wise and permanently amused, tries out his idea on his youngest daughter, Myeong-hee, who might be the most like him and also the most modern among her sisters. Spotting the obvious attraction between Myeong-hee and his assitant Yeong-su, Ko tries to set them up and then puts a wedge between them through using Wan-Seop who is at a loose end while Moon-hee pines after Jun-cheol and refuses to meet any other suitor. Wan-seop, despite Mrs. Ahn’s obvious esteem for him, is the very example of the new Korean man who tries to make a virtue of his modernity but only exposes his old fashioned conservatism. Caught in a small debate with Yeong-su and Myeong-hee, Wan-seop who has recently returned from study in America sings the praises of life overseas and declares himself a feminist – he hates the way women are treated in Korea which is why, when he’s married, he plans to 100% obey the housekeeper and not make waves in the domestic domain. Yeong-su, quite fairly, finds this ridiculous and even if his ideas are perhaps no more “progressive” he is at least transparent in his constant verbal sparring with the confident Myeong-hee.
For all its inherent comedy, love is still a painful business and parental rigidity has a potential dark side as we see in an attempted suicide brought about by heartbreak and frustration at not being listened to by parents who insist they know best. Yet in the end love conquers all. Ko’s gentle manipulations eventually work their magic, guiding each of his daughters towards their most hopeful path but leaving the decision to take it entirely up to them. Even Mrs. Ahn begins to see the beauty of young love rather than its destabilising qualities and cannot help being touched by the happiness each of the sisters seems to have found in their chosen men even if they’ve suffered quite a lot along the way. Love is never easy, but it doesn’t need to be so hard and it only takes a little bit of understanding to set it on its way.
The Love Marriage is the second of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Romantic Comedy Collection of the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream online from the Korean Film Archive‘s YouTube Channel.