Brief Encounter with Chopin – Shin Sang-ok’s My Mother and Her Guest

Shin Sang-ok: My Mother and Her Guest (1961)

My Mother and her Guest

It was a shame to see two of the most interesting films in the London Korean Film Festival — My Mother and Her Guest and Madame Freedom — so sparsely attended. The Barbican had generously allocated its largest screen (capacity 286) in anticipation of enthusiastic interest — but unfortunately only at most 30 people showed up.

To be honest, I had gone mainly out of a sense of duty — the only other classic Korean film I’d seen to date was Aimless Bullet, which I had found heavy going. So I went with low expectations, anticipating wooden plotlines and acting, and a generally unsophisticated cinematic experience.

My Mother and her guest 1

I got chatting to a member of the audience beforehand and we arranged to continue our chat after the first film. But at the appointed time I was wanting to sit in silence, digesting what I had just seen. The first half of the double bill was My Mother and Her Guest, a beautifully understated film from 1961 by Shin Sang-ok. It was a time when well-brought-up women couldn’t talk to men outside of the family, when widows were condemned to a lifetime of solitude, a “possession” of her mother-in-law. Yet within this framework an impossible love develops between a widow (Choi Eun-hee) and her artist lodger (Kim Jin-kyu), aided and abetted by the 6-year-old daughter (born a month after her father’s death)(Jeon Yeong-Seon), whose innocent efforts at match-making don’t always have the intended results.

The soundtrack is all Chopin, and the widow (evidently well provided-for) is no mean piano-player herself: having not played the piano since before her husband’s death, her recollection of Chopin’s mazurkas and preludes is nothing short of remarkable.

The film has plenty of humour and gentle emotion. There’s a will-they-won’t-they (can-they-can’t-they) tension about whether a relationship is possible, in the end duty calls the guest away to Seoul. As we (and the mother and daughter) watch the train take the lodger away to the sound of Chopin, we are inevitably reminded of Brief Encounter from 15 years previously, where Rachmaninov provides the aural backdrop.

As the mother-in-law has indicated that she will give the heroine her freedom, we are left with some hope that the guest may ultimately return from Seoul, but that is not within the scope of the film. And I was left with a lump in my throat and almost a tear in my eye, which I had certainly not been expecting.

My mother and her guest 2

My new-found friend had similar feelings, adding that because of the film’s sophistication he had thought it was a very recent film, made to look artificially old by being filmed in black & white and with a deliberately less than audiophile soundtrack — until, that is, he saw the closing credits with the date of the film.

Do watch this film if you get the chance again.

Shin Sang-ok (신상옥): My Mother and Her Guest (사랑방 손님과 어머니, 1961) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

Chu Yo-seop’s original story, 사랑손님과 어머니, is translated in the collection A Ready-Made Life: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction, tr Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton, published by University of Hawai’i Press (Amazon link)

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