September 12, 2019
Love Me Once More – South Korea, 1968
Years ago, a couple I knew divorced after several very acrimonious years of marriage. In their settlement was a provision that I do not believe has an equivalent in the United States or Europe. She got the business, and he got their son – and when I say that, I mean it in its most literal sense. The boy’s mother signed over all of her rights as a mother, effectively severing her relationship with him permanently. To the best of my knowledge, she has not seen him since. I’ve mentioned this over the years to a number of my co-workers, and the response is always the same – How can a mother do that?
This is not exactly what happens in So-yeong Jeong‘s wildly popular Love Me Once Again, but it is close enough to present Western viewers with a bit of a challenge. See, what transpires on the screen goes against Western ideals and norms. Sentiments are expressed that run counter to traditional Western thought, and in one scene, where a Westerner might wrap his arms around a relative in a terrible situation, a character declares the aggrieved to have hurt the family honor and banishes her from the family home, knowing that she has nowhere else to go. And this is nothing compared to a mother’s last wish for her daughter. Such moments may induce jaw dropping, and they may ultimately keep viewers from other cultures at a distance, unsure how to respond. Should we chastise or seek to sympathize?
Love Me Once Again begins on a regular Sunday, one filled with fishing, a family lunch, and generally joviality. The festive mood is broken by an unusual message from their servant, who says that the man of the house has a visitor who insists on being greeted in the house. The requested man, Shin-ho Kang (Shin Young-kyun), receives the visitor and soon learns that he is delivering a message from someone from Kim’s past who is requesting that Kang meet her in their former usual location. He goes of course, and as he waits, the film flashes back eight years to a time when he was a student in Seoul and was very much in love with a Kindergarten teacher named Hye-Yeong (Moon Hee). He was also in love with his wife. What unravels is a tale of love and betrayal that ended in a child and a long parting. When we return to the present day, we see Hye-Yeong arrive with her seven-old-son and a request that his father take on the responsibility of caring for him.
The film is standard melodrama – not that there’s anything wrong with that – and for the most part, the characters are fleshed out nicely. I was especially intrigued by the role of Kang’s wife (Jeon Gye-hyeon). She could easily have been presented as a cold, vengeful Disney-stepmother type, yet as the film progresses, she becomes the caring, sympathetic presence that the boy needs. The transformation is fascinating to observe, and by the end of the film, she hardly resembles the unreasonable character we see earlier in the film. Also interesting is the way Hye-Yeong is presented as the ideal woman, one who falls in love hard, devotes every waking minute to making her man’s life better (which includes doing his laundry and cooking all of his meals), and never gets over her first love, regardless of the destructive impact that some of his actions and inactions have on her. She has every reason to hate him, yet there she is years later with his picture still on her desk in a spot commonly associated with icons deserving of admiration.
The soul of the film is Kang’s friend, affectionately called the Professor (Park Am). He has all of the details and gently tries to ease everyone’s path into the unknown. He is also the voice of reason, chastising Kang for getting in the situation in the first place and imploring Kang’s wife to open up her house to a child who is her husband’s, but not hers. He can be brutally honest, as well as emotionally supportive, and he does all this without really getting verbally emotional himself. His empathy, though, can be read even when it is not vocalized. It’s is quite a performance.
There are, of course, problems with the film. At several points, we hear the characters’ inner monologues, and they do not resemble the thought patterns of normal people in the slightest. Hye-Yeong’s “perfection” makes her less realistic, and part of the film’s climax defies logic. However, my biggest complaint may be that the film never firmly establishes what draws Hye-yeong to Kang in the first place, and therefore, it’s hard to see why she would remain so enamored with him during their seven-year disconnect. There’s also the matter of Shin Yeong-kyun’s acting, which all too often involves showing an emotion without actually feeling it.
Still, I recommend the film. It tells a compelling story and has three very good performances. I cared about the characters and hoped that they’d find some measure of happiness after such a traumatic experience. And who knows? They just might have. In the film’s final moments, a message appeared at the bottom of the screen telling me to stay tuned for the sequel. (on DVD in Region 3)
*Love Me Once Again is in Korean with English subtitles.
*The version I saw was apparently taken from a television broadcast and is missing both the beginning and ending credits.
*Love Me Once Again 2 was released in 1969.