The tendency of the Korean audience to adore melodramas found one of its apogees in 1975, when "Yeong-ja's Heydays" became a huge box office hit, drawing 360,000 viewers, surpassing even the top foreign film at the time, "The Sting".
The story revolves around two rather unlucky individuals, the titular Yeong-ja and Chang-soo. At the beginning of the story, which is told through a flashback, the former works as a housemaid to the owner of the iron foundry that Chang-soo works for. As soon as the young man meets the innocent girl, who has just come from the country to raise money to send to her poor family, he falls in love with her. Initially, she seems completely untouched by his desperate flirting, something that does not stop him at all, as he even proposes her before he leaves for Vietnam, and asks her to wait for him. Yeong-ja does not get the chance, however, since eventually she is sexually assaulted by her boss's son and is kicked out of the house, with her fate becoming even worse after that. Her next job in a garment factory does not pay enough, working at a bar does not suit her, and during her work as a bus conductress, she loses one of her arms. Desperate, and without any other means to support herself, she becomes a prostitute, although her handicap does not help her at all to attract customers. This is the situation that Chang-soo finds her after returning from the war, and he decides to help her get back on her feet, spending all of the money he gets from working as a masseur in public bathhouse, despite the objections of an elder colleague, who is also his best friend.
Evidently, the tragedies that befall Yeong-ja would seem almost ridiculous if the film was shot nowadays, as cinema has made a distinct turn towards realism (the true-story/based-on-facts concept). However, Kim Ho-sun actually uses the story of the two protagonists to present the difficulties the lower "castes" of society faced in the rapidly industrializing S.Korea of the 70's and the repercussions the Vietnam war had in the country, particularly due to the fear of the US moving large parts of their forces from their peninsula to Vietnam, at a time when North Korea's military power was at its peak. Chang-soo's eagerness to find love and Yeong-ja's to find money all have their roots on the above, despite the fact that the social commentary eventually is placed in the background.
Regardless of the evident sentimentalism, however, Kim manages to make the film work, particularly because the fate of the two protagonists does not become clear at any time before the finale, thus retaining a measure of agony for the whole of its duration. Furthermore, Kim benefits the most by an excellent performance from the gorgeous Yeom Bok-sun, who succeeds in portraying a number of different personas, ranging from the innocent country bumpkin to the almost nihilistic prostitute, with the same artistry. Her presence, along with the antithetical chemistry she shares with Song Jae-ho, who plays the rather one-dimensional Chang-soo, are the elements that carry the film for the whole of its duration, despite the unlikeness of the events that befall both protagonists.
The other great asset of the film is its ending, which is quite unexpected for a melodrama, as it leaves a bittersweet taste that actually concludes the narrative in the best way.
Jang Seok-jun's cinematography highlights the various settings with realism and artistry, with his work finding its zenith in the night-shots, while Yoo Jae-won's editing induces the film with a very fitting medium pace that allows the director to unfold the story in all detail, without becoming tiresome at any moment. Special mention should be given to Jung Sung-jo's music, that "coats" a number of scenes in a way the strengthens their essence significantly.
Despite the intense effort towards sentimentality, "Yeong-ja's Heydays" remains a very engaging spectacle, that would definitely satisfy all fans of the melodrama.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[Hancinema's Film Review] "Yeong-ja's Heydays" + Full Movie"
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