Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).
Amour noir as a genre in film has always been popular with Korean audiences. From as far back as Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960) to present-day period erotic thrillers like The Concubine, the archetypes and storylines found in these films have been fodder for countless melodramas, love stories and crime pictures. For those that may be unfamiliar with this unique genre subset, an amour noir encompasses unhappy marriages, adulterous spouses and an eventual conspiracy to murder.
Set mainly in a domestic setting the drama lies in the duplicity of the adulterous couple and whether they will get caught. A perfect example of this genre can be found in American noir classics like Double Indemnity (1944) and A Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). In these earlier pictures as well as Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid we are presented with a well-to-do middle class household that is home to an unhappy dysfunctional couple. In Double Indemnity and A Postman Always Rings Twice the women are young vamps married to older but financially prosperous men while in the The Housemaid films the couple is almost the same age but money is a constant bone of contention for husband and wife; and in the later films the wives would trump their husbands by being the primary breadwinners. In classic noirs, the young drifters and hustlers that invaded middle class homes were seducers that didn’t so much worm their way into the lives of bored housewives, but rather gave her an excuse to fulfill “what-if” fantasies that mixed the erotic, i.e. rough and kinky sex, and the criminal, i.e. murder and theft.
Unlike typical revenge narratives where the central crux of the film usually involves two parties with only a tangential relationship that are in conflict with each other, films that fall under the banner of amour noir are about betrayal of trust. Amour noirs are replete with double and triple crosses. The husband in Kim Ki-young’s films is weak and falling under the spell of a young woman dumps his family to be with her. Yet, due to his innate impotency to make a decision and follow through with it, he betrays his young lover and then in an act of poetic retribution lets himself be killed. A few decades later, Chung Ji-woo released Happy End (1999) a melodrama that adhered to the rule of classic film noir of employing a strong adulterous female, but unlike those earlier pictures that did away with the buffoonish husband before the end of the first act, Chung takes his sweet time ratcheting up the tension of whether or not the truth will be discovered then reverses our expectations by having the husband do away with his adulterous wife.
As scholars like Kyung Hyun Kim have already stated before, Happy End is, like the earlier The Housemaid trilogy, an allegory for the changing economic and gender structure within Korean culture. They each have economically powerful women and un-masculine males who are undone by an act of adultery. Of course, within Kim’s films the man is the adulterer and thus the harbinger of his own doom while in Chung’s picture the husband, played by Choi Min-shik, is an ineffective male who can’t land a job and is relegated to spending his day doing mundane household tasks or reading romance novels. With the gender roles and responsibilities reversed in Happy End, the wife’s brutal murder at the hands of her husband is not primarily motivated by the wife having stepped out of the marriage.
Whereas Kim’s earlier The Housemaid films were parables about the dangers of middle class mobility Happy End, released during a very tense economic time for Korea, illustrated just how fragile and precarious South Korea’s Economic Miracle was. Bo-ra (Jeon Do-yeon) and Min-ki (Choi Min-shik) look, on the surface, like the epitome of the new Korean Middle Class: they live in a high-rise apartment, they have a baby, but Min-ki takes care of the house while Bo-ra goes out and makes the money; this new type of family structure is a superficial construct. Like the wives in Kim Ki-young’s films Bo-ra is practically resentful of her financial responsibility and engages in an affair with Il-bum (Joo Jin-mo), a lover from her younger days, as a way to escape her familial burdens.
Unlike the early noirs that built a lot of the drama on the adulterous couple trying to get away from an abusive spouse, Korean marriage-themed melodramas like Happy End don’t rely on putting familiar archetypes like the vamp, lone drifter or clueless husband against one another. Instead, Chung foregoes labeling anyone as an absolute hero, villain or even victim. What we get with Happy End is a couple completely unsure about how to continue a relationship that has run out of steam. The little back-story that Chung gives Bo-ra and Il-bum reveals two people who were once in love but then due to an external force, possibly their parents, were forced to break-up. Bo-ra’s eventual marriage to Min-ki seems completely based not on love but the promise of financial security; it’s no coincidence that Min-ki was a banker before he lost his job. And so, once his role was made obsolete by not only losing his job but also having his wife ascend to the throne of breadwinner in the family, Min-ki is feminized and made to play the role of wife.
Another callback to The Housemaid, Min-ki’s impotence can easily be read as an homage to Kim’s earlier films. Of course, in those films the man was the adulterer and the conflict was between the husband’s wife and his young lover fighting for control of him. In Happy End Min-ki isn’t fighting for control of anything. In fact, from the first scene onwards he is totally accepting of his lot in life as an unemployed stay-at-home dad. The primary conflict in Chung’s film is Bo-ra and her struggle to balance her duty as wife, mother and businesswoman with her own needs, wants and desires. Like Kim’s impotent men, Bo-ra must fight for control of her own life between her spouse and lover.
The central plot of Happy End is not whether Bo-ra can leave her husband to be with Il-bum. For Bo-ra the happy end she desires is autonomy from tradition and men with expectations that run counter to her own desires. When Il-bum surprises Bo-ra with her own toothbrush she fumes in anger that something of her exists there, as if the normalization of their relationship would make him another typical male. And when Il-bum decides to double-down and surprise her with baby clothes plus a proposal to marry her, Bo-ra gets livid and storms out of his apartment. Unlike traditional female characters that seemed to always need to be partnered up with a male provider, Bo-ra can, in theory, fulfill either gender role, making her a far stronger figure than either of the male characters.
It’s important to note in Happy End that Il-bum is nothing like John Garfield or Fred MacMurray in those early noirs. He hedges closer to the young country girls that terrorized middle class households in the The Housemaid films, an unwitting accomplice to the violence later in the film. Their genuine love and desire to be with their paramour hides the fact that their love will just trap their lovers in another stifling relationship; Bo-ra knows that outside Il-bum’s apartment their relationship will never survive public scrutiny and also if they were to make their relationship official she would just be stuck with another husband. Though one might think Bo-ra’s conflicting desire to continue her affair with Il-bum all the while still being married to Min-ki makes her some sort of villainous femme fatale, she is the furthest from that label.
Bo-ra is the apotheosis of the archetypical wife in Kim Ki-young’s earlier later films. Having trumped her husband in all the ways South Korean culture defined as being a good husband and provider she is no longer restricted to following an antiquated patriarchal society. No longer chained to any man or age-old tradition, she is the epitome of the modern woman. Though one of the hallmarks of the film is Bo-ra’s brutal death at the hands of her irate husband, this interpretation is a bit too pat for the film. She is not murdered for stepping out of the marriage, but in a sly meta-fictional way, killed because that is what occurs in these types of films.
The first time we see Min-ki he is in a book store reading old romance novels and at home he partakes in the daily evening ritual of watching soap operas. It’s only natural then to assume he is well versed in all the tropes of that genre and when his life takes a sharp downturn he begins to peruse the mystery/crime genre. Taking as his mentors the novels and stories he consumes, he crafts a clever plan to not only kill his wife but then get away unpunished. Of course, the plan is so intricate one wonders how could an ordinary salaryman accomplish it. It is almost as if the writer/filmmaker of the story was actively guiding the character to hit all the narrative beats. Fate has done away free will in the third act and now the film braces for the inevitable climax. Bo-ra, Min-ki and Il-bum were three characters in search of a story at the start of the film. Though each of them believe in and do deserve a happy ending to their story, the god of fiction does not waver from doling out tragedy.
The fact that there is no real villain in the picture makes the act of revenge literally a hollow action. Though Min-ki is betrayed, he still cares about Bo-ra. Just because Bo-ra loves Il-bum doesn’t mean she’ll leave her husband and child. Happy End presents to the viewer the notion that not only does revenge not guarantee anyone a sense of peace but also that those committing it are mere pawns in a genre invented to entertain and distract bored housewives and unemployed husbands. Of course, when reenacted in real life the vengeance is a brutal and ugly act which leaves everyone damaged.
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