LITERATURE

JOURNEYS IN KOREAN LITERATURE CRITIQUE

Seasoned Writer’s Classy Melodrama

“The man in my story ultimately never confesses his love and therefore keeps his love alive by deferring it. Language is similar. Even when language refers to the beloved it always slips away and maintains a distance from the beloved.”

The title of this story comes from a famous Hong Kong movie, which in turn was derived from the traditional Chinese expression hua yang nian hua, which means “the most beautiful time of one’s life.” The subject matter, two unhappily married people falling hopelessly in love, and the outstanding performances by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, made it a movie that long remained in the minds of those who saw it. The original Chinese title was also the same by which the movie was known in Korea. However, when it was released with an English title, it was called “In the Mood for Love,” the title of a popular song from the 1930s which the director Wong Kar-wai heard while finishing post-production. Memories of the film may remind readers of the impossibility of extramarital love. Presumably Gu Hyo-seo took this into consideration when he was writing his story.
The two main characters in the story, 35-year-old Songju and Bong-han, four years her senior, fall prey to the dizzying challenges of extramarital love. Unlike in the movie, only Song-ju is married while Bong-han is still single. One year, in mid-February, Bong-han travels to Gwangyang, in southwestern Korea, on the pretext that he is going to see the plum trees in bloom, for which the village is famous. The day before he leaves, he phones Song-ju, who is living in Gurye, near Gwangyang, to inform her of his arrival. They had studied in the same department in college and now Song-ju is married and living in Gurye.

Things are rather complicated from the outset. Bonghan studied in the department of Korean language education, and through his readings in classical Korean literature he came to know about the beauty of “plum blossoms in the second month.” In Korea the months are known only by numbers in the sequence of both the solar and the lunar calendars, and the second lunar month, coming about a month after the second solar month (which in English is February) is the month for plum blossoms. No plum blossom blooms in February. His ridiculous misunderstanding might seem designed to help the development of the story. Yet when he phones before coming, he simply insists in a joking tone, “I’m going down because I want to see you, what other reason do I need?”
As the story advances, their earlier history gradually emerges; in college, Bong-han had an obsessive crush on Song-ju. At its worst, it came to a point where, by his own admission, “his body had become a complete host to Songju.” Still, they were unable to hit it off, mainly a result of his extreme timidity and hesitancy. Essentially, as he would later admit, “one hesitation after another had brought it about.”
Even after her marriage, Song-ju had occasionally phoned him to complain about life for no particular reason. In the story this is said to have provided “a space,” a word seeming to suggest that a possibility had not been completely closed off, that reasons for hope remained. This forms the background for Bong-han’s decision to go down south to see Song-ju, using the plum blossoms as a pretext.
This is a story which has to be read following the grain of a delicate heart. It walks a fine line in telling the story of a man and a woman who, while loving each other, cannot and must not reveal their love.

The fine line refers not only to the game of temptation and rejection between them but also to their inner struggles as they subtly control the emergence and suppression of desire. The two characters never reveal their feelings openly to each other, but depend on a rhetoric of circumlocution and irony, metaphor and paradox. As a result, if we say that one of them is “A,” there is a great likelihood of that also being “not A.” As readers watch the two responding to each other using jokes and evasions, hiding their real feelings, they feel not only a sharp tension but even pain, a heartache. There being no way they can see plum blossoms which are not in bloom, they naturally fail to see them, but instead they see plumblossom- like patterns on the rocks in the orchard. The two of them observe the patterns on the rocks, then look at each other as if making a promise and, although it only lasts for a brief moment, their gaze is deeper and far more intense than ever before.
“Even though there’s no plum blossom, your laughter makes the world brighter.”
“Shall we have an affair? You’re unmarried . . .”
Laughter befitting a joke follows, but soon their eyes meet warmly for a second time. Bong-han’s remark, “I came in February and saw plum blossoms!” and Song-ju’s response, “We can come at any time and still see plum blossoms,” both link back to the story’s original title, suggesting that their love still exists as a potentiality. So, will their love belatedly bring them together? The conclusion chosen by the author is not so simple.
Gu Hyo-seo is a prolific writer whose writings range widely and deftly with many different themes and topics. During the 30 years since he was first recognized in 1987, he has published more than 30 volumes including 20 novels, 11 collections of novellas and short stories, two collections of short stories, and two volumes of prose, as well as a volume of fiction for children. This short story is a summary reflection of his achievements. In April 2016, he published a melodramatic novel, “When the Morning Star Touches My Brow.” On that occasion, meeting journalists, he said, “Personally I like melodramatic movies and plays, but this is the first time I have produced a melodramatic novel.” It might be difficult to categorize “In the Mood for Love” as a melodrama, but there can be no doubt that it is a work that displays to the full the writer’s skill in depicting the feelings and relationship of two people in love.

Choi Jae-bong Reporter, The Hankyoreh

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