The Harmonium In My Memory (Nae maeumui punggeum)

Korea (1999) Dir. Lee Young-Jae

Among the many genres of film within the varied oeuvre of Korean cinema, the one that is the least represented, at least for this writer, is the nostalgia drama. Japan has done it, the French are certainly good at it and we Brits are also adept at wallowing in the past, but Korean filmmakers seem more interested in the past as a setting rather than a gateway for reflection.

Therefore, The Harmonium In My Memory is a first for yours truly. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel Female Student by Ha Keum-chan, we are transported back to 1963, where 21 year-old Kang Su-Ha (Lee Byung-Hun) arrives in the small rural village of Sanri in the Gangwon Province to take his first teaching post.

Also on her first day is Yang Eun-Hee (Lee Mi-Yeon), who Kang falls for in a big way, bonding over their love for music, but someone else finds themselves attracted to Kang too – troublesome 17 year-old student Hong-Yeon (Jeon Do-Yeon). Whilst the love is unrequited, Hong-Yeon tries to figure out how Kang thinks and operates in the hope of winning him over.

Nothing particularly new or remarkable on the story front but then again, most life experiences tend to follow the same path, so this is one genre of filmmaking in which we can excuse the absence of any real divergence from well established conventions. What this film does have going for it, however, is the opportunity afforded to us to see how such a tale is told from a Korean perspective.

We’ve seen Korean schools in a modern setting ad infinitum so this offers us a fresh alternative by showing us how they were in the past. Granted it isn’t that much different from Japanese, Chinese or even European village schools of the 1960’s yet retains a curious sense of uniqueness as a first time experience.

Being a remote, backwater village the inhabitants of Sanri aren’t particularly well off or especially well educated, with many living a bucolic and borderline indigent existence, of families crammed into one small abode. Hong-Yeon has three younger siblings, the youngest being a newborn baby she often has to take with her to school, causing havoc when changing his nappy during class.

A familiar sight during class activities is the tatty attire of the less fortunate kids, with their unkempt, lice ridden hair, dirty skin from not being afforded a shower, and lack of basic school essentials like crayons, pencils et al. One student is clearly mentally slow, her antics often played for laughs – though not with any overt cruelty – such as turning up at her old home room class on the first day or wetting herself.

In contrast, some of the teachers are doing all right for themselves; vain Miss Yu (Seo Hye-Rin) is sporting the latest fashions and neatly coiffered while Eun-hee is never less than fragrant. Kang’s passion is music and has a collection of LPs, including one by Connie Francis which becomes an important symbol in the story.

Hong-Yeon is the narrator of this tale yet the true focal point is Kang and how she worships him from afar yet seems to alienate him whenever a rare opportunity presents itself to get close to him. That’s not always the case, but Kang has no idea of his student’s unhealthy adoration and Hong-Yeon as equally clueless as to how to appeal to her adult obsession.

At the risk of spoiling the outcome, anyone expecting a Lolita type story or perhaps a battle of wills between Hong-Yeon and Eun-hee is going to be disappointed but there is a reason for this, found in its novel origins. Autobiographies (semi or complete) don’t always follow the same narrative sequential narrative as a constructed tale, instead relying on an episodic structure.

Former TV director Lee Young-Jae essentially presents us with a tapestry of skits and asides revolving around this oddly charming cast of characters. They don’t always offer any further development to the plot but do offer an insight into the daily school lives of the kids and teachers alike, usually with a light comic touch. The usual scrapes and japes are highlighted, usually ending with an exasperated teacher having to pick up the pieces.

The reflective aspect, accentuated by the muted colour palette, gentle mood music and keen eye in replicating the aesthetic of the period, creates a pervasive, overwhelming and affectionate sense of wonderment even for those of us not around at that time or indeed not Korean. The tone is non-judgemental, the drama isn’t overly sentimental and the humour is pitched just right to avoid undermining the other elements.

In terms of cinematic comparison, the ones that immediately come to mind are French outings such as Jean de Florette and other period dramas for the pastoral atmosphere and quaint schoolroom antics, and Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home, which shares a similar air of romantic whimsy blossoming against the odds in the countryside.

Possibly the most interesting factor for anyone watching this today is realising how far the cast have come since its release 18 years ago, going from relative unknowns to current day box office mainstays. Lee Byung-Hun makes for a perfectly credible first time teacher stepping into the big wide world, yet we know him today as the star of many a Korean blockbuster as well as successfully crossing over to Hollywood.

Jeon Do-Yeon as the spunky teenager Hong-Yeon is bristling with charm, confused coming-of-age innocence and youthful energy; a decade later she was sizzling up the screen in the steamy remake of The Housemaid, suggesting perhaps this role is an ironic sign of things to come. Lee Mi-Yeon has also gone on to enjoy a prolific career in rom coms and heavy dramas.

The clunky English title The Harmonium In My Memory might sound delightfully poetic yet feels a little overbearing for what is in fact a comfortable and amiable nostalgia trip with no delusions or pretensions.