"I hate our rooster. The hen lays the eggs and he crows like he did all the work! I hate him..."
Set in 1963, The Harmonium In My Memory begins to the strains of “Don't Break My Heart" by Connie Francis, as twenty-one year old teacher Kang Su-ha (Lee Byung-hun) travels to take up a position at Sanri Elementary School.
As he begins to settle in to his new life, he finds himself increasingly attracted to twenty-five year-old, fellow teacher, Yang Eun-hee (Lee Mi-yeon) but, unbeknownst to him, his presence at the school is having a major impact on one of his students, seventeen year-old Hong-yeon (Jeon Do-yeon), who is quickly developing a huge crush on him and becoming increasingly frustrated at not being able to vocalise both her feelings for him and her jealousy of Eun-hee.
However, when Su-ha sets his students the task of keeping a journal, Hong-yeon uses the assignment as an opportunity to write down the intricacies of her loves (and hates), knowing full-well that he will read every word, and placing Su-ha at the very centre of a love triangle between the three...
Hong-yeon is walking a tightrope between childhood and womanhood. At seventeen, she is older than most than most of her school friends but the familiarity of her associations with them consistently pulls her back into the persona of a child at play. The little experience of adult life she has had, so far, has involved only chores and family responsibilities - all of which she hates - and, as such, her growing crush on Su-ha unleashes feelings which she has never before felt. Her inexperience and confusion of how best to cope with this new situation (combined with her, almost blundering, attempts to make him see her as a woman), result in a kind of emotional schizophrenia within her - when surrounded by her family or friends she's her usual wild, tomboyish self, but when placed face to face with the object of her affection, she can barely speak, or even look him in the eye and is, instead, subconsciously forced to stare at the ground shyly and run away, back to the comfort zone of childhood, at the first available opportunity.
Her later journal entries finally provide her with an outlet for the feelings she has been unable to outwardly express, and though she never comes right out with a declaration of love, her comments - regarding the attentive (and often hilarious) observations she makes - place her heart firmly on her sleeve. Regardless of whether or not she is ultimately able to attain the love which she so deeply desires, those observations nonetheless become her saving grace.
Similarly, Su-ha has little life experience and, in meeting Eun-hee, he too falls in love with an older member of the opposite sex. However, where he and Hong-yeon differ is in their focus (within their respective affections) - while Hong-yeon is desperate to find ways to make Su-ha like her, Su-ha is searching for a love who will be able to share his passion for music and vinyl LPs, with which he fills the vast majority of his spare time. When he discovers that Eun-hee also likes the same songs, he instantly believes that he has found his perfect match, and Hong-yeon is pushed yet further out of his field of vision.
The destruction of one of his prized Connie Francis records heralds both a physical and metaphorical falling apart of most of the things that he holds dear, causing him to begin to question everything he was previously sure of and, only when his passions are once more empathised with, is he able to find his heart again.
Films bases on stories of first love (or indeed love triangles) are two-a-penny in most countries and cultures, but where The Harmonium In My Memory stands head and shoulders above the rest is in the detailed and nuanced depictions of the day-to-day lives of the characters. Given a gentle humour, and combined with a set of warmly kooky supporting characters, these tiny moments ensure that the story (which, for a large portion of the film, is a sad tale) never feels downbeat and, instead, keeps a light-hearted and touching playfulness throughout.
Thankfully, director Lee Young-jae also gives ample time to the building of the main characters' personalities (especially in the case of Hong-yeon, whose journal entries give, almost, a free pass to the thought processes going on in her head), and thus the director is able to add a likeability of, and empathy for, each character and enable viewer allegiances to be effortlessly forged.
Cinematically, The Harmonium In My Memory is like a beautiful, lazy summer day in the sun, and the gorgeous musical soundtrack, peppered throughout with classic songs by the likes of Connie Francis and The Platters, serves to create an underlying feeling of an all-the-time-in-the-world summer drive. Even when the plot moves towards elements of melodrama (Hong-yeon needing to be rescued from a river, and a fire occurring at the school), this never diminishes and, in fact, remains until the very last moments of the plot. Speaking of which, those final moments conclude the, frankly lovely, story in a totally unexpected and uplifting fashion - raising overall viewer opinion of the film from "warmly beautiful" to "gentle, yet unforgettable".
With regard to the themes present, repeated references to the poverty prevalent in rural areas of South Korea at the time, and the resultant fall out in terms of education in those areas, subtly underline the tale within The Harmonium In My Memory. Many of the parents of the children at Sanri Elementary School are barely literate, having had to drop out of school at a young age to work (with note made that many in the area left school after the sixth grade), and even Hong-yeon is shown bringing her baby brother to school (and changing his nappy in the middle of class) because her parents cannot afford a babysitter and have no alternative but to go out to work so that the family can survive.
The idea that the inhabitants in the village are stuck in what amounts to a vicious circle - education would give them the skills and abilities to escape the poverty trap, but lack of money within their families forces them to drop out before those skills are obtained, ad infinitum - is poignantly prevalent throughout the film, though no answers or solutions (if there were any in those days) are offered.
The portrayals of the main characters provide a view of three household names in South Korean cinema early on in their careers:
Lee Byung-hun (as Kang Su-ha), in subsequent years, has worked with the likes of Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon and, more recently, has even ventured into US cinema, starring in GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. His performance in The Harmonium In My Memory shows all the hallmarks of the actor he was later to become, with an intelligently restrained performance, and the chemistry between him and his two leading ladies is obvious, at even a cursory glance.
Lee Mi-yeon (who plays Yang Eun-hee) was probably the most famous of the three at the time of the film's release, having acted in eight films up to that point (Lee Byung-hun and Jeon Do-yeon had previously starred in five and four films, respectfully).
Although her role in The Harmonium In My Memory is much less involved than her two co-stars she gives a faultless, gently sweet performance and gives both Lee Byung-hun and Jeon Do-yeon the space to really fly with their portrayals. In more recent years, she has split her acting between cinema and television roles.
And so, once again, to Jeon Do-yeon. I have lost count of the number of times I have said that Jeon Do-yeon is, quite possibly, the best South Korean actress there is. Her acting is of a calibre that, even before you watch a movie in which she stars, you can be pretty sure you are going to see a faultless and memorable performance. Her portrayal of love-struck Hong-yeon adds further proof to that theory and, as always, her ability to seamlessly switch raw, and utterly believable, emotions, at the drop of a hat, is astonishing. It should also be noted that she was 25 years old when she played 17 year-old Hong-yeon, and Jeon Do-yeon is one of the few actresses who could succeed in that to the extent that she does.
At the same time sad, funny, moving and uplifting, The Harmonium In My Memory is what everyone's first love should be.
The DVD used for this review is the UK release from Tai Seng Entertainment which comes in an outer slip-case and, like all of Tai Seng's releases, has an inlay card with some "points to note" about the film.
The image is presented as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 but, sadly, the DVD seems to have used the same print and transfer as Tai Seng's US release, which was plagued with image issues:
There is noticeable edge enhancement, verging on ghosting, throughout the film to the extent that this reviewer was repeatedly pulled out of his cinematic immersion. In a film as understated as this, that really is a problem but, sad to say, it's not the only one. The colour balance is, frankly, all over the place, with massive tonality changes - often within the same scene - and colours switching from being bright and vibrant to washed out with little depth of field. Add to that, an inherent graininess throughout (which, on its own, would actually accentuate the 60's feel of proceedings) and one is left wondering if the lack of clarity is a film issue, or, yet again, the fault of a substandard transfer.
Sound is provided as a choice of Korean Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound, Korean Stereo 2.0 or Cantonese Stereo 2.0 and each are crisp and clear throughout.
Excellent English subtitles (a Chinese subtitle option is also available) are provided for the main feature and all of the extras and, if this is the same transfer as the Region 1 DVD, typo issues have, thankfully, been resolved for this UK release.
Actors: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Byung-hun, Lee Mi-yeon
Directors: Lee Young-jae
Format: Dubbed, PAL, Widescreen
Language Korean, Cantonese Chinese
Region: All Regions
Number of discs: 1
Distributor: Tai Seng Entertainment
Run Time: 110 minutes
Making Of Featurette
Original Theatrical Trailer
Cast & Crew Filmographies
Trailers for other Tai Seng DVDs