Jeong-hye (Kim Yoon-jin) is a pregnant woman who is convicted of killing her brutal and abusive husband, and is sentenced to ten years in prison. Giving birth to a baby boy shortly after her incarceration, she is soon informed that her time with her son is limited, with the day quickly drawing near when he will be taken away from her. In an effort to gain favour with the prison authorities (to enable her to be allowed to have a day out with her child), Jeong-hye and her fellow inmates decide to create a prison choir and, even though Jeong-hye's singing is initially so bad that it actually makes her baby cry, slowly her, and the other choir members', singing improves to the point where they are considered good enough to participate in a choral competition. However, to her dismay, Jeong-hye discovers that the day of the event is also the day she will lose her son forever...


Depending on its context and handling, the mixing of genres in films can either intelligently supplant expectations and provide genuine twists of emotions in viewers; or, alternatively, give a jarring sense of unmeshable elements being forced together, despite being very much at odds with each other. Sadly, in Harmony, the latter is very much the case.
From the moment Jeong-hye's baby is born in prison and she is told that he is to be taken away from her, it's pretty obvious that the plot is heading towards melodrama, and as the individual characters' back-stories begin to confirm this, the sudden jump to light, almost fluffy, humour in the creation, and ongoing endeavors, of the jail choir feels utterly out of place. While numerous South Korean tear-jerkers have successfully blended heartbreak with more upbeat ideas, the humorous elements in Harmony start to appear only after the film has clearly shown itself to be a poignant drama in the making and, since it is much easier for audiences to accept happiness turning to heartbreak, than melodrama turning towards comedy - especially if it attempts to repeatedly move back and forth between the two - Harmony sets itself an incredibly difficult task from the outset.


Add to that, the fact that the story of the choir, and the humour contained within, is extremely clichéd, to say the least (repeatedly screaming similar ideas to a very famous, and equally clichéd, comedy film about a choir, from Western culture), to the extent that it actually detracts from any emotional resonance sought by the poignant aspects of the story, and is, at times, even rather cringe-worthy. The aforementioned jumping back and forth between melodramatic and comedic elements (noticeably switching rather than gently morphing) certainly doesn't help matters and, it must be said that, for the first half of the film, Harmony feels much like two separate, almost unconnected, genre films spliced together.

As far as the drama aspects of Harmony are concerned, first-time director Kang Dae-gyoo's inexperience clearly shows throughout in his numerous attempts to deliberately force viewer tear ducts into overdrive. Put simply, he just tries too hard, and pushes too far:
Story ideas and plot elements that are, initially, genuinely moving, are continually stretched well beyond the limits of poignancy, and are largely diminished emotionally as a direct result.
Not only that, but as the inmates' stories are expanded (by a combination of flashback and exposition), Harmony attempts to elicit viewer empathy for the main characters by showing that the majority of the individual crimes for which they have each been incarcerated mostly came as the result of efforts to end cycles of abuse - the killing of a brutally violent husband, for example - and though we do feel for their plight, there are noticeable, and extremely questionable, implications within the film's sub-text that perhaps these women shouldn't be in prison at all, even though they are guilty of crimes as serious as murder. While their past actions do show them to be largely victims of circumstance and, as such, worthy of understanding (especially having seen aspects of what each has been through), no significant mention is made of the undeniable fact that two wrongs don't make a right in any respect, aside from them being in jail in the first place. In fact, even the prison officer who sees them first and foremost as criminals, is portrayed as a cold, somewhat heartless individual.

In the second half of Harmony, the story changes its focus to the choir's attempt to win the choral competition, and subsequently moves to a number of years after the event to conclude its tale, but while this rather more uplifting section works to a greater extent within the serious drama than the earlier comedic aspects, a heartwarming, apparent 'end' to the story has an overly melancholy, melodramatic addendum tacked on as a conclusion to the plot - once again in a deliberate, and rather obvious, effort to force viewer emotions. Though not entirely unsuccessful, this conclusion is, however, so utterly contrived as to, once again, result in the loss of the vast majority of the intended pathos.

Of all the aspects of Harmony, easily the most deftly accomplished are the music and musical numbers (by Lee Byeong-woo), when taken on their own merits, and the acting, especially in the case of Kim Yoon-jin (who US television fans will most likely recognise from her appearance in the series ‘Lost’) as Jeong-hye, and veteran Korean actress Nah Moon-hee, as choir master/conductor Moon-ok.


Attempting to be a poignant melodrama containing both humorous and uplifting elements, Harmony largely fails due to the disparity of its constituent parts - each detracting from the others' effectiveness, with none truly mixing harmoniously.


Kang Dae-gyoo


Lee Seung-yeon-IV, Yoon Je-kyoon


Kim Yoon-jin, Nah Moon-hee, Kang Ye-won, Lee Da-hee

All images © CJ Entertainment
Review © P. Quinn