In English, The Wedding Day. Also known (ironically, as it turns out) as A Happy Event in the Maeng Family.
I’ve been watching a lot of (relatively new) Korean films—most of them frothy romances and romcoms—over the past several weeks. They reminded me that I’d never reviewed a Korean film on this blog, and they also reminded me that the first Korean film I ever saw was a romantic one; or what I could remember of it was romantic. The film was shown on Doordarshan, India’s sole television channel back in the early 80s. Doordarshan, back then, showed an interesting mix of foreign cinema: all the way from films like Red Sorghum (which my parents should probably not have let an impressionable 12-year old watch) to Fedora, which bored me to tears. And a Korean historical about a wedding in a family.
For years, I kept wondering which film that was. I didn’t remember the name; all I knew was that it was a historical, didn’t feature martial arts, and was in colour. Some hectic Googling, a huge dollop of luck, and I arrived at the answer: the film was a 1978 one named Shijibganeun Nal or The Wedding Day. More to my delight, I also discovered that it was a remake of a 1956 film of the same name. Directed by Lee Byeong-Il, The Wedding Day (1956) was the first Korean film to receive an award at a film festival overseas—it won the Comedy Award at the Asian Film Festival.
So, without further ado, what the film is all about.
The wedding, of course. The bride in question is the very pretty Gapbun (Kim Yoo-seon), daughter of Maeng Jinsa (Kim Seung-ho). The Maeng family lives in the countryside and are the epitome of provincial gentry: very aware of the difference in status between themselves and the villagers who serve them, condescending and occasionally imperious, but mostly rather benevolent.
A glimpse of this surface benevolence shines through in the very first scene of the film, where we see Gapbun with her friend Ipbun (Cho Mi-ryung). Here, in this scene, with Gapbun’s cheerful calling out to Ipbun, and Ipbun’s equally enthusiastic response—followed by the two girls’ excited chatting—it seems as if they are just two very dear friends. It takes a while for the truth to emerge: Ipbun (who is never shown to have any parents or other relatives) is a servant of the household.
Right now, though, the focus of all the attention is Gapbun. Because Gapbun’s father has returned from a successful mission to the noble Kim Panseo of Bellflower Valley. Kim Panseo’s family is very highly esteemed, and Gapbun’s father had hoped to arrange a marriage between Kim Panseo’s son Mieon (Choi Hyun) and Gapbun. Not with much hope, since there’s a huge gap between the relative status and wealth of the two families—but, to his own surprise, the offer has been accepted!
There is much rejoicing and excitement. Gapbun’s father and mother (Seok Keum-seong) are delighted, as is her nanny (Kim Jeong-ok).
Gapbun’s old grandfather, the Maeng family patriarch (Song Hae-chun), is rather befuddled by age and so is not quite able to comprehend exactly what the news is all about (Who is Gapbun, he wants to know. And Kim Panseo? Isn’t Kim Panseo rather too old to be getting married? Oh, it’s not Kim Panseo this Gapbun—whoever she is—is marrying, but his son? So is his son old enough to be married?) Gapbun’s father gives up after a while.
Other relatives, more sagacious and aware, nitpick. Gapbun’s uncle takes Maeng Jinsa to task when he discovers that the man hasn’t even seen his prospective son-in-law. The entire wedding has been fixed without meeting Mieon.
Amidst all the excitement of Gapbun’s upcoming wedding, there’s also an irritant for Ipbun: Samdol (Hwang Nam), a fellow servant. Samdol has been in love with Ipbun for a long time now and has been pestering her to marry him. Ipbun doesn’t care for Samdol at all and has told him that in so many words, but Samdol’s not listening.
Then—back to Gapbun and her wedding—a contingent arrives from Bellflower Valley, bearing gifts for the Maengs. The official who accompanies the procession of gift-bearers ceremonially hands over the list of gifts to Gapbun’s father, whose eyes goggle at the sight of the things listed here: gold, silver, white jade, Chinese silk, cotton… there’s a veritable treasure here. He can barely think straight at the thought of how prosperous his little girl is going to be.
The ladies—Gapbun, her mother, her nanny, and Ipbun—are busy admiring all the pretty presents that have arrived. Ipbun, reaching out a tentative hand to caress a gift, is snubbed by Madam Maeng, who tells her to remember her place: she’s a mere servant. Ipbun, as always docile and quiet, immediately backs off. She does, however, make one request (which she’s made earlier to Gapbun too, who has agreed): can she please accompany Gapbun as her maid when Gapbun gets married and moves to her husband’s household?
Meanwhile, preparations continue for the wedding. Maeng Jinsa decides to update the family tree (and ruefully remarks to his father that it’s a very humble genealogical table, isn’t it? Maeng Jinsa himself is the first person in the family to qualify to be an official). Daddy remarks gleefully that it was a good idea for Maeng to have bought that office.
Now Maeng Jinsa gets ready to add Mieon’s name—ah, such a worthy addition that will be, certainly lifting the entire family a few notches—to the chart.
Just then, the family servant Park Chambong (Ha Ji-man) comes to deliver a message. A stranger, who introduces himself as a scholar, has arrived and seeks shelter for two days. May he be allowed in?
Maeng Jinsa refuses. He knows this sort; he’ll come in, loll about, eat Maeng Jisna’s rice, and waste his money. No, he tells Park Chambong. Tell the man we can’t have him here.
Which Park Chambong duly does, and then just as dutifully goes back and reports to Maeng Jinsa. In passing, Park Chambong also mentions that the stranger was a little anxious, wondering if he’d be able to make it back home to Bellflower Valley before sunset…
Maeng Jinsa realises, in a sudden rush of worry, that he might be guilty of a faux pas. This scholar is from Bellflower Valley? He may report to Kim Panseo that he was turned away from the Maeng household! What then?
So Maeng Jinsa has Park Chambong fetch the man back, and personally apologises to the stranger. This man introduces himself as Kim Myung-jeong, and says he’s a student of Confucianism, at Bellflower Valley. When questioned (gently and somewhat obsequiously) by Maeng Jinsa, he admits, too, that he knows Kim Panseo.
…unaware that all hell is about to break loose.
Because, the next morning, the servant Samdol (Ipbun’s unwanted admirer), while washing the scholar’s feet, starts chatting with him. Does he know Mieon, Kim Panseo’s son? Is he as accomplished, as wise and as fine a calligrapher as he’s touted to be? Yes, yes, and yes, says the scholar. He is perfection itself. If only, he adds, shaking his head sadly, it weren’t for Mieon’s leg.
Samdol is surprised. What’s that?
And the scholar reveals a secret (unaware, perhaps, that the Maeng family doesn’t know): Mieon, for all his wealth and wisdom and honour and everything, is a cripple. One leg is shorter than the other. He limps very badly.
Samdol goes racing off to tell Maeng Jinsa, who then (besides nearly having a heart attack) has to cope with his family members. Old Daddy can’t understand who’s the cripple, and why that should affect the Maeng family. Madam Maeng is acerbic in her condemnation of her husband’s abilities at finding a groom for his only child.
There is, understandably, mayhem. What will they do? The Maeng menfolk go into a conclave to try and figure out a solution. They can’t now stop the wedding; it would be a huge blow to the honour of both the Maeng family as well as Kim Panseo’s. And yet, Maeng Jinsa loves his daughter too much to burden her with a crippled husband.
Then, a brainwave. Ipbun! They will pass Ipbun off as Gapbun, and have her marry Mieon instead.
So, Gapbun is surreptitiously whisked away by a back door to her uncle’s home (which is a fair distance away). And Ipbun is told that she will, from now on, be Gapbun. She will call Maeng Jinsa Father, and she will marry Mieon.
And meek little Ipbun can’t even summon up the courage to say that no, she’d rather not, thank you. Partly because she is meek, but also because she feels sorry for this man, whom she’s never seen, but whose hopes of a marriage might be dashed because of his disability.
What I liked about this film:
No; let me reword that. What I loved about this film. Because ‘liked’ is a mild word for the emotion The Wedding Day evoked in me. This was a charming, delightful, very sweet little film (actually little—it’s only 77 minutes long). It’s a simple, uncomplicated story with not too many characters, a straightforward plot, and people that I could relate to.
The relatability (and likeability) of its characters is one thing that especially endeared this film to me. The Wedding Day, while peopled with less-than-perfect characters (the supercilious Madam Maeng and Gapbun’s nanny; the selfish Maeng Jinsa; the shallow and immature Gapbun among them), never lets its characters become one-dimensional. For instance, Madam Maeng doesn’t get melodramatically cruel towards Ipbun, and both she and her husband are kind to Ipbun (perhaps a result of feeling guilty?) when they’ve made her agree to marry Mieon. Gapbun, too, is never really spiteful towards Ipbun: insensitive in an immature and self-centred way, but not intentionally nasty.
Also, what makes The Wedding Day a particularly likeable film is the fact that it could have been set in just about any place. Here, the setting is medieval Korea; it could well have been played out in medieval Europe or India, or any other place: a simple story of a meek maid being bullied into marrying a wealthy cripple to help her master save face.
And yes, while it’s not laugh-out-loud funny through all those 77 minutes, there’s a good bit of subtle (and not-so-subtle), often satirical humour all through it. The very greediness of Maeng Jinsa is comic.
What I didn’t like (or, actually—some more of what I did like):
What I didn’t like—nothing, because I was able to adjust to a time and place different from today.
But those who can see society (even in fiction) conforming only to what is considered ‘liberated’ or ‘correct’ in contemporary society may find Ipbun’s submissiveness unacceptable. For me, Ipbun, while not a flag-bearer of feminism, is redeemed from being a complete pushover by small, telling gestures. The way, for instance, she quietly but firmly tells Samdol she doesn’t want to marry him. Or the way she scolds Gapbun’s so-called friends, who’ve been teasing Gapbun mercilessly (and to tears) about the cripple she’s going to marry.
And, frankly, for me Ipbun’s gentleness and the very fact that she’s willing to marry Mieon because she can empathise with a cripple… well, that is enough for me to like her. Not all heroines need be Joans of Arc; some can, occasionally, be Ipbuns too, sensitive to other people’s feelings, gentle and kind.
The Wedding Day is available for viewing, with English subtitles, on Youtube, here. Do watch!