The Widow review: What survives of Korea’s first film directed by a woman?

The Widow review, Luke Ryan Baldock at the London Korean Film Festival.

The Widow review
The Widow review

As this year’s London Korean Film Festival focuses on film’s directed by women focusing on the lives of Korean women, it only makes sense to screen The Widow, the first ever Korean film directed by a woman. Park Nam Ok, once a professional shot putter, directs a heartfelt film of a woman’s life in post-war South Korea. Unfortunately, like many Korean films of the time, it survives in less than perfect conditions. The last reel of the film has never been recovered, giving the film a sudden ending, as well as the last ten minutes of sound being completely absent. The sound and quality of the surviving print is also rather poor, but it’s still a fascinating watch for fans of Korean film and film history.

Shin (Lee Min Ja) lost her husband in the war and currently lives with her daughter Ju (Lee Seong Ju) in a community of those affected by the war. She meets up with her husband’s friend Lee Seong Jin (Shin Dong Hun), who helps out financially. One day Lee’s wife (Park Yeong Suk) confronts Shin over what she thinks is an affair. Ironically, Lee’s wife is carrying out her own affair with a young artist named Taek (Lee Taek Kyun). After a visit to the beach, Ju is rescued from drowning by Taek, which starts a romantic connection between Shin and Taek.

The focus here is on the uncertainty of a woman’s role post-war. Shin longs for a father for Ju, but once she becomes invested she fears that Ju may be a deterrent. As Shin’s friend remarks, ‘A woman has to be single to get rich.’ Funnily enough, the film also hits on themes relevant today around the world, where women are made to compete with each other. Lee’s wife doesn’t see the hypocrisy in her actions, and rather than confronting her husband, it is Shin she berates.

Park’s style is certainly a mixed bag. She handles her characters beautifully, and is also more subtle than the majority of Korean melodramas of the time. As Shin sends Ju to school, despite Ju’s reluctance as she knows she cannot pay, Shin sheds a tear but quickly wipes it away and offers Ju a smile instead. Elsewhere some scenes lead to confusion as Park struggles to give a sense of distance and proximity. During the important scene at the beach, it’s never quite clear how far characters are from one another, making the dramatic drowning less impactful. Park’s overuse of cuts where characters walk directly into the camera, before reversing the shot as they walk away, can also be distracting.

Incomplete, and perhaps a few too many coincidences that drive the plot, The Widow is a charming and emotional look at people finding their place in the world when the world still feels shaken. Social norms are questioned, and both men and women become exploited for sex, money, and security. It’s still relevant today, and certainly worth 75 minutes of your time, with the sudden ending providing a surprising ambiguity that allows us to complete the tale.

The Widow review by Luke Ryan Baldock. The film screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2016.

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