The Harmonium In My Memory (1999)

  Many people refer to songs as sticking in their heads; a Proustian rush can encourage a refrain or a line to repeat itself in one’s mind over and over. Similarly it is not uncommon to hear of individuals referring to movies as “staying with them” with scenes or pieces of dialogue re-occurring over and over in their recollections.

   The Harmonium In My Memory
is such a film – a simple and lovingly crafted tale focusing on young (not quite) romance and the power of music; a movie equally about the shaping of memories and the manner in which melodies can shape who we are.

   Set in the rural Gangwon province of South Korea in 1962, The Harmonium In My Memory stars Lee Byung-hun as an idealistic, newly graduated teacher dispatched to his first job away from his modern home of Seoul. Kang Soon-ha (Lee) soon catches the eye of a few of the locals – his high cheekbones and winsome smile are popular with the ladies, one of whom describes him as a “bachelor deserving of his title”.

    No one, however, is more enchanted by the handsome teacher than his pupil Hong-yeon (Jeon Do-yeon). Despite her best efforts to get his attentions, Hong-yeon seems almost invisible to Soon-ha and it soon clear why; Kang has began to nurture his own affections for another teacher at the school, the luminous Yang Eun-hee (Lee Mi-yeon).

   In many other writer’s hands, The Harmonium In My Memory would follow the well tread plot of the bright eyed teacher using his idealism to help supposedly downtrodden children escape their environment; many of Kang’s pupils can read no better than they could at the start of their education and all are expected to graduate as border-line illiterate. Instead, Lee Young-jae’s smart script soon reveals that perhaps Kang’s optimism comes from his own naivety - ultimately the teacher may have a lot to learn himself before he can impact any wisdom to anyone else.

   Kang is a young man yet his feelings, and even how he behaves due to them, are not entirely different from that of Hong-yeon the teenage student. Whereas she spends her days wondering aloud why her teacher pinched her – was it a sign of affection? – Kang spends a similar amount of his time professing out loud his love, from first sight, of Eun-hee. We learn that no matter our age, our hearts will often make fools of who we are.

   Yet one of the most remarkable notes of a lilting, emotive film is Kang's relationship with music; it is a simple and pure, unadulterated pleasure for him. He revels in the lost art of listening to melodies as a thing of joy in and of its self rather than indulging in the widespread practise of simply using them to fill silences whilst completing other tasks. He is a keen musician, he plays the titular harmonium, he composes, he dances – which causes rumours to fly round the school that he may have even hugged Eun-hee from behind – and no topic makes his face light up more than when he’s discussing his record collection of LPs he has acquired.

   Kang reacts to a broken heart in much the same way as he does a broken record; both events constitute emotionally devastating moments for him and his reaction is not at all dissimilar to Hong-yeon’s own broken heart. Love, it seems, is a universal experience in the same way that music is and Young-jae demonstrates how both can fill their recipients with ecstasy and glee, or can fill their hearts with mourning and sorrow.

   Boasting incredible performances from Jeon and Lee in particular, the movie is a sheer delight to look at and an immaculately heart warming piece. Much praise has to be given to Lee Young-jae’s direction which brings his immaculate script to life at a meditative pace; a serene, almost static camera fills the screen with a succession of painterly images.

     ORIGINALLY POSTED AT THE TOTALITY: The Harmonium In My Memory Review
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A look at the films of North and South Korea. Written by Kieron J Casey.

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