07 3 / 2011
Unresolved Contradictoriness -Narrative Analysis of Happy End
A man, named Min-ki is sleeping with his baby daughter on the floor in his sunny living room. Soon after he awakes and sits up. The viewer watches only his back, as the camera is fixed in the same location. This is the very last scene of the Korean film, Happy End (1999) by Jung, Ji-Woo. If audiences only encounter this scene, they might consider that the scene shows the fragment of our daily lives. However, if we have knowledge that he has killed his wife, the ending of the film is enigmatic enough to make audiences puzzled. It is because the film ends without any punishment for him and his murder remains unresolved. In the last scene, while music flows, the title Happy End appears with white letters on the black screen. Subsequently, the word “Happy” is disappeared and the word “End” remains until the end credits roll, as if it shows that a happy state is erased in Min-ki’s mind/in the whole narrative of the film, and as if it says that this is just an “end, ” not a “happy end.” For Min-ki, is it a happy ending with the reason he succeeds in making a “perfect crime,” as his plan, although he has lost his wife and is supposed to live in a guilty secret? Geoffrey Nowell-Smith states that the importance of melodrama lies precisely in its ideological failure, because it cannot accommodate its problems, but lays them open in their shameless contradictoriness. (Nowell-Smith, 1987, 74) The film Happy End is full of obvious contradiction in terms of the ideology of conventional gender roles. If so, what kind of gender issues is postulated, and what are the elements to threaten the ideological coherence in the film?
Nowell-Smith argues that “the passive or impotent hero or heroine becomes protagonist of what has come to be known as melodrama.” Also, he asserts that “the contrast active/passive is traversed by another contrast, that between masculine and feminine (Nowell-Smith, 72).” In Happy End, as Nowell-Smith points out, apparent contrasts exist between the two main characters, Min-ki and his wife Bo-ra. Their conventional gender roles, as a husband and wife in domestic life, are completely reversed. Min-ki lost his job, and has been taking care of all housework, such as organizing food in a refrigerator, hanging the laundry, and grocery shopping with his neighbor. It is “typical” work for wives in Korean society, whereas Bo-ra is successful as a career woman, managing her own business. Particularly, when Min-ki talks on the phone with his female neighbor, watching a soap opera, which is definitely a love story/melodrama, and Bo-ra asks him to lower the volume on TV. Min-ki seems as though losing his masculinity. (In Korean society, it is used to be a traditional sign for housewives to talk with female friends about soap operas and for husbands to tease them.) Reversing traditional gender roles are postulated through not only their positions in the house but also in their private lives. Usually, the one having a love affair with a hope not to leave its spouse is a man and the one suffering is a woman in traditional Korean film melodramas as well as TV series. However, in contrast, in Happy End Bo-ra enjoys her love affair with Il-bum, and her two men, Min-ki and Il-bum feel painful because of her and each character’s different goal. Bo-ra hardly considers leaving her husband, although Il-bum is ready to raise Bo-ra’s daughter and have a family with Bo-ra. Later Min-ki becomes to know his wife’s relationship, yet he is not dare to discuss about the problem with her. As the narrative progresses, the three characters’ sustained desires and emotions are more and more swollen.
In terms of Nowell-Smith, “at the cost of repression,” Happy End is going to the end of “unhappy end” by the suppressed demands and each one’s disparate goal. “The more the plots press towards a resolution the harder it is to accommodate the excess. What is characteristic of the melodrama is the way the excess is siphoned off,” Nowell-Smith states. (Nowell-Smith, 73) Bo-ra enjoys her sense of freedom with Il-bum at first, yet Il-bum becomes not to be satisfied with his position as a secret lover. He prepares baby supplies and hopes Bo-ra to move in with her daughter. Feeling pressure, Bo-ra decides to leave Il-bum, yet Il-bum visits her apartment. In order to go out and meet him, Bo-ra puts a sleeping pill to her daughter’s milk. Min-ki finds out his daughter has fever, and on the way back from an emergency room, he eventually witnesses the scene in which Bo-ra and Il-bum are together.
This moment serves as a momentum exploding his repressed resentment. It leads him to murder cruelly Bo-ra as his elaborate plan. With the brutal homicide, Min-ki’s impotent masculinity resuscitates, and the reversed conventional gender roles turned back to the traditional gender positions. At this point, in terms of Nowell-Smith asserts, “a particular standpoint or series of standpoints” reveal, and it opens contradictoriness in the film. When a woman (Bo-ra) enjoys her love affair and feeds her baby milk with a pill, could this be a reason that she deserves punishment? In addition, how could the man (Min-ki) killing her wife go unpunished? Furthermore, in several scenes, such as when Min-ki stands outside of his apartment, holding his daughter, noticing that his wife and her lover together, his figure looks desolate and it evokes sympathy for the viewer. Isn’t it that this scene contributes audiences to feel somewhat blunt to the violent murder? Otherwise as Bloch writes, “more than once the fiction of a happy end, when reality did not stand in too harsh contradiction to it, reformed a bit of the world; that is: an initial fiction was made real,” (Bloch, 1995, 443) as bringing this controversial and contradictory issues, such as the punishment for female and empowering male with it, does Happy End make the viewer contemplate the gender issues in real world?
In short, I agree with the Nowell-Smith assertion: melodrama can be seen as a contradictory nexus, and the importance of melodrama lies in its ideological failure. (Nowell-Smith, 74) I argue that Happy End includes contradictory gender issues: reversing typical gender roles and then turning back the gender positions toward the direction to strengthen masculinity. Also, in Happy End the contrast goal of each character threatens the ideological coherence, and it amplifies the contradictoriness and the enigmatic questions I raised above.
Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Vol. 1, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995).
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Minnelli and Melodrama,” Christine Gledhill, ed. Home is Where the Heart Is (London: British Film Institute, 1987), 70-74.
Happy End (Jung, Ji-Woo, South Korea, 1999)
* This is a revised edition of my paper on film melodrama in order to test Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Ernst Bloch’s assertions about the “uneasy happy ending” of melodrama.