In Janice C. H. Kim's To Live to Work: Factory Women in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945, she attempts to show a step in the evolution of women's roles in Korea. She outlines how for the first time in Korea's history women, en masse, began moving to the cities for work -- most notably in the factories. She helps us visualize the awful working conditions, low wages, and lifestyles of these young women. But she also attempts to show how these women were able to break free from their bounds in small but seemingly important ways.
Kim attempts to show the ways in which these women gained some sort of purposeful agency within the factories amongst themselves, in escaping the factories, and in striking. Kim says these colonial working women “gained new identities” and “helped engender the political spheres around them" (175). But, any new identity gained and any political sphere that was engendered was extremely limited -- not just within the factory walls, but within the factions the women formed within similar communities inside the factories. Because, as Kim says “resistance [was] not always united,” and that conflicts were common between workers from different regions in Korea (117), different ranks, different skill sets, and different backgrounds. While these alliances helped to empower the women within the factory, they most likely also served to diminish their lasting impact on the broader communities within the factory, and they certainly did not help form any sense of larger solidarity outside of the factory walls.
This limited sense of agency is also seen in the workers’ other attempt to gain it through escape. Kim frames the issue of escape an “assertion of self-determination” and one in which agency can be found (123). But in their escape, it is difficult to see what, if anything, they gain. In many cases they are returned to their original factory or simply begin work at another factory. Yes, in escape they are able to assert a choice upon their own life and perhaps they do have a sense of improved agency as the women worked together in their associations with one another to help each other escape; however, the resulting effect seems to remain largely the same.
We could view many films through the lens of Kim's research; however, I think Yeong-ja's Heydays is particularly relevant if only for the fact that this film represents the "archetype of the hostess melodrama, which became popular soon thereafter."
In Yeong-ja's Heydays we can find a parallel discourse. Yeong-ja moves from the countryside to work in Seoul as she is the eldest child. As a housemaid she is raped by her boss's son and fired after the mother catches them in the act. She then becomes a factory worker and then a bus conductor. After a traffic accident, she loses her arm making her worthless in Seoul's working economy, so she becomes a prostitute.
Like the young women in Kim's research, Yeong-ja attempts to form alliances with other women, but those prove ultimately thin. And when she loses her arm her inferior status and inability to work are only highlighted by the other women, further alienating her.
Also, Yeong-ja is able to escape certain jobs, but each new job she finds seems to hold no negligible advantage over the last. She escapes her country home, but is raped in her first job. After being raped, she does not leave on her own volition, but is kicked out. And after leaving her factory job she only loses her arm while working on the bus. All of which begs the same question that arose in reading To Live to Work: if escape represents the main route through which women can gain agency as people, and that escape ultimately leads nowhere, to what extent can we measure their development?
Director Kim Ho-seon and screenwriter Kim Seung-ok attempt to provide some hope in their ending as Yeong-ja marries another man and has a child. But given what we have seen, what good can we possibly expect from Yeong-ja's life? We were already shown her uselessness in every sector of the economy (even as a prostitute she not wanted and barely needed), and her husband is also crippled. While the ending does give the audience a much needed reprieve from the utter hopelessness that came before, it must also be seen as a mask.
Surely, women's roles and opportunities changed, evolved, and improved from when the colonial era to the 70s, but as in this film and many others, we can also understand that the choices available to women to make their own life and own decisions are very limited. Even in Yeong-ja's case, the few moments of hope she had were mostly given to her by men.
Yeong-ja's Heydays was the most popular film of 1975 and from its popularity saw a rise in hostess dramas. KMDB writes, "Yeong-Ja's Heydays has been regarded as the archetype of the hostess melodrama, which became popular soon thereafter. If the hostess melodrama is a film genre that depicts the process of a young, lower-class woman's descent into despair, Yeong-Ja's Heydays is its most definitive example."
In Yeong-ja we can see woman who is doing everything she can to survive and succeed. She wants nothing more than to escape the cruelties that life has dealt her and to live peacefully; however the realities of life seem to always prevail. While working, Yeong-ja does what she has to do and puts on a fun, happy, or sexy face to please whomever she needs to please. But when left alone her sadness and despair are in full view. Kim Seung-ok's story is honestly written, and within the impossibly sad story he shows us the beauty of this sad and ultimately meaningless life. Also, Yeom Bok-sun's performance as Yeong-ja is almost perfect as she must channel all of Yeong-ja's varying emotions and experiences. And for that, this is an excellent film and highly recommended.
Here is the wonderful Yeom Bok-sun. Slide through to see all of the photos.
Also of note in this film are some of the amazing shots of Seoul in the 1970s. Below are some of them along with some of the ads promoting the film
Thanks to the Korean Film Archive, we can watch this film for free on YouTube with English subtitles. Thank you!
Kim, Janice CH. To Live to Work: Factory Women in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. Stanford University Press, 2009.