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An Affair April 9, 2011

Posted by koreancinemahouse in : Drama / Romance , trackback

Starring: Lee Mi-sook, Lee Jung-jae, Kim Min, Song Young-chang.

Directed by E. J-yong.

Year: 1999

To be a woman falling madly in love with somebody for the first time in her life should be the most wonderful experience, right? Well, it would be if the woman weren’t already married and had a child. And as an added complication, the object of her mutual affection is 11 years younger than she. Still not a problem, you say? Well then, I guess I forgot to mention the biggest catch of all - the man she loves is her younger sister’s fiancé. Instead of falling in love with one another, So-hyun (Lee Mi-sook - Scandal) and U-in (Lee Jung-jae - Over the Rainbow) are supposed to be preparing for the upcoming wedding by securing an apartment. But these preparations on behalf of the sister, detained on business in America, only serve to ignite a mutual attraction and love between the two main characters.

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In An Affair, the viewer is introduced to the lovely, but melancholy So-hyun, living the monotonous life of a stay-at-home mother. First-time director E. J-yong skillfully portrays So-hyun’s married life as a dispassionate existence in the cold chrome and gray color scheme of her home. Her home is institutional in its palette, as well as in the obligations to her marriage. As a dutiful wife and mother, So-hyun goes about her tasks of making beds, preparing food, shuttling her son to and from extracurricular activities, running errands and making a silent appearance at her husband’s business dinners. Despite her loveliness, So-hyun’s lifeless existence shows through in the blankness of her forced smiles and pleasant exchanges. And it is in these expressions that we see one of the biggest strengths of An Affair - the performance E. J-yong draws forth from his lead actress, Lee Mi-sook.

From the movie’s title, An Affair may seem to be a condemnation of marriage, but I don’t think this is the case. Instead, the film shows the dilemma of a woman awakening to her own thoughts and desires - an experience to which many viewers, either young or old, should be able to relate. But So-hyun’s awakening does not take place until later in her life. At nearly 40 years of age, So-hyun begins to realize that happiness is not making a home and family with her most persistent pursuer in college. But is it too late for her to seek her own happiness at the expense of her sister’s happiness, or more importantly, her son’s? For her son may seem indifferent to his mother’s affections, as most boys his age tend to behave, yet he tellingly reveals his need for her approval during a basketball game. After scoring a goal, he scans the bleachers for his mother’s face; but she has already fled, unable to deny her passion for U-in any longer. She is not present to see the heartbreaking look of disappointment on her child’s face.

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The characters are neither good nor bad in An Affair; instead they are as complex as So-hyun’s dilemma. Her exit would be easy if her husband were cheating on her or abusing her in some manner, but he’s not. In fact, he is a hard worker and an ideal provider for his family. But in being a role model to Korean society, his public success is portrayed as a private failing. While dining at So-hyun’s house with her husband, U-in asks his future brother-in-law about his marriage: “Are you happy?”. Thinking the question a joke, the husband replies that happiness is akin to the contented existence of the fish in his aquarium - a warm place to live, food to eat, no worries - all contained inside the confines of a glassed-in, controlled environment. And symbolically, the camera shows the muted outline of So-hyun at her table, framed by the confines of the fish aquarium.

To further emphasize how devoid of passion So-hyun’s home life is, another scene shows her arranging a collection of fossils, heavy hunks of cold stone to commemorate the years of her life. Carrying through with this not-so-subtle metaphor, a later scene takes place at a barren rock quarry. Years of chipping away stone has left nothing but a vast pit, as empty as the life So-hyun leads as she rearranges her fossils - those remnants of life, forever entombed in the coldness and constancy of stone.

When away from home and family, encouraged by U-in to express her own thoughts and desires, So-hyun’s face becomes lively and animated. In U-in she begins to reject others’ expectations of her and begins to seek out what she longs for herself. And in this desire to be herself, she finds both comfort and passion with her lover, who longs to break free from similar obligations to his Korean family, being the only surviving son. His status as something of an outsider helps facilitate his breaking away from the expectations of his Korean father. Having spent most of his life in the Americas, U-in recoils from the thought of an urban Korean existence. He opts, instead, for the outdoors that reminds him of his childhood. When So-hyun presents him with a gift that portrays a familiar image from his childhood, he reacts with a look of amused happiness as she walks away. Before long, U-in will help So-hyun realize that a resemblance of happiness will not suffice for happiness itself, and she will be faced with the difficult question of how much of herself is she willing to continue sacrificing.

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Not an uplifting film with its contemplative seriousness, An Affair is nonetheless an important film. In 1998, it placed seventh in the list of top-grossing domestic films in South Korea, and the following year, won for Best Asian Film at the Newport Beach International Film Festival in Los Angeles. For Lee Jung-jae, his role as U-in proved to be a breakthrough in his career, as he has gone on to make several successful films since (Il Mare, Asako in Ruby Shoes, and Over the Rainbow). And for Lee Mi-sook, her role proved to be a triumphant return to the screen after her ten-year absence. She has currently re-united with her director from An Affair, E. J-yong, to co-star with Jeon Do-yeon - (No Blood, No Tears) in Scandal, a Korean version of Dangerous Liaisons, due to be completed sometime this year.

Reviewed by Bobbi Mimmack

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