Hometown of the Heart (1949) Korea
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Date Added:2010-12-03
Tags: Buddhism drama

Summary: http://koreanfilm.org/kfilm45-59.html#hometown

In the Korean Film Archive's publication, Traces of Korean Cinema from 1945-1959, the authors Yi Hyo-in and Chung Chong Hwa note that "In 1949, the Korean film industry produced about twenty films. This level of productivity represented a green light for growth." Out of such growth, director Yoon Yong-gyu completed his Buddhist-themed tale Hometown of the Heart. And when time came to decide what South Korean film would be swapped with France in a cultural exchange, it was Hometown of the Heart that found itself headed to French shores in return for Chanson du Reves. (I have tried to find the director and year of this French film, but have had no success in unearthing such information from the internet, print publications, or my own personal French connections.) Lucky thing for Yong's film since cinephilic France was sure to keep good care of the print, saving it from the almost complete destruction of early Korean cinema as a result of the horrors of war and the carelessness of initial film storage techniques in Korea. Before the recent unearthing of older Korean films such as An Cheol-young's Eowha (1939), Hometown of the Heart was one of only a few films made prior to the outbreak of the Korean War to have survived.

Hometown in the Heart The film takes place around a mountain temple where a boy abandoned by his mother, Do-song, longs for his mother to reappear. The older monks and villagers tell Do-song stories about his mother, keeping Do-song attached to his hopes for her return from Seoul. He is told that if he simply builds her in his heart, she will come. However, the arrival of the Ahn family brings the possibility of yet another mother figure for Do-song. The Ahn family, the main philanthropists who support the temple, have returned to the temple for a funeral for their only male progeny, Jong-bo. Much to the initial disagreement of Grandma Ahn, Jong-bo's Mother takes a liking to Do-song and begins to contemplate adopting him. Do-song takes a liking to Jong-bo's Mother as well. But not simply because of his desire for a mother, but because of his desire for Seoul. When Do-song comments to the Kitchen Master how pretty Jong-bo's Mother is, the Kitchen Master replies, "That's because she's from Seoul." Do-song desires to follow Jong-bo's Mother to Seoul where he imagines the availability of many material things, such as the beautiful feather fan that Jong-bo's Mother possesses. And it is this beautiful feather fan, and Do-song's continued attachment to his biological mother, that risks finally ruining all that Do-song has hoped for.

Even though the precious nature of this film was enhanced by its previous standing as a rare representation of early Korean Cinema, this film will still be considered a treasure regardless of what other older films are rediscovered in the future. It is considerably well acted and directed with very little of the manic melodrama assumed to infect so much Korean cinema. There is one moment when Do-song's crying seems forced, but this is no different from the acting of children in other nations' cinemas of the time and otherwise the direction of Do-song's reactions and movements flows nicely. Three scenes stand out in the film: a dream sequence that we are drawn in and out of with the nice effect of a tight shot of branches rustling on a tree; a tense moment of secret identity between Do-song, Jong-bo's Mother, and a newly arrived stranger; and the nice subtle humor of the conflicts of interest afforded when the Priest must interpret particular karmic events for his primary benefactor. Sadly, the scene where Do-song first meets Grandma Ahn appears effected by the erosion of time because we cannot see Do-song's important facial reaction in response to the possibilities the Ahn family poses for his future. But who are we to complain when, outside of this and some brief soundtrack problems, the film has been restored quite well.

It is interesting that of all the films to have survived initially, one is a Buddhist-themed film since it is films such as Mandala, Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, . . . and Spring that have acted as inroads for Western interest in South Korean cinema. The film also explores intense relationships between sons and their mothers. This is where some might feel I should note the specifically Korean variation of such relationships, that is, between eldest sons and their mothers. Although Korean friends and acquaintances have expressed to me how such relationships are often extremely close to the point of being symbiotic, I have never been a first-party observer of such familial relationships nor have I found proper ethnographic studies of them, thus, I still retain some skepticism regarding their 'uniqueness' to South Koreans. Until I have such observations to reference, I will look at Hometown of the Heart as an exposition of any son/mother relationship that is tightly bonded. Hometown of the Heart allows the viewers to look at such relationships through the lens of a major tenet of Buddhist thought, that all suffering is caused by our attachment to things. In most Western Buddhist commentaries with which I am familiar, the primary attachments addressed are those placed upon material possessions, money, and fame. But equally sufferable are those attachments to fantasies about relationships and the borderline idolatry of other people that can sometimes result. And what better relationship to underscore the suffering of attachment to another person than the often sanctified relationship some men have with their mothers. And how ironic is it that cinephiles, those who are so attached to cinematic treasures from the past, have a Buddhist-themed film as one of the handful of films to survive the Korean War? (Adam Hartzell)

Hometown of the Heart ("Maeum-ui gohyang"). Directed by Yoon Yong-gyu. Screenplay by Kwak Il-byeong. Starring Byun Ki-jong, Yeo Heon-yong, Nam Seung-min, Yu Min, Choi Eun-hee, Seok Geum-seong, Choi Woon-bong, Cha Jin-su. Cinematography by Han Hyeong-mo. Produced by Dongseo Film Company. 78 min, b&w. Released on February 9, 1949.