Family ties and feminine heartstrings
Kim Tae-yong’s “The Birth of a Family” is a neat portrait of a family united around loyalty and compassion rather than the traditional institutional obligation of marriage.
The film, which roughly divides into five episodes, starts off with a brief anecdote about a young couple who meet on a train. The film then suddenly turns to Mi-ra (played by Mun So-ri), who as the episode begins is greeting her thoughtless brother, the kind of guy who never grows up. After years of living on his own, he has returned home with his older lover, Mu-sin (Go Du-shim), because they need a place to stay.
The next episode centers on Seon-gyeong (Gong Hyo-jin), a young woman who shelters the small hope of getting a job in Japan and escaping from her seedy life and her mother, who lives with her lover and a child from a previous affair with a married professor.
“The Birth of a Family” lives up to its title in the final episode, when the young couple on a train from the film’s opening sequence turns out to be Seon-gyeong’s stepbrother and Mu-sin’s step-daughter from her previous marriage, years after the first two episodes.
Indeed, as the story goes on, we learn that Mu-sin had stayed at Mi-ra’s house even after her lover had left; that the two women took care of a little girl from Mu-sin’s previous marriage after her ex-husband had abandoned his own daughter, and that Seon-gyeong gave up her career to take care of her stepbrother after their mother died of cancer.
The film clearly conveys adoration for matriarchal societies by posing a model of a family made up of people who are not tied by blood or social cliques.
Yet in some ways, the film leaves a bitter aftertaste, because the story depicts the strength of women as something transcending the world of human morality, when their lives, in reality, are actually just a summary of tolerance, sacrifice and affliction caused by immature men.
Despite the disturbing note, there is something irresistibly healthy about this film. In the end, it seems almost determined to depict the lives of women with a sense of hope.
There is an underlying sense of peace and happiness in the lives of the women and people around them that appears to border on the unreal, given the strict standards still governing the institutions of family and marriage in Korean society.
Still it’s hard to blame the film for being too naive, because the characters’ happiness really seems to be grounded on encouragement and hope rather than an idealized portrait of women.
Indeed, by the end, the decisions taken by the women characters ― be it the sacrifices they made, or the hard ways they chose to love those close to them ― become somewhat convincing, as they appear to be gestures of human decency made by people who’ve been through moments of despair and hardship.
It’s not all that common to see a family, especially in a Korean movie about society’s victims, that manages to overcome hardship without losing hope. Perhaps in that sense, the film deserves credit for giving birth to an alternative vision of Korean families.
The Birth of a Family
Directed by Kim Tae-yong
Starring Mun So-ri, Go Du-sim
Running time: 113 minutes
by Park Soo-mee