Go to contents

Did My Mom Love Like That?

Posted June. 15, 2004 22:25,   


If there were such a thing as a “sea of films,” director Park Heung-sik’s “Little Mermaid” would be a pearl hiding in its depths.

“Little Mermaid” is a rare gem among fantasy films. It exhibits a high level of technological achievement as well, with actress Jeon Do-yeon playing two roles at once. The movie tells the story of post office worker Na-yeong (Jeon Do-yeon), who accidentally travels back in time to when her mother Yeon-sun (Go Du-shim) was twenty years old and watches her mother’s love and dreams unfold in a way that differs vastly from the reality she knows.

Little Mermaid—

Why “Little Mermaid”? Yeon-sun, who now works as a “bath manager” (someone who scrubs people’s backs in public bath houses), used to be a female diver as a young woman. There’s also a scene in which Na-yeong’s father Jin-guk (Park Hae-il) gives his daughter a copy of “The Little Mermaid” as a present. But neither of these details sufficiently explains the movie’s title.

The film opens with the dedication, “To my mother.” The ending song, which flows softly like an embrace cradling young Yeon-sun as she swims deep down in a sapphire-blue sea, is also called “To Mother” (lyrics and music by Cho Sung-woo).

In other words, the film is not just about the youthful love affair between Yeon-sun and Jin-guk. Its real message is the love and compassion it inspires not just to Park’s own mother but also to all women who now exist only by the name of “mother,” as well as the heartfelt reconciliation between Na-yeong and her mother Yeon-sun.

Yeon-sun, constantly spitting and swearing as she goes about her work at the bath house, is a far cry from the beautiful and tragic Little Mermaid of the fairy tale, who gladly gives up her own life for the sake of love. But when Na-yeong declares, “My mom scrubs backs for a living” after meeting Yeon-sun as a young girl, the scene becomes both Na-yeong’s acknowledgement of and atonement for the fact that her mother had once cherished dreams and loves like herself.

Conflict and reconciliation between a young daughter and her aged mother—Park’s directorial gift elevates this somewhat clichéd tale into a merry yet moving film. The scenes are like a miniature painting, rendered with painstaking care from individual props to passing bits of dialogue. The meticulous weaving of details might feel a little artificial to some, but the delicate intricacy of the whole quickly closes the distance between film and audience.

The Bath House and the Sea—

Setting the majority of the movie at the sea and at a bath house is a stroke of genius. Roughly put, the “little mermaids” of the sea (that is, mothers) came to dry land and ended up at bath houses. And, unlike the fairy tale, they did not choose death, but are living their weary lives among us, in a much harsher reality.

The sea is young Yeon-sun’s space, where youth, dreams, fantasy, and a happy past intermingle. By contrast, the bath house, grimy with the dirt of the passing years and of everyday life, is the space where Yeon-sun now exists as an aged and tired woman. The divergent images of the two settings strikingly emphasize the difference between the two characters, the one rooted in fantasy and the other in reality.

The movie’s appeal also stems from its avoidance of emotional excess. Warm affection infuses both Na-yeong’s gaze as she observes Yeon-sun’s past and present, and the young Yeon-sun’s gaze as she looks on the young Jin-guk.

Jeon Do-yeon—who remarked that “Little Mermaid” was “the definitive edition and assorted candy box of my acting life”—excels in the film. Go Du-shim, who plays the older Yeon-sun, and Park Hae-il, in the role of young Jin-guk, also make an alluring ensemble. Opens June 25. Rated G for general audiences.

Gab-Sik Kim dunanworld@donga.com