Title: Yeongja’s Heydays
Yeong-ja-ui Jeon-seong-si-dae (영자의 전성시대)
Director: Kim Ho-sun (김호선)
Runtime: 103 min.
Cast: Yeom Bok-sun (염복순), Song Jae-ho (송재호), Choi Bul-am (최불암), Do Kum-bong (도금봉)
South Korea in the ‘70s: With the rapid industrialization reaching its peak, more and more young men and women leave the countryside to move to the big cities – to Seoul. People come to find work in factories or to take up other (underpaid) jobs to make money and provide for their (poor) families back home.
Yeong-ja (Yeom Bok-sun), the titular ‘heroine,’ and Chang-su (Song Jae-ho), a young man who first works in a factory, and then as a scrubber at a public bathhouse, both came from the countryside, hoping to improve their lives.
Even within the first few minutes of the movie, there is a lot to take in: After returning from the Vietnam war, Chang-su runs into Yeong-ja in a police station. He’s shocked to learn (the shock is evident on his face long before the camera starts zooming in) that Yeong-ja has been arrested during a police raid.
Change of scene: Three years earlier, Chang-su, then a factory worker, meets Yeong-ja at his boss’s house, where Yeong-ja works as a maid. We get to see a different Yeong-ja here: She is innocent, a bit shy, though occasionally a little sassy. Their first meeting is indeed a meet-cute and love at first sight. Well, it is for Chang-su, who falls head over heels for Yeong-ja and even vows to marry her someday. Yeong-ja rejects him at first, telling him she didn’t come to Seoul to find love but to make money for her family. The audience feels for Chang-su when his desperate flirting leaves Yeong-ja untouched; it doesn’t stop him, though, and so he proposes to Yeong-ja the night before he leaves for Vietnam. Yeong-ja promises to wait for him but never gets the chance to keep her promise.
Soon after Chang-su left for Vietnam, Yeong-ja is sexually assaulted by her boss’s son, gets fired, and is kicked out of the house. Even though there is a scene where the boss’s wife scolds her son for his bad behavior, it is still Yeong-ja who has to take the blame for ‘the incident.’ Unfortunately, Yeong-ja’s life only gets worse after that: Working in a textile mill does not pay well, and during her work as a bus conductor, she loses one of her arms in a crash. At that moment, lying on her back on the pavement, she watches her arm flying away. It is quite literally flying up and away, and while this seems surreal, it also feels like Yeong-ja is hallucinating. There is not a single drop of blood to be seen, and even though it might seem graphic, it is also ‘not graphic enough’ at the same time. Yeong-ja then receives compensation but sends it all home to her mother, determined to end her life. It does not go according to plan, though, and so she survives. Again.
This is the situation Chang-su finds Yeong-ja in. He decides to help her get back on her feet, whether she wants to or not. At one point, she even asks him to ‘just leave her to rot and finally die,’ but Chang-su does not. Instead, he keeps trying to help her, trying to make her see how much she truly means to him, and so Yeong-ja carefully starts opening up to him again.
In “Yeong-ja’s Heydays,” nothing gets glossed-over. The ironically-titled movie depicts every negative turn in Yeong-ja’s life, her downfall from maid to hostess. And yet, not all hope is lost: At no point in the movie, the fate of both protagonists becomes clear or even close to predictable, so there might even be a ‘happy ending’ waiting down the line. It is bittersweet, maybe even unexpected for a melodrama but still concludes the movie in the best way possible.
Yeom Bok-sun is outstanding in her role as Yeong-ja. She successfully portrays the character in every stage of her life, ranging from the shy, innocent girl from the countryside to the hostess, who has lost all hope. It also works because there is fantastic chemistry between her and Song Jae-ho, who plays Chang-su, who is, in comparison, more of a one-dimensional character.