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Original Title:

South Korea 2010


Kang Dae-gyu

Kim Yun-jin
Nah Moon-hee
Kang Ye-won
Lee Da-hee
Jang Young-nam
Park Joon-myeon
Baek Jin-gi
Cha Cheong-hwa
Choi Cheong-ja
Hwang Soon-gi
Im Chae-yeon
Cha Jin-hyeok
Jang Soo-jin
Jeong Na-on

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Story: Jeong-hye (Kim Yun-jin) has to go to prison for ten years. Since she is pregnant and is having her baby in prison there is a special law that grants her to raise her child in jail for a about a year. Jeong-hye's cellmates become a small family to her and her baby. One day after a choir performance for the prisoners the mother comes up with the idea to arrange a choir herself and by chance she gets to speak with the prison warden about her idea. As the prison warden is looking for a reformation programme that he can present to his superiors, anyway, he allows her to organize a choir. Jeong-hye, who has absolutely no idea about music and can't even sing, manages after a lot of efforts to talk death-row inmate Moon-ok (Nah Moon-hee), a former music professor, into becoming the choir leader. The kindhearted jailer Na-yeong (Lee Da-hee) also becomes part of the team so that the only thing the choir is still missing is a good soprano singer. The new cellmate Yoo-mi (Kang Ye-won) seems to be just the right person, unfortunately she is looking for everything but friendship and is still suffering a lot from the circumstances that brought her into prison. However, music seems to be the only way to heal her wounds and not only for her but for the other inmates as well.

Review: "Harmony" was a big box-office hit and that shouldn't surprise anyone as the movie utilizes every tearjerker theme there is in consequent succession, for instance redemption for past actions, difficult parent-child relationships as well as a death-row inmate that is a mother substitute to the other inmates. This way director Kang Dae-gyoo, who has already been assisstant director in "Haeundae", doesn't really create an original drama, but at least one that works out pretty well despite the sometimes shameless manipulation of the audience. Partly this is because of the music in the film that can raise the emotional impact at the right time but it is also thanks to the good actors, first and foremost "Lost"-star Kim Yu-jin, of course, who hasn't turned her back on Korean cinema contrary to some other Asian actors after having had a few minor successes abroad and remains loyal to her home country. However, oftentimes Nah Moon-hee is outshining her as the benevolent mother.

Before "Harmony" becomes a tearjerking drama the film proves to be unusually lighthearted. Actually, you almost get the feeling as if being in prison is similar to sharing a flat, although there are too many individuals within too small of an area. This also leads to a serious problem. The moral ambiguity of the characters is completely falling by the wayside. Actually, every single one of them had good reason to commit the crime they committed, even murder isn't an exception, especially since in most cases they were merely accidents, anyway. Moon-ok is a rather difficult case, though, because despite her husband having cheated on her it was a rather radical decision under the given circumstances to run him and his lover over with her car - twice! But the drama doesn't care much about such shades of grey, even if Nah Moon-hee can often hint at her inner conflict with her subtle acting. However, the screenplay only works with such story threads when it comes to topics like forgiveness and when the viewer can potentially be moved to tears by bringing together family members after a long time of seperation.

Music isn't playing a small part in the drama. The first attempts of the choir to get together something that might be considered music of course lead to some comedy scenes, especially those with Kim Yun-jin, who in this film pretends not to be able to strike the right notes, can score. Still, in musical respects Kang Ye-won is the most impressive individual as she could easily be a professional singer with her voice. Regrettably, there is also a choir performance in "Harmony" taking place in a prison hall that is a bit too awkward with its feel-good music in the style of "Sister Act". Later on, though, the choir also sings a few classical pieces whereas the music is also adding to the emotional impact of the movie.
"Harmony" is all in all jaunty entertainment with likeable characters. Even the side characters you will soon grow fond of and also the the toughest women get soft for the choir. Credibility isn't anything you should be looking for here, instead the movie aims at setting the stage for a tear-filled finale. At best you could argue that the film tries to underline the necessity of reformation programmes in prisons.

If you think that "Harmony" is only focusing on one aspect of the drama, then you have been reckoning without the producers. In order to miss out not a single chance to wrench some tears from the viewer there are several story threads that consist of potential drama material and which are also exploited to the very last. Of course, there is Jeong-hye who soon has to give up her son for adoption and doesn't know if she will ever see him again, or the daughter of Moon-ok who doesn't want to hear anything from her mother since that person has killed her father, or Yoo-mi who doesn't receive her mother for years, even though she is coming to visit her every time during visiting hours in jail. You shouldn't expect any more in-depth characterization of the single drama stories and so it's no surprise that in the end everyone is lying in each other's arms and cries her eyes out. Eventually, everyone is forgiven, how could they not since they are actually good people who have just ended up in jail by some unfortunate circumstances...

The manipulative approach of the producers is carried to extremes when during a performance of the choir at christmas a small children choir appears with candles holding in their hands, a picture which is heartrending even for the toughest of guys. If you just wouldn't see through the obvious intention of the producers... Supposed that you can get into the movie, and this is surprisingly a lot easier than maybe you might think after having read this review, you will cry waterfalls at the end. That is because you easily grow fond of the characters. Kim Yun-jin looks a lot more natural this time as she doesn't force herself to bring her acting skills to the foreground no matter what and Nah Moon-hee offers a bit more profoundness. Despite the script's flaws director Kang Dae-gyoo can create a real rollercoaster ride of drama which is just the right choice for handkerchief fetishists. Towards the end the film might remind us a bit too much of "Maundy Thursday", but you shouldn't expect originality here, anyway. Nonetheless, "Harmony" is a good drama that achieves what it wants to, namely move to tears.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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