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Original Title:
Nae maeumui punggeum

South Korea 1999

Drama, Romance, Comedy

Lee Young-jae

Lee Byung-hun
Jeon Do-yeon
Lee Mi-yeon
Kim Jae-in
Seo Hye-rin

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The Harmonium in my Memory

aka The Harmonium in my Heart;

aka Organ of my Heart

Story: Young teacher Kang Soo-ha (Lee Byung-hun) is sent to a rural town, where he gets a job at a school. His work is not without problems, as the students have huge difficulties with orthography, often engage into quarrels with each other, or simply don't have the money to buy school material. Nonetheless, with his young, idealistic and open-mindedly friendly character, he soon wins over the hearts of his students.
One of Kang's students is Yun Hong-yeon (Jeon Do-yeon), who develops feelings for her teacher. Kang is aware of these feelings, as he sets the homework that the students are to write something into their excercise books every day, which he corrects afterwards, whereas Hong-yeon uses her excercise book as some kind of diary. However, Kang has fallen in love with his teacher colleague Yang Eun-hee (Lee Mi-yeon), with whom he shares the same hobby, namely listening to american LPs. Hong-yeon isn't happy about her teacher's feelings towards Eun-hee, and she also writes so in her diary. She discredits Eun-hee whenever she can, which is something that amuses Kang at first. Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that one of the three will end up with a broken heart. Will Eun-hee return the love of her colleague or can Hong-yeon win over the heart of her teacher?

Review: "The Harmonium in my Memory" is an unusually light-hearted drama without losing any profoundness which is definitely to be found here. The nice humor, that is always implicitly apparent throughout the film, goes hand in hand with a subtle and credible romantic drama. At all time, the characters stand in the movie's focus, and therefore can serve as the groundwork for this simple, yet touching drama to work out so well. That's also because of the setting, which is extraordinary, as the film takes place during the beginning of the 60s in a small rural town, in which many residents can neither read nor write, and in which the townspeople are also very poor. Especially the many small details and the different people we run into every now and then, make this film so special. Director Lee Young-jae is honest to his characters and the audience, and he refrains from any sort of stereotype, which ultimately makes "The Harmonium in my Memory" so worthwhile.

The movie somehow reminded me of Zhang Yimou's "The Road Home", which is even the more interesting as both films came out the same year. In both works a young girl of a small rural town/village falls in love with a teacher, and shows her feelings in a very shy and reserved way. But that's about all similarities that can be pointed out, as "The Harmonium in my Memory" is much more funny, and faster in terms of pacing than Zhang's work. Of course this is also thanks to the setting at a school, which allows director Lee to introduce some pretty wacky side characters. The students are a motley crew of different ages. We have the boy, who is so poor, that he doesn't even have the money for crayons or packed lunch, or the mentally retarded girl, who likes to play pranks, whereas one of her pranks almost leads to a catastrophe.
It's also funny that all of the more aged teachers have a loose nut. How come that every student, no matter what country he is from, can tell you stories about teachers, who at least display some sort of offbeat behavior? Is such a behavior a basic requirement for becoming a teacher? Or is this what you will become like if you do this job for a while?

Anyway, it's a fact, that there is only little violence shown towards the students. Compared to nowadays, was it really not that bad during the 60s? Were the teacher not that strict right after the war? Most likely this was simply a side that wouldn't had fit into a movie that attaches more importance to lighthearted humor. However, this is still somewhat strange, since movies like "Spirit of Jeet Kune Do" draw a different and more realistic picture of everyday school life in Korea.
Be that as it may, Kang is a very young teacher, who approaches his lesson in a very idealistic manner. Of course, the students are all very motivated by his refreshingly different character, but Kang also has to deal with several problems at first. Especially his first day at work is an accumulation of small funny events, that promise a school year full of stress. Throughout the story, and in a very natural way, we get some insight into the lives of the different individuals, without the film running the risk to lose its focus. That's what's making "The Harmonium in my Memory" so rewarding. It let's us participate in the lives of the different townspeople, and all of this just along the way. Standing in the foreground are Hong-yeon and Kang, of course.

Jeon Do-yeon ("Secret Sunshine", "You are my Sunshine") plays Hong-yeon, a strong girl, who oftentimes has to look after her little baby brother, and thus feels as if being taken advantage of by her mother. Actually, she is your typical, revolting teenager, yet in a very welcome obstinate way. She can be pretty barefaced if she has to, but in her heart she is a very shy girl. This shows especially well in her love towards teacher Kang. She carefully gets closer to him and soon has to deal with the pain of one-sided love, when she finds out that Kang loves his colleague Eun-hee.
Lee Byung-hun ("A Bittersweet Life", "Addicted"), naturally, is great once again. You can almost smell the inexperience of his character, and even though he has a friendly and open relationship with his students, he also can be a bit strict, if he has to be. Well, not really, but he tries... Therefore Kang is truly a likeable character, who has to cope with his own drama of (first?) true love which remains unfulfilled. The moment he gets aware that his romance has no future, he breaks out in tears in his little room, which is a truely intensive and crebible scene. One of the most touching moments of the film.

Sometimes you get the feeling, that the movie has been shot deliberately with wishy-washy colors in order to catch the atmosphere of the 60s. In contrast to this stands the school trip, in which the colorful autumn trees really can make your heart jump out of joy. Yet, all in all, the directing is very simple and never distracts from what's important. And that's the characters and their evolvement on screen, naturally.
"The Harmonium in my Memory" can be quite sad and moving at times, but most of the time it simply creates a fuzzy feeling of warmth, and always remains entertaining thanks to its good pacing and humor. Therefore, it also doesn't come as a big surprise when we find out, after an emotional finale, that actually everything heads for a happy ending, eventually. In fact, I'm not sure if I'm happy with this ending, as it is a bit too conciliatory for my taste, but it doesn't change the fact that the viewer still will be very touched by it.
"The Harmonium in my Memory" is an interesting, simple and very sincere drama about love. Also, the movie manages to be a lot more positive in tone than so many other Korean tearjerker dramas, which is what makes this movie so special after all. A drama, which magic unfolds slowly, but continuously, and thus can be really moving in the end.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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