Review: The Surrogate Woman // 씨받이 (1987)

The Surrogate Woman is a celebrated Korean classic directed by Im Kwon-taek, one of Korea’s most prolific and well-known directors. It is a satirical melodrama that examines the psychological disintegration of a vibrant heroine. Set in the Josean dynasty, the film highlights how Korean society is highly patriarchal by focusing on the role of a surrogate woman. Almost all the women in the film, no matter how high their rank, are shown as subservient to men and excluded from male-only spaces.

Ok-nyeo is our sweet, sassy heroine who hails from the satirically named “vulvae village” and is chosen against her will to be a surrogate for a noble family in need of a male heir. Every woman in the village is a surrogate woman, and because occupations are inherited from generation to generation, Ok-nyeo is destined to be a surrogate woman like her mother. Chosen because of her “pure” virginal status and her female “physiognomy” which bodes well for giving birth to a son, Ok-nyeo is sent to the noble family’s house and kept isolated as their dirty secret. The child she births will not be held or named by her, nor will she ever see them again after her duty is done. Due to her loneliness and naivety, she falls in love with the married nobleman Shin whose child she is carrying and they begin an illicit love affair. If you’re thinking, this cannot end well, then you’d be right.

There is predictability in this melodrama, but it is interesting to watch. Director Im injects a big dose of satirical humour. He peppers the film with ridiculous rituals that are carried out with straight-faced earnestness: drinking deer blood for sexual vigour, standing on a hot kettle lid to ease childbirth, “inhaling” the moon and drinking chili soup with chili stolen from a family with a newborn son. There is a curious mix of tradition, spirituality and new-fangled pseudoscience in their beliefs. While both males and females must suffer through the rituals, no doubt the bulk of it falls to Ok-nyeo, who is herded around like cattle and given orders.

The restored version of the film looks beautiful on the big screen; soft-hued and atmospheric. The excellent set design and costumes immerse the viewer in the interior of a nobleman’s house and its grounds. The characters move fluidly like chess pieces across the board, and say just as much with their actions as with dialogue. Their dialogue is highly performative but their actions hint at emotional depth. One example is Shin’s wife, who is in the precarious position of hating Ok-nyeo, and yet is obliged to treat her well because she is carrying their child.

As Ok-nyeo’s mother succinctly states, “We're not human. You're not a human just because you look like one. You're only human when you're treated like one.” The film has succeeded in portraying the plight of Korean women of all ranks by showing their systematic dehumanization and the prison of beliefs that keep them there.

- Jacqueline Lee

This film was viewed as a part of the Asian Restored Classics, presented by the Asian Film Archive. The Asian Film Archive is a registered charity and interested members of the public can support it here.

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