Professor Seunghei C. Hong
UIC Seminar: Translation of Asia Through Film
Seeing Gender in Korean Film
The Message Hairstyle Conveys in “Mother and a guest”
Sometimes hair is so much more than just a look: It can be a reflection and reinforcement of who you are. Sometimes your hair speaks for you, even when you don’t say a word. However, although your hair is your own, there always has been a social norm that defines a desirable hairstyle in that era. For example, these days in Korea, most of high schools have regulation on students’ hairstyle. Students are not allowed to dye or perm their hair. Those schools assume that dyed and permed hair is untidy. They justify their restriction using their own defined argument, “Untidy hair hinders students’ study.” This kind of restrictions has existed for centuries in various forms in Korea.
Korean films, “Mother and a guest (1961)” and “The March of Fools (1975)” shows how hair style implies a person’s identity and how it reacts to social norm. Although “Mother and a guest” and “The March of Fools” have different historical backgrounds, main characters in both films suffer inner conflicts because of social norms. Their inner conflicts are reflected in their appearance, especially in their hair style.
“Mother and a guest” depicts a transitional period of Korea. It includes both traditional and modern features of Korea. A prominent element that illustrates modernity in this film is women’s short hair. According to an article, “The ‘New Woman’ and Politics of Love, Marriage and Divorce” by Theodore Jun Yoo, tanbal (bobbed hair) signified defiance against traditional gender expectations. Also, it represented a form of rebellion against the cultural norms imposed on Korean women in early 1900s. Traditionally in Korea, married women were expected to maintain chastity and not to remarry. Although widows’ remarriage has been legally allowed since Kabo Reform, it had been considered socially unacceptable for a long period of time.
In “Mother and a guest”, Ok-hee’s mother, who is protagonist of the film,...