The Harmonium in My Memory (Nae maeumui punggeum) aka Organ of My Heart (1999) • South Korea

I love Do-yeon Jeon and what I love about her is that she always appears completely genuine in performance. In this film, however, her every move is riddled with acting. It's hardly her fault as she is given the mighty task of portraying a fifth-grade girl. What is that? Ten years old? Eleven? Her character could be seventeen for all I know, given the poverty and functional illiteracy of her community, but she's still a fifth-grader. All the self-conscious insecurities and pouting of a girl that age—not to mention a girl that age whose day to day life is overwhelmed by a mad crush on her new twenty-one year old school teacher—all the mannerisms are forced. But enough about that. No use crying over spilled milk, or, thank god in this case, unrequited love.

The Harmonium in My Memory is a sweet little nostalgia film set in rural South Korea sometime after the war around 1960, give or take, centering on the teachers and students at a community school. Many of the students can't afford basic school supplies, are often rowdy in class and prove to be quite a handful for the rookie teacher played wonderfully by Byung-hun Lee (A Bittersweet Life; Joint Security Area). It's the youthful idealism of Lee's character who wants to treat the students with respect and tolerance set against the older teachers' old-school values of beating and discipline that serves as the film's basic theme. The other likeable character in the film, played by Mi-yeon Lee, is another young teacher who takes her students outside to make noise and run off steam, much to the chagrin of her elders. She's Lee's love interest, and she and he share a passion for music, providing for many a musical moment in The Harmonium in My Memory. "Don't Break The Heart That Loves You", sung by Connie Francis, captures the torchy milieu of these characters perfectly—perhaps a little too easily.

The Harmonium in My Memory isn't a bad film, but expectations are extremely high for Do-yeon Jeon, and she disappoints; all the characters in the film are cliché; the use of dramatic music seems like a shortcut to emotions the characters aren't capable of making us feel; and the ending is manipulative, tacked on to make us get happy about a film that left us empty.

And what's the deal with kids bringing stool samples to class?


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