At the Indieplus theater (인디플러스) in Gangnam, on the 18th of December, was a special screening of documentary film Bittersweet Joke (미쓰 마마). Following the screening was a Q&A session with director Paik Yeon-ah (백연아) and one of the stars of the documentary, Hyung-sook (형숙), who both graciously answered the queries from the audience.
Bittersweet Joke is a documentary concerned with portraying the lives of single mothers in Korea. Mainstream media tends to portray such women in an extremely negative fashion, with their faces blurred and voices altered, similar to criminals. Additionally, they often ignore the mother’s wishes regarding what is contained within the features, highlighting instead the extreme hardships of their existence. With Bittersweet Joke, director Paik Yeon-ah attempts to convey a more fully formed perspective of single mothers in Korea, conveying that they are capable, intelligent women simply trying to live their lives and raise their children to the best of their ability. The director also emphasizes the social prejudice that single mothers are forced to endure within Korean culture, as well as the innate lack of responsibility displayed by the fathers.
Bittersweet Joke – also known as Miss Mama – is an incredibly well-crafted and heart-warming documentary. The directing and editing are excellent, while the single mothers themselves are wonderful subjects through which to explore such an important social issue, conveying their joy and determination as well as their vulnerabilities and hopes for the future. The film was very well received by the audience, and following the end credits the Q&A session began.
The translator thanked everyone for braving the cold weather to come to the screening, and introduced both Director Paik Yeon-ah and Hyung-sook. Before questions were received, some information about the guests were provided. Bittersweet Joke (미쓰 마마) is the second feature from director Paik following Lineage Of The Voice (소리 아이) (2008) about two talented boys who perform traditional Korean music and opera.
Translator question: How did you (Director Paik and Hyung-sook) meet?
Director Paik: Thank you for coming to see the film on such a cold day. It was a great opportunity to meet Hyung-sook. That was really the start of the documentary. Although she sometimes she thinks she’s not sure if it’s good luck that we met, maybe it was bad luck in a sense because our relationship lasted so long and it was made into a documentary. But whether it is good or bad, making a documentary is like making a family in a sense, so I think we have become a certain kind of family during the process of making the documentary. And just like families our relationship is a tough and lasting one, I appreciate that. During the process of filming, I really enjoyed every minute of it. And the start of the documentary came to me quite naturally when I was finishing my first documentary Lineage Of The Voice (소리 아이). It was about two children, and after finishing this documentary I myself experienced pregnancy and had a child. And then I was more interested in making a documentary about children and I wanted to look into children’s upbringing and the relationship of family, focusing on children. So that was my interest, and I of course I was more and more interested about bring up a child being a mum myself. And then I found out about Hyung-sook, who is actually a rare person who is ready to speak about these issues, single mum issues, which is not really an open issue in Korea in 2010 when we first met. As my interest was focused on children, I wanted to look at different children in various conditions and environments so in that process we met. During that time not many people were willing to talk about single mum issues, not in mainstream media or any type of media, so she was the only one I found although I had to persuade her to make the film but she was willing to do it. Even after I got her agreement, here’s an association of single mom’s and they had to go through several meetings whether she should be in the movie or not, whether the film should be made or not. Because they have a history of people portraying single mum’s in a really negative way, so they had concerns. But she had decided to be in the film with me, and after these meetings we could finally start the film. And I think maybe she believed that this media, this documentary, would have a different kind of approach to this issue. That trust was between us, and that was probably the reason why she choose to do the film with me, I think. And that was the start of this documentary. That different approach was to portray them a little bit more like a comedy, and a bit more in a funny and enjoyable way. Not like a victim.
Hyung-sook: I made a very brave decision to be in the film. I was the only one who didn’t want to use mosaic (which covers the identity). And I had seen many cases in the media in which single mums are depicted in a negative way here in Korea, and when I heard about this project from Yeon-ah I suspected the different approach and liked the approach of comic touches and the very enjoyable way of presenting. But also at the time I was running a little shop, but people got to know I am a single mum and because of that I had to close the shop. I couldn’t run it anymore because people were treating me as if I was a sick person, or as if I’m a bad person, and people that I knew such as family members, as soon as they found out that I am a single mum they assumed I would call them more (for help). It was a really stressful situation and I wasn’t ready to receive it. Having a child and raising it, why is it a problem to them? What’s wrong with that? I thought that by making this film maybe something could change. I expected a big change from making this film, but not yet. That’s how I started this project. And also another reason why I wanted to be in this project was because it was a rare project as the director told me it would have no altering, and I would be there with my own voice and my own face, which is not how the mainstream media usually depicts single mums. Most of them are not willing to speak out. But this was different.
Director Paik: I think it’s a rare opportunity, and special too, to have a screening with an audience with different backgrounds because in some of your countries the situation is much better, and this is quite a Korean situation. Why is the single mum issue such a difficult issue? This is the reality we have. So I’m interested to listen to your responses as well. Please feel free to ask or share your comments.
Question: I was wondering if Hyung-sook has ever confronted any of her friends for treating her that way when they found out she was an unmarried single mum?
Hyung-sook: There are many cases where I had to confront other people about the fact that I am a single mother, and raising a child by myself. But there were cases where people would directly confront me about this issue. But this whole life is like fighting against the world, I think. Living as a single mum feels like that most of the time. At first, when I had Jun-seo (her son), I think until he was four years old I was really occupied with making my life, working and raising him, so I didn’t realise it that much. But after he got a little older and when I had to meet mothers in kindergarten, (I realised) it’s not just about me but it’s also about him. I’m a grown-up, so I can cry or forget about it or say something like “damn!” to make myself feel better. But for him it’s much more difficult, so that’s why he’s getting therapy and psychiatric help these days. So we are living through the situation together. It’s not just about one person, the whole life of a single mother is like that.
Question: Congratulations on such a great documentary. Really well made, wonderful subjects. I’m the son of a single mum too and I could really feel (the message), and I really admire what you’re doing as a single mum as it must be incredibly hard. My former school was in the countryside area and a lot of my students had been abandoned by one or both of their parents and they had then gone on to make a new family so a lot of my kids were a bit troubled. But then I moved into the inner cities and that didn’t exist, it was all the ‘perfect’ family unit. The single parent children had been pushed to the fringes of society. With your documentary are you hoping to change attitudes? What would you like to see change in Korean society now?
Director Paik: Thank you first for your comments. First, maybe I should explain a little bit about the difference between English and Korean about (the term) ‘single mum’. In English we usually say ‘single mum’, but as you can see in the film it is actually translated as ‘unwed mother’. Which sort of reveals the prejudice against single mums already. I think there is this kind of tendency in our society to specify people like that so we’re not saying ‘single mum’ which can include several cases such as maybe the father died ahead of the mother, or divorced, or not married. ‘Single mum’ can be all these kinds of cases. But in Korean we usually call them ‘unwed mother’. So by specifying people in this manner, it seems to me like dividing people into ‘normal’ and ‘not normal’ in a sense. So by using the words ‘unwed mother’ it kind of reveals the idea that it’s not normal to be a mother when you’re not married. And that is based on the tendency that people are not accepting difference. We don’t have this tolerance, in a sense, and I think people are intolerant about this difference. So that’s why I think we should be able to accept and embrace these kinds of differences. That’s part of the reason why I made this film. And it’s also the goal of single mums. I think everyone of us can have a case where I myself can become an object of these kinds of prejudices. So I think it’s really important to be free of these kinds of prejudice for all people in society. And do to that, I think the idea that a family should consist of a father, mother and son and daughter makes a ‘normal’ family, that kind of idea should be avoided now I think, because we live in a much more complicated society. And I think through making this film I want to depict that kind of controversy in Korea that we have. The reality that we have.
Question: (N.B. This question could be interpreted as quite offensive towards single mothers, although it could perhaps be due to poor English language ability). I want to know more about Korean culture. I want to know why these kinds of accidents happen. Why are the father’s parents are not doing anything? Are the relatives not pushing them to avoid such bad cases? What about society? What about religion or culture? Does society show any pressure to avoid those kinds of things? Is Korean culture and society strong enough to prevent those things happening? There should be culture or ethics in society to prevent [this issue].
Director Paik: I don’t really understand what you mean by ‘accident’. Do you mean becoming a single mother is an accident?
(The question was then rephrased into a question about the father’s responsibility).
Hyung-sook: In general in Korea, I think the society is much more generous to men about being not responsible. In our culture we are much more generous to men even though they are not being responsible. And so you can sue them, and get some money every month for the child and try to make him responsible, but most of us already know that it’s no use. You can try, but a lot of us single mums know that it’s not really working. So I think we need stronger legal restrictions, on certain kinds of irresponsibility. We don’t have it yet. So I think like in other countries, it’s possible to have money transferred as soon as the [ex-partner] received his salary, if I can get that legally, or if we had that kind of system it would be much easier. But up until now, it’s not possible so that’s a tricky part. Also in our society, it’s more usual to have pre-marital sex. But having a child is a different issue. If you are pregnant and not married yet, young women are told they should get married with (the partner) and make a family. So having a child out of marriage is still very difficult here in Korea. Not many people welcome you. So a lot of young woman have to think that if they are pregnant they have to get married. That’s how it works. It’s a very tricky situation for them. If you have a child before or out of marriage it seems in this society that the prejudice is that it’s the woman’s fault and it’s unethical, in a sense. So that kind of atmosphere is pressure for women in Korean society. But nowadays times are changing, and a lot of women don’t really want to get married. To quote many women, marriage is not the ultimate goal at all. But [they are] responsible for their actions and when they have a child, that’s why so many women are becoming single mums in Korea. And I think there will be more and more, and I think it’ll be ok if single mums in this society can be included as a mum, as a woman, as a person who works for their livelihood. Just to be received like that would be ok. But up to now we still have to fight a lot of prejudice. If single mums can be embraced by society like that, like a person who’s working hard and having a child, having that kind of change is what we need. It’s necessary to bring up my child well, because all the pressure is going to the child as well. To conclude, the man is the problem! I’m really really curious to know the mental structure of a Korean man, and what’s wrong with them. I really think they need to be fixed. Totally. Seriously!
– the question then continued – What about the child’s father’s parents?
Hyung-sook: Well I basically asked the father of my child he should be a father, and to do all the roles that a dad should do. Because it could really hurt my son, I think, because they have a relationship already. If he one day just disappeared, that will really hurt my son. So I asked him to keep that relationship of father and son, and do what he should do. It’s quite important I think, especially because he’s a son and he needs a dad, in a sense. I think it’s not just about money, it’s about bringing up a child together. Not living together, or getting married, but bringing up a child together. So we agreed to that. But at first the parents asked us to get married because we have a child, but because of our agreement they gave up. But they asked me a lot of things, for example please change his family name to the father’s family name. It’s usually the father’s side that you get the family name, even in Western society, and in Korea too. They asked that a lot, but I never said yes to that request. In the end, they told me that I am really something, and they are not asking that anymore. But the relationship is good now, not that bad, I think it’s quite good. The relationship between the parents [of the father] and my son is now quite ok, because he’s not just my son, he’s the son of his father as well. I totally accept that. I want him to have a father as well.
Question: I just wanted to say I really loved your movie. I think everyone should watch this movie. Personally, I’m from Canada and I have a very good friend that’s a single mother, so I know through being friend’s with her about her struggles. I think documentaries like this show single mothers as everyday people, and that they’re not abnormal. I also personally volunteered at an orphanage here in Korea and it’s really heart breaking that these children are abandoned by their mothers. So this movie really touched me because I think children should have at least one parent. I really think a lot has to be done about this situation. I just wanted to know, because I’m a teacher, what I can do to better this situation. How can teachers better support mothers and [their] children? It’s heart-breaking to know one of your students can be an outcast for having a single mum. As a teacher, how can we better support them?
Director Paik: As you can see in the film, when there was a campaign for adoption, and I think until about ten years ago that was the atmosphere of our society, to encourage adoption to solve the problem of orphans, to find them parents. But nowadays I think it is slowly changing, to give more support for single parents. Not for adoption, but to enlarge the support for the single parent. So that’s slightly changing. And to support the original family, because a lot of single parents give up – especially single mothers – give up their child because they don’t have the courage or because it is too difficult to live as a single mum. But now I think it is changing a little bit. Even the government policies are changing towards that kind of policy, like to support single parents financially and to have a different kind of atmosphere in society by supporting them. I hope it will change more in that direction. So if single mothers and single fathers get the support they need and get the support to bring up their child, that will change a lot of things including adoption and orphanage problems as well. I think the change is going in a quite positive direction these days. And the question you asked, because you are teacher, you feel more responsible about these children who are from single parents, and I think the situation that you mentioned is similar to what Jun-seo is going through now, so I’m sure that Hyung-sook has a lot of things to say about that.
Hyung-sook: I stopped working – I quit my job – to spend more time with Jun-seo. Before the film I wasn’t really shy to talk about these issues even in other media, but after this film was released, more and more people got to know about my situation and it was known more to the people at school. And Jun-seo got more and more questions about his mother and he told me that everybody is asking. His friends are eight years old and they don’t understand what ‘unwed mother’ even means, and what it really means to have a child outside of the marriage system. But they are asking him, almost everyday, “Is your mother an unwed mother?” They kept asking that so he got really stressed about it. That’s why he’s undergoing a very hard time these days. And I realised that he is talking less and less to me, and he doesn’t want to have a conversation with me, and he eats too much, and that’s how I found out that he’s having a very difficult time. I told Jun-seo, “Jun-seo, I am a single mum, I am an unwed mother, you know that.” And he told me that he knows, and it’s not the fact that they are asking him ‘do you have an unwed mother?’ that bothers him, it’s that they keep asking everyday. That’s what bothers him. It’s ok to ask him once, but they ask all the time and that’s really stressful. And it’s so stressful that my eight year old son told me that maybe it’s better to die than live. It’s such a huge stress to him. And I talked to Jun-seo’s teacher, and the teacher told me that [he/she] will definitely say something to the children. But that was it. So I was just thinking maybe there are not many things that a teacher can do, because I didn’t get a lot of help for that situation. So I can only hope that the world will changes a little bit faster, and to become a better world for my son to live as a single mother’s child. I really hope the changes are coming faster. One thing I can hope for is for a certain kind of education about the situation of single mums in Korea, that will probably improve the situation a little bit more. If we have these opportunities for education for the children, because they are too young usually [to understand], but also for parents and for teachers who possibly have prejudice about single mothers and their children. So I think it’s really important to have the opportunity to have that education about different types of families. There was one case where I met Jun-seo’s friend and I told him, when he asking me, “Are you an unwed mother?”, I answered, “Yes, I am.” But I told him that his mother and me are the same, that’s what I explained. But I cannot do that every time. And recently Jun-seo had a little bruise from the ice, which was thrown by one of his schoolmates because he kept asking Jun-seo, “Do you have an unwed mother?” And Jun-seo got angry and said stop that, and that’s when the boy threw the ice. I really broke my heart. That’s why I hope the world should change. And as for teachers, I think it would help to tell the single parent child that they are not different, and I know other school mates are telling [you things], but it’s no big deal. You’re just like them. And to be there for them in that kind of situation, and maybe hug him. Just let him [or her] know that they are not different. In other countries children can have quite open conversations about these kinds of issues, but here it’s still quite rare.
Director Paik’s closing comments: It was really precious time for me to have this kind of time with you. As a filmmaker who made this film, I feel more and more responsible, not only about this film but to make a better world in a sense, because that was part of the reason I made this film. So I’m not sure how much I can contribute to the change of this world, but I hope I can. To do that I’d like to try community screenings as well, after all the screenings are over in the theater, so we are trying to organise community screenings. We are also trying to do that in a co-operative program with the association for single mothers. It’s an educational program to go and meet people in person, and to educate about the situation of single mothers life and their rights. So we are going to do that with the association, and we are going to try and arrange more community screenings. And Hyung-sook mentioned about having educational programs for parents, teachers and grown-ups as well. It would be really great to have more and more opportunities to watch this film and discuss these issues about single parents. Especially to have that kind of opportunity with parents would be really great and maybe that will contribute a little bit for change. I think it’s necessary. I feel really obliged that I should do this more actively, I should do more as the person who made this film. The people who are in the film – including Hyung-sook – they [found] the courage to come out and speak in this film, so I feel more responsible, that I should make the most out of it, and to contribute more to the change.
Thank you to Indieplus for hosting the screening, and thank you to Director Paik Yeon-ah and Hyung-sook for generously giving their time and answers.