The lives of single mothers are complex to say the least. In Korea, single mothers face more than the challenges of raising a child alone, potential paternity suits and holding down a job. Due to the incredibly conservative, and highly patriarchal culture, they must also contend with a society that continually treats them as ‘unethical’ and ‘fallen’ women. News agencies, for example, often blur faces and change voices when interviewing single mothers, the same measures applied when profiling criminals. The sad fact that many of the women ask for such identity protection highlights the prejudice that exists and the severe impact it has on their daily lives.
Director Paik Yeon-ah (백연아) addresses such discrimination in her documentary Bittersweet Joke. The directors intention is to convey a more developed perspective of the lives of single mothers – their happiness, their challenges, their strengths – and she wildly succeeds. Throughout the documentary director Paik Yeon-ah perfectly captures the positivity of her subjects, emphasising their hopes and dreams that co-exist with the role of mother. The subjects themselves are also incredible well chosen, simultaneously highly compelling and poignant. While deeper issues of accountability of absent fathers and social intolerance are unfortunately only briefly touched upon, Bittersweet Joke is a positively charged documentary that presents single mothers as highly capable women and is unfailing uplifting.
Bittersweet Joke moves between documenting the lives of two different single mothers, Hyun-jin and Hyung-sook, and discussions about the challenges that face them with other women, notably their friend Ji-young. This editing technique, as well as the directorial style displayed by Paik Yeon-ah, are exemplary in focusing on the issues affecting single mothers as they naturally enter their lives, as well as debating them in greater depth with friends in a similar position. For example, Hyun-jin desperately wants the father of her child to re-enter their lives yet is continually disappointed; this then moves on to a later discussion in a coffee shop where Hyun-jin and Ji-young dispute whether a man is necessary at all in child rearing. This method allows for brevity and lightheartedness, as while challenges appear poignantly they are often dealt with in a quick and humourous fashion, and discussed in hindsight with laughter. All the single mothers are represented in such a manner, as they overcome difficulties with sheer willpower and humour, finding comfort and solidarity in the sisterhood of other women in similar situations.
Director Paik Yeon-ah even explores the importance of language within Bittersweet Joke, as within Korean language ‘unwed mother’ and ‘single mother’ contain quite different connotations. ‘Unwed mother’ is an unflattering term that describes women who couldn’t get married, whereas ‘single mother’ connotes a woman who has chosen not to marry. Within Korean culture the institution of marriage is still highly regarded, and as such the term ‘unwed mother’ is much more commonly used within the media and society, regardless of the offensive meaning. Director Paik wisely uses her subjects to explore such cultural themes within their daily routines, as opposed to forcing the message, and allows the audience to witness the prejudice as it naturally unfolds in their lives. As such audience sympathy is strongly evoked as both mother and child are subjected to offenses they must routinely endure.
Bittersweet Joke would not be so interesting if not for the three women at the center of the film. All three are quite different in terms of personality, which makes how each situation is dealt with a fascinating character study in addition to conveying the lives of single mothers. This philosophy is also apparent in the debates that follow, as each mother approaches a challenge or future ambition from an alternative perspective, allowing for highly interesting discussions to occur.
Hyun-jin is a sweet natured romantic who wants the traditional notion of family for herself. She is prepared to forgive her ex-lover if he returns despite everything, and uses make-up and nice clothes to try and entice him back. Her daughter Tae-hee also exemplifies Hyun-jin’s desire for perfection, as her daughter’s name is the same as a beautiful actress. Meanwhile Hyung-sook is a strong-willed and active feminist, fighting for women’s rights and attempting to change cultural ignorance. Her intelligence has also produced cynicism, as while she fights for her son Jun-seo to have a relationship with his father she has generally given up on men. The contrast between such two different single mothers, and how they develop over the course of the documentary, is the genuine triumph of the film as the journey that each woman undertakes is compelling and nuanced. It’s also enjoyable to see Hyun-jin and Hyung-sook bounce ideas off of Ji-young and other friends, adding further perspectives to already complex areas. Yet often when such important features are introduced, due to director Paik’s need to keep light-hearted momentum, greater depth goes amiss as with the accountability of absent fathers. Otherwise, Bittersweet Joke is a wonderful exploration of the issues facing single mothers in contemporary Korea.
Bittersweet Joke is wonderful documentary about the challenges facing single mothers in Korea. Director Paik Yeon-ah has produced an informative and entertaining film, one with an important social message that is allowed to unfold naturally throughout the course of the mothers’ lives while also debating issues from alternative perspectives. The light-hearted momentum is enjoyable and, while greater depth would have been nice in certain areas, the compelling subjects and vitality in which the single mothers are presented is uplifting and life-affirming.