Nostalgia is a difficult balance to achieve in film. If done overly reverentially, it can easily fall into the realm of cliché and ‘camp’; if not revered enough, then the purpose of placing the narrative within the era is rendered obsolete. Romance fits much more neatly into nostalgic territory than other genres due to notion that the past was a time of innocence, enhancing the ‘purity’ of the love portrayed and removing the cynicism that comes with age. The Harmonium in My Memory (내 마음의 풍금) does all this and more, conveying a well-balanced nostalgic love story set in a post-war 1963 village that never becomes trite or sentimental.
Yun Hong-yeon (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연) has a difficult life in her rustic farming village in Gangwon province. With an absent father – as most men never returned from the war – Hong-yeon must help her mother raise three younger siblings. At 17 she is the eldest in her middle school class, and as the new term begins she and her classmates await the arrival of their new teacher, 21 year old recent graduate Kang Soo-ha (Lee Byeong-Heon (이병헌). Hong-yeon is instantly smitten and is desperate to get attention, yet Soo-ha begins to develop an infatuation with another teacher, the elegant Yang Eun-hee (Lee Mi-yeon (이미연).
The decision to film The Harmonium in My Memory in film stock used in decades past is a masterstroke, adding authenticity to the nostalgic vision of first love through the grainy textures. Additionally, ‘내 마음의 풍금’ directly translates as ‘The Organ in my Heart’ and as such music from the era plays a pivotal role in articulating the love held within the protagonists, as well as signalizing exchanges of affection. Director Lee Yeong-jae (이영재) employs sumptuous use of mise-en-scene in portraying the rural lifestyle in the early ’60s, with a romantic verve that captures the innocence and fellowship of the community but never shying away from the difficulties. In fact, Lee Yeong-jae conveys nostalgic comedy within such hardships, such as Soo-ha telling his students to wash more than once a month, and Hong-yeon changing her siblings soiled clothes in class. Generally Lee Yeong-jae allows the combination of these elements to dictate and present the narrative, competently directing but never really conveying an authorial style.
All of these cinematic features are amalgamated in order to portray the innocence and naivety of ‘first love’, and in that respect The Harmonium in My Memory succeeds incredibly well. The delicacy and poignancy of ‘first love’ is all the more endearing as for most of the narrative the love is unrequited. Hong-yeong loves Soo-ha, yet Soo-ha loves Eun-hee, and the ways in which they attempt to woe their targets is both touching and comedic. Hong-yeong in particular is very amusing as she works hard in class, presents anonymous gifts, and communicates with Soo-ha through the use of her daily journal which evolves into a diary/love letter. Her naivety is endearing such as when Hong-yeong writes spiteful remarks about teacher Eun-hee and her age, causing Soo-ha to become conflicted. Similarly, Soo-ha’s attempts for Eun-hee are also romantic and enchanting, using music to overcome the initial awkwardness between them and creating indecision for Eun-hee. The loves, and rejections, are subtly and organically portrayed by the excellent cast, especially Jeon Do-yeon who displays incredible talent conveying a shy but headstrong young woman in 1960s Korea. Lee Byeong-Heon is also wonderful in playing an emotionally charged young teacher desperate for love.
The Harmonium in My Memory is a wonderfully endearing romantic tale of the hurdles and triumphs of ‘first love.’ The nostalgia is perfectly balanced throughout and lends an incredible innocence and delicacy to the narrative through the subtle use of film stock, mise-en-scene, and music from the era. As nostalgia and innocence are so integral to the narrative, director Lee Yeong-jae does not provide an in-depth examination of relationships. Rather, he opts to convey the time of love before serious complexity enters, making The Harmonium in My Memory a light-hearted and touching love letter of the awkwardness, naivety and innocence of first love.