Wedding Dress, the emotionally devastating Korean melodrama from Kwon Hyeong-jin, is not so much a film which aims to simply pull at the heartstrings but to rip them wholesale from the flesh and eviscerate them entirely. It is not, unlike the thematically similar Christmas In August, a particularly subtle movie nor does it intend or pretend to be; with each dramatic development, Kwon takes a sledgehammer blow aimed precisely for the viewer’s heart.
The tale concerns single mother and wedding dress maker Go-eun (Song Yun-ah). Her behaviour towards her young daughter So-ra (Kim Hyang-gi) becomes increasingly erratic, temperamental and fevered with intensity – whether it’s pulling her daughter from school to simply hang out in each other’s company, spoiling her with whichever toys she desires or forcing her to attend ballet lessons, Go-eun’s weird new ways seem to be concerned with resolving herself from the guilt of not having always been the mother she should have been. Yet, Go-eun’s attempts to make So-ra happy don’t work in the way she’d imagine they would – the young girl continually skips ballet lessons without her mother’s knowledge; deep trauma stems from Go-eun’s new found intensity and is coupled with So-ra’s own problems at school. She is a sad, wounded child. Worse is to come for the nine year old – her mother has apparently been hiding terminal cancer from those around her and has only a very small amount of time left to live.
Go-eun, much like Han Suk-kyu inChristmas In August, intends to spend the limited time she has left preparing those around her, and in particular So-ra, for her departure. From chastising her daughter for not taking an umbrella to school*, through to making So-ra a wedding dress for a day some time in the future, Go-eun is determined that her daughter will be well prepared and safe even when she isn’t around to make sure this is the case any more. Yet, equally as brave here is So-ra – when she realises that her mother’s illness is serious, she resolves, with indefatigable stoicism, to return the favour her mother had attempted to bestow on her by becoming the best daughter possible. If that means remembering to take an umbrella or go to the ballet classes she’s avoiding, so be it. So-ra pledges to herself she will make her mother the proudest parent in the world – an idea which blossoms into a plan to make certain Go-eun’s last wishes all come true as they savour each other’s company for the limited time they have left.
Kwon plays out, in elegiac style, a beautifully warm tale of two people who will do anything to make the other happy, regardless of the sacrifices that have to be made against a lush musical backdrop. The real strengths, however, ofWedding Dress come entirely from the two leads and the chemistry they radiate when they are on screen together. Song Yun-ah is entirely believable as a woman who is slowly losing control of her senses and every part of her body except, rather crushingly and beautifully, her heart which beats stronger and stronger for the young daughter she’s terrified to leave alone in the world. Whilst her strength may be deserting her, Go-eun’s resolve to be the best mother she can be until her last breath departs her, hardens and hardens. Meanwhile, Kim Hyang-gi as So-ra delivers one of the all time great performances delivered by a child actor – her stubborn tantrums, carefree joy and, ultimately, stoic acceptance all play out on a face which lacks any contrivances of more weathered actors. There’s energy and pathos in abundance and it is through Hyang-gi’s delightful and tender turn we can trace a dazzling journey of a young girl who begins to understand how blessed she is to have such love in a life that is soon to turn unbearably, and irreversibly, tragic.