"Harmonium," adapted from Ha Keum-chan's novel "Female Student" (aka "The Pupil"), is a gentle, bittersweet affair following a year in the life of a small South Korean village (the year being 1963). Into this poor, secluded area comes Kang Soo-ha (Lee Byung-hun, best known Stateside from the brilliant "JSA: Joint Security Area"), a nervous rookie teacher. The local school is a center for chaos, with rowdy students and oddball teachers - and I'm obviously missing the required knowledge of some major part of Korean culture, for there are entire scenes devoted to students having to collect (and then bring into school) their own stool samples.
At the center of this look back on a simpler place and time, we find Yun Hong-yeon (Jeon Do-yeon). She's a bit of a wild child, mad at her brothers for their amazing ability of peeing off the side of the house, mad at the rooster for making so much noise, mad at her mother for not letting her play and enjoy her childhood. She's forced to bring her baby brother to school, changing diapers in the middle of class, which is as embarrassing for a young lass as it sounds.
Yun develops a serious crush on Kang, but alas, he's harboring his own crush on a fellow teacher (Lee Mi-yeon). What we get, then, is a series of overlapping romances, the heartbreak of unrequited love handled with a delicate touch by writer/director Lee Young-jae, who understands how to keep this light and enjoyable despite the sadness that surrounds the piece. (Lee understands that while the overall story may be heartbreaking, there can still be great joy to be had in the little moments, the happy times in which all seems possible.)
"Harmonium" - the title refers to the instrument found in Kang's classroom - stumbles at times, most noticeably in later scenes that rely heavily on melodramatic cliché (there's a fire at the school!). Also, the methodical pacing could use a slight trim, as at 118 minutes, the movie feels a bit overlong.
That said, the sparkling parts of the film are well worth the visit, drawing us into the lives of these fascinating, friendly characters. And the whole thing leads up to a finale that truly pays off, a heartwarming, tear-jerking sequence (topped, then, by a touching bit during the closing credits) that dances around cliché without ever succumbing to it. "Harmonium" is a lovely diversion, a tender coming-of-age drama that captivates despite its flaws.
While not listed as such on the DVD cover, the image is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1). The image is a mixed bag - some shots look simply gorgeous, while others are far too washed out and weak. This could be chalked up to a less than desirable source print. Purely the DVD's fault, however, is the excessive, distracting edge enhancement that's evident through almost the entire feature. Jagged images to this extent are never forgivable - especially when the film itself depends so much on subtle imagery.
The Korean soundtrack is presented in Dolby 5.1 surround, which is a bit more than this low-key drama needs. Fortunately, the mix never oversteps its boundaries, and the movie comes off sounding quite sharp. An alternate Cantonese dub is offered in a less impressive but serviceable 2.0 stereo.
Optional subtitles are available in English, Traditional Chinese, and Simplified Chinese. No complaints here, minus one: a typo tells us that the title is "The Harmoniun In My Memory." Whoops.
Lee Young-jae delivers a solid commentary track, which comes with optional English subtitles.
Some of Lee's comments are repeated in a six-minute video interview, in which he discusses how he wanted to please the audience above all else. As slight as it is, at least it's more useful than the behind-the-scenes portion, which merely presents, narration- and context-free, eight minutes of random footage shot of the making of a handful of key scenes. We get to watch a crowd of extras screaming during the fire sequence - and then they keep screaming, on and on and on. Yawn. Both are presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with clips from the film shown in letterbox format.
Under the heading "MTV," we find a music video for the movie's gorgeous theme song. The video is simply a series of clips from the film edited together. Presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.
Rounding out the extras are a text-only filmographies page providing the rundown on selected cast and crew (no biographies, though) and a collection of trailers for other Tai Seng releases, all offered in non-anamorphic widescreen.
Despite a shoddy video presentation, "Harmonium" is worth checking out. Solid performances and gentle direction make this Recommended for those interested in the softer side of Asian cinema, or for anyone looking for a light, sweet drama to fill their evening.
Note (April 19, 2006): I recently received an email asking about this film's Korean DVD release - an email I promptly and accidentally deleted. As my ineptness has left me unable to reply via email, I'll just post my answer here: I believe the Tai Seng disc is just a copy of the original Korean release. Both seem to boast the exact same extras, both feature enhanced widescreen. Tai Seng may (or may not) have cleaned up the English subtitles for the Stateside version (either way, the subtitles are just fine). It's my understanding that Tai Seng doesn't produce new discs as much as they simply import Asian ones. Anyone out there have more info on this?
Another Note (May 7, 2006): Fellow DVD Talk staffer Scott Lombardo informs me that yes, it looks like Tai Seng's disc could indeed be a port of the Korean DVD, as released by Dawoori Entertainment. Oddly enough, that disc seems to be a port of an earlier Limited Edition release from SRE. (The Limited Edition also includes a continuity-storyboard book, but the disc itself appears to be the same.) He adds: "It's hard to say if the transfers are identical, but I did find the colors to be all over the place and some scenes did look a lot better than others. As for the edge enhancement, I really didn't notice any at all as the DVD has a real FILM look to it. This could have easily been added when by Tai Seng however for their release."