A first-love pic set in a South Korean village in 1963, “The Harmonium in My Memory” starts out looking routine but develops into a richly drawn and emotionally satisfying light drama consistently enlivened by a semi-comedic tone. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel, this first feature by former TV director Lee Young-jae is not major-fest material but well deserves a spin round the circuit, with some specialized sales to follow.
Sanri is a small backwater populated by colorful yokels and illiterate families, whither arrives 21-year-old Kang Su-ha (Lee Byung-heon), a klutzy, nervous teacher. The local elementary school has unruly classes and a staff that’s as weird as they come. Also joining the teaching ranks is the demurely beautiful Yang Eun-hee (looker Lee Mi-yeon), toward whom Kang, once he’s found his feet, starts making faltering advances.
This doesn’t sit well with one of Kang’s pupils, awkward but rebellious teenager Yun Hong-yeon (Jeon Do-yeon), who’s from a poor family and is consistently bullied by her mother (Song Ok-suk). The 17-year-old Yun, through whose eyes the story is partly told, develops a major crush on Kang, which complicates his attempts to chat up Yang — until events take an unexpected course.
After a faltering start, helmer Lee finds the right balance between comedy and light drama, with the characters slightly overdrawn but emerging as sympathetic in the long run. Pic has a nice feel for its era (just prior to South Korea’s aggressive modernization) and the realities of country life, without overdoing the pastoral setting or romantic angst.
At base, it’s also an ensemble movie, with the three main characters never dominating the action at the expense of the kids and everyday activities at the school. Casting of the ebullient, cheeky youngsters is excellent, and as the dowdy teenage dreamer, Jeon is almost unrecognizable from her roles in local successes “The Contact” and “The Promise.”
Though it’s constructed as a tapestry of small scenes, pic carries quite an emotional punch by the final reel, with a coda that’s all the more powerful for its understatement. Technically, it’s smooth, with Jeon Jo-myung’s camerawork catching the changing seasons and rich colors with ease. Clumsy English title, however, could do with a change.