“Harmony” is an inspirational tale following a female prison choir, headlined by popular actress Kim Yoon Jin of “Lost” fame. Marking the directorial debut of Kang Dae Gyu (who previously served as an assistant on “Haeundae”), the film also boasts the presence of award-winning music director Lee Byung Woo (who also worked on “Mother” and “The Host”) along with a strong supporting cast that includes Na Moon Hee (recently in “Twilight Gangsters”, Kang Hye Won (Haeundae”), Jang Young Nam (“Aeja”) and Lee Da Hee (“Mother and Daughters”). The film’s positive message certainly rang true with Korean audiences, attracting over 3 million admissions and emerging as one of the highest earning hits of 2010.
Kim Yoon Jin stars as Jeong Hye, a woman who lands a ten year stretch in jail after killing her violent husband. Whilst behind bars, she gives birth to a son, who gifts her and her cellmates with a reason to smile and believe in the future. Knowing that the child will soon be given up for adoption, Jeong Hye persuades the warden to let the inmates start their own prison choir, mainly as a means of trying to get a day out. Despite her being quite unable to carry a tune herself, the choir is surprisingly successful, and gives the women a lift in their various personal struggles. Heartbroken after having to say goodbye to her boy, Jeong Hye perseveres with her singing, hoping to be allowed to enter in a national competition.
“Harmony” is an unashamedly feel good film which wears its heart on its sleeve. Unsurprisingly, all of its female characters have justified reasons for their crimes – brutish spouses, sexually abusive stepfathers, love rivals killed in fits of passion, and even a wrestler who accidentally broke the neck of her cheating manager with a headlock. The film doesn’t really attempt to cover difficult moral ground or to depict the harshness of prison life, aiming more for warm and humanistic drama, with plenty of sentimental back stories and flashbacks. Although this may sound dangerously saccharine, the film works well since despite being populated with a plethora of suspiciously familiar genre figures (including but not limited to a naïve but kind young guard, comedy relief cellmates, elderly mother figure, and a damaged youngster with the voice of an angel) all of the women are likeable, with Kim Yoon Jin making for an earnest protagonist whose efforts to improve her life and care for her son are hard to fault.
With themes of redemption and forgiveness being very much the order of the day, the film manages to balance being somewhat believable whilst not forcibly gritty enough to undermine its feel good theme. There’s a fair amount of soul searching amongst the tears and hugs, and the plot does for the most part ring true, with director Kang never laying on the melodrama too thick. Inevitably, there are plenty of tugs at the heart strings, though since there are no particularly cheap twists or too much manipulation the film is moving in an honest enough fashion.
The second half of the film does change tack somewhat, with the approaching singing contest turning it into somewhat of an underdog story. This works well, helping to maintain interest as well as getting the film out of the prison and giving Kang a chance to lightly explore issues of how society looks down on the poor women. Though the film doesn’t exactly broach the subject with much depth, it does take a stab at tackling prison reformation and second chances, and this helps to distract from its inherent predictability. At this point, the singing itself takes centre stage with some impressive musical sequences after the choir having been humorously bad for much of the first hour or so. This really gives the film a lift, and its hard not to get caught up in the women’s’ efforts to prove their worth to the outside world as well as to themselves.
As a result, “Harmony” makes for engaging viewing through to the end, and manages to hit all of the right emotional notes on its uplifting journey. Though it offers few surprises and does teeter on the verge of being far too nice, with its oddly pleasant jail environment, it certainly succeeds in its aim of being entertaining and moving – and to be honest, anyone who has a problem with this probably shouldn’t be watching an inspirational film about a woman’s prison choir in the first place.
Kang Dae-gyoo (director) / Lee Seung-yeon, Yoon Je-kyoon (screenplay)
CAST: Kim Yoon-jin, Nah Moon-hee, Kang Ye-won, Lee Da-hee, Jang Young-nam, Park Joon-myeon