Family’s Honor aka Glory of the Family
Television drama offers an outsider the opportunity to look inside a foreign culture, particularly when the serial is long. The most revealing aspects are always those that go without comment. These are the social norms that everyone local understands. In this instance, Family’s Honor aka Glory of the Family gives us 54 episodes looking at two fundamental building blocks of Korean culture. The first is the practical mechanics of courtship and marriage. The second is the class structure that divides the dynastic old respectability from the monied arrivistes. Put the two together and you have the central dynamic driving the narrative. Under what circumstances can members of the ancestral family marry “beneath” themselves. As in other Asian cultures, this is a choice between arranged marriages and marriages for love. In the Korean culture, the marriages should, wherever possible, be agreed between the families but, in principle, may be for love. However, when there is a clan and ancestral home involved, the sociopolitical rules are different to reflect the greater importance of the family’s identity.
What makes this story so fascinating is that all the adult members of the traditional family are coming from failed relationships, whether through death or divorce which is significantly less common in Korea than in Western culture. This gives us the chance to view the cultural practices at every level of the family from the great grandfather patriarch who has apparently never acted on his love for his housekeeper, through his son and the three adult grandchildren.
The primary focus is on the relationship between the granddaughter played by Yoon Jung Hee and the son of a predatory family, played by Park Shi Hoo following on from his success in Iljimae, intent on buying out the business interests of the ancestral family. She is a diffident and quiet academic who went through a marriage ceremony. But before the marriage could be consummated, the couple were involved in a car accident in which she was injured and her husband was killed. There is an immediate problem in that one of her young students has a crush on her and, in the best traditions of not-quite stalkers, this man is prepared to “fight” for her hand. The parvenu has been trained by his father to use every conceivable strategy, legal or not, to win corporate battles. This is not the ideal basis upon which to build but, in the metaphorical sense, she is the beauty to tame the beast. Over time, she awakens a conscience in the man who comes to see that, sometimes, there are more important things in life than money. To a one-track-minded son of a nouveau-riche family, this is a revelation that does not come easy. What makes it all the more difficult for him is that, if he chooses the light over the dark, this means betraying his family. He was told to acquire the company for its status and valuable assets. How can he switch to protect the interests of the company and the family that owns it? As an aside, the section of the plot dealing with the government’s investigation of the young man’s business strategies is particularly revealing in the balance struck between the national interest and cultural expectations of respect for a successful businessman.
Then comes the revelation for an outsider like me. Having opted for love with his eyes open, our “hero” runs into opposition to the proposed marriage from his mother. His father, played by Yun Kyu Jin as a soft-hearted bully, would accept marriage into the clan for the enhancement of his status. But his mother, played with frenetic energy by Seo Kwon Soon, considers her prospective daughter-in-law jinxed. Because her first husband died on the night of their wedding, she believes the girl will always be bad luck. Her opposition is implacable. What added to my fascination was the acceptance of this as extreme but not unusual. Given the families must agree the marriage, both sides back away from each other, respecting the other’s point of view. Even when there are negotiations, everything falters when it comes to the list of wedding gifts she demands as a condition of agreeing the marriage.
There are also interesting ructions as the son marries a colleague of equal age and comparable status because she is pregnant with his child, while his two sons both wish to marry significantly beneath themselves, one to a police officer, the other to an office cleaner. As is the way in many cultures, wives must move into the households of their husband’s. The traditional family must therefore “accept” these socially inferior girls and train them in the traditional way of life. Equally, our quiet academic would have to move in with the harridan mother-in-law, a daunting prospect even if consent to the marriage were to be given.
The final element is that, at a relatively late point in the narrative, an unfortunate revelation emerges that would potentially destroy the credibility of the ancestral family’s implicit claim to a perfect lineage. The person who makes the discovery believes this is his meal ticket for life. All blackmailers bring their own sensibilities to the bargaining table. They could not stand similar facts disclosed about them. They assume the same reaction from their intended victims.
In the better tradition of a cultural anthropologist, I have learned much about the household routines of modern families, one traditional, the other newly rich. It is both reassuring and depressing that cultures survive. For those born into those rituals of life, everything is perfectly normal. For an outsider, we see that patriarchy still dominates as women are allocated their roles and style of dress about the house. Perhaps significantly for the future, there are signs the women may be growing slightly more assertive, but these isolated shifts in “power” are treated as amusing departures from the norm — the exceptions that prove the rule (for now).
By way of closing, mention must be made of Park Joon Mok who, at eight years old, showed maturity and presence as the great grandson, while Shin Goo is magnificent as Ha Man Gi, the great grandfather whose hard-earned wisdom sees the family through the crises. While there are inevitably times when the story spreads into different relationships or business situations, and everything slows down, this remains one of the more interesting of the contemporary dramas. Family’s Honor aka Glory of the Family is worth seeing through to the end for a relatively unsentimental view of love and marriage.
You can download the theme song here.
For those of you who are fans of Park Shi Hoo, there’s a fan site at http://parksihoo4u.com/