Haenyo, or female deep sea divers, are a tradition on the island of Jeju. As I stated in a previous post, this tradition is slowly dying out, as more and more haenyo are encouraging their daughters to get an education. Although their are a few documentaries on the subject, many of them are inaccessible to the public. So instead of gathering information on haenyo from a non-fiction film, I decided to see what I could find out from watching a fictional film about the daughter of a haenyo called “My Mother the Mermaid”.
My Mother the Mermaidis a 2004 South Korean film drama about a dysfunctional family living on Korea’s mainland. The daughter of the family is sick of her vile mother who only cares about money and feels immense sympathy for her overly considerate father, who is constantly bashed by her mother. The daughter works at a post office and plans on taking a trip to New Zealand, when suddenly her father disappears. The mother doesn’t care that the husband has disappeared, so the daughter gives up her trip to New Zealand to find her father.
THE FOLLOWING IS A BIT OF A SPOILER, SO DO NOT READ IF YOU PLAN TO WATCH THE FILM:
When she arrives on the island where she thinks her father has run away to, she lapses into this dreamlike state where she actually meets her mother as a child on the island. As the title suggests, her mother was a haenyo. She is illiterate and supporting her brother so that he may go to school. This matriarchal family structure was very typical of haenyo. Even when they were married, they tended to be the breadwinners of the household. You can even see this in the relationship between the mother and father once they move off the island. Her domineering attitude towards her husband suggests that she is the leader of her new household as well. The movie also provides actual footage of diving, which suggests the amount of risk and skill in the profession. The divers would have to find dislodge shellfish from the ocean floor, meaning that they would have be able to hold their breaths for long periods of time.
Although this is the extent to which being a haenyo is explored during the film, it provides a fantastic visualization of what being a haenyo entails and how it influences other aspects of their lives. This is a beautifully made film, and although the subtitles are a little strange at some points, I think everyone should watch it.