Ten cinematic observations

I’ve been watching a lot of Korean movies these days. I’ve seen a dozen or so over the past couple years, but lately I’ve been watching them in bunches.

Korean movies are big on melodrama and heartbreak. Filmmakers want to take you to the heights of joy and the depths of grief all in under two hours.

If a culture can be observed, at least tangentially, through its filmmaking, then Korean cinema reveals a series of distinct and interesting patterns. These observations are based on all the movies I’ve seen, but primarily those those that I’ve watched within the past 10 days or so — A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Ji-woon), Time (Kim Ki-duk), My Little Bride (Kim Ho Jun), My Sassy Girl (Kwak Jae-yong), and Happy End (Jung Ji-woo).

So here they are: my 10 themes of Korean culture as depicted in film:

  1. Korean boys will put up with a hell of a lot of abuse for a pretty girl.
  2. Family is everything. No mater what, family values will win over the desires of the individual. This seems to be a major point of contention between generations.
  3. If you want to impress a girl, find a time when she will be surrounded by her friends and peers, then use that moment to proclaim your love for her. It could be handing her a rose in class, performing a song for her, or giving a speech in an auditorium.
  4. Nothing good ever comes from a night of soju-drinking.
  5. Your character is defined by your behavior at the norae-bang.
  6. Girls hit boys. A lot.
  7. If you have a microphone, you are in complete control of the situation. This can, however, break down. Power is emasculated by unexpected feedback.
  8. Your girlfriend’s father will hate you. Your girlfriend’s mother will be sympathetic when the father is not around. Your mother is disappointed in you. Your father is trying to pretend nothing’s wrong.
  9. If you’re having an affair, you deserve whatever horrible thing happens to you. Justice will be served, one way or another.
  10. Fate. Fate, fate, fate. If it’s meant to be, it will happen.

North American films are very different. First of all, they’re all over the place narratively and in terms of values. Typically, though, American films have some sort of courageous hero who may or may not win out in the end. It’s cliché to say, but it’s true, Americans love the individual – the artist, the risk-taker, the righteous vindicator, the antiestablishmentarianist. (By the way, the same thing goes for music. How many truly great American rock ‘n roll bands are there? Not a lot. Americans have individuals: pop stars, folk legends, singer-songwriters. All the great bands come from Great Britain.)

Korean cinema is fascinating to me because it’s an ongoing culture puzzle. The clash of tradition and hyper-modernity is abundantly clear but I don’t have a sense of how such conflicts will be navigated. So while there are themes, I never know where the story is going to go because I can’t imagine how the characters are supposed to resolve their situations. There’s always a great passion for doing the right thing by your friend, family, lover, and self, all at the same time. But communication is difficult. People struggle through conversations, arguments, misunderstandings, and an inability to properly express difficult feelings. It’s clear that everybody wants desperately to do good. When they do, it’s a happy ending. When they don’t it isn’t.

By the way, I have to make a little sidebar here about a couple of movies. A Tale of Two Sisters is outstanding, and has quickly become my new favorite Korean movie. I’ve already seen it a few times over the past several days and it gets to me every time. It’s classified as a horror movie, but it’s more of a family drama dressed up as a scary movie. It’s tragic, gut-wrenching stuff. But it’s also very sweet. The two girls in the lead roles are sensational. The youngest, Moon Geun Young, is now a major star in Korea. She was also in My Little Bride, which I mentioned above. Although the subject matter of that film is a little creepy — a 15-year-old girl in an arranged marriage with a family friend — she completely carried it and made it funny, sweet and positively uncreepy. Dammit if I didn’t almost cry at the end.

Recently, Amazon.com put a bunch of Korean DVDs on sale for $5. So I ordered about a dozen or so. (I noticed the sale’s over now though.) Next time I blog about Korean movies I’ll probably focus on something a little more critical. Like, what the hell is going on with the music in Korean films? Please, stop doing that.

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8 Responses to “Ten cinematic observations”

  1. I would be interesting to make a similar exercise with the cinema of other countries. Nice post :D Korean films are fascinating

  2. ever hear of the greatful dead?

  3. Yeah, the Dead was one of the very few that came to mind.

    Filosofia… I wish I could read your blog. It looks like a good one.

  4. czechmates Says:

    Liked your critique of Korean movies. Lucid, very informative. And falls well within the paramaters of good tight writing. I say that without knowing a darn thing about good tight writing. But that is part of the beauty of these magical, plastic keys. Say whatever you want, and if you take any flack, you just move on to the next project.

  5. We saw a movie the other night and thought of you. It’s called, “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.” It’s a French film from 1953 starring Jacques Tati. It’s got subtitles, but that’s not important because there’s hardly any dialogue. It’s kind of like a silent film. The story moves along almost entirely through physical comedy and sound effects – the sputtering jalopy, the loudly swinging door, sounds of a holiday by the seashore, etc. We thought you’d enjoy it, and it’s got some really funny moments.

  6. Great post Jim. I am a fan of Korean cinema as well…

    Another thing I have noticed with Korean movies is the overuse of coincidence and chance meetings. I see it as a shoddy way to tie up a place in the script where perhaps the writer got lazy and decided it was too much trouble to write his way out of whatever narrative corner he backed himself into –which is of course, a necessary component to writing a great screenplay.

    The Dead was decent, and had their moments but would hardly call them a great band. Great following but nowhere approaching genius.

  7. Bobby, excellent point. I’ve found the same thing. That’s what I meant by my No. 10 up there. You’re right, it’s lazy scriptwriting and it happens all the time.

    Linda, I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t seen the whole thing. But I have seen it in parts. There seems to be some debate out there as to whether Tati is celebrating sound when he does that, or is ridiculing it.

  8. Nice write-up! We’re into Korean films too.

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