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So What Is It About Korean Film?...

December 21st, 2006 (11:49 pm)

© 2006 D. Gordon

It's the Christmas season, and yesterday some coworkers and I were talking about all sorts of random non work-related things. One of them asked me what some of the hallmarks of Korean film were. I babbled on about something for a few minutes (which I'm sure didn't convince anybody of much), but I've always been a better writer than speaker. This morning I was thinking about it more, and there's a lot to be said...

First of all, there's always an element of comedy and tragedy in the stories (which I tried to get at by explaining the monster movie The Host). There are a lot of comedies, but they take a tragic turn somewhere in the plot (although they usually move back to comedy by the end). One example of the flip side is director Park Chan-wook's recent, highly regarded Vengeance trilogy, which looks at revenge in three different forms. Some of them are supposed to be pretty violent; some (the one I saw, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) imply more than show violence; but there are comic bits throughout the films – and the comic bits work. They aren't tacked-on orphans that show up only to interrupt the flow of the movie.

From Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Second is the cinematography, especially the use of color. The DVD that initiated the conversion (King and the Clown), although colorful enough, actually isn't a top example of that. There's one historical comedy (Forbidden Quest) which is a mix of reds and whites, with sets such as a nighttime temple celebration with hundreds of soft yellow lamps strewn across the visual range. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is pretty special in that from about the one hour mark on, the director's cut gradually fades to black and white, so gradually that it's hard to see in real time (the movie is 115 mins). Given that the closest thing to actual violence happens fairly close to the end, I think seeing the references to it in b&w actually makes a bigger impression than if it had been shot in color. And this kind of visual attention is consistent throughout Korean film, and across the industry (although if you don't have the budget, you can't do it as well – which is what I think happened with King and the Clown). This is almost standard and the only non-Korean movie I've seen recently that comes close is Water.

From The Duelist

Third - there's usually a pretty solid (or solid enough) story underlying all the visuals, although there doesn't always have to be. The Duelist is another period drama about a (female) government agent investigating a currency forgery case who falls in love with the enemy; both are skilled with weapons and end up clashing several times. That's the basic story in a nutshell. But looking at it, there is some astounding visual imagery / camerawork involved in the whole thing; plus the characterizations fill in quite a bit of what's going on (if you've ever seen Beloved, that's another movie that focuses on characterization over plot but is still very entertaining). You don't need a traditional complicated storyline to back it up.

From The Duelist

Fourth - music. I'm not big on music in the movies; there are exceptions, but I'm mostly of the opinion that if you're paying attention to the music, you're not paying attention to the movie, and that's a problem. But the background music in Korean films often just fits so well – there's stuff that I keep thinking about a few days after hearing it on the DVD. It's never a matter of "oh, here comes that music again, which means something's going to happen"; the soundtracks get at the appropriate mood but subtly enough so that you don't really notice.

From King and the Clown

And the DVDs are usually well-made. The special edition box sets are more than something slapped together for sale; the transfers and the sound are really carefully done.

This isn't to say that there isn't junk being produced in Korea - like everywhere else, there definitely is. But there's a lot of really really top-notch stuff, and it's a shame that few people here even hear about it.

* * * * * * * * * *

More thoughts, a bit further afield:

I've read a number of things lately describing what's been happening in South Korea in the past 10 years (Korean wave, or hallyu) as a stage in its film industry's growth. (Hallyu as a concept goes beyond movies, but I'm limiting things to film here.) It's quite possible; there's an argument to be made that Hong Kong went through something similar just a few years earlier, and that phase is dying down as well as that industry matures. I haven't heard about anything as exciting as the Infernal Affairs trilogy or In the Mood For Love coming out of HK these days.

I can't really think of a similar phase in Hollywood, maybe because conditions were different - it was completely new ground, and the book was just being written. Even during the 1920s, with silent moviemaking at its golden peak, the studio system was well-established and controlled most aspects of moviemaking (although there were definitely pockets of creativity within that control). The years 1900-1910 were more open to a growth stage much like Korea's today, but arguably the technical changes which would determine the industry's shape steered creativity much more than a wish to tweak established norms (what established norms?) to make something new.

Maybe the Korean hallyu ride is just about over – there's a lot more money flooding into the industry to change the dynamics (I believe Korea is one of only two countries where audiences watched more homegrown than Hollywood films last year). In addition, the domestic content rule has just been relaxed (halved) in the past couple of weeks, and it's not clear how that will affect things.

Hollywood has taken some notice of what's been going on in Korea and has acquired rights to several movies, although to my knowledge only one has actually been filmed (Il Mare, filmed as The Lake House in the US). I hope that one of these films becomes a breakout hit here, and US audiences take notice... but maybe it's better if they remain underground pleasures – and something fresh.