By Darcy PAQUET (Koreanfilm.org)
It’s the question I hope to avoid every time someone asks to interview me, and inevitably, the question always surfaces. “What is it that is special or unique about Korean cinema?” It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to ask, and if it were me conducting the interview, I’d probably ask it too. As a specialist on Korean films, I ought to have a better answer prepared. But every time I piece together a response, it feels both inadequate and a bit dishonest, like I am being evasive, or oversimplifying to an extreme degree.
Part of my problem is that I tend to interpret questions too literally. If you’re asking me what singular quality unites the films , Oldboy, Poetry, Silmido, Land of Scarecrows, and Death Bell 2: Bloody Camp, and which cannot be found in films from any other country, then I can only shrug my shoulders. If I were that smart, I wouldn’t be a film critic, I’d have invented Facebook or something.
My standard answer, which is a bit of a copout (but which I genuinely believe), is that what is special about Korean cinema is its diversity. The Korean film industry, and Korea’s independent film community, turn out just about every kind of film you can think of, from low-budget films inspired by Buddhist philosophy to big-budget action films — and even big-budget action films inspired by Buddhist philosophy (if anyone still remembers JANG Sun-woo’s Resurrection of the Little Match Girl). In recent years there has been a documentary about a 40-year old cow that sold 3 million tickets, a monster movie that sold 13 million tickets and screened in Cannes, a vampire movie based on Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin, and sports films about such unexpected topics as women’s handball, ski jumping and middle school girls’ weightlifting. The broad spectrum of films produced in Korea is an accomplishment in itself, apart from the strengths or weaknesses of individual works.
If we section off certain portions of the film industry, we can speak more easily about relative strengths and the characteristics that make such films stand out. For example, the films of PARK Chan-wook (Oldboy), BONG Joon-ho (The Host), KIM Jee-woon (A Bittersweet Life), RYOO Seung-wan (Crying Fist), NA Hong-jin (The Chaser), and many other Korean directors are characterized by a particular relationship to genre. On the one hand, as cinephiles these filmmakers have been greatly influenced by genre cinema from around the world. However, even as they approach these genres with respect, they take on a far more irreverent attitude when it comes to the conventions and aims of genre cinema. By turning the familiar patterns associated with commercial genre films on their head, they have been able to create works that break from tradition and surprise viewers with unexpected twists and collisions. These films have a distinctive energy because they combine elements in unexpected ways, and we can never be sure what will happen next. Of course, directors from many other countries too are constantly experimenting with genre, but it seems to me that this group of Korean directors have forged a relationship with genre that is subtly different from filmmakers working elsewhere.
Of course, other Korean directors are engaged in making very different kinds of films. Perhaps a broader influence on Korean cinema has been the unmistakable presence of melodrama throughout the history of Korean entertainment. Melodrama is the cornerstone of Korea’s TV drama industry (bigger and more powerful than the film industry), and many viewers consider melodramatic modes of storytelling to be inherently “native” in some way. Even though few Korean directors are engaged in making films that are labeled explicitly as melodramas, it seems to me that melodrama’s prominent place in the Korean consciousness forces each and every Korean filmmaker to forge his or her own relationship with it. Directors like KANG Je-gyu or YOON Je-gyun incorporate melodramatic elements into big-budget blockbuster films like Shiri and Haeundae. Directors like HUR Jin-ho attempt to refine melodrama through more subtle means of expression and a focus on everyday events. Even directors who explicitly reject melodramatic conventions are influenced, in the sense that they conceive and define their own work in opposition to it. Nobody would call LEE Chang-dong a melodramatic filmmaker, but in films like Oasis he seems to be forming his own response to mainstream melodramatic conventions.
If we step back to consider distinctive features of Korean society, that may help us to understand better the particular qualities of contemporary Korean film, including its relationship to melodrama. One thing that separates Korean society from most others is the furious rate of change it has undergone in the past several decades. Korea has modernized and democratized in a surprisingly short amount of time, and while this development has brought many benefits to its people, on a personal level the process has been turbulent. Change produces both winners and losers, and creates instability. Even those whose lives have improved a great deal must feel that fortunes could reverse themselves at short notice. The anthropologist Nancy Abelmann argues that a society like Korea’s that undergoes such rapid development is particularly likely to embrace a melodramatic sensibility. Melodrama is known for portraying how rapid swings in fortune, or difficult societal conditions, affect individuals. It often asks the question: if fate or events push us in a certain direction, what does that say about who we are? Are we good or evil? The critically acclaimed film Breathless by YANG Ik-june asks similar questions. The main character is left behind by Korea’s economic development, and seemingly in response he lashes out in violence towards the people around him. But if his violence stems from his difficult upbringing, is he at his core guilty or innocent? These are some of the central questions of melodrama, and Korean cinema returns to them again and again.
If genre and melodrama play a major role in the style and content of contemporary Korean film, we can also talk about the visuals. Many viewers comment on the ability of Korean directors and cinematographers to create striking imagery. It wasn’t always this way: in the 80s and 90s, Korean directors were much more likely to adopt a highly realist aesthetic that avoided stylized or exaggerated images. But times change, and the present generation of filmmakers have taken a strong interest in expressing the emotions of a film through its visuals. New technology and developments in computer generated imagery have greatly expanded the range of tools available to today’s directors. Of course, this is true of directors from all countries, but when you compare Korean films to those from other parts of Asia there is an unmistakable emphasis on the visuals. On a technical level as well, there is a glossy sheen to Korean films (even low-budget independent films) that gives them a distinctive look. There are pluses and minuses to this, as sometimes this glossy sheen can make Korean films seem overly packaged or commercial. But it seems that to some extent, Korean cinema has created its own distinctive look.
Once again, I’ve used up many words in trying to explain what I feel is noteworthy about Korean cinema, and yet I’m only really scratching the surface. There are many ways in which you can describe what is distinctive about Korean, or any other country’s cinema, but can you ever really say what makes it unique? My feeling is that its uniqueness lies in a particular combination of elements, rather than some special “Korean” quality that sets it apart from other countries’ films. Perhaps that’s just as well — if its unique qualities could be described in a quick soundbite, then there wouldn’t be very much to it.