Friday, February 24, 2012

Korean Film Quote of the Day

Why are Korean movies so fucked up? 
I don’t know. I've never seen a Korean movie that wasn’t fucked up.
Interview with Asa Akira @

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Introduction to "Virtual Hallyu" (2012 / Kyung Hyun Kim)

Virtual Hallyu is the new book from Kyung Hyun Kim, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Literature at UC Irvine, and one of the first scholars to write about Korean film in English language. His earlier work includes the editing and contributing to the volume Im Kwon-taek: The Making of  National Cinema (2002) and writing the book The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (2004). Kyung Hyun takes a rather unique and challenging approach to Korean Film, incorporating continental philosophy, psychoanalytic theory, and feminist theory into an interpretation of Korean films and their relation to Korean society. This is quite different than, for example, Jinhee Choi's The South Korean Film Renaissance, which takes a less abstract approach to many of the same films as this book.

While Jinhee Choi organizes her book around certain genres, looking at the narrative and stylistic norms in those genres, in both Remasculinization and Virtual Hallyu Kyung Hyun organizes his book thematically, choosing to analyze small groups of films with similar or complimentary themes. His approach is interesting and, especially in Virtual Hallyu, he often connects films that aren't obviously related in anyway. For example, in Chapter Two he discusses the colonial-era Spring of the Korean Peninsula (1941) in relation to the horror film Epitaph (2007). This connection of disparate works is very much in the spirit of Deleuze and Guattari, whose writings, especially Anti-oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, inform the main arguments of the book.

Virtual Hallyu also draws more heavily on Korean literature than his first book did. Perhaps it was his years teaching in the East Asian Literature and Langauge department or perhaps it was his desire to be taken more seriously in that department (by connecting the themes of Yi Sang's work with that of Hong Sang-soo for example), but Virtual Hallyu draws much more heavily on Korean literary history and intellectual traditions than his first book did. I again think this is an improvement and the book benefits from his connections to history and literature.

However, the most intriguing difference between Kyung Hyun's first and second book, and one I've heard jealously mentioned numerous times, is that Virtual Hallyu has a foreword written by Martin Scorsese. I had always imagined Scorsese as leaning more towards the David Bordwell cognitive side of film studies and nothing in this foreword dissuades me too strongly from that notion. Scorsese's foreword mostly discusses how he first came to Korean films, discusses some directors and films he enjoys, and then mentions Kyung Hyun only at the end, saying he "knows that vital works of art never sit easily within the society they come out of. And [Kyung Hyun] helps explain, in this fine book, how the give and take between those filmmakers and their country actually functions" (p. x).

While perhaps too much is made of Scorsese's endorsement of the book (his name is on the cover), the story of how they met is rather interesting and, to my mind, explains why Scorsese would choose to endorse this book. According to Kyung Hyun, "after reading [a] chapter in my earlier book, Martin Scorsese requested a 35mm print of The Housemaid [a film I discussed previously]. He watched the film, fell in love with it, and proposed that his organization, the World Cinema Foundation, help restore the film" (p. 223). That their love of cinema brought them together and not Kyung Hyun's theories on film is easier for me to understand, and really it is Kyung Hyun's love of Korean cinema and his passionate engagement with it, rather than his theories or arguments, that make his books and articles enjoyable to read.

In the introduction of Virtual Hallyu, Kyung Hyun discusses the timing of the publication of this book. His first book, he writes, came out just as the Korean New Wave was coming to an end and similarly this book is coming out just as the Hallyu phenomenon is ending. However, with the recent announcement that the domestic box office had once again passed the 50% mark in 2011 his assertion of the death of Hallyu may have been premature. Regardless, his point is well taken that the period from roughly 2002-2005 was an exceptional and unprecedented period in the Korean film industry and represented the peak of the first wave of Hallyu that ended when the momentum  switched mediums to television dramas and K-pop. Additionally, Kyung Hyun doesn't seem particularly interested in the Hallyu phenomenon per se, he is more interested in the films that were made during this period and what they tell us about Korean society than with quantitative analysis or marketing figures.

Virtual Hallyu is divided into eight chapters, each looking at a different theme and a different group of films and directors. I will consider each of these chapters in separate posts. It might seem strange that I will spend around nine posts on a single book when I generally write a single post on a movie. But while they say that a picture is worth a thousand words, academic writing can be similarly worthwhile as, especially in the work of Kyung Hyun, passing references and fleeting connections are frequently made which warrant elaboration. From another perspective, the arguments and ideas laid out in books are already 'verbalized' and so any response must be similarly verbal. In a film however, the images, techniques, and performances must first be translated into language, or verbalized, if they are to be discussed. The don't already exist in the realm of language and hence don't demand a 'verbal' response in the same way that a book does.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Romance Papa (1960 / Shin Sang-ok)

Romance Papa and his family describe to each other
their ideal movie. 

Romance Papa features director Shin Sang-ok at the top of his game and, along with many other classics like Yu Hyŏn-mok's Aimless Bullet and Kim Ki-yŏng's The Housemaid, is one of the highlights of an incredible burst of creative energy in the early 1960s Korean film industry. The film has an incredible cast featuring the best actors and actresses in Korean film at the time including the ubiquitous Kim Sŭng-ho as Romance Papa, Chu Chŭng-nyŏ as his wife, and Shin Sang-ok's wife Ch'wae Ŭn-hŭi as the youngest daughter in the family.

The film is adapted from a radio drama and this is clearly evident in the first few scenes of the film, before moving into more cinematic territory towards the end of the movie. The first few scenes are essentially skits which have no bearing on the narrative at all, it seems like they took the funniest scenes from the radio drama and acted them out at the beginning of the film. They are dependent completely on dialogue and verbal jokes and no visual information is necessary to understand the jokes or follow the conversation. The characters not talking simply stand and watch the person talking, waiting until they are finished.

Despite this lack of cinematic flair these scenes are quite humorous. For example, an argument develops between the first and second son about who is better, with the second-son arguing that there has never been a famous first son and therefore second sons are superior. Taking the bait the first son tries to think of a famous first son, starting with famous, General Lee who defeated the Japanese with his turtle boats and King Sejŏng who invented the Korean alphabet, and when these turn out to be second-sons he moves on Westerners and finally thinks of the ultimate first-son: Adam from the Bible. The second-son has an answer to this too. First God made a human out of mud, but dissatisfied with this he threw it back and tried again. This second attempt was Adam and therefore Adam was a second-son. First sons are therefore something of an experiment that is then perfected in the second-son.

Another funny scene occurs when Romance Papa gets in an argument his new son-in-law when he discovers the son-in-law works as a weather forecaster. "Why are the forecasts always wrong?" he demands. "They're so terrible I just do the opposite of what they say; when it says it will be sunny I bring an umbrella and when it says it will rain I wear my nicest clothes." Embarrassed, the son-in-law makes a rather bizarre explanation for the occasional inaccuracy of weather forecasts: "It's because Korea is divided into North and South and we are unable to gather weather information about the North with airplanes or weather balloons." One more reason to push for peaceful and equitable reunification of the Korean peninsula!

The dialogue in these early scenes, and throughout the film, is quite funny although the subtitles in the Korean Film Archive's DVD that is part of there Shin Sang-ok box set are really bad. I'm not generally a fan of the Korean Film Archive's DVDs (I think there restoration work is generally sub-par) but here the subtitles were inexcusably bad with frequent misspellings and typological errors (repeated words, etc.). In addition to the technical errors the timing and phrasing of the subtitles was terrible and many of the jokes, especially in these early dialogue-heavy sections, were lost on the audience. Putting that aside, however, this is one of the best looking films I have seen from the 1960s. The frame is very clear and sharp and there is only minimal damage throughout.

Perhaps also related to the radio drama source of the play is the unusual beginning of the film in which the characters come out and introduce themselves to the camera. This technique was used frequently in Korean films of the 1960s and into the 1970s and is particularly interesting in the case of Romance Papa because in this introduction information is given that we won't discover until much later in the film. For example, the eldest son tells us, in confidence, that he is only pretending to go to school and really he is working in the film industry and dating a famous actress. Romance Papa doesn't discover this until the very end of the film when he runs into his eldest-son and the actress on the street, and it's not clear if the other characters ever discover his secret. Also interesting is a person is introduced as a thief who will rob my house, the thief then introduces themselves as a thief. We don't see them until much later in the film, but when we do we realize they are a thief well before any of the other characters. While it might seem rather quaint, I think this device actually helps us to keep all of the characters straight and it makes clear their relationships to each other at the start of the film, especially important in a family melodrama like this where there are so many characters and their relationships are not always clearly presented in the film itself. I wish more films would do this!

After the initially episodic radio-drama scenes come to an end, a narrative begins to take shape around the eldest-daughter's wedding and Romance Papa's loss of his job. At this point the film becomes increasingly cinematic and, in a particularly well done scene, the characters take turns describing their plans for a movie they would like to make, with their descriptions becoming enacted on the screen.

The eldest-son describes a scene in which he and a beautiful woman confess their love to each other as they walk along the beach and agree to consumate their relationship in the waves of the ocean. As they walk towards ocean Romance Papa interrupts, objecting to the immoral motivations of the characters and remarking that this film would never pass censorship. He gives his own version in which a beautiful young woman is passionately in love with an older poet (played of course by Romance Papa). This young woman confesses her love as Romance Papa calls out her name; "Marie! Marie!" This scene is quickly interrupted by the objections of his wife ("That's not a movie, that's your fantasy!") who then proceeds to give her own ideal movie: the story of Chun-hyang, where she plays the mother-in-law scolding her daughter's husband for unfaithfully leaving her to pursue his career. She is interrupted by her eldest-daughter who says her ideal movie just expresses her anxiety over the coming wedding.

This scene is a tour-de-force as it switches back and forth from fantasy to reality, or rather from movie-within-a-movie to movie, and back again with a series of interesting transition effects, including one extremely well executed shot where a quick pan to the right at the end of one shot is matched with a quick pan to the right in the next shot giving the impression that the camera has panned from fantasy to reality in one fluid movement. That the jokes in this scene depend on cinematic devices to achieve their affects shows that the film is moving away from the earlier dialogue heavy scenes and becoming more cinematic.

This is confirmed by the last half-hour or so of the film after Romance Papa loses his job in which the story is told almost entirely through visuals. Having been fired from his job at an Insurance company but not wanting to tell his family, he wanders around the streets of Seoul, sitting on a park bench in T'agpol Park, and going from old friend to old friend asking for a single favor; that they give him a job. It's useless however as he is seen as too old to learn a new trade and too senior to be given a starting wage. He is thus forced to wander Seoul coming home at night pretending to have gone to work and leaving in the morning under the same pretense.

Finally payday comes and, terrified of not bringing home a paycheck and being found out, he pawns his watch to get some money and pretends that that is a paycheck. These scenes of Romance Papa wandering the streets are reminiscent of Italian Neorealist films, in particular Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D, as well as other Korean films like Aimless Bullet where characters wander aimlessly through the city without prospects or hope. The story is eventually resolved when his family discovers his situation and resolve to take up jobs so they won't need to rely on his paycheck. They also buy his watch back from the pawn shop and give it to him as a present in the touching final scene.

At two hours and fifteen minutes I think many of the earlier scenes that, while often humorous, don't advance the narrative and could easily have been cut making the picture overall much stronger. And from a Western perspective that might be true, but films at that time were not consumed in the same way as they were in Hollywood. That is, the narrative wasn't the main point of the film of Korean films at that time as it is in classical Hollywood cinema where every element in the film is meant to advance the narrative. Instead these films, and other Korean films of this time, are more episodic and have as much in common with variety shows than they do with Hollywood film. As the 1960s would progress and film became more codified, as audiences began to expect certain things, Korean filmmaking became more narrative and moved away from this earlier mode of filmmaking. However, looking at this film and the early films of the 1950s offers us an interesting glimpse into an alternative mode of filmmaking with an alternative set of priorities, tendencies, and norms than the classical Hollywood cinema.