Ongoing series on classic Korean film recently made available for free and with English subtitles on Youtube courtesy of the Korean Film Archive.
I can find something to like in just about any Korean film, even some that are frankly terrible, such as last year’s Marrying the Mafia IV, but there are some that I simply can’t abide. For the most part, the culprits tend to originate from the same genre: the family melodrama. Granted, there are numerous exceptional Korean melodramas but by force of there being so many, the ones that scrape the bottom of the barrel are remarkably turgid and torpid, judging by any standard. A recent example is The Last Blossom (2011), which I patiently suffered through despite almost boiling over with rage as a result of its manipulative machinations.
While these films generally aren’t big revenue drivers, many of them still go into production and are brought to us by the hands of hackneyed talent. Sometimes, as I watch these films, I ask myself: why do they exist? What led us to this point? While melodrama is typically the main form of entertainment in Korea, it seemed to me that these particular films are leftovers from a derelict sector of production, which ambles on, quietly churning out these hollow and shallow features. Naturally, the next piece of the puzzle was to identify and seek out what had come before.
Lee Du-yong’s The Oldest Son sounds exactly like the kind of film I would dread watching today. An elderly couple moves to Seoul to live with their grown-up children. Lee Tae-yeong is a busy family man who tries to balance taking care of his parents and less established siblings as well as looking after his own family and fulfilling his obligations at work. Thankfully, Lee’s film shares far more in common with Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) than the aforementioned Korean works. It is a classic melodrama and it is truly Korean in its preoccupations. Though bleak, it hits hard with its frank account of evolving social norms and familial structures in South Korea circa the mid-1980s. Just as in Ozu’s canonized classic, The Oldest Son examines liminality as it explores the spaces between old and young, past and future, and tradition and modernity. The former film occurs during Japan’s formative post-war years while the latter was made during a time when Korea was on the doorstep of globalization.
Tae-yeong, the ‘oldest son’, embodies the friction between the Koreas of yesterday and tomorrow. He is a devoted son who wishes to take care of his parents but at the same time he is an upwardly mobile businessman with a materialistic wife while also being a selfish hedonist, as he maintains a mistress on the side. His wife is impatient and irritable with his parents and the only time she displays any sign of happiness is when Tae-yeong receives a promotion. She is gleeful at the prospect of more money but doesn’t even bat an eyelash when he announces that is new duties will keep him away from home for a long time. Initially, Tae-yeong is depicted as a good son and family man, he is almost princely but this image is dashed following the revelation of his affair: he is not as unimpeachable as at first he seemed. He indulges in the privileges of his power and rank, which is ironic considering that his status is afforded by his level-headed, affable and considerate demeanor.
A further example of liminality is the plot of land that Tae-yeong hopes to build a house for his parents on. At first they must live in a makeshift shack with their youngest son, who is attending college. Though the space exists in an urban milieu they attempt to import rural elements into it such as the father’s flowerbeds, which strongly contrast with the surrounding barbed wire and buzzing city traffic. Despite its impracticality, the father can’t shake the habit of living off the land, he is ill-suited to city living. When construction on their house begins, the parents move to a flat in a non-descript block of flats, which is oppressively filmed from a very low angle. In their new surroundings they are even further removed from their rural origins and it is at this stage that things start to take a turn for the worse. They have been sucked in by the urban crawl, contemporary Korean society, which no longer has any place for them, has stripped them of their identity, hiding them away in the uniformity of modern apartment living.
Lee Du-yong, who was also behind The Last Witness (1980) and the popular Mulberry films (1986-92) showcases his very even temperament by never resorting to any cheap tricks to tell his story. He confidently places the film in the hands of his own script (co-written with Ahn Jin-won) and his splendid ensemble cast. The Oldest Son, just like Im Kwon-taek’s earlier Wang Sib Ri, My Hometown (1976) and Lee Chang-dong’s subsequent Green Fish (1997), chronicles the changing landscape and demographics of contemporaneous Korea but unlike those other films, which are both fantastic in their own right, Lee’s film is far more grounded. It’s realism is palpable and the family’s plight is endearing, in short it’s one of the most perfectly realised melodramas that Korean cinema has ever produced and given the nation’s proclivity for the genre, that should certainly count for something.
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