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Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Shower (소나기, Sonagi) 1979


One thing that I’ve noticed time and again in Korean cinema, especially when I began to discover it many years ago, was the use of rain.  What struck me about it was its prevalence but most of all its impressive depiction on screen.  The first point is mostly due to the climate in Korea, which shares more with the wet climes of my native Ireland than Hollywood’s perpetually clear and balmy days.  The latter comes down to a keen appreciation on my part of the aesthetic and technical brilliance of the nation’s film industry.  Of course there’s also more to it than the above points, which are merely practical.

‘Pathetic fallacy’ is a term used to denote the attribution of human emotions to inanimate objects.  In poetry and literature, as well as in film, it typically references the metaphorical use of nature.  Rain is one of the most frequently used devices for pathetic fallacy used in art or media and in cinema it works particularly well due to its heavy physical presence and its potential to heighten the mise-en-scene through visual and aural means.  But in Korean films it has been brought to a new level as just about every important Korean work of the last 15 years has featured an important scene whose staging and emotional impact have been amplified by rainfall.


Based on one of the most famous stories in Korean fiction, Ko Young-nam’s The Shower isn’t one of the definitive masterpieces of classic Korean cinema but it may very well be the most beautiful.  It is a charming coming of age romance whose beauty and semblance of innocence however, is redolent of a far more mature and erotic love.  Suk-ie is a young boy living in the countryside who meets Yeon-ie, a city girl who has recently transferred to his school.  He feels something for her but unable to properly express himself he picks on her instead.  During Yeon-ie’s absence from school, Suk-ie waits for her every day by the stream she normally plays at.  Following her return, an event draws them close and then a short, strong burst of rain, the shower (or ‘sonagi’ in Korean) of the title, brings them even closer.

Hwang Sun-won’s short story is familiar to most Koreans as it is taught in middle school classrooms and the story has been referenced time and again in Korean cinema.  The Classic (2003) borrows many of its most important elements while My Sassy Girl (2001) sees fit to spoof it.  Going back to the appearance of rain in Korean film, The Shower (as well as its various versions) is a particularly prominent example of this phenomenon.  It is a representation of the young protagonists’ burgeoning sexualities.  Throughout the film and despite their pre-adolescence, they are frequently sexualized.   For instance when Yeon-ie falls and scrapes her knee shortly before the storm and Suk-ie crouches down to suck the dirt out of her wound.   But it is during the shower that they are most thoroughly eroticized.   Be it the brushing of their knees in confined quarters, a back rub or the glimmer of sunlight off Yeon-ie’s wet skin, their nascent sexuality is keenly observed, almost to the point of fetishization.


The whole narrative can appear slight at first but it is filled with metaphors such as these.  It starts off with another example of pathetic fallacy as Suk-ie is crouching down among red flowers, before clandestinely snatching a red berry from a tree.  Both actions are visual metaphors that signal the impending corruption of his youthful innocence.  A further motif that is frequently utilized by director Ko Young-nam is the small bridge that arcs over the stream.  Suk-ie and Yeon-ie are often framed on opposite sides of it and it serves to highlight their opposing positions on various scales such as gender, social class and ultimately, life and death.  But it also symbolizes their bond, which occurs across a chasm that separates their respective backgrounds and identities.

The rural community depicted in The Shower is stuck between two eras.  Yeong-ie’s father has returned to his hometown from the city.  He is dejected and finds it hard to face his grandfather in his moment of financial hardship, which is not elaborated on.  Her father claims that he needs to sell their ancestral home so as not to see the family perish.  His father won’t hear of it as he stubbornly clings to traditional values.  Neither is wrong but their separation, which is far more pronounced than a mere generational gap, prevents them from entering into any meaningful discussion on the subject.  Meanwhile Yeon-ie’s grandmother attempts to shoo away crows whose ominous squawks and encroaching presence are steadily bearing down on them, perhaps a sign of the inevitable urban sprawl which will soon finds its way to their doorstep.  Throughout all of this Yeon-is is blissfully detached from the realities of her family’s circumstance as she frolics in the unspoiled beauty of an environment previously unfamiliar to her.


By far the strongest element of the film is its gorgeous photography, rarely has a feature been so consistently and exquisitely composed.  The framing and colours are vivid and create a heady and whimsical atmosphere that borders on nostalgic, even though the film was set in its present day.  Ko’s heavy reliance on metaphor is well served by cinematographer Lee Seong-chun’s resplendent lensing, it’s easy to parse out the meaning of the imagery when its beauty draws you in so serenely.

While the film does almost succumbs to some fits of nationalism, traditionalism and cultural pride, it is a little unclear what side its allegiances lie on.  In the end it seems to intimate that in the Korea of its day, a person’s path was more or less set in stone but, so as not to spoil anything, I’ll leave it at that.  If primarily for the strength of its photography, The Shower is more than worth your while.

★★★★☆



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