Part of MKC's coverage of the 15th Udine Far East Film Festival.
Of all the film cultures in the world that embrace the ideals of romantic love it is only in South Korea where the connection between the ghosts of the past, the shifting of the seasons, and the tragic melodramatic love story can exist and thrive. While the French may have their amour fou, the Italians and Spanish their unbridled passion, and the Americans their once witty rom-coms South Korea has, for over a decade now, been cornering the market on never-can-be romances. If one were to retrace the genesis of this popular genre you wouldn’t need to go further back than 2002 with the broadcast of Winter Sonata on television screens all over the peninsula. Part of the Endless Love quadrilogy of stories that charted the ups and downs of a couple who meet in adolescence, were separated by some uncontrollable force, reunited later in adulthood, and then depending on the whims of nature and the show’s producer would either come back together again or be painfully ripped apart from one another.
Exploiting the audience’s nostalgia for their first love and offering up chaste heterosexual love stories, the Korean romance genre quickly rode the back of the Korean wave and soon became it’s own unique genre, as popular today as film noir or the spaghetti western was during its heyday. Eventually multiplexes and home theater systems were flooded with pictures like Christmas in August (1998), My Sassy Girl (2001), Architecture 101 (2012) and a plethora of other now established classics to satiate the publics' hunger for melodrama and unrequited love. Of course, like all film movements domestic as well as foreign forces have from the start fed Korea’s output. Case in point Jo Sung-hee’s commercial debut A Werewolf Boy (2012) takes bits and pieces of the Twilight mythos, throws in a sprinkle of history, a dash of horror, and cooks it under the heat of post-pubescent angst to feed its' media-saturated teen audience.
Screened first at the Toronto International Film Festival and then eventually put in theaters in late October, Jo’s film soon surpassed Architecture 101’s record as the country’s most successful melodrama ever produced with a whopping seven million tickets sold by mid-December 2012. Not to mention that high school seniors in Korea were booking tickets to see the film right after taking their College Scholastic Ability Test, or seuneung. It’s no stretch of the imagination to state that A Werewolf Boy was and still is a runaway success for Korea, during a year that saw several domestic films outsell blockbuster American pictures.
Of course the success of Jo’s picture is not merely rooted to audience pandering or even good casting. A Werewolf Boy succeeds because the film traverses various genres and yet doesn’t suffer any of the weaknesses from the stories it appropriates. An obvious example of this is the fact that Jo’s film is a modern interpretation of gothic horror, from the virginal maiden Suni (Park Bo-young), the dark brooding hero Chul-soo (Song Joon-ki), and the slimy effete Ji-tae (Yoo Yeon-seok). And while Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight franchise may have an air of gothic fantasy, not to mention a loyal following of Goth and Emo kids, underneath all the dark pretensions it loses any claim to the gothic tradition due to it’s very simplistic moralizing and at best comes off as just another young adult version of a Grimm fairy tale.
Now of course it can be argued that A Werewolf Boy was made only to capitalize on the teen supernatural fiction craze (i.e. Twilight, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries), but Jo doesn’t let commercial interests outweigh creative impulses. Case in point, he pushes the supernatural elements to the backseat and focuses more on character and mood. Like all gothic archetypes, initial impressions of the characters are quite deceiving.
At the start of the film Suni and her family must move to the countryside due to her condition. The village folk we meet there, as in all good gothic tales, are a bit simple and uncouth compared to city folk like Suni and her family, but in reality they are really good salt of the earth type characters who look out for their neighbors. Suni herself may at first seem like the typical virginal maiden but her sickly body is an ironic counterpoint to her kind heart and humble aspirations of going to school abroad. On the complete opposite spectrum there is Ji-tae, the young well-dressed man, who owns the house Suni‘s family live in and has all the affectations of an urban effete dandy but is in actuality an arrogant sexual predator. To counter Ji-tae’s advances Chul-soo appears during the second half of the story. Completely uncouth and savage he is the monster of our story, more specifically our werewolf boy. Yet like the Frankensteins and misunderstood grotesques in past fictions, Chul-soo has far more humanity in him than Suni and Ji-tae expected and a romance eventually blossoms between Suni and he. Unlike the romantic melodrama that unfolds in Meyers’s Twilight series, Suni and Chul-soo’s courtship is presented as a comedy of manners in the vein of My Fair Lady (1964) or even further back George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion as Suni trains an eager Chul-soo to be the gentleman she always wanted to be with.
This light-hearted tone is carried over to the visual look of the film that foregoes the shadows and rainy atmosphere of typical gothic and German expressionist films for something closer to film blanc. A sub-genre in film that grew in opposition to it’s far more popular sibling film noir, the film blanc is characterized not so much by an obsession with crime and pulp melodrama but an interest in melding the sentimental love story with supernatural elements, a perfect example being the Powell & Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Jo’s story telegraphs early on that Suni and Chul-soo’s romance will not last but nonetheless we are sucked in by the fleeting moments they share together for just as in many of the best film blancs, love transcends human definitions of time and also validates sappy notions like true love.
With the assistance of his cinematographer Choi Sang-muk, A Werewolf Boy pops when projected on a screen due to the golden browns and verdant greens of the Korean countryside. Instead of opting for cliché 'dark and stormy night' visuals the viewer falls in love with the scenery just as they fall in love with Suni and Chul-soo’s story. While the Twilight series may paint teenage life and adolescent angst as a terribly frightful experience that one must get over, A Werewolf Boy and many of the best Korean romance pictures are enraptured with that time when we were once young, in love, and so sure of what true love really meant.
Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).