Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Memories of Murder: Part II - The Wandering Male

"Korea's emasculated and traumatic men pour out onto the road. The characters are visually encased with overwhelming landscapes and victimized by historical pathos, which refigure their constant wanderings."

While detective Park, unlike his cinematic predecessors, may not traipse around the peninsula aimlessly, he does wander around the narrative of the film and around the small town where the film takes place, and often find himself chasing down ridiculous leads that lead him nowhere. Ultimately, with the crime unsolved, he will end his journey, within the film's narrative at least, exactly where he started: on the side of the road, in the same overwhelming landscape, looking into the past having not perceived or attained any specific destination. It is also worth pointing out that Memories goes on step further than the Korean New Wave: as Kyun asserts, “while the hope for reclamation of home and recovery of individual persisted in these stories, the endings desperately fell short of reunions, love, and overcoming life’s obstacles.” , so while these film’s narratives can be followed by a spectator who is led to hope for resolution, Memories, which ironically is a far more commercial film, never even lets the audience hope for any kind of resolution since before entering into the film’s narrative, Korean spectators would already have known the events which the film was based on: a serial killing spree which was never solved. Even for a foreign spectator, a quick glance at the blurb would immediately fill one in on this information.

Park eyes a suspect
Memories is, of course, conceived around the notion of memory. However, it is not the memories of the film’s characters that are important, as we learn nothing of the histories of the film’s central protagonists. Any back story we receive on minor characters is only present to serve as a signifier to a historical moment or to symbolize a collective national trauma. The film is a representation of a national memory of historical traumas. Kyung, while examining South Korean films that directly reference important historical moments that have created a national collective trauma, speaks more broadly about the use of personal trauma and amnesia as a means of representing national trauma. “National cinemas in countries trying to come to terms with their own humiliating pasts by confronting the task of self-reflexively engaging a history that resists both remembrance and representation” , Memories does exactly this by explicitly representing a period of trauma and challenging, very successfully as evidenced by the film box office returns, the audience to remember their scarred history and to engage with it through the surrogate of the ever-popular and emblematic symbol of the emasculated male, here South Korea’s biggest star Song Kang-Ho.

“In any new national cinema that has long endured political terror, a “post-traumatic” identity often emerges whose mission is to help viewers remember what is too difficult to recuperate.”

The detectives work together
This happened in South Korean cinema starting in the late 80s when auteurs such as Park Kwang Su, Jang Sun Woo and later Hong Sang Soo and Lee Chang Dong made films that centralized the post-traumatic concerns of the masculine characters and shaped what are now seen as the typical stereotypes that are prevalent in modern Korean cinema. “The New Korean Cinema of the last two decades has incessantly pursued themes, characterizations and narratives that center on a particular notion of subjectivity: the image of an individual modern man desperate to free himself from institutional repression, familial responsibilities, and personal anxieties” , today this can still be identified as one of the main focuses of Korean cinema. While not as prevalent since the beginning of the new millennium, it has found a very prominent place within the newly commercialized hybrid of domestic cinema. Any film that deals mostly with male characters cannot help but be influenced by this dominant strand of theory and most of these films will corroborate the masculine position as created and formulated by the cinema of the 90s but some, indeed very few, may try to challenge it. Most notably perhaps in this new sphere of filmmakers is Kim Ki Duk, who, while often labeled a nihilist and a sexist, engages far more with the female gender in South Korean cinema than almost any other director, however, he has not seen success beyond the festival circuit and is not particularly in his native land. The trend can go further and infiltrate films aimed at women, such as the ever popular melodrama, which at this point seems equally informed by the golden age of the Korean melodramas of the 1960s but also by Korean cinemas’ masculine identity rhetoric of the 1990s. While it is unfortunate and somewhat typical that a ground-breaking amalgamation of idioms that works successfully to examine a nation’s scarred history would then be invisibly assimilated into mainstream and commercial multiplex fare, it has also served some purpose in contrast with many successful national cinemas. The result: South Korea’s biggest blockbusters have a much healthier propensity for socially interacting with their audiences. Bong Joon-Ho with Memories and The Host has been at the forefront of this but other filmmakers such as Park Chan-Wook and Kim Ji-Woon have also made extremely successful films that can’t be ignored with regards to their social or historical subtexts. It also helps that South Korea, besides Iran, is the most cinephilic nation in the world. How else could an art film like Lee Chang Dong’s latest, Secret Sunshine (2007) be a runaway hit at the box office? An award at Cannes is worth a lot of money for a Korean film, indeed it is a symbol of national pride. Korean auteurs who have won awards at prestigious festivals have made a name for themselves within Korea and their foreign recognition has invited them to become bigger names within an industry which is mostly motivated by finance. Central to this is the continued popularity of the post-traumatic male who has made the leap from the art house to the mainstream without too much damage. Song Kang Ho, as already mentioned, is the biggest box office draw in the country and most likely this is because he has come to embody the traumas felt by Korean males and presents them in a highly sympathetic package as well as injecting a heavy dose of humour into his performances. “He is a camouflaged man who cannot easily reveal his past, a past that surely embodies a “trauma””, which Slavoj Zizek defines as “an impossible kernel which resists symbolization, totalization, symbolic integration” . In most films of this nature the spectator is hardly ever presented with any background information on the central male protagonists and we must see them less as original characters and more as sociological and historical symbols. Throughout the course of a narrative we observe how they interact or fail to interact with the people, circumstances, events and societies which surround them and through this we are shown a window into the scarred emotional psyche of legions of Korean males, particularly of the 386 generation. There are also other actors who have come to be famous and known for these kinds of characters, namely Choi Minh Sikh and Sol Kyung Gu.

Detective Park explains a theory
Bong Joon Ho, more than any other New Korean Cinema luminary, probably takes after Park Kwang-Su. His more or less exclusive focus on masculine identity  (within Memories in any case) and its social and historical context very much continues where Park left off. “Park’s films focused on the problematics of Korea’s repressive history and present reality by featuring male characters” , more importantly, because of Bong’s enormous popularity, Park’s ability to align intellectuals with the minjung (people) has percolated into Bong’s aesthetic and therefore proliferated into a wider audience. His structure and ideas are extremely intelligent and developed but they are not so far removed that they are lost on the public. Korean audiences have engaged fully with his narratives and characters and have celebrated him for it. Detective Park cannot find a stable ground for himself, by trying so hard to conform with the surrounding aspects of his society, he has created an uncomfortable balance for himself that ultimately pushes him out of this closed society altogether. The sight of Park on the road at the end of the film strengthens this and hints at the destiny of such a character in Korean film. They are never allowed to return home or recuperate any of their male subjectivity.

Family Ties (Gajokeui tansaeng) 2006

The first scene of Family Ties is one of hope. A young man and woman meet on a train and strike up a conversation, they are both very nice and clearly like each other. This early optimism however, is quickly dashed by the stories that will unfold on screen. We don’t revisit the couple until the final part of the film. Family Ties is an omnibus of three short films that are thematically very similar but each focus on a particular kind of relationship and the troubles associated with it.

The first story is about Mira, a meek and young women who occupies the decaying home of her family by herself. We do not know what happened to her family but it seems that they have been gone a long time. Soon we are introduced to her brother who hasn’t been seen in years, while initially exited to see him she is rather taken aback when he introduces her to his wife Mu-shin, a gruffer, older woman. Mira is embarrassed and does not seem to know how to react to her, she mostly looks at the floor.

It is unclear what, if anything, the brother does. He wants to open a store to which Mira responds that she has no money, he says he isn’t asking for any money and she reiterates very clearly that she has none. She is embarrassed by her brother, doesn’t trust him and is clearly worried that he will hurt her. It is when they all go out to dinner with her suitor that things get a little out of hand, after joking about selling liquor at his future store after hours, the brother then takes great offense at some comments directed at Mu-shin by Mira’s boyfriend.

Later, a child winds up on Mira’s doorstep and it turns out that she is the daughter of Mu-shin’s ex-husband. The brother is thrilled to see her but the women are not. His irresponsible behavior leads to great friction in the household until one morning when he takes some money from Mira’s purse and says he is going to go for a drink, he never comes home. After a few days, Mu-shin and the girl leave, Mira hesitantly asks them to stay but they leave anyway.

Mira’s character is like many that have featured in Korean films. A subservient woman who is abused by an irresponsible family member that ends up on the road. In fact, all of the main protagonists, who are mostly women, have been hurt somehow and each is heavily associated with the concept of han. Darcy Paquet describes han as:

“a deep-seated feeling of sorrow, bitterness or despair that originates in oppression or injustice, accumulates over time and remains unexpressed in the heart.”

While the women suffer from this han, the men wander off screen between families in search of their identity. The clash between these types of characters always results in conflicts and these are never fully resolved.

The motif of the train in Family Ties plays a crucial role. It serves as a clue that can give you an idea of the connection between the characters, but more importantly, it is also a symbol of the passage of time in Korea which highlights the differences in society that have taken place. The end credits sequence assembles all the characters from each story including young and older versions of the same characters on a train platform. They are all walking around going in different directions and waiting to go somewhere else, it is as if they are looking for something. Perhaps they are looking for each other and because of time and the rapid change in society are unable to recognize what or who they seek.

The second story features Sun-kyu who desperately wants to leave the country and whose mother has a life-threatening illness. After rebelling against everyone around her she eventually relents to her past when she manages to open her mother’s suitcase which is filled with mementos from her past, the rush of memory overwhelms her, particularly when she embraces a red garment. She could easily represent a generation of Koreans who, in the early 90s finally came to terms with their dark, bloody history. The red would symbolize the infamous Gwangju massacre of 1980 where demonstrators dressed in red were massacred by the military.

Ultimately, we learn that all of the characters are related somehow and that the three stories happened in different time periods. Sun-kyu turns out to be Kyung-suk’s sister, she has accepted her role as a damaged vestige of Korea’s past. She is now a singer but she is also alone, save for her brother. Kyung-suk’s girlfriend is the child from the first segment and she does not recognize Mira’s brother when he appears again with another wife, indicating a blocked memory of a damaged past.

The more I think about this film, the more impressed I am about it and I look forward to revisiting it and perhaps incorporating it into a more substantial piece in the future.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Classic Korean Cinema

My focus on this blog is to deliver content focused on modern Korean cinema (which I would say began in the late 1990s) which is often referred to as New Korean Cinema (the timeframe for this is up for debate) but not to be confused with the Korean New Wave of the 1980s and 90s. However, I do feel that it would be good to discuss older Korean films, in an effort to provide better context. Therefore, films like The Housemaid (Hanyo, 1960), Stray Bullet (Obaltan, 1961), The Surrogate Woman (Sibaji, 1987) and A Petal (Ggotip, 1996) will also be featured on this site.

The Housemaid by Kim Ki-young

Friday, September 10, 2010

New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves - (Wallflower Press) 2009

Just got my copy in the mail today and have begun to tear my way through it. I'm a big fan of Darcy Paquet and have been an avid follower of koreanfilm.org for quite some time. I have also read his essays in New Korean Cinema (2005) and Seoul Searching (2007) and found them illuminating so I am thoroughly exited to finally get my hands on this.

New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Memories of Murder: Part I - Introduction


 “There is a sight of horror that invokes the loss of… …memory and sanity.”

Kim Kyung-hyun, one of the foremost scholars on the depiction of masculine identity in contemporary South Korean cinema, argues for the “narcissistic recasting of masculine figures”  in the new wave of Korean cinema as a means of dealing with post-traumatic identity in a heavily emasculated culture. For him, this was a prevalent trait in South Korean cinema in the 80’s through to the 90’s but beyond this point, as he states:

“The Korean film industry since 1999 has scrupulously followed the path of Hollywood and has shown more interest in making deals and formulaic genres than in innovating and devoting itself to the creation of art.”

A young boy snatches a cricket

Kim’s arguments for representation of masculine identity in Korean cinema before this point are brilliant and insightful but I would argue that they do not stop at the dawn of the most popular era of Korean cinema. The male characters constructed by New Wave auteurs such as Park Kwang-su, Lee Chang-dong, Jang Sung-woo and Hong Sang-soo still exist in the more generic Korean cinema of today. I will try and demonstrate this through a detailed examination of Bong Jong-Ho’s 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder (hereby Memories), which, while ostensibly a film about the chase for an elusive serial killer in a provincial town in northern South Korea, is in fact a revisionist exploration of a post-traumatic and confused South Korean society which is attempting to come to terms with its scarred national identity but ultimately fails to do so due to its stunted cultural and political growth. However, Memories, which was an enormous box office hit in Korea, is in fact a hugely effective thriller which affectionately engages with all of the codes and tropes associated with its genre.

Since 1999, the South Korean film industry has positioned itself in a more commercial direction and has subsequently become one of the most successful industries in the world and one of the only ones to best Hollywood domestically. To dismiss its social relevance on this basis however, would be a mistake. Within the limitations of genre and tried and tested formula, contemporary South Korean films have had an equally articulate social agenda and with higher production values and attendance rates they have arguably been more successful in conveying their ideas to Korean and international audiences than previous art house fare that may have never found an audience beyond the festival circuit. From Joint Security Area (Park, 2000) to The Host (Bong, 2006), South Korean films that have successfully engaged with social issues have consistently broken records and topped the domestic box office.

Memories opens by stating that the following events are based on a true story in a time set under a military dictatorship. This information is key to understanding Bong’s motives, the fact that the story happens in 1986, in a difficult period of South Korea’s history, informs almost all of the narrative at an implicit level. Camouflaged under the guise of formulaic genre, there lies an extraordinarily dense sociological narrative.

The man tries to shoo the children away

Before the first shot, we hear the wind and bustle of a field. As the image fades in, we see a young boy crouched in the field examining a lone cricket before snatching it. Then we hear a tractor coming from the distance, the young boy also does, so he gets up and the camera moves up with him. At this point, when we see the golden wheat field in the summer eve, a nostalgic melody seeps into the soundtrack. The boy walks out onto the dirt trail where down the road he sees the tractor and some children playing beside it in a burnt out car. As the tractor passes them, they follow it and jeer its driver with taunts of “Junk car!”, all the while the music and beautiful cinematography evoke a heavy and heady nostalgia. Next we see that a man is riding in the back of the tractor. He is middle-aged, a little chubby and he is smoking a cigarette, he tries to shoo the children away but this only inspires more raucousness on their part, so he taunts them back with hand gestures. As the tractor nears the young boy, it stops and its driver and passenger disembark and walk past him. The man in the back ruffles the child’s hair as he passes. He then crouches down at a roadside ditch that is partially covered in concrete. The music stops.

Aside from being an extraordinary display of cinematic technique, these opening few minutes hint at a lot of the themes that will be explored throughout the narrative. The style employed evinces a highly effective nostalgic air, which is universal but ultimately very specific to South Korea. The film is set in 1986, in a troubled time of recent South Korean history. So while the music and cinematography imply a sweet reminiscence, the sight of a burnt out car, decrepit tractor and youths that seemingly do not respect their elders injects a bitter tone into what ultimately becomes a very bittersweet narrative. Aside from the tone, the location itself is foregrounded and very central to the film's ideological motives. Not only do we start in a wide open space and a wheat field but on a small dirt road that may not have a real destination.

Park Doo-man crouches down at a roadside ditch

Memories is a film that is part of the new, more commercially viable trend of Korean cinema. It is of a very high production calibre and was ultimately hugely successful but its roots are clearly evident from the start as it harkens back to the New Korean Wave that manifested itself in the mid to late 1980s and probably finished with the release of Peppermint Candy (Dong) in 2000. A lot of the films in this movement were road movies that followed emasculated males that suffered from post-traumatic anxiety and wandered aimlessly and ultimately towards death or insanity. Kim in his seminal exploration of male post-trauma, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, states "The loss of homes or the fragmentation of families suffered by many then amplifies the meaning of the road as a site of neither transit or freedom. It is where people suffer: traumatized beyond recuperation, disenfranchised without a place to return, and the prospects of leaving behind the road unrealizable" , much of this anxiety stems from the difficult separation of the Korean peninsula but also speaks of the emasculation of males during the Korean War and other military occupations throughout the 20th century. Especially that of family men whose families were broken as wives became prostitutes for foreign soldiers and the men could do nothing but look on.

In Memories, the central protagonist is Detective Park Doo-man, played by Korea's biggest star, the surprisingly normal and bumbling Song Kang-ho, who effectively took on the mantle of Park Joong-hoon, the mainstay star of the New Korean Wave. His character, like so many that he plays, is not particularly attractive. Although not wholly unmasculine, he isn't very smart and is easily moved to jealousy or ridicule. However, he is an affable character who is not completely lost and is therefore indicative of a legion of post-traumatic males, at least coming from the perspective of New Korean Cinema filmmakers.

A cricket on the mutilated body

Back to the opening sequence, as we watch with the child as Park investigates the scene of what turns out to be a gruesome crime when we see a young women's naked body in an advanced state of decomposition, this is the first of many examples of visceral contrast in the film. It clearly places us in a state of discomfort that can't be shaked throughout the narrative. Within these opening minutes it is quite clear the direction that the film wishes to pursue. We are entering a time in history that would have coincided with the youth of the filmmaker and while beginning in a nostalgic tone we are quickly subjected to the horrors that allegorically represent the time. On top of this, Bong also challenges the masculine character created by New Korean Cinema, so what we have is a highly revisionist exploration of history from the male perspective of the 386 generation, which is the term for people who were born in the 60’s, went to college in the 80s and are now in their 30s (this terms can be labelled on most contemporary Korean filmmakers). The opening scene also adds another link between these two states of nostalgia and revisionism: the opening shot has the boy snatching a cricket, a minute later we see that he is holding a jar full of crickets and just afterwards, once the mutilated body comes into focus, we see that there is a cricket on it. Not only does this contrast the two states of remembrance but it also associates death with the past as well as informing the narrative of the military dictatorship that the film’s story unfolds under. The boy can in fact represent both nostalgia and the military dictatorship, this becomes more pertinent when he is shooed off but refuses to leave. This could represent the omniscient presence of the government and its reach into everybody’s affairs. He also never says anything, save mimicking every word of detective Park: symbolic of a government which refuses to explain itself and subjugates all its civil employees. Park clearly feels unable to do anything about this mockery and lets it lie. The scene ends with him looking at the corpse and then directly at the boy. He tilts his head and squints his eyes and then the boy does the same. Park looks defeated already and is clearly terrified of the task of finding the killer which now faces him. At this point the nostalgic melody comes in again and we cut to the title shot which is a perfect postcard image of the wheat field and the huge space in which it lies.

The title shot, a perfect postcard

As any good opening scene should, this one hints at all of the major themes that will be explored throughout the narrative and is therefore a good sounding board to start off a discussion about post-traumatic masculine identity in contemporary South Korean cinema. Since there are many small strands that need to be addressed in order to get a full picture of the representation of males and Bong’s sociological motives throughout the running time of Memories, I have broken down this essay into six short chapters followed by a more comprehensive conclusion. The first thing to look at and what has already been mentioned in the dissection of the opening scene is the loss of home and it’s impact upon a male generation in South Korea and how the principal protagonist is used to elucidate upon this phenomenon. Next I will discuss the evolution of the character of the post-traumatic male from its first notable appearances in the films of the 1980s up to its most modern incarnation in Memories. Following on from this, a look at Bong’s use, adherence to and subversion of generic staples and codes and how his approach strengthens the sociological impact of the film. Then we will look at the compromised representation of females within these male-dominated narratives and specifically whether or not they are only symbolic and cannot be seen as whole characters. In the next chapter, I will present a case for Bong’s use of psychoanalysis as a means of representing a scarred national identity within a very specific historical framework and how the films’ specific genre ultimately leads to this. Before the conclusion I will briefly examine Bong’s subsequent film The Host and determine whether or not his sociological agenda has continued into an equally important aspect of Korea’s society, namely by representing family with melodrama. Finally in the conclusion I will wrap up all of the arguments presented throughout with a detailed analysis of the closing scenes of the film which serves as an excellent bookend to the film and closing point to the essay.

Memories of Murder (Salinui Cheok) 2003

Post-traumatic masculine identity in contemporary South Korean cinema: Revisionism and the male id through genre in Memories of Murder.

I realize that my ruminations on Korean films are sometimes a litte abstract so I thought it high time to post my college thesis on Memories of Murder entitled: 'Post-traumatic masculine identity in contemporary South Korean cinema: The revisionist filtering of the male Id through genre in Memories of Murder' which is where the genesis for a lot of my current thinking on Korean cinema can be found. It is quite long so I will post it in installments in the coming weeks and at the end I will provide the filmography and bibliography. I hope you enjoy this analysis of my favorite Korean film.

Feedback would be much appreciated!

Take Off (Gukga daepyo) 2009

One of the genres that has gained traction over the last decade in the Korean peninsula is the sports film. In international cinema the sports film has had an interesting development and has certainly caught on more than numerous other genres. Westerns for example, are popular in America but have had limited appeal overseas, although this did not stop Kim Ji-woon from taking his chances with The Good, the Bad and the Weird. The sports film has found success in most successful national cinemas. Britain has long been a source of them, films such as Chariots of Fire (1981) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) have long been considered classics and recently films coming out of Germany, The Miracle of Bern (Das Wunder von Bern, 2003), and China, the uproarious Shaolin Soccer (Siu lam juk kau, 2001), have found large audiences.

Take Off is by no means the first Korean sports movie. The Foul King (Banchikwang), another Kim Ji-woon film (I'm starting to think that he is the Korean equivalent of Howard Hawks but that is a discussion for another day), was an early hit from 2000. Since then there have been a number of contributions to the genre, not limited to but including: Forever the Moment (Uri saengae choego-ui sungan, 2008), Rikidozan (Yeokdosan, 2004), Marathon (2005), YMCA Baseball Team (YMCA Yagudan, 2002) and A Barefoot Dream (Maen-bal-eui Ggoom, 2010). Not all have been successul but some have been wonderful, Marathon in particular.

The second-highest grossing film of the year (after Haeundae), Take Off is the most successful sport film to come out of Korea so far. As much as I was looking forward to watching this, I found myself very disappointed for the very same reasons that many people disliked Haeundae: the set up is long and uneven (and melodramatic) but the lengthy exposition does add somewhat to the more genre-centric final act. So it does end well, but the journey for me was a little uncomfortable despite my having an unusually high tolerance for mediocre Korean cinema.

Take Off is based on a true story but after my research, I imagine that most of what ended up on the screen was fabricated, which is to be expected. Many common themes in Korean cinema find their way into the new narrative, including fraught relationships between sons and mothers and subservience to and subsequent betrayal by authority. What is quite interesting is that this narrative in which the underdogs manage to elevate themselves above their station is set right around the same time that Korean entertainment came into its own and thus domestic portrayals of scarred Korean identities became popular. Even though the characters make it out okay in the end, there are still some brief instances of hesitation. Chief among them for me was when the main character arrives back from the Olympics with his teammates and breaks down when he sees his biological mother. Instead of neatly wrapping this plotline up with a tearful embrace, the mother leaves the scene without saying a word.

This is one of those Korean films that is difficult to appreciate as a foreigner, the most egrigious block to viewing it as a native English speaker is listening to the main character (a Korean-American) speak the most atrocious English I've ever heard. It just might be worth sitting through it for the olympics sequences though, they are very well put together and quite exiting. Just don't get me started on the mentally-handicapped brothe

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Satoshi Kon (1963-2010)

I was saddened today to find out about the sudden passing of the great Satoshi Kon on August 24th. One of the foremost luminaries of animation, Kon crafted worlds and stories different from any that had come before. His vision was unique and breathtaking and was taken away from us far too soon. To think what he might have made over the next 20 years!

I wonder if the last film he was working on, The Dream Machine, will now ever see the light of day. I would love to take a journey into one of his worlds just one more time. What we are left with is his final message which was kindly translated from japanese by maki at makikoitoh.com. 

Goodbye Satoshi Kon, thank you for your art which I for one will never forget.