Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Significance of 'Manly Tears' for the Reclamation of the Male Id in Korean Cinema

Korean cinema features a lot of male characters that have either tried to shelter themselves from the past trauma of their lives, or have been directly confronted with it.  The Man From Nowhere, which I watched last night, may not be the best example of this, but when it's protagonist, Tae-sik, embraces So-mi, the child he saved, he breaks down in tears.  Throughout the film, he has been emotionless, and characters have mentioned that guns being fired right beside him haven't even fazed him.  Just before he cries, So-mi remarks that he is smiling and that it is the first time she has seen him do so.  His embrace with So-mi forces him to confront the loss of his family, I would argue that the sheer force of his history and the trauma he has borne for the last four years overwhelm him the moment the slightest crack appears in his armor.

Won Bin's manly tears
Tears are a very powerful image, and the more seldom their use, the stronger their impact.  The less we expect to see them, the more engaging they are.  They have the ability to convey a great number of emotions: fear, desperation, love, relief, grief, joy, and more.  Often they are more effective than words.  Korean cinema has a strong undercurrent of grief wich stems from its troubled history, and the closer you look, the more you will find.

Manly tears in Korean cinema are a very successful motif that elicit an emotional response because they hint at something greater.  When these characters break down it feels as though their trauma stems from more than their films' narratives, their tears are pervasive and multi-faceted and draw you into something deeper than mere escapism.  The emotional resonance of modern Korean films is a result, in equal parts, of the tremendous, highly-literate talents involved in the industry, and of the historical and psychological trauma that scars them all.  The 386 generation (or 486 by this point) brought all their baggage to these film sets and the tears of the leading men feel like their tears, or indeed a whole nations' tears.  Relief for the end of oppression and grief now that the release forces them to confront it.

Lee Byung-hun's manly tears
Kim Ji-woon's A Bittersweet Life features Lee Byung-hun as the hard-as-nails, ever-composed Sun-woo.  He goes through a narrative that seems him tortured, beaten, stabbed, shot, and of course betrayed, with barely a flicker of emotion.  In the climactic showdown with his boss and all his goons, he asks his former employer why he wants to kill him.  At this point he breaks down and out come the manly tears, he devoted his life to him for seven years and was an obedient and effective servant, but his boss only registers a small grin on his face and doesn't answer his question.  I would read this as the boss representing either the Korean government (of the past) or Korea itself, despite having been subservient to it so long, it could still betray you.  Lost in his boss' silence, he stares into space.  What he sees there is his own reflection in a window, he remembers who he is and his brief loss of composure evaporates.  His employer seems to think he's broken him, what he doesn't realize is that Sun-woo is unable to face his trauma and thus will revert to all that he knows.  This is a poor judgement on his part because all that Sun-woo knows is the cold brutality and cruel efficiency which he passed on to him.  It shoots straight back at him in the form of a bullet to the heart.  Sun-woo dies soon after this act and is thus unable to reclaim his identity, although since his moment past and he refused to embrace it there was nothing left for him to do but die.

The Host features a great deal of crying, although I wouldn't call it manly.  I think there is a lot to be said about it but it will need to sit with me for a little while.  Mainly I wanted to mention it briefly so that I could include the following photo.

Song Kang-ho's unmanly tears
The reclamation of the male Id is an important part of Korean cinema whether it wishes to acknowledge it or not.  The image of men crying in the cinema of Korea is a motif which allows for significant catharsis among the nation's post-traumatic population and is therefore an integral part of it.

These are just two (and a half) examples that come to mind but there are many more out there.  As I list a few more and allow for my thoughts on this topic to germinate, I will expand on this post.  If you can think of other good examples, of other reasons why it may be important, or if you think my theory is baloney, please let me know!


  1. Since I know you've read THE REMASCULINIZATION OF KOREAN CINEMA, I'm wondering what your point of view is here? Clearly, you are correct in identifying this motif, but what do you think it represents? I feel A MAN FROM NOWHERE was a rather mediocre film with a conventional bad-ass with a heart hero that is hardly new or distinctive to Korean cinema. What do you think of this film in terms of gender? In other words, what is the "significance" of the "manly tears"? And what are you saying about the "reclamation of the male id"? Positive? Negative? I'm curious about your thoughts on these issues.

  2. Love that you include the crying in The Host. I call it "heavy grieving" LOL

  3. Amy: Heavy Grieving is right!

    Marc: The Man From Nowhere is not a particularly noteworthy film, but nonetheless it got me thinking about the prevalence of stoic, silent anti-heroes in aesthetic, commercial Korean cinema. In Remasculinization, Kyung talks about the “narcissistic recasting of masculine figures”, which he envisions as aimless, emasculated, wandering males, who will never be able to come to terms with their trauma, I've called these characters bumbling idiots. Since the late 90s however, I would argue that there is a second male character in Korean cinema that fills a similar role. These are the stoic, silent anti-heroes that I just mentioned. They don't talk much, and certainly not about their past, and sometimes they are in fact mute (e.g. Killa in No Mercy for the Rude). They are violent and most certainly repressed and in the narratives they occupy they are always forced, at some point or another, to face their past and see themselves for what they've become. For the most part they cry when they are confronted with this and beyond this things don't normally end well, they often die, (e.g. Sun-woo in A Bittersweet Life), or choose to forget (e.g. Oh Dae-su in Oldboy). The Man from Nowhere is a marginal entry in this category and does not go to any great lengths to deal with the weight of Korea's past. I do think it exists though, I felt it when Won Bin cried at the end, just not very much.

    As far as gender goes I think The Man From Nowhere overcompensates a lot, a fallen woman dies, a poor girl is saved, the rest of the film is littered with men. Come to think of it I like the noir aspect of the film, in that no one gets away clean, even So-mi is shown to be a petty thief.

    I suppose the reclamation is a positive thing but it is also a very difficult process. In A Bittersweet Life, Sun-woo eschews the opportunity to reclaim his identity and he goes does in flames. In Memories of Murder, which features both kinds of emasculated males, the detectives are forced to come to terms with their past, even as they don't catch the killer. Detective Seo is devasted and he cries, the whole ordeal has wounded him but it has also shown him a way to connect with his identity, it is a long road ahead though. Detective Park leaves the town and ends up on the road, in search of his identity. Years later he finds himself back at the scene of the original crime. He can't let go but he is moving on.

    Thanks for your questions Marc, you've got me to think more clearly about what I'm trying to say. When I publish the next part of this post I hope that I will be able to answer your questions more clearly.

  4. Thanks Pierce, I think I see where you're heading here. Look forward to the next post. It seems that you may see this re-masculinization as a more positive force than Kim, at least potentially.

  5. Some great thoughts here!! REALLY enjoyed reading it. Although with The Host, I'm not sure if I would agree that Gang-du's tears are unmanly as much as they are supposed to be child-like. To me, there's a fine line between issues of masculinity and issues of maturity in that film.

  6. You're absolutely right, I will defend my comment with two points:

    1: It was a joke, although what I was trying to do was...

    2: contrast the two types of male characters that I identified in response to Marc's question here in the comments section.

    Gang-du is absolutely portrayed more as immature rather than unmanly. Bong goes to great lengths to show that he has suffered a stunted growth and is a product of his upbringing and by extension, Korea's oppressive history.

  7. Interesting topic for sure!
    I kind of agree with Marc and since you answered his questions, I get you.
    You really should expand this, I think there's more to investigate here.