Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Clash of the Families (Wi-heom-han Sang-gyeon-rye) 2011

Korea’s violent history features many atrocities, injustices, and infamous milestones but, aside from the separation of the peninsula, none is more present in the national psyche than the awful Gwangju massacre of 1980, in which students activists were mowed down by the military at the behest of a paranoid and brutal authoritarian regime.  30 years later and it still features prominently in film and television, cineastes can’t help but scratch the itch.  It’s a little like Lady Macbeth’s imagined blood stain which she can never rid herself of, “out damned spot!” she often cries.  Similarly, the Gwangju massacre is a psychological trauma that’s here to stay.

The Busan family
Clash of the Families, the second most successful Korean film of the first quarter of 2011, holds no pretense of being a great Shakespearean tragedy.  Instead, it owes a lot to the Bard’s great comedies, though it does begin as a variation of his Romeo & Juliet.  Here, instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, the warring, disapproving factions of the couple's families are caricatured emblems of the rival Jeolla and Busan regions.

Gwangju is, of course, a major city in the Jeolla province, and it still bears the mark of the massacre it suffered.  Around the nation, natives of the area are sometimes stigmatized because of it, though maybe not consciously.  Similarly to this year’s Sunny, the protagonists from Jeolla are looked down upon by other characters, though they exemplify a hardiness absent from the urbanites.  In both films, strong women hid their Jeolla roots, since they are seen as a source of shame.  Perhaps people would rather not be reminded of one of the country’s lowest points, even more so for those that concealed their identities.

Who's the boss?
Early on in the film we are introduced to the Jeolla contingent of the narrative as they work in a regional nightclub.  A group of young women sitting at a table are harassed by some cocky military recruits who ask that they join them.  Despite being emphatically rebuffed they continue to insist and become increasingly more physical, clearly they believe there status in the military affords them the respect of women, traditionally lower down the pecking order.  Conversely the men are so quickly rejected that perhaps it symbolizes a latent wariness of the military in the region as well as the progressive empowerment of women in recent times.  In any case, the film’s romantic lead, Hyeon-joon (Song Sae-byeok), who is tall, feminine, wiry, and far from dashing, intervenes and when he announces that he was an officer in the marines, the soldiers quickly become apologetic and obsequious.  He is a sign of a superior authority, despite his less than imposing physique, and thus must be respected.  The women also begin to show an interest in him.  Hyeon-joon is in fact not a marine but it serves to demonstrate how Korea is still a country in which citizens fear authority and frequently prostrate before it.

Clash of the Families begins with an innocent romance, Da-hong and Hyeon-joon are penpals who have fallen in love, they are very pure and traditional.  She is from a wealthy family in Busan and he is somewhat poorer and from Jeolla.  They meet in Seoul to go on dates and finally decide that he should meet her parents, but he must pretend to be a Seoulite.  He goes over for a weekend and meanwhile his father sends his brother to spy on him.  Much of the action subsequently takes place in Da-hong’s family home and Busan as Hyeon-joon must be careful to hide his identity from Da-hong’s domineering father (Baek Yoon-shik), who despises Jeolla.

The film was very popular in Korea but foreign viewers will likely have some trouble since a lot of the comedy arises from differences in regional dialects and customs.  I would be curious to examine a breakdown of the box offices returns to see if it was markedly more successful in the Busan and Jeolla regions.

Baek Yoon-shik as the father
As can be expected from this kind of narrative, it is fairly moralistic.  The conclusions are readily evident as the film plays through the habitual cornucopia of contrived machinations, including: playing off of rivalry, role reversal, parallel characters, misunderstandings, inopportune interruptions, hypocrisy, secret identities, etc.  A lot of hidden identifies nevertheless come out before long.  You can anticipate the ‘remaining true to yourself’ conclusion from a mile off.

Melodrama lies at the heart of Clash of the Families and despite never approaching subtlety and being populated by two-note characters, the film manages to be engaging and somewhat endearing, even in its most ridiculous scenes.  Melodrama used to be the most prominent genre in Korean cinema (it still is on TV) but some say that it has fallen from grace.  I believe it is just as entrenched and important as it once was, however, it has been repositioned.  No longer the main genre of most movies, it now serves as part of a balancing act of generic devices.  I would also go as far as saying that it is the glue that holds it all together.

The brilliant Kim Soo-mi
A lot of Korean films will follow a path recognizable to Western audiences until taking a huge detour into melodrama.  Clash of the Families follows this same route:  It goes through the three acts which you expect, culminating in a large event where everything is revealed, but instead of quickly tying everything up, it adds a full fourth act to gently thread the many loose ends.  As is usual for Korean films, this “4th act” is a melodramatic departure.  Perhaps a tough sell for uninitiated foreign audiences, 4th acts seems very common these days in Korean cinema, it’s like a repository for excess melodrama.

While sweet, the main couple is nearly insufferable in their caricatured and cloying naivety.  This was a tough pill for me to swallow at first but as I warmed to the film and its colorful, albeit simply drawn, characters, enough suspension of disbelief set in for me to enjoy the film.  Baek Yoon-shik as the patriarch and Kim Soo-mi as his wife are the standouts in the cast.  They are very reliable comic actors who manage to rein in some of the unbalanced performances of the younger members of the cast.  

Will he or won't he?
The film derives a lot of its laughs from scenes which are independent of the narrative.  This more or less worked because the narrative itself can be at times superfluous, though I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing.  My favorite part of the film was the inevitable scene where Hyeon-joon may or may not confess his origin to Da-hong's father.  They are on a fishing hut in the middle of a lake and the fact that Hyeon-joon can’t swim comes up in discussion.  You know he is debating whether to come clean but the father’s strictness and the surrounding body of water add a nice tension to the scene.  It may not sound like much but it’s little moments like this that allow Clash of the Families to rise above the sum of its less than appealing parts.

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