Bright Lights Film Journal

Turn, Turn, Turn: The Seasons of Korean Cinema

“If the technical advancement of cinema now means that nature has been conquered, and most movies take place in a meteorological nowheresville created in a digital effects lab (where the weather is either hyper-real or airlessly unpresent), it strikes me as significant that the weather, the presence of the seasons, persists so strongly in Korean cinema, even as it has grown to rival Hollywood in sophistication, ambition, and technical achievement.”

The iconic image of a contemporary Korean film might be winter morning light coming through the bedroom window of a Seoul high-rise apartment. A mobile phone buzzes on the nightstand, waking up the bed’s hungover occupant. (For some reason phones are always set on vibrate in Korean movies, their buzzing forming an essential part of the soundtrack, and they are often, as in this scene, stirring grumpy occupants of disheveled beds.)

The openness of traditional Korean dwellings, the dialogue in their architecture between inside and outside, has been replaced, in Seoul at least, by these high-rises with their floor-to ceiling windows, which let nature in only through the particularity of the light. In this scene, we can tell from that light that it is winter, and it is morning. Nature makes itself felt despite the building’s desire to create a temperature-controlled cocoon, the perfectly balanced indoors-ness that all modern luxury spaces aspire to. You can sense the cold of the outside and grasp the feeling of being in a warm apartment, separated from the chill only by a sheet of very expensive glass.

This image comes from Happiness (Hur Jin-ho, 2007), a love story structured on the passing of the seasons. The settings shift between a rural, traditional house where a young couple live for a while and the Seoul apartment where the man falls back on bad habits. Hur makes melodramas, the staple genre of Korean cinema since its resurrection in the 1950s, but his are luxury models. They are the movie equivalent of Lexus sedans: clean lines, gleaming surfaces, superb craftsmanship. It’s in those melodramas of the ’50s that we first see the seasons creep into Korean cinema, but unintentionally: it’s so cold in the studios that you can see the actors’ breath, even when they’re playing an indoor scene. Hur can create any kind of weather he wants. If the technical advancement of cinema now means that nature has been conquered, and most movies take place in a meteorological nowheresville created in a digital effects lab (where the weather is either hyper-real or airlessly unpresent), it strikes me as significant that the weather, the presence of the seasons, persists so strongly in Korean cinema, even as it has grown to rival Hollywood in sophistication, ambition, and technical achievement.

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I am focusing on the weather as a way of avoiding the question of taste and the pitfalls inherent in trying to define a national cinema. The persistent, palpable presence of nature, the weather, and the seasons provides a reference point, a common thread running through Korean cinema’s history that allows us to skip over qualitative debates (which ultimately come down to matters of taste), or the problem of attempting a taxonomy of a national cinema whose distinct national-ness is becoming harder and harder to define.

I once made the mistake of mentioning that I loved Korean movies to a known contrarian. He immediately asked me if I even liked the bad ones. “Especially the bad ones,” I replied. Everyone thinks they know what makes a “good” movie because a good movie is clearly the kind of movie they like. Taste becomes mistaken for quality. One should be able to appreciate them in all their varieties, perhaps especially the ones that flagrantly violate or ignore — intentionally or not — established forms. In these films the whole notion of “quality” becomes meaningless. They spring from accepted conventions of narrative and genre only to fly off the rails, calling attention to the arbitrariness of these conventions by disregarding them so recklessly. It’s as if those accepted structures exist only to be violated, and the pleasure we derive from these movies is in some sense sadistic, a revenge on good taste.

Is it a coincidence that it was a Korean film that made me ponder this question? Fire Moth (Jo Hae-won, 1965) begins like a rather stiff film noir knock-off but soon veers into thickets of ludicrous plot twists, hysterical acting, and highly questionable psychological motivations. If it kept a distance from itself it would be camp, but it plays it straight, like a film noir from another dimension. Professional movie-watchers (critics, programmers, etc.) tend to love films like this because they instinctively violate all the narrative rules that have been in place so long they are taken for granted by viewers and filmmakers alike. You can glimpse a particular kind of freedom in a filmmaker who can work outside of those rules because he never bothered to absorb them.

One of Korea’s seminal films resides in a similar dimension, so perhaps one of the things I’m saying when I say I love Korean movies is that I love The Housemaid (Kim Ki-young, 1960). I don’t know what it says about Korean cinema that this extravagantly strange film is considered one of its masterpieces. It brushes up against horror movie tropes but mainly strikes out on its own exuberantly eccentric path, and the same can be said about just about all of Kim Ki-young’s films. He constitutes a genre all to himself that seems to have sprung from some previously unknown corner of world cinema barely familiar with the customs of our own. That so many Korean films exist in this shadowy place is a function of their constant discovery. Few people outside of Korea knew about Kim Ki-young until a 1996 retrospective organized by the Pusan International Film Festival traveled the world, and more films from earlier eras are being discovered all the time thanks to the preservation efforts of organizations like the Korean Film Archive. Korean cinema’s history is constantly under revision, but it is also the product of its own vexations. For decades, films made under the Japanese occupation were kept under wraps; and, read in hindsight, those that followed seem to deliberately eschew the pristine craftsmanship of the occupation films, which in style and tone (not to mention propagandistic content) feel very Japanese indeed. So films like Tiger Moth and The Housemaid may be conscious attempts to forge a national cinema that looks completely different from the one forced upon Korea under colonial rule.

Or am I imposing this interpretation as a distant observer? This brings us to a series of thorny questions: how do you categorize something as large and varied as a national cinema when you can only apprehend it through your own necessarily limited point of view? What characteristics set Korean cinema apart from other national cinemas? And how can you isolate these characteristics when Korean society is so enmeshed with global culture, and Korean filmmakers are so eager to plunder cinematic styles and conventions from the rest of the world? One could argue that there’s no such thing as a quintessential Korean film because the quintessential Korean film is the quintessentially global one: a monster movie that sets out to challenge Spielbergian Hollywood productions in both creature effects and emotional impact (The Host, Bong Joon-ho, 2006), a ramshackle spaghetti western chase movie set in the Gobi Desert (The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Kim Jee-woon, 2008), a sleek revenge drama with Tarantino-esque violent set-pieces and overtones of Greek Tragedy (Oldboy, Park Chan-wook, 2003). The cosmopolitanism even extends to less global-minded productions: A teenager on his way to boot camp listens to Belle and Sebastian on his iPod in Yun Jong-bin’s Unforgiven (2005). Sohn Young-sung’s The Pit and the Pendulum (2008) takes its title taken from Edgar Allan Poe and follows a forking plot inspired by Jorge Luis Borges. In Kim Hyun-seok’s Cyrano Agency (2010), a group of actors start a romantic make-over company inspired by the French play Cyrano De Bergerac.

Globalism creates a strange kind of pop-cultural meritocracy in which the best examples of a given genre rise from their regional origins and migrate to other parts of the world to be consumed by connoisseurs: Mexican soap operas become hits in Africa, Korean TV dramas take over Japan, Bollywood movies flood the Middle East and Central Asia, Japanese anime flourishes everywhere.

Korean filmmakers have not only adapted to these conditions, they thrive in them. You could say that the world-conquering triumvirate of Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and Kim Jee-woon were literally born into them, having (mis)spent their youths gorging on genre movies from Hollywood, Hong Kong, and everywhere in between. This connectedness, this magpie-like mixing-and-matching of genres, tones, moods, and ideas coming in over the broadband, is, in a sense, Korean cinema’s identity. But this cosmopolitanism expresses itself within the very palpable confines of Korea’s seasons and weather. These forces play themselves out across its movies, and remain stubbornly present even as Korean films, and Korean life, migrate from nature into an urbanized, human-dominated world.

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The dialogue between people and the natural world threads through Korean cinema, sometimes explicitly, sometimes subconsciously. You always know exactly what season it is in a Korean film. But even films that don’t pin themselves to nature’s rhythms seem to foreground the weather. In the memory they become summer films or winter films. The seasons’ presence is as conspicuous as that of the characters.

Daytime Drinking (Noh Young-seok, 2008) and The End of the Animal (Jo Sung-hee, 2010), though different in tone and type, are both winter films, in which the chilliness of the season and the barrenness of the landscape form more than a backdrop. They penetrate the characters, propel them in search of comfort, shelter, answers. In Noh’s comedy a heartbroken young man becomes stranded in the winter countryside, enduring the yawning loneliness of a vacation destination in the forlorn off-season, while repeatedly falling under the sway of strangers who want to drink him under the table. In Jo’s low budget apocalyptic sci-fi movie, the Anselm Kieferesque winter landscape isolates the characters, keeps them from knowing if the strange events befalling them are happening elsewhere. The entire world shrinks to a handful of people repeatedly forced together as if there’s no one else in the world.

My Friend and His Wife (Shin Dong-il, 2006) is infused with summer, but it’s a dark, unhappy summer, the heat a suffocating blanket whose presence oscillates in and out of the film while the plot grows darker. The characters simmer in it as the tragic secret central to the plot simmers within them. My Dear Enemy (Lee Yoon-ki, 2008) takes place all in one day, but the weather can’t seem to make up its mind what season it is, going from overcast to partly sunny to rainy. It’s always jacket weather, but it could be spring or fall, and even the sun reflecting off a building seems to provide no warmth. Everyone keeps their coats on, but they still throw a party out on the deck. It’s impossible to know whether Lee meant the weather to reflect the emotional meteorology between his characters — a carefree guy and his stressed-out ex-girlfriend, crisscrossing Seoul trying to collect the money he owes her. The weather metaphors seem easy to think of but hard to achieve. You could spend weeks waiting for the right mix of sun and clouds, or maybe you adapt on the fly to the conditions outside. Sudden rain often creates a nadir to the day, but the nadir in this film (an impounded car leading to a bitter fight) would have happened anyway. The rain simply underlines it.

A self-proclaimed rebel in relation to the rest of Korean cinema, Kim Ki-duk is unorthodox in how he treats the seasons as well, manipulating them as fastidiously as he manipulates all the other details in his films. The light in them feels etched, broken into fine lines, its precision making it feel somehow unnatural. In Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (2003), each season is a carefully crafted spectacle. The leaves of fall are a little too red, the snow in winter a little too crisp. Rather than operating in or against nature, he obsessively organizes it in the same rigorous way he plots his films, as if inspired by images of it rather than the thing itself.

Hong Sang-soo is no less a manipulator of the weather, but to subtler ends. His films feel natural, comfortably settled into their seasons, as if they emerged out of them as part of the natural cycle, even if they always seem to take place in the extremes of winter or summer. His characters are always either blinking in the bright summer sun or huddling in parkas. In Woman Is the Future of Man (2004), he went to great trouble and expense to create fake snow for a single, seemingly inconsequential scene, so a character could make footprints in it. The incident has less to do with the surface plot of the film than the underlying structural pattern, which for Hong is just as important. It’s the reverse of letting the weather dictate the scene, but its fakery is the result of Hong’s experience of the weather in real life. On the day he shot the scene, nature just wasn’t cooperating.

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“I think Korean people are very much connected to nature,” says Lee Kwang-mo, director of Spring in My Hometown (1998). “We are familiar with nature, we are from nature, and keep nature near us all the time. That’s our culture and our tradition.” Wisps of this idea crop up in the most unlikely places. In My Dear Desperado (Kim Kwang-sik, 2010), two gangsters, a jaded veteran and a green newbie, are on their way to deliver a beating to a rival. It’s been prearranged that the younger one will take the fall and spend the next several years in prison as a way to prove his loyalty, but along the way, on what will probably be his last day of freedom, he pauses to look at the sky and wonder if the first snow of the year is on the way. This comment on the weather so melts the old gangster’s cold heart that he sends the kid home and does the time himself.

Korea’s location and geography make the weather impossible to ignore. The peninsula is at a crossroads, its extremes of weather — from freezing winters to sweltering summers — influenced by its own mountainous terrain, the monsoons of the Pacific, and the Siberian landmass to the north. Stand on any street in overdeveloped Seoul or Busan in early fall and you can feel the summer ebbing away on the cooling breeze, palpable even as you are surrounded by an architecture that denies nature, seems, even, at odds with it. This impression is even starker in the countryside, where clusters of apartment towers twenty and thirty stories high soar randomly from the flat landscape, seemingly plopped there without logic — there seems no reason for people to live on top of each other like that when there’s so much open land around.

It’s these towers, which have replaced the boyhood home of the young soldier in Lee Chang-dong’s Green Fish (1997) while he was away for his military service, that destabilize him, driving him away from his own family and into a life of crime, with gangsters providing the sense of community and home that was erased. It often feels like Korea’s rapid development involved a deliberate erasure of the past, a willful attempt to bury not only the recent past of military rule and the unrest that led to the trauma of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, but centuries of invasion and occupation. But the pace and scale of this development create problems of their own, which Lee chronicles not only in Green Fish but also in Peppermint Candy (1999), in which a man burdened with guilt at what he did as a soldier in Gwangju finds it harder and harder to shake the past or keep pace with Korea’s development over the next two decades. He is trampled by a progress that won’t acknowledge the past.

Freed by the relaxation of censorship in the ’90s, Lee and his cohorts in the New Korean Cinema dragged past shames into the light. Today another generation of filmmakers is bringing up the past in a different way, in attempts to honor and remember things that have been paved over, built on, or driven out. Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s documentary Cheonggyecheon Medley: A Dream of Iron (2010) attempts to preserve, through images, an old industrial area in Seoul, now being gentrified. A sly mix of documentary and fiction, Park Chan-kyong’s Anyang, Paradise City (2010) commemorates a horrific 1988 factory fire, digs for the remains of an ancient temple, searches for a 500-year-old tree, and confronts a contradiction when a modern building built on an ancient archeological site can’t be torn down because it, too, is old enough to be considered an architectural landmark. This, the film seems to say, is what happens when progress comes too quickly. The paradoxes of the past eventually pop up, in this case over the course of slow summer days during which the earnest, young (real? fictional?) researchers sift diligently through the remains of the city’s history.

A photographer and video artist, Park Chan-kyong collaborated with his more famous brother Park Chan-wook to create Night Fishing, which was hyped as the first movie shot entirely on an iPhone (well, eight iPhones, plus a star cast, a full crew, and over $100,000 in financing from the cell phone network provider KT). What’s intriguing about it is that this technological stunt was put in the service of creating a supernatural fable that — even if it wasn’t — feels like it was adapted from a folktale, and revolves around the ancient but still practiced tradition of Korean shamanism. The mobile phone now makes the movie rather than functioning as a buzzing prop, but what it depicts are tangled forests, ancient rituals, humid summer nights, and the damp mist of night time riverbanks. These uncanny images, made using the most advanced technology available, still evoke the iconography of tradition, the palpability of nature, and they embody the tension between technology and nature that animates contemporary Korean cinema.