“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.)
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.
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.
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.
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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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.