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Korean Movies You Should Watch Before You Die #8

August 30, 2010

This is a guest post by Nick Mann

Happiness

Part of what makes Korean films so unique and interesting to watch is the tendency they have of blending genres.  The results are consistently fresh, unique and unpredictable.  However, one genre is so prevalent that elements of it seem to seep into virtually every other genre, and most of the films produced in the country.

Brothers divided by war, sisters united beyond death, vengeance that defies logic, love directed by fate… How can one discuss Korean film at length without acknowledging its flair for the melodramatic?  For that reason I feel obliged to dedicate at least one post to the mighty Korean Melodrama.

Happiness (행복) is the story of a man, Young-su, whose self destructive life-style has finally caught up with him and as a result he checks himself into a sanitarium after being diagnosed with cirrhosis.  The simple way of life is difficult for him to adjust to at first, but he quickly falls for Eun-hee a sweet and pure young woman and long-term patient of the clinic. In some respects Eun-hee may be regarded as a stock character of the genre, but thanks to some unique quirks and a sensitive performance by actress Lim Soo-jung Eun-hee is more than a walking cliché, and challenges Young-su’s outlook as over the months he undergoes a transformation. When his health improves the pair move out of the sanitarium and into a cottage in the countryside.

Though Young-su seems contented with his new life, some associates from Seoul track him down and tempt him back to the city where he quickly succumbs to his old habits, leaving Eun-hee and his place in the country behind.  You can probably predict how it all turns out.

행복 ("Haeng-bok") - "Happiness"

Despite the clearly melodramatic plot, it is in some respects hard to classify this film as a true melodrama. Heo Jin-ho, the film’s director, has a knack for depicting drama with a respectable measure of restraint and understatement (perhaps an important touch from a Western viewer’s perspective).  Rather than ramp up the drama to an agonizing degree, he establishes a deeper, more lasting impression on viewers with long scenes and takes that capture the drama in everyday situations.  Heo’s dialog is measured and the silences reveal as much about the characters as their words.  If nothing else the film is beautifully shot, especially the frequent outdoor scenes – with an abundance of light and nearly over-exposed shots – which lend the film a vivid, and at times almost dream-like quality.

The film isn’t profound, but it does get at some basic existential contradictions that don’t have simple answers.  In this respect it appeals to the intellect as well as sentimentalism.  And for any fans of melodrama, there are some creative moments of flourish, the most memorable for me being Eun-hee in a moment of utter defeat sprinting down a country lane, in spite of what she reveals earlier in the movie about her fragile state when she says, “my lungs are about 40% functional, which isn’t bad. But if I run, I might drop dead”.

Mellow Drama

I think Happiness has plenty to offer the open-minded viewer however I must acknowledge I’ve chosen a rather obscure film this time around, which mostly reflects my own personal and unconventional tastes.  For anyone interested in further viewing in the realm of melodrama, here are some more orthodox suggestions:

Christmas in August

This was director Heo Jin-ho’s first and perhaps his most popular film, though I personally prefer the film discussed above.  Christmas is the story of a man with a terminal illness who runs a small photo lab and his blossoming relationship with a young meter maid.  Even in this earlier film his theme of mortality and signature style of lingering scenes, and long (though rarely awkward) silences have already found their stride.  There are no dramatic deathbed speeches and limited tears which makes this film even less a melodrama than Happiness.

A Good Lawyer’s Wife

I used to attend a Korean film club and the founder of that club said this was his favorite Korean film.  He described it as, “Korea’s American Beauty”.  I think that’s an accurate label.  The film is very edgy and deals with sexuality and dysfunctional relationships between men and women in modern society.  I found it a bit of a downer, but that’s just me.

One thing that I think David has alluded to on this site, though I have yet to bring up is… sex scenes in Korean film: they’re everywhere!* And why not? We’re telling mature, grown-up stories for mature, grown-up audiences so why not show a little T&A?  It’s one more reason to watch Korean films. (And this film is especially full of it.)

Il Mare

Il Mare

This film features “Sassy Girl” Jeon Ji-Hyun and was the inspiration for The Lake House with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.  I never saw the Hollywood version, but the Korean story does some creative things with time and chronology to freshen up the melodramatic mode.

You Are My Sunshine

A simple farmer falls in love with a prostitute and their blossoming relationship must suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  Absolute, pure, 100 proof melodrama.  They don’t make ‘em like this in Hollywood.

You Are My Sunshine

(*In retrospect I should have found a way to lead with the sex scene discussion. I probably would have attracted more readers.)

Christmas in August

This was director Heo Jin-ho’s first and perhaps his most popular film, though I personally prefer the film discussed above.  Christmas is the story of a man with a terminal illness who runs a small photo lab and his blossoming relationship with a young meter maid.  Even in this earlier film his theme of mortality and signature style of lingering scenes, and long (though rarely awkward) silences have already found their stride.  There are no dramatic deathbed speeches and limited tears which makes this film even less a melodrama than Happiness.

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5 comments


  1. I’ve been dying to share this clip since I watched the movie “May 18” (Hwaryeohan hyuga) a month or two back. The movie was about the student demonstrations in the ’80s that ended with a very bloody retaliation from the emerging military regime.

    The back drop of the film is the typical fare of Korean melodrama, dripping with sentimentality: innocent, romantic love story coupled with a brotherly love story, etc. Even this scene begins with a sense of carnival, as crowds gather to celebrate the retreat of the military. If you don’t have time to watch the whole clip, skip ahead to about 4:30 when the national anthem is interrupted by the soldiers opening fire on the crowd.

    I think it’s fascinating how much blood and gore is depicted. It’s so intense I found it funny… a middle school girl shot through the knee, crying on the ground until another bullet apparently puts her out of her misery was a highlight.


  2. As I said in the post, I felt I had something to say about Korean melodrama… but in re-reading the post I think it alluded me at the time of writing. The link I’ve added got me thinking about Korean film a bit differently.
    Maybe “baroque” is the best description of Korean cinema… for me that encompasses a lot of what’s good, bad and weird about Korean movies. Great Korean films like “A Tale of Two Sisters” or “Thirst” seem to draw directly on the art movement in their mise en scene. And the way in which K-cinema dwells on the emotions also aligns it with the baroque. Generally Korean film succeeds when it takes elements to maximum intensity, but just as often fails by spilling over with excess. Anyways it’s not a masters thesis, just food for thought.


  3. David… did you have anything to add about sex in Korean film? On that topic I see that another film by the director of “A good lawyer’s wife” was released recently, “The Housemaid” (with the invincible Jeon Do-Yeon).
    How was that film received?? It looks pretty sensational, and I see it is coming to Toronto as part of the International Film Fest, along with Kim Ji-woon and Lee Byung-hun’s latest collaboration, “I Saw the Devil”. Any buzz to share?


  4. Hmm, no buzz to share at the moment. I’ll try and talk to some Korean friends out here and see what the story is with The Housemaid and I Saw The Devil.


  5. Right on. I heard that the big Korean movie of the summer was “Ah-jeo-shi”; a very unassuming name for what appears to be an action movie about a gangster fresh out of jail. The english title “The Man From Nowhere” has more of a ring to it, in my opinion.



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