Discovering Korean Cinema: Romance

In the film My Sassy Girl, the character Kyun-woo informs us that Koreans like melodrama. According to the standard definition, a melodrama should be filled with stereotyped characters and exaggerated emotions - a description that seems wildly at odds with the supposed romantic melodramas Il Mare and Failan that I mentioned in my previous piece. As I enjoyed both those films, I decided to investigate some more South Korean romances to see if they would match that high standard or instead succumb to the excesses of melodrama.

Art Museum By The Zoo (1998)

Directed by Lee Jeong-hyang (The Way Home). Starring Shim Eun-ha (Christmas In August, Tell Me Something) and Lee Sung-jae (Attack The Gas Station).

Chul-soo, on leave from the army, returns to the flat he shared with his fiancé only to discover that she has left and another woman, Chun-hee, has moved in. With nowhere else to go, and having already paid the rent, Chul-soo argues that he has a right to live in the flat and eventually persuades Chun-hee to let him stay temporarily.

The competition for occupancy of the flat sets the tone for the relationship between the pair, whose time together is largely taken up with entertaining bouts of verbal sparring and put-downs. Thanks to fine performances from the two leads, we are aware of the reluctant growing affection that their banter conceals.

When Chul-soo learns that Chun-hee is working on a film script for a competition, he is at first dismissive of the idea, but eventually decides to assist her. Working on the script together becomes both help and hindrance to the pair's burgeoning relationship. Although the collaboration draws them together, the script becomes an expression of their idealised expectations of romance, shown to the viewer as a film-within-a-film. Real life inevitably fails to measure up to the ideal, and the question becomes whether or not they will swap their unattainable fantasies for the imperfect reality that is staring them in the face.

Art Museum By The Zoo is a character driven film that relies almost entirely on the performances of the two leads, who thankfully live up to the task. Although this film is definitely worth a look, if you're new to Korean romances you might be better off starting with a more broadly accessible film like Lover's Concerto, reviewed further down.

Spectrum Korean R0 (Anamorphic NTSC, DD2.0) approx. £12

The non-anamorphic Hong Kong edition is now deleted.

Christmas In August (1998)

Directed by Hur Jin-Ho (One Fine Spring Day). Starring Han Seok-kyu (Green Fish, Tell Me Something) and Shim Eun-ha (Art Museum By The Zoo, Tell Me Something).

Christmas In August's simple plot could be described in one or two sentences, but to do so would be to perform the film a great disservice, as it's nothing short of a meditation on live, love and death - weighty topics for any director that are here handled with remarkable skill by Hur Jin-Ho in his debut feature.

A work of unusual subtlety and sophistication, Christmas In August is an introspective film that relies more on the actor's performances than lines of dialogue to express meaning. Han Seok-kyu in particular rises to the challenge this presents and manages to convey a great deal with the subtlest of changes in expression. Less is demanded of Shim Eun-ha, but she turns in another fine performance to accompany her turn in Art Museum By The Zoo. The fact that the pair are two of the most popular actors in South Korea today is perhaps no surprise after their work here.

The film encapsulates a bittersweet attitude to life that is characteristic of the Koreans. Happiness is tempered by sorrow, sorrow is tempered with happiness, leading to a poignancy and emotional richness that's hard to find elsewhere.

Christmas In August has been hugely influential in South Korea, with the umbrella scene in particular inspiring countless imitations.

Christmas In August may disappoint some for lacking the blunt emotional punch of some other Korean films. Instead, like Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love, it takes a low-key approach that requires more work on the part of the viewer. For those willing to make the effort, Christmas In August is a rich, rewarding experience that repays repeat viewings.

Noel Megahey has reviewed Hur Jin-Ho's second film, One Fine Spring Day.

Korean R0 (Anamorphic NTSC, Korean DD2.0) approx. £15

Edko HK R0 (Non-anamorphic letterbox NTSC, Korean DD5.1) approx. £12

The Korean version wins for the anamorphic transfer, especially as the film will benefit little from the DD5.1 on the HK edition. Limited initial copies of the Korean edition came with a soundtrack CD but this has now sold out.

Harmonium In My Memory (1998)

Directed by Lee Young-jae. Starring Jeon Do-yeon (The Contact, A Promise), Lee Byung-heon (Bungee Jumping of Their Own, Joint Security Area) and Lee Mi-yeon (Whispering Corridors, No. 3).

Based on Female Student, a popular novel in South Korea, Harmonium In My Memory begins with Kang Soo-ha, a young teacher, starting his first post at a school in Kangwon Province in 1962. As soon as he arrives, Yoon Hong-yeon, a shy seventeen-year-old student, develops a crush on him. However she soon realises that Kang Soo-ha is attracted to Yang Eun-hee, one of his fellow teachers.

Hong-yeon's infatuation with her teacher is beautifully evoked. She studies his every action and word for signs that her feelings are reciprocated, and struggles against her timidity to communicate her feelings to him. Kang Soo-ha proves to be not that far removed from Hong-yeon as he struggles to express his own feelings for Yang Eun-hee.

Although Lee Byung-heon manages to hold his own in the lead role, the children in the cast steal the show from the rest of the adults with their natural performances. Despite what must have been a strong temptation, director Lee Young-jae portrays the students with a commendable lack of sentiment.

Harmonium In My Memory avoids the cliché of a fresh young teacher miraculously providing salvation for his disadvantaged students, and instead focuses on the love triangle between the three leads. However, although the relationships at the films core work well, the rest of the film is not entirely successful. The attempts at humour are hit and miss, with the older teachers portrayed as comic stereotypes that seem to belong in a different film entirely. There are also pacing issues - interest in the film slowly develops over time and it doesn't become fully engaging until the second half. However, the film ultimately redeems itself with a surprisingly effecting conclusion.

SRE Corporation Korean R0 (Anamorphic NTSC, Korean DD2.0) approx. £14

Modern Audio HK R0 (Fullscreen NTSC, Korean DD2.0) approx. £6

Despite having a below-average and overly contrasted transfer the Korean release is still superior to the HK edition, which has a poor quality transfer cropped to full frame.

Lover's Concerto (2002)

Directed by Lee Han. Starring Cha Tae-hyun (My Sassy Girl), Son Ye-jin (Chihwaseon) and Lee Eun-ju (Bungee Jumping OF Their Own).

A star vehicle for Cha Tae-hyun, the popular male lead from My Sassy Girl, Lover's Concerto is the debut film from director Lee Han.

Most of the film is told in flash back, as Cha Tae-hyun's character recalls a time five years ago when he encountered a pair of girls in the café where he worked. Immediately attracted to one of them, his initial advance is rejected and he instead begins to develop a friendship with the pair. Tensions arise as the feelings between the trio begin to change, due to complications both obvious and at first concealed from the audience.

When it comes to the later part of the film, the conventions of melodrama begin to be felt when secrets are revealed in a conscious attempt to manipulate the feelings of the audience. By this time, however, our sympathies for the characters are fully developed and we become co-conspirators in the manipulation.

In many ways Lover's Concerto is a distillation of many standard elements of South Korean romance, even to the point that Korean film enthusiasts will recognise several sly and not-so-sly references to a multitude of other Korean films.

If you enjoyed both My Sassy Girl and Il Mare, you should probably make Lover's Concerto your next Korean purchase. Once again the Koreans prove their uncanny ability to produce the world's best date movies.

EnterOne Korean R3 (Anamorphic NTSC, DTS, DD5.1) approx. £16

Initial copies came with a slipcase and soundtrack CD but this edition is now out of print. Unusually, the DVD menus for this title are solely in Korean.

Marriage Is A Crazy Thing a.k.a. Crazy Marriage (2002)

Directed by Yu Ha. Starring Kam Woo-seong and Uhm Jung-hwa.

As the eldest and only unmarried member of a group of three siblings, Joon-yeong feels pressured to get married himself. Agreeing to go on a blind date with Yeon-hee, a friend of a friend, he confesses to her his concerns about the path society is expecting him to follow. Joon-yeong believes it is impossible to love just one woman for the whole of his life, and rejects marriage on the grounds that it would inevitably lead to living a lie. Yeon-hee has a more pragmatic approach to marriage; she reveals that she has been on a series of blind dates in order to assess possible future husbands. She is judging the men she encounters for their ability to fulfil her wants, and it soon becomes clear that she has no qualms about looking outside marriage for any wants that cannot be fulfilled within it.

An adaptation of an award-winning novel by author Yi Man-gyo, Marriage Is A Crazy Thing stars TV actor Kam Woo-seong as college lecturer Joon-yeong and singer-turned-actress Uhm Jung-hwa as designer Yeon-hee. Both of the leads turn in suitably understated performances.

Whereas most romantic movies have their heads well and truly in the clouds, Marriage Is A Crazy Thing is resolutely grounded in reality. The film is as much an examination of contemporary attitudes to marriage and relationships as it is a love story. Perhaps the title should more appropriately end with a question mark, as far from simply denouncing marriage the film explores the consequences, practical and emotional, of non-traditional approaches to relationships.

EnterOne Korean R0 (Anamorphic NTSC, DTS, DD5.1) approx. £16

On the evidence of what I've seen, either Korean romances shouldn't be branded with the term melodrama, or Korean melodrama demands a redefinition of the term. The films can be exceptionally moving, certainly, but it would be grossly unfair to say that they were filled with stereotyped characters and exaggerated emotion, qualities I would more readily attribute to the average Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, the standard of Korean romances is so high that it was difficult to come up with a shortlist of films to feature here. Hopefully I've come up with a selection that reflects the quality and breadth of South Korean contributions to the genre.

A number of factors contribute to the success of South Korean romance, above and beyond the undeniable talents of the actors and directors. Whereas American romances are formulaic affairs with the obligatory Hollywood ending, in a South Korean romance it's also possible that one or both of the romantic leads will die before the end of the film, or even that they may never get to meet. Love is often unrequited or unfulfilled due to barriers imposed by society, circumstance, or individuals upon themselves. This sense of division seems to be a common theme in South Korean romances. Some have suggested that this is due to the division of Korea itself into North and South. Whatever the root cause, you don't need to be the citizen of a divided country to feel the emotive power of the theme, one that the Korean bittersweet outlook on life seems to make them naturally suited to express.

Next time, I'll be discovering if Korean comedies match the quality of their romantic dramas.

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