A Brief History of Korean Cinema, Part Three: Hollywood Influence

Though South Korean directors have tread new ground recently in filmmaking, many big-budget, large production films have seemingly taken note from the blockbusters of Hollywood and followed formulated, money-making scripts, dialogue, and genre-films.

Christiana Klein, conversely, in “Why American Studies Need to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon Ho,” suggests that even though Korean film plots of late may match up famously to that of American cinema, Korean directors choose to use the influence as a framework and appropriate it for their own means. She writes concerning Joon-ho, particularly, “Part of the value of Bong’s films for American studies scholars is that they allow us to appreciate genre as a useful category of transnational analysis.” Genre films, she says, make it easier for viewers to relate, as they are inherently formulaic, making them, “…easy to export, requiring of viewers no deep familiarity with a foreign culture but only the more easily acquired mastery of a set of generic conventions.”

Though influenced by American films, “Bong has used his status within the industry to contest Korea’s relationship with the United States, staging public protests against the 2007 Free Trade Agreement that forced Korea to halve its screen quota requiring theaters to show local films at least 146 days a year,” says Klein.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]This combination of conforming to and pushing against Hollywood conventions creates a sense of “schizophrenia” that Bong identifies as his stylistic signature – and which we can read as a cultural expression of Korea’s half-respectful, half-resentful attitude toward the United States.[/su_pullquote]

Memories of Murder can be compared to American Hollywood Crime genre films with two detectives brandishing conflicting personalities working together, similar in plot to David Fincher’s Seven (1995) and in visualization with some scenes reflecting a definite grittiness while others retain a clinically polished feeling. One detective works on instinct (and even superstition), whereas the other works solely on rational, contrived tactics, adhering strictly to modern book work, a seemingly obvious divide in the Korean generational gap. Klein says that during a bar scene in the film, the two argue about their respective procedures in solving crimes with the instinctual detective suggesting his is the correct, Korean way and his partner follows an American way of thinking. This is another divide in the wavering relationship of Korea and the US by appropriating the alliance in a summarized compaction on screen.

Klein says, This combination of conforming to and pushing against Hollywood conventions creates a sense of “schizophrenia” that Bong identifies as his stylistic signature – and which we can read as a cultural expression of Korea’s half-respectful, half-resentful attitude toward the United States.

Oldboy, toward the finale of the film, boasts a fight scene portrayed as a long tracking, side-shot, going through a diffusely lit, grimy passageway as the protagonist realistically fights off an outnumbering mob reminiscent of a Sega Genesis-era video game, or, a commoditized, violent novelty as seen many times in western action films. He struggles, however, immediately rushing into the men who fail to anticipate his boldness, and quickly overpower him differentiating from western counterparts. Members of the crowd seem to have improvised the fight, as some skittishly straggle behind and flinch at the protagonist’s movements throwing wooden sticks and crawling on the floor. He is stabbed in the back at one point and falters on the ground but continues on in an exhausted, rage-driven manner sans fake slashing noises and blood spewing clichés.

Jang Joon-hwan releasedSave the Green Planetin 2003, mingling a series of genres such as revenge, action, horror, comedy, violence, science fiction, and Kung Fu. The film depicts Byeong-gu, a man anticipating an alien invasion, and his zany, nonsensical adventures in a Terry Gillian Brazil-esque film. A griminess can be seen throughout the horror and science fiction scenes calling to mind a steampunk tone, while a more whimsical style of alternative angles and crispness are utilized for the Kung Fu and action scenes.

Kim Ki-duk found both accolade and criticism for his themes of controversy that follow a similar career to that of Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier. Moebius(2013) continued a similar motif to Ki-duk’s Pieta(2012) which partook in shock value tactics and Oedipal complexes and is comparable to Only God Forgivesby Nicolas Winding Refn in thematic respect. Moebius, amid incest, genital mutilation recalling Von Trier’sAntichrist, and violence, had no dialogue and demanded physical emotional performances from its actors in extreme situations. Even Ki-duk’s lighter films have a touch of controversy such as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…Spring (2003), that features a live cat’s tail used as a paintbrush, as well as other on-screen animal abuse.

Lee Chang Dong directed a film called Peppermint Candy (1999), which was filmed from finish to start, inciting a new outlook that inspired popular western thrillers subsequently. His film Poetry (2010) could perhaps be compared to Austrian filmmaker Michael Henke’s last film Amour (2012).

In 2006, after purchasing the rights to the film, Warner Brothers Studios released The Lake House, which was a remake/retelling of the South Korean film Il Mare(2000) and In 2013, Spike Lee directed a big-budget remake of Chang-wook’s Oldboy (only ten years old), having recently influenced Hollywood with their refined film styles and bold plots while maintaining financial stability. 2013 witnessed Chang-wook direct Stoker with Nicole Kidman, Kim Ji-woon direct The Last Stand with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bong Joon-jo direct Snowpiercerwith Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and John Hurt, all making English-language, internationally financed films, propelling Korean cinema only further into the global cannon.

Works Cited

Jennifer Rousse-Marquet “The Unique Story of the South Korean Film Industry”

Rick Curnutte “Passages of Time: Motifs of Past, Present, Future in Contemporary Korean Films

Koren film .org

Min Eung-jun, Joo Jun-sook, and Kwak Han-ju, in “Korean Film: History, Resistance, and Democratic Imagination

Sam Jameson, “U.S. Films Troubled by New Sabotage in South Korean Theater

Christiana Klein, “Why American Studies Need to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon Ho”



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