Every Korean Movie is a Family Movie

and why this might be so

By Eunsu Oh

We are family!
Every Korean film is a family movie. That sounds crazy, especially when you consider how wildly experimental and varied the industry is, but nonetheless it’s true. Korean movies are obsessed with families and no matter the subject or genre of the film (thriller, sci-fi, horror, melodrama), it’s as if Korea’s directors and writers only know one subject—the family. It’s easy to miss if you aren’t familiar with Korean history and culture and these movies, some of them lauded on the international film circuit, almost never bill themselves as family films and are certainly not family fare—you wouldn’t take your kids or your grandparents to any of them. Still, what these films do is think about and value the idea of family in ways that American, European and even other Asian audiences might find inexplicable. And what’s even stranger is that these family films almost never present themselves as explicitly about the family; instead, almost all of them are superficially about something else—vampires, sea monsters, infidelity, serial killers, etc. Or to put it another way, Korean films are about many things, but they are all allegories of the family.

There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important is Korea’s unique and complex history. Because Korea is a peninsula, it’s been invaded numerous times for strategic military purposes and this have been going on since the late 16th century. That’s five centuries of fending off and sometimes capitulating to hostile invaders. The major antagonists have been China and Japan, especially Japan. During the last three centuries of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Japan and China essentially fought a proxy war on Korean soil that didn’t truly resolve itself until the late 19th century. From 1876 until post World War II (1945), Korea was continually under Japanese rule. After Japan’s fall, Korean tried to build a new country, but Russia and the United States intervened military and politically. Again, Korea was site of a proxy war, which sparked the Korean War (1950-1953) that divided the North from the South. Millions of families were divided by the three-year civil war and have been forever cut off from each other. So with this history, ancient, recent and ongoing, Koreans are naturally emotional about the idea of family.

A complex piece of land
Another major reason for this obsession with family is cultural. Unlike America, which is multi- ethnic and a country shaped by mass and ongoing immigration, Korea is unified racially, ethnically and culturally. All we have are Koreans. As I stated before, this natural state of unity has been exacerbated by continual invasions, where Koreans have had to come together over and over again, from the cruel and harsh treatment by the Japanese to the softer but still potent presence of America. When Koreans talks of Korea, people usually say Han-Minjock, which can only mean Koreans, both racially and culturally, and not anyone else who might live in Korea. There is no immigration debate here. On the other hand, people usually say ‘We’ rather than ‘I’ when referring to their fellow Koreans. It reflects a belief in the unity of all Koreans and a sense that we are all the same. Again, it’s different than America, where the idea of unity is around an idea of government and freedoms, no matter how hotly debated they might be; in Korea, we find unity in the fact that we are Koreans. An ethnic Korean can become American, but an American could never properly become a Korean.

The other major reason for this obsession with family is the relationship between capitalism and feminism. After the Korean Civil War (1950-1953), South Korea embraced both American aid and free market capitalism. Economic growth was rapid and with it a great deal of social change. Since 1990, Korea has been one of the world’s richest and most dynamic economies. The country has also sought to couple its economic success with a stronger presence on the world stage. Clearly, the 1988 Olympics in Seoul was partly about South Korea declaring its importance in the world, a city and country on par with America, major European nations and the rest of Asia. At the same time, Korea started to free up overseas travel and Koreans got a sense of some of the major cultural changes happening around the world. It was beginning of a massive amount of social change, but nothing was as important as the IMF crisis in 1997. Very quickly, Korean went from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based one and this created economic opportunities for Korean women. The new economy needed educated workers and although women didn’t have a great deal of social power, they were well educated. This raised women’s status not only in the economy, but also in the family and created a whole host of problems that Koreans had never experienced. Divorced, remarried and adoptive families grew; the country that had always refereed to itself as a family was having family problems as the changing economic prospects of women changed the idea of family.
The New Korea
The Korean film industry is reflecting these rapid changes, consciously or unconsciously, and giving us a whole new vision of what the family means in Korea. These films almost never plainly express these problems in direct terms. There aren’t a lot of or even any films about the IMF crisis of 1997, but most recent Korean films are absolutely obsessed with the implications of what it means for women to have entered the economy is such a significant way. From I Saw the Devil to Thirst, The Housemaid and The Host, the issues of women and family are front and center.

I Saw the Devil (2010)

Ji-woon Kim’s 2010 film begins on a gentle snowy night right out of a fairy tale. A charming and beautiful woman, Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh), is brutally murdered by Kyung-chul (Min-sik Chou). It’s important to the logic of the film that she just isn’t killed, but also tortured, both sexually and psychologically. Joo-yun’s fiancĂ©, Soo-hyun (Byug-hun Lee), a member of the National Intelligence Service not only solves the crime, and most importantly, before his traditionally-minded boss and soon-to-be father-in-law (Chun Ho-jin) does, but also decides not to arrest the killer. Instead, he continually captures, torture and lets him go so that he can do it again and again. It is a fantastically perverse form of justice. However, Kyung-chul, at first confused and terrified, begins to enjoy this nutty game of cat and mouse.

An unfortunate victim
I Saw the Devil is clearly a serial killer thriller with a twist. The film was critically praised and made a good deal of money. What might seem strange to foreign audiences, including the film’s incredible brutality, made perfect sense to Koreans. Of course, Koreans think revenge-torture is wrong, but because the revenge was about “family” it appealed to mainstream Korean audiences. Its brutality was socially understandable. What makes the film more interesting is that the film subtly addresses current social issues such as premarital pregnancy. In the past, premarital pregnancy was unimaginable and women who got pregnant outside of marriage were ostracized and denounced. Today, it would be hard to get a young person to denounce anything and people live together without getting married and even give presents to unmarried couples. It’s important to note that this change has occurred in a relatively short amount of time and the older generation still does not approve. I Saw the Devil quietly treats premarital pregnancy as a natural course of events and then quietly suggests that there will be serious consequences. The pregnant woman is treated sympathetically treated and yet viciously murdered. We see her pregnancy as normal, her murder as extraordinary, but possibly inevitable given her sinful state. The film walks a tightrope between the old and the new, not quite committing itself to either camp.
I want revenge!

Thirst (2009)

Many movie critics found Thirst to be preposterous and it is, but it’s also weirdly great and quite a “family” movie. Chan-wook Park is one of the most influential directors in Korea and something of an international sensation, but again it’s impossible to understand the tensions of Thirst is you don’t account for the way it addresses the Korean situation. When you look at it from that perspective, then its odd mixture of high art and pornography, its tenderness and brutality, all start to make sense.

Unbelievable, but yet very
Sang-hyun (Gang-ho Song) is a Catholic priest who works at a hospice. He is tormented by his inability to do anything for his dying patients. In despair, he participates in secret and dangerous medical experiments to develop new vaccines. During a test, he is infected with a strange combination of leprosy and AIDS and is well on his way to death when he receives a blood transfusion that saves his life. It’s great news until he discovers that he’s a vampire. It’s a stroke of genius on Park’s part to make his hero both a Catholic priest and a vampire. The one is committed to a life of denial and the other must give into every base desire he feels just to live. You couldn’t find two more contrary states of being, which is perfect for contemporary Korean culture.

It’s that’s not enough plot for you, well, try this. A little after his startling transformation, he meets an old friend, Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) and his wife Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim. He finds himself instantly sexually attracted to her. Tae-ju seems like the traditional Korean wife, dedicated to her sickly husband and poorly treated by her overbearing mother-in-law. Needless to say she’s ready for a change and she isn’t going to let either Catholicism or vampirism stand in her way. Even though she knows that Sang-hyun is a vampire and a priest, she begins an affair with him and suggests that they kill her husband. It’s the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but in Korea and with a vampire priest and a crazy traditional Korean wife who will do anything for her freedom. And I mean anything. Thirst, more so than any other film, expresses the incredible transformations of the Korean family and Koreans women over the past twenty years. It might come in the form of a pornographic vampire remake of a classic American film noir, but its real concerns are in every crazy plot twist and idea that Tae-ju has. She both yearns for her freedom and for a world that might understand her desires.

A repositioning of desires

The Housemaid and The Host

The Housemaid and The Host are wildly different movies. The Housemaid is a domestic thriller, and The Host is an elaborate sci-fi horror fantasy. Despite these differences, both films are obviously “family” films, but also, more daringly, films about class conflict. As I mentioned earlier Koreans refer to themselves as Han-Minjock, essentially one people and one family. Class conflict always implies I kind of unspoken civil war, a fracturing of the ties of the state and nationality.

The cleansing power of a bath
Directed by Sang-soo Im, The Housemaid is especially complex in this way. After getting divorced and losing a great deal of economic status, Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon) works in restaurant and enjoys living alone. It’s important to note that she’s happy at the beginning of the film despite her diminished financial and social status. She is hired as a live-in housemaid by Hae-ra (Woo Seo) who has a daughter, Nami (Seo-Hyeon Ahn), is pregnant with twins and has one of those devastatingly handsome husbands, Hoon (Jung-Jae Lee) who only exists in movies. Nami soon becomes enchanted with Eun-yi and follows her around and treats her like a surrogate mother. There is another live-in maid, Miss Cho (Yeo-jeong Yoon) who was Hae-ra’s childhood maid. You’d have to be an idiot to not know where this is all leading.

A little thereafter, Eun-yi goes with them on a family trip and has an affair with Hoon. It’s part of the genius and complexity of the film that she doesn’t feel guilty, but feels an instinctive happiness. Eun-yi and Hoon continue their dangerous relationship, only to be found out by, surprise surprise, Miss Cho. By then Eun-yi is pregnant with Hoon’s child. Hae-ra, in anger, figures out a way to cause Eun-yi to miscarry. The rest of the film is about Eun-yi’s revenge for the death of her unborn child. The issues here are both melodramatic and primal and show how incredibly stressed the idea of family is now. Im’s use of class conflict unhinges the notion of a unified family and by implication a unified Korean culture. Just like I Saw The Devil, the real conflict begins with an out of wedlock pregnancy. Young Koreans may accept this as a way of life, but the movies keep showing it as causing social havoc. It’s interesting to note that the family in The Housemaid is old money and that whatever social mobility and resources Eun-yi has comes from new money and the new Korea. Here, we can see the continuing conflict between tradition and change that has become the internal logic of so many Korean films.

Their last moment together
Joon-ho Bang’s The Host flips the equation and instead of the upper-class world of The Housemaid, we get the losers of the new Korean economy. In the year 2000, an American military pathologist throws out two hundred poison bottles into a drain that leads into the Han River. Six years later, the hapless Gang-du (Kang-ho Song) is living in a small house with his daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-Song). Gang-du is delivering food around the Han River, a low rung service job, when some people see a strange creature in the river. Everyone is delighted. That’s the last moment of delight in this strangely tense film. Minutes later, the creature goes wild and starts attacking. Gang-du runs away with his daughter, but he accidently lets go of her hand. When he turns around, he sees the creature running towards her. The creature snatches Hyun-seo and dives back into the river.

What’s interesting and touching about this film is that when Gang-du loses his daughter, he literally loses his only possibility of ever economically advancing. His daughter’s mind and education are his only hopes. The Host inverts the standard action hero narrative: instead of the father heroically going off to save his daughter, he remains as useless as he was before. Her being snatched by a monster doesn’t awaken anything in her father. What we do get to see is how resourceful our kidnapped heroine Hyun-seo is. She is everything her father is not and (spoiler alert) her eventual death is devastating not only to us, but, more importantly, to her father. Without her, he has nowhere to go and no one to lead him. One couldn’t find a film that so clearly demonstrates the changing economy and social structure of modern Korea. Again, it is the use and awareness of class conflict that gives these films their sting.
What is family but comfort and love?
What’s fascinating is that as women advance, they are symbolically sacrificed in the movies. This is true of the small part of the murdered fiancĂ©e in I Saw the Devil, but also in The Host and The Housemaid. Where we definitely mourn, along with her father Hun-seo’s death in The Host, The Housemaid offers an especially twisted take on what might become of the new women in Korean life. Both films depict changing opportunities for women, but in The Housemaid the upper class, those whose money is inherited not earned, stick to tradition, probably because it has served them so well. When Eun-yi hangs herself in front of Hae-ra and Hoon they don’t care, they’re that callous, but their daughter, Nami, is disgusted and she eventually walks out on her family. One new woman dies, but another, savvier and wealthier, is born. It’s an ambiguous and daring take on the state of the Korean family and suggests that blood ties, both familial and cultural, are loosening up and changing. It’s true that right now almost all Korean films are family films, but how these films imagine the family are changing just as fast as the world they’re so hauntingly trying to reflect.
What have I, what have we become?

©CCA Arts Review and Eunsu Oh

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