The Korean film industry is evolving rapidly, and filmmakers come up with new products that are positively accepted by the public. For instance, in 2011, 8.48 million Koreans watched national movies as compared to 4.98 million who watched foreign products (Dixon par. 14). The industry has transformed significantly throughout the decades.
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Thus, it was characterized by a strong long for nationalism and the so-called han in the second part of the twentieth century. Whereas, contemporary movies are more globalized, so-to-speak. Some claim that the disengagement from han makes Korean films less unique. However, this change signifies the progress of the industry and the successful search of its place in the world cinematography.
First, it is essential to analyze the concept of han and its historical background. Han is the Korean word that has a meaning of “suppressed anger, hate, the holding of a grudge,” as well as the feeling of the eternal lamenting (Kim 234). Some of the major connotations of the word are lamenting and passive acceptance of fate. Importantly, this feeling transcends individuals, and it is often regarded as a “collective emotional state” (Kim, 234).
The concept is rooted in the history of the Koreans who have faced various constraints associated with the expansion of neighboring empires. The country is geographically located in-between such expansionist states as Russia and China as well as Japan (Kim 234). This geographical position has led to numerous military conflicts that have often resulted in foreign military occupation. The Korean people had to live under oppression and lament quietly as well as hope for a better future.
It is noteworthy that the han concept is fully incorporated into the Korean culture and the cinematography of the second part of the 20th century. Films become the means of articulation the han of the nation. Choi stresses that han was articulated in the times of authoritarian rule in Korea a specific way, and “national silence deepened” in the country (113).
However, filmmakers still managed to reveal the collective emotion in their works. For instance, such films as The Tale of Chunhyang are based on the han concept. The collective lament is seen as the viewers are exposed to such pages of Korean history as European colonization in Asia or the Korean War (Choi 114). The film is regarded as a nostalgic account that talks to every person’s heart. However, contemporary films are deprived of the idea of lamenting and suppression as well as submissiveness.
One of these films is Memories of Murder that focuses on the story of a serial killer. Importantly, the film could be a perfect platform for communicating the han concept due to many factors. It is noteworthy that the film may seem to be closely connected with the ‘collective emotion’ as it refers to various facts from the past of the Korean people. The film is about the story that actually took place in the past.
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The story of a serial killer who is never caught in the film is a perfect ground for such emotions as suppressed anger and despair. The film also refers to quite a difficult period in Korean history. The authoritarian rule ends, and people are free to speak about their past, present, and future via the free press (Jeon 89). At the same time, the film appears to have no nostalgia or the feeling of suppressed anger.
It is rather a ground for future development. Jeon stresses that the film is not associated with haunting past, but it is linked to the idea of the “lost time” and the opportunities of people’s “amnesias” (95). There is no place for han anymore as the Korean people are looking for a way to find their place in the world rather than lament over their tragic past.
The investigators represent the new nation that accepts its past but has let it go. Likewise, the protagonist acknowledges that the serial killer is still there, but this past does not haunt the investigator. There is no regret or anger, but there is no submissiveness, as well. It is possible to conclude that there is no han at all.
Some argue that the loss of han is caused by westernization or rather Americanization of the Korean cinematography. Thus, people claim that Koreans prefer American films and TV products as they want to associate themselves with western culture, which is synonymous with prosperity and globalization (Park 55). Importantly, for young people, such concepts as modern western and intellectual are interconnected (Park 55).
The filmmakers are also thought to follow the trend and make American-style products. For instance, the popularity of blockbusters, such as The Host, shows that Americanism is deeply rooted in contemporary Korean culture. Memories of Murder could be regarded as a thriller or detective story.
The film noir Oldboy is also an example of the transformations within the Korean culture. The framework of the film noir is also ‘translated,’ but it has a specific grip on the Korean identity and the change of the society.
However, these two films show that even though the Korean culture has adopted some features of the American way, it is evolving into a more global entity. Thus, Memories of Murder is not conventional as it is not focused on the major concept of such stories, and the whodunit framework is disrupted (Jeon 77).
For example, the well-established circle of the crime, investigation, and the identification of the criminal is broken (Jeon 82). The criminal remains in the shadow, but it does not cause disturbance or a feeling of something incomplete.
The Host is another illustration of the way the seemingly American-style film is purely Korean and even anti-American (Lee 45). Thus, the idea of the blockbuster and its basic conventions “may be borrowed and translated,” but Koreans find their own ways to explore the genre (qt. in Lee 45).
Moreover, the Americans are seen as principal enemies who contaminate the area with the deadly virus. Again, the major focus is the tragic struggle of the family. Again, there is no particular completion to the story, and still, it seems complete.
It is clear that there is no place for the han concept in such films. Koreans are not willing to lament over their past as they are ready to act, having their past in mind. Although the characters in such films often fail to achieve their goals, there is no feeling of despair or ‘suppressed anger’ anymore. For instance, in Memories of Murder, the investigator finds an answer to his question and accepts the fact that the criminal is never caught.
He is not submissive, and he is not fixed on the idea of catching the murderer. The past is not haunting him. The film Oldboy is even more illustrative as the protagonist does not show any anger even though there is a chance he remembers his tragic past.
The filmmakers invite the viewer into the contemplation of whether the protagonist remembers and laments. However, the new Korean viewer understands that the past cannot be changed and has to be accepted. This is one of the most significant changes in Korean culture and cinematographic tradition.
It is important to note that the two films are illustrative in terms of their use of time and the idea of transformations. Both films skip around 15 years, and the main events happen in contemporary society. However, it is clear that the world has changed significantly, and for the protagonists, it was a radical change (Jeon 81).
Although Koreans experienced many changes that were rather gradual, the filmmakers emphasize the difference between the past and the present. It seems that the filmmakers abruptly tore the connection with the past to move to the present. This is when the han concept is lost for the contemporary Korean cinematography.
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However, this loss has nothing to do with the Westernization or Americanization of the Korean culture and cinematography. It is rather associated with the evolution of the Korean nation that is forming its own way to integrate into the global culture. This is also the terrain of the development of the local uniqueness.
The paradox of the Korean cinematography is that it is unique due to its way of globalization. Koreans are eager to adopt the successful experience of other nations. Nonetheless, each adoption is implemented in a unique way. Every new idea is ‘tried’ to the basic values developed throughout the decades.
Thus, Korean filmmakers use some ideas, conventions, and paradigms of the world (though, mainly American) cinematography tradition. However, they are reconsidered and transformed into a purely Korean product. The films remain some of the primary means of communication of the values of the nation.
The loss or rather transformation of han does not signify the loss of the local uniqueness but reveals the change in people’s as well as societal values. The nation is not concentrated on the past but tries to focus on the present. Interestingly, the past is not forgotten but seen as the background, certain experience.
Filmmakers show the destructive outcomes of the grip on the past as well as amnesia. According to filmmakers, the Korean nation should find the place in-between, which is rooted in the new paradigm of the Korean national identity.
On balance, it is possible to note that the loss of han in contemporary Korean cinematography shows the progress of the Korean culture that is looking at its place in the globalized world culture. Korean films still have their local flavor through their specific attitudes towards the past. The Koreans stop being concentrated on their tragic past, and their collective emotions transform from the suppressed anger towards understanding and commitment to move on.
The history of the Korean people provided many lessons, and, finally, it seems the nation has learned its lesson. Development and evolution based on past experiences are the path the contemporary Korean cinematography, as well as culture, has chosen.
Choi, Chungmoo. “The politics of gender, aestheticism, and cultural nationalism in sopyonje and the genealogy.” Im Kwon-taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema. Ed. David E. James and Kyung Hyun Kim. Detroit: PWayne State University Press, 2002. 107-134. Print.
Dixon, James. “Korea’s Embrace of Globalization.” The Korean Times 2011. Web.
Jeon, Joseph Jonghyun. “Memories of Memories: Historicity, Nostalgia, and Archive in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder.” Cinema Journal 51.1 (2011): 75-95. Print.
Kim, Luke I.C. Beyond the Battle Line: The Korean War and My Life, Bloomington: Xlibris Corporation, 2012. Print.
Lee, Nikki J.Y. “Localized Globalization and a Monster National: The Host and the South Korean Film Industry.” Cinema Journal 50.3 (2011): 45-61. Print.
Park, Seong Won. “The Present and Future of Americanization in South Korea.” Journal of Futures Studies (2009): 51-66. Print.