Friday, March 11, 2011

Korean Cinema: Crossing Borders, Crossing Genres

It’s late on a Friday night, and I’m feeling up for a movie. I visit my try-hard of a DVD collection for something to keep me company. A couple of giggles to start the weekend? How about a fast-paced action flick to keep me on my toes? Perhaps a deep drama for me to sink my head in for days to come?

It's late on a Friday night, and I can't decide. There are so many feelings I want to fulfill in the next two hours that I begin analysing my emotive preferences. I finally fall on something borrowed - Park Chan-wook's Joint Security Area. Admittedly, the last time I sat down to watch this, I couldn't get past the first 15 minutes of what I felt was a tense, political drama. This time, I manage to get through to the flashbacks present in the film, and I decide within 30 minutes that I love this film.

After searching hard for something to entertain me, I had finally found my answer. What seemed like a dense, political drama eventually turned out to be a heart-warming story of an unlikely friendship between the border guards of the Northern and Southern halves of Korea. The film begins in the present where neutral government officials have come together to investigate a murder that occurred in the demilitarised zone. We soon join Sergeant Lee in a flashback of where it all began - a secret and playful friendship between him and a soldier from the North Korean border guard force, through letters, which later turns into fun, friendly meetings in the North Korean guard post. While the majority of the film feels like a drama especially as it covers the themes of war, political tension and the human condition, the film eventually crosses into the genre of comedy through sarcasm, and playful action as presented through the scenes where the guards are together in harmony.

Here is what is interesting about this. At one end of the spectrum where the 'darker' genres of action, thriller, drama and even horror are present, one would expect little to no presence of the 'lighter' genres such as comedy, which stays on the opposite end of this line.

When you look at Hollywood films, conventionally speaking, a film of the horror genre will stick as closely to the word 'horror' as to not confuse your judgment of the film's genre. While there might be a character in this horror film that makes an ironic statement to reassure us that he will die within the next second (and so it happens), the film remains a horror film and will not cross over to the 'lighter' side. It is the same with anything that is primarily of a genre from the 'lighter' side - a comedy about a group of friends who go to Las Vegas on a 'bachelor's party' cum 'the last night out' never shows any signs of an attempt at crossing the deeper genres of drama, for example. If there were an attempt, it would be the most clichéd and shortest dramatic arc simply to give the film 'an edge'.

Korean Cinema on the other hand, crosses these genres freely and almost excessively. I find this an interesting observation - by crossing genres, a viewer can leave a film feeling confused as to what they have just seen. Upon viewing Kim Yong-hwa's 200 Pound Beauty for the first time, I didn't quite know how to feel about what I had seen. While I had laughed throughout most of the film, I would often stop and wonder, what am I laughing at?

The story is about an unattractively large girl who undergoes intensive plastic surgery so that she can confidently be who she is, and to achieve her dreams of being a pop-singer. The notion of using plastic surgery in order to change one's complete image is often looked down on, and is never encouraged, yet 200 Pound Beauty seems to support this idea to some extent. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film's comedy and hilarious, colourful characters so much that I had forgotten about the slight encouragement of plastic surgery.

Crossing genres can make a film 200x more engaging and entertaining than a single genre film. A cross-genre film opens up to a much wider audience too - for example, Bong Joon-ho's The Host is clearly a monster film with the thriller and action elements it carries, yet the story centralises on the charming, comedic brilliance of Song Kang-ho's character and his slightly kooky, alternative family who must save their youngest sister from the slimy, slithery clutches of the sewer monster.

While some might not like monster films (let's use Cloverfield as an English title) for example due to the content of how a monster is portrayed (or in other words, those who can't stomach the above), centralising the story around a viewer-friendly, weird family makes it easier for some to sit through such horror... Such 'horror'.

At last year's Korean Film Festival in Australia, I got a chance to see Rough Cut, an action film about a gangster who wants to be an actor, and an actor with the ideals of a gangster. Written by Kim Ki-duk and directed by Hun Jang, this is primarily a film of the action genre, with many fast-paced action scenes during a film shoot within the film, and otherwise. The film predominantly covers the themes of gang culture, ultra-violence and corruption in Korean society, which I find quite common in contemporary Korean cinema. However, although the film focuses on these serious themes, to the average viewer there is a surprising amount of comedy present all throughout. The best thing about the use of comedy throughout the film is that it does not distract you from the essence of the story, and that the film really is a violent, action film with a 15 minute bloody, fist battle in mud to an extreme, suggestive rape scene.

I never liked the excessive crossing of genres when I was first introduced to Korean films, but I feel that it has finally grown on me. No longer do I have to worry over two vastly different films in genre. No longer will I have to waste (close to) hours on deciding on whether I feel like a depressing, art-house drama film or a romantic, black comedy - or whether I feel like a laugh or a cry over a movie. Contemporary Korean cinema has proven to us that the crossing of genres is possible, and plausible. And that including comedy in a violent, gangster film is not a clichéd or a lame attempt at 'great entertainment'. It is an experience worthwhile, and although it may seem strange with such an oppositional mixture of genres at times, it ultimately fulfills the requirements of an entertaining film.

Raelene Loong is a Marketing Assistant for KOFFIA, as well as a Video-On-Demand scheduler and independent filmmaker. Her personal film blog is Cutting Squares. Follow her on Twitter @suupatrout.