since i have a phd in film and tv studies, i guess i’ll leave a couple drops of knowledge (they’re mostly just thoughts) on these two films–Arrival and Call Me By Your Name. my thoughts are unrelated but they could be related if one thinks on it long enough.
it’s really about the titles of these two films.
why is Arrival called “arrival”? the film was actually a short story entitled, “The Story of Your Life,” written by Asian American author named Ted Chiang who writes sci-fi. it was adapted into a screenplay by Eric Heisserer who wrote Birdbox.
Arrival is about a linguist named Louise Banks who gets hired by the US military to figure out what the aliens who arrived on earth want to communicate and for what purpose. the aliens tell Banks that she has the gift of being able to know the future. this is what made the movie so wonderful for me: time is utilized as language. i find this idea quite marvelous and beautiful.
ok–so the title then is not just about the arrival of aliens. it’s about Banks arriving to the future flashes she’s seen or “remembered.” “recall” and “memory” are no longer the past for Banks; they are also the future. thus, Banks is arriving. the film is about Banks’s arrival to her present/future self and her ideations, understandings, catharsis, realizations, etc.
the film Call Me By Your Name is also based on a work of fiction written by Italian fiction writer André Aciman. it was adapted for the screen by James Ivory who has experience adapting literary works; Ivory directed A Room with a View (1985).
well, why did, in fact, Oliver suggest to Elio that he call him by his name and vice versa? what is the point of calling one’s lover by one’s own name?
the ending of the film is a static long take of Elio sitting by the fire staring into it for an extended period of time right after getting off the phone with Oliver. Oliver and Elio both called each other by each other’s names over the phone, just as they had when they first became physically intimate as lovers. after Elio hangs up, he sits by the fire, gazing at it, appearing to be either deep in thought or no thought at all.
and nothing is happening. nothing is being said. we just see Elio gazing into the fire.
suddenly, his mother calls out to him: “Elio.”
then Elio looks up from the fire and breaks the fourth wall.
the meaning of the film’s title comes to us full force: because Elio called Oliver by his own name, “Elio,” whenever Elio hears his own name, he will think of Oliver.
and the fourth wall breakage is Luca Guadagnino’s way of asking the audience: “get it?”
this was a brilliant directional choice by Guadagnino. it is subtle yet impactful, hidden yet obvious, and an easter egg only for the ones in the know.
I read Haruki Murakmai’s short story “Tony Takitani” in his collection of short stories Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman when I was in college.
A couple years after I graduated college, I stopped reading Murakami’s works altogether because I found his depiction of women too painful. I could say “problematic” here but I’ll just go with my feeling rather than social commentary. It’s really a personal decision. I’m still not fond of any literary, filmic, or televisual works that use women’s bodies and psyche as playgrounds for male fantasies.
In my in-between stage between college and “the world,” I was living in Seoul. A childhood friend of mine asked me out to a movie at an art house cinema located in a basement somewhere. I remember seeing the poster for the film The Vegetarian, which is a film based on the book that won the Man Booker Prize for Han Kang a few years ago. The film was out way before Han Kang gained international recognition for her book.
There was just one film playing at this art house cinema, and it was Tony Takitani—Jun Ichikawa’s adaptation of Murakami’s short story.
Ichikawa had just passed away a year prior to when I saw this film at this theater. The theater didn’t have theater seating. They were just a couple of chairs. My friend and I were the only audience members. The film played on a projection screen. The theater wasn’t even really a theater. It was more of a small art gallery space. The room we were in was about the size of a small studio apartment.
I recall liking the film very much. I found the aesthetics of the film very pleasing. I liked the soundtrack, too, which was by Ryuichi Sakamoto. The choices that Ichikawa made for the film like letting the voiceover narration transmute into the actor’s line-delivery to blur diagetic and non-diegetic narration, and the staging for each shot were so lovely. They stimulated artistic pleasure for me. The friend I went to see this film with—also an artist, and now a creative director at a luxury sunglasses company—also commented on these stylistic and directional choices.
As soon as the film ended, another film began to play. It was a documentary on the making of Tony Takitani. I learned that all of the sets were created in an isolated urban space outdoors so that Ichikawa could make use of the city lights glimmering or blinking in the backdrop. This adds a great deal of mood to each scene in the film, and a sophisticated aesthetic to the picture that matches the high-end luxury clothes that Eiko was obsessed with.
Tony Takitani is about a man born to a jazz musician—trombone player—who was nearly killed as a POW during WWII. Tony was named after an American soldier that his father had met. Tony’s mother died 3 days after his birth. Tony became an illustrator, but his works were often critiqued for lacking a human touch or warmth. Tony is a loner. He is used to being alone all the time. He is so alone that he doesn’t even register his own loneliness. He meets a younger woman named Eiko, falls in love, and proposes. She rejects him initially but he explains how he feels—that he might not be able to live with his loneliness without her. She marries him, and their married life is blissful, but Tony eventually takes note of Eiko’s shopping addiction. She cannot stop. Eiko one day dies in a car accident. Tony is back to being alone again. He cannot withstand the isolation so he hires a woman who has the exact measurements as his late wife, and asks her to wear his wife’s clothes whenever she comes to do housework as a uniform.
There’s a scene in the film when this hired woman goes into the room where all of Eiko’s clothes are. She looks at them and breaks down into tears saying she’s never seen so many beautiful clothes all at once.
This scene reminds me of the scene in The Great Gatsby—both the Jack Clayton version and Baz Luhrmann version, and of course, the line in the original book by F. Scott Fitzgerald when Jay starts throwing his shirts into the air overwhelming Daisy who starts crying, saying she’s never seen such beautiful shirts before.
This made me wonder—what is it with men imagining women crying at the sight of clothes? Is it like men celebrating themselves when a woman cries during sex thinking that she came, and crediting himself?
I’ll say that both filmic interpretations of The Great Gatsby and Tony Takitani were all directed by men. Both the novel and the short story were written by men.
Do men think women cry when they shop? Do men think that women are crazed by clothing? Do men really think that women fill their “emptiness” with clothes and accessories?
In Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, she calls out the patriarch’s hypocrisy when they criticize women for being materially occupied. Woolf points to parishioners and priests–men–who wear ornate garments in the church—gown, hat and all—to impress who? god? Is god a materially-occupied being? According to that logic, god really is a woman….
In the modern era, women’s material occupation was shaped and constructed especially after WWII in America and moralized. The woman’s place was the home—back in the domestic sphere. Forget about the fact that she worked while the men were gone. She ought to do nothing but sit at home and purchase what radio, television and magazines tell her to purchase, and she ought to be the most right and responsible household manager, and the only way to do that is to buy the best stuff on the market for if she did not, she would be letting down her entire family, and there is no greater shame than that.
And who were the people in charge of these material goods at ad agencies and corporations? We’ve all seen the show Mad Men, so we know who they were.
But I think Tony Takitani and The Great Gatsby also point to the male protagonists’ sense of emptiness without a female presence in their lives, too. So for these men, they need to fill their emptiness with another person—a person who is not right for them or good for them. They feel that they can do this because the woman they admire is beautiful, and knows how to doll herself up through beautiful materials such as clothes, accessories, shoes, etc.
So these works are pointing to the cycle of material despair, and how none of us can fill this void with any noun—a person or thing.
I was thinking about Jay Gatsby, and wondering why the title of that book calls him “great.”
Jay Gatsby is far from “great,” really. He’s a liar and a crook, but most of all, a stalker. Wait, what? He saved clippings of Daisy for 5 years? He kept throwing huge lavish parties hoping she’d show up? He told people that he went to Oxford and inherited his wealth from his family before they died when those things aren’t exactly true? He says he’s a business man when he’s actually running business from the underground?
I just feel like the word “great” here is used in a confused way. Jay Gatsby isn’t that different from the characters that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book appears to be critiquing (at least in high school standards); if people like Daisy, Tom, George, and Myrtle appear immoral because of their life choices, Gatsby is just as easy to judge. But Nick regards all of them as victims of desire, then the playing field is level. They are all lost souls trapped in longing and wanting. “Desire leads to suffering.”
I question Nick’s character, too, because he sees only Gatsby as the victim in all of this. Gatsby was a nut. He was out of his wack and obsessed with a married woman. There’s nothing great about him. Fitzgerald was right to punish him. I question Fitzgerald in letting Tom and Daisy off scott-free though. Perhaps this where the expression “scott-free” comes from. From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s questionable plot choices where the poor and destitute are punished for being poor and destitute, and the lives of the rich remain uninterrupted no matter what immoral act they commit.
i attended an academic conference virtually to present a paper on The Wailing by Na Hong-jin and how the film is an extension of anthropologist Heonik Kwon’s concept of “decomposition” in reconsidering the “ends” of the “cold war” through the metaphor of zombies, and processing national traumas around massacres and mass rape during the Korean War
when the floor was opened up for questions, initially, nobody had anything to ask me. this is often the case whenever i present at any non-Korean studies related academic conferences where the majority of attendees are white academics discussing Western-centric texts. when there are no questions, i usually wonder if anyone was even listening–if they regard my work as completely irrelevant to their work and therefore is not worth listening to.
as if my work is not related to American empire—a concept that is familiar to all, and affects us all, and is highly present in my work, and yet no one seems to recognize it as a real thing.
after presenting, when someone finally did ask a question, it came from a white male scholar who was hosting the panel, and he asked me if i’d seen the film Seoul Station.
i laughed internally because so many white male cinephiles ask me if i’d seen Seoul Station as some kind of test, like, “did you see this obscure animated film because i sure did and let me tell you something you don’t know!”
he wasn’t really asking a question but rather telling me that he’d seen that Korean film and if what he’d seen has anything to do with my work. how is that a question? what have i been arguing this whole time? what was my paper about? does he even know?
Seoul Station is not made by the same filmmaker I am dealing with. the way that Yeon Sang-ho handles zombies as a metaphor to critique capitalist urbanism is completely different from how Na Hong-jin utilizes zombies to convey the chaotic confusion and disturbance of post-Korean war trauma.
then another male scholar tells me that he’s seen Kingdom and asks me if the “Korean zombie” is one that always hates the Japanese.
again, a completely different text—in fact, not even a film because it’s a serialized show on Netflix—and written by TV screenwriter Kim Eun-hee. Kingdom is not even set during the same era as The Wailing. it’s set in pre-modern Korea whereas my text is about modern Korea.
this person was asking me about Kingdom, again, to convey that he’d seen some Korean thing related to zombies, and wanting me to connect the dots for him when in fact there are no dots to connect.
the notion of “Korean zombie” is not even real. how each auteur utilizes the zombie in their text for a specific purpose varies greatly per text but these guys were just conflating all Korean media as one thing and streamlining them into the “Zombie” category as if a single national identification exists.
in Kingdom, the zombie is used to critique government neglect of the welfare of citizens, and classism issues. Seoul Station is a critique of capitalist ideology and its entwinement with local patriarchy and urbanization. The Wailing, as I said, is about necropolitics and decomposition.
each text varies greatly in their use and expression of the zombie. but these people wanted me to give them an easy explanation of “the Korean zombie” as if it’s a thing, and wanted only to tell me what they’d seen that happened to be Korean and happened to be about zombies.
none of their questions had anything to do with my paper or my argument. so what was the point of me sharing 20 minutes of this conference presentation? what was the point of me working on slides and condensing my paper down to a powerpoint presentation when nobody was going to give two shits but only talk about themselves and their knowledge?
these conference organizers always talk about diversifying their presentations and being more inclusive as an afterthought, but they have no tools or any clue as to how to be diverse and inclusive. the way to do it is to actually LISTEN. to actually HEAR what the argument is, and come up with a question or a comment that benefits the presenter when they go back to revise their paper based on NOTES given at the conference.
this is something i always set out to do when i attend panels, conferences and workshops, but the evident lack of interest and attention to my work makes me really question my belonging to these kinds of spaces. that is microaggression. dismissal of a paper before they even hear it out because it’s related to a non-Western country is xenophobic and racist.
so for those of you attending a conference next time, pay attention to the works that discuss issues of the “global south” and empire. pay attention to what’s being discussed on colonization, war trauma, and massacres. really listen to the argument that is being made, and ask questions that relate to that person’s paper and might help them expand on their thoughts rather than stifle their ideas because now they’re clouded by cynicism and pessimism based on the rather aggressive whiteness and maleness of such a space.
My first encounter with a Lee Issac Chung movie was in Busan at the Busan International Film Festival. I was aware of Chung as a filmmaker because I’d worked in film exhibition, distribution and production back in New York and pretty much any Korean American or Korean filmmaker was a part of our awareness or community.
I was at BIFF 2012 in the capacity of a buyer working for a New York film distributer at the time, and the Chung flick I saw was Abigail Harm (2012) starring Amanda Plummer who you’ve seen perform brilliantly in films like Pulp Fiction (1994) and The Fisher King (1991). I was excited to see a Korean American film director’s interpretation of the Korean folktale I’d read as a child–선녀와 나무꾼 or “The Woodcutter and the Nymph.” But it was too daffy of a flick. It felt imbalanced and a bit too experimental and weird for distribution even at a niche/boutique company like the one I was working for at the time. I wanted to like it.
I’ve been aware of Minari for about a year now after reading about it in the trades but when the film started its early release screenings I was hesitant to see it. Part of this has to do with a short clip I saw–the scene of the Yi family at their all-white church in Arkansas. It felt traumatic. Too close to home. I could feel the weight of emotions and mind state of every single Korean character in that short clip.
I finally mustered up the courage to screen it today through UCI’s Korean studies screening event, and I’m glad I saw it. The first thing that left an impression on me is the music. The young composer Emile Mosseri scored Chung’s film with such dreaminess, a moving quietness and sensitivity. Mosseri also scored Miranda July’s latest film Kajillionaire (2020).
The casting was also brilliant. I’ve been following Han Yeri’s performances since 2011 when I saw her in Korean indie films like 다시 태어나고 싶어요, 안양에 (2011) and the indie web-series sit-com 할 수 있는 자가 구하라 (2011) by Yoon Sung-ho. Han played a character with 2 personalities in Yoon’s web-series.
Han’s played diverse roles over the years. You’ve seen her in TV shows (K-Dramas) like Six Flying Dragons and Hello, My Twenties! She’s a versatile actress with great composure and control. I love her work.
Another brilliant casting choice is veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung. She was like a breath of fresh air carrying the family through stuffy and difficult moments. If you want to see Ms. Youn perform in English, check out Hong Sang-soo’s film In Another Country where she’s featured alongside another veteran actress Isabelle Huppert.
Youn’s role as Grandma in Minari got me thinking about all Korean grandmothers’ transgressiveness; how their laxness relative to their children when it comes to the grandchildren breaks open new worlds for the family. Much like how she strays the path to plant minari seeds by the creek where others avoid because of snakes. Much like how she encourages little David to be more active despite his mother’s worries. Much like how she burns down the shed. There is a wisdom to a grandmother’s recklessness. In fact, it’s not at all recklessness. It’s all wisdom.
The film’s editing felt philosophical. The cuts from one scene to the next had seamless transitions and very clearly and directly communicated the filmmaker’s voice (edited by Harry Yoon).
Part of the reason why I said that the film felt traumatic is because of its deep familiarity for me as a Korean emigre and Korean American who’s assimilated over the years (still assimilating/still resisting). The success of Minari is how well the characters collate. I, too, grew up with a younger brother and a mother and father. We moved around often since we landed in Brooklyn from Busan. Went to Jersey for a few years then to Rockland County, New York where we had to adjust to an all-white community.
Watching Jacob (Steve Yeun) get in touch with the earth and wanting to pursue farm work is another familiar thing I grew up with. Many Koreans have seen this, in fact, and it’s hard not to considering the agrarian country that Korea is. Most folks from the countryside in Korea know what farming is.
My parents had gardens all throughout the years we spent in America. Even in Brooklyn, I recall my parents forcing their way through the locked gate next to our apartment building and growing perilla. In Jersey, they tilled soil in our backyard and grew everything from red leaf lettuce to tomatoes to red peppers to cucumbers, and we ate what we picked all summer long.
They did the same when we moved to Rockland County.
I was particularly struck by the church scene when the white kids ask Anne and David insensitive questions but with open sincerity and earnestness. It was handled with such realism. That’s usually how those moments are. No one’s really mad in the moment or wishing to offend in the moment. It’s just a moment. The categorizing and emotional response to said categorization come way later when we are adults and looking back.
There were so many shots that struck me as messages from one Korean American to another Korean American. The shot of the wedding photograph, for instance, felt especially authentic–the unsmiling dad. The angry dad. The dad with his ego and dignity. His 자존심 (read arrogance). The scene of the parents screaming/fighting was also very familiar. The young immigrant parents with two young kids in tow, feeling worn out. Feeling hopeless but wanting to survive. Wanting to live a happy life. But feeling trapped. Feeling lost.
The shot of the television screen with Korean singers singing 사랑해 (I Love You) was another philosophical moment. In the early post-Korean War years, there were so many photographs of Korean war orphans or Korean war brides watching television as part of their assimilation process–to make them familiar or palatable for white Americans. But here I saw something quite different–the television as a way back home.
This is a constant for me. Whenever I watch Korean TV, it is me finding my way back home–and not even back. More like catching up. I’m staying apprised of what’s going on in Korea (I am still assimilating/still resisting). This gives me another way to consider TV. It’s a tubed screen that takes immigrants back to their homeland, back to the emotional place they completely left behind and forgot. This is why when Grandma tells the kids that their parents sang this song while staring into each other’s eyes with ga-ga eyes, Monica replies that she can’t remember. The hardship of living abroad has brought a fog over her mind and heart.
Whenever Jacob told David to go get the hwechori it brought back memories of my own beatings. There’s a hilarious pathos to the way that Korean parents forced their kids to go and find the weapon they were going to use in order to beat them with. I loved it when David brought back a lame weed in place of an actual stick for his father to beat him with.
The scene when Grandma pulls out gochugaru and myulchi which brings tears to Monica’s eyes brought tears to mine as well. To this day, my own grandmother sends gochugaru to my mother. Whenever I visit my grandmother back at her farm, she packs me a bottle of cham gireum and a jar of gochu jang.
There’s a big love story in Minari. While Monica lacks confidence in Jacob’s attempts at farming, and on the surface, they both believe that it is all about him and his ego, another way to see it is Jacob wanting to bring a taste of home into his own home for his wife who misses these flavors by insisting on raising Korean crops.
It’s interesting how even though the Yi family left Korea to live in America, they are always seeking Korea in food and in television–a way to be Korean or be in Korea. (Still assimilating/still resisting.)
Maybe mukbang is really an amalgamation of Korean immigrants’ desire for home: watch the food you miss on a screen. Watch it on TV.
(Please visit K-Drama School podcast for all my hot-takes on K-dramas.)
All Korean dramas rely on product placement. The concept of product placement, or PPL as they abbreviate in Korea, isn’t new, and of course, it doesn’t originate in Korea. Embedded marketing in media can be traced back to as early as the late 19th century starting with novels. In terms of visual media, the US (surprise surprise) included cars (Ford, Plymouth, Chevy, Packard), beverages (Coca-Cola) and cigarettes (Marlboro) in early studio films–some as early as 1916.
The tradition of conspicuous brand placement continued into television, of course. Entire shows would be sponsored by brands.
But this all changed with Sylvester (Pat) Weaver at NBC in 1949 (fun fact: Pat Weaver is Sigourney Weaver’s dad!). Weaver shifted the operation of network television by ensuring that programs get controlled by the network and ad time get purchased by companies through commercial breaks. BOOM. This turned the table completely. Companies were now at the mercy of networks and popular programs. This relationship continues to this day.
The difference in Korea is that commercial interruptions do not pervade the show as frequently as they do in American TV. An entire program can run without an ad break in the middle. (The downside is a prolonged series of ads in between separate programs; but this is also changing with the growth of cable in Korea.) Thus, product placement still plays a major role in a series production. And it’s not just one brand that owns the entire show. Multiple companies sponsor the show (percentages of how much screen time each product gets and the frequency of the product varies).
Writer Kim Eun-sook’s earliest major hit is Lovers in Paris (SBS, 2004). I can still remember the characters going to Baskin Robbins to eat a ton of ice cream and I recall Soo-hyuk (Lee Dong-gun) telling the Tae-young (Kim Jung-eun) how many songs he has in his MP3 player. In Descendants of the Sun (KBS, 2016), they eat ton of Subway sandwiches and those ginseng squeeze packs; Song Hye-kyo wears a lot of Laneige lipstick and she keeps lighting that freaking 2S candle. We saw the same level of conspicuous product placement in Goblin. I watched that show multiple times already not so much because I think the storyline is the greatest thing since sliced bread but more so because the fashion, jewelry and makeup are such wonderful eye candy. Of course, Goblin had a lot of PPL from perfume to handbags, lipstick to Subway sandwiches to fried chicken to furniture to beverages. Both Descendants of the Sun and Goblin had a go-to meeting spot for emotionally draining meetings between lovers and it is Dal.komm Coffee.
Cafes become a natural PPL strategy because so many K-drama storylines include one-on-one meetings at cafes. It only makes sense that a cafe be included as part of the production so why not make it a sponsor? Makes sense in terms of business. All that is well and good but how do you cram in contemporary brands into a show that is set in Choson the same year as the Gabo Reform?
Korean audiences are savvy, and they’re already talking about it. In fact, a number of them are saying that the PPL in Mr. Sunshine is non-disruptive. Viewers are expressing their appreciation for the slick embedded marketing that the show makers have worked into this period piece.
But product placement is never not noticeable. In fact, the beat that show takes when they are about to take a moment for their sponsors is very detectable. When Eugene Choi (Lee Byunghun) raises his Odense teacup in the middle of his quiet meditation looking out his window, he makes an observation that is out of character: “Is this style of teacup in fashion now?” Like, dude, you’re a former slave boy/orphan/Korean American military man. Since when do you give a shit about trending chinaware? Let’s be real.
Paris Baguette is very obviously a sponsor. We know this because it is one of the first banner bumpers to appear when the end credits roll, but we also know this because in episode 2, its characteristic blue and white label appears where lady Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) makes a stop to enjoy some sweets. (The sign posts and lamps all read, “French Bakery.”) In fact, Paris Baguette is currently selling special Mr. Sunshine specialty goods.
And what would a K-drama be without a cafe/coffee sponsor? Dal.komm makes, perhaps, the most obtrusive display in Mr. Sunshine. Not only do the characters really push this 가배/gabe (Choson lingo for “coffee”) stuff but the napkins and even background sign straight up reads “Dal.komm Coffee.”
Hey. It’s all good though. No need to get all worked up over how a show takes us “out of the moment.” That sort of thing is nonsense. The nature of TV is self-reflexivity. We as audiences couldn’t possibly believe that late 19th century Korea had a guy named Eugene Choi acting as a military representative of America. So eye-roll all you want. PPL in Korean dramas aren’t going anywhere. Not even in a period piece.
In fact, given how SVOD streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon don’t have commercial breaks as part of their distribution operation, product placement is now an integral part of theiroriginal episodes. In this way they are taking influence from K-drama productions and their business strategy.