Thank you for reading.
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.
I found Minari to be a deeply meditative experience. It’s an exemplary Korean American movie, and an extremely unique one.
check out this week’s the bechdel cast podcast. i chat with caitlin and jamie about PARASITE!
in honor of the late Korean American comedian Johnny Yune, I made a “drunk history” video (an homage to Derek Waters’ Drunk History).
(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 their original episodes. In this way they are taking influence from K-drama productions and their business strategy.
Seeing as we TV lovers don’t simply rely on broadcast and cable television to receive our shows but also subscription to digital streaming, our lives will now be dictated by both commercial interruptions and embedded marketing in the programs. And that’s what I realized while working out at the gym yesterday. The absurdity of capitalism and our addiction to TV has turned us all into a bunch of suckers. Wait, I mean, “consumers.”
I wrote a piece on Nymphomaniac (2014, Director’s Cut, Vol. I and II) and on what it means to be “A Radical, Vulnerable and Agentic Body.”
check out my film review of Gook (2017) featured on nü house. opens tomorrow August 18th!
Na Hong-jin’s Definition of Evil: The Inexplicable
The Wailing (2016) aka 곡성 is Na Hong-jin’s third feature film starring the excellent Kwak Do-won, who Na has collaborated with in The Yellow Sea (2010). Na is probably most well-known for his feature debut The Chaser (2008) with Ha Jung-woo playing the terrifying serial killer, and Kim Yoon-seok playing the corrupt detective-turned-pimp trying to solve these unexplainable crimes.
With The Wailing, Na continues his theme of inexplicable evils committed by a being that appears to be fully human but from up close contains no sympathetic soul. In The Chaser, Ha Jung-woo’s character is just plainly a murderer without any rhyme or reason; in The Yellow Sea, Ha Jung-woo’s character is put on an assassination mission without knowing the reasons for why he must commit this crime, and when he finally learns the reason, he is left completely speechless by the superficiality of the incitement, thus portraying–again–evil actions without a justifiable cause. Na brings this concept into the realm of the superego by putting the face and body of the Devil himself onto our screen with The Wailing.
Freud (1919) defines the uncanny as something that is preferably concealed but is later revealed to our reaction of horror, fright, terror, disgust, etc.; the uncanny refers to what is familiar to us therefore familial; for instance, a daughter, who is completely knowable to the parents who produced and gave birth to her, love and care for her, belongs in the realm of uncanny because she is familiar (heimlich); the flipside to heimlich is unheimlich which is the stranger or the ugliness that is preferably concealed; this is when the daughter we know and love suddenly changes because she is possessed by the unknowable. The uncanny may also refer to a the “happy genius,” otherwise known as the guardian spirit of a dwelling–the possessor. Traces of heimlich and unheimlich which make up the constitution of the uncanny is found in Gokseong–the small village in Jeolla Province where the film is set (also the title of the film in hangeul).
At the crack of dawn on a rainy day, officer Jeon Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) gets a phone call from the station alerting him of a murder case. When he arrives at the scene of the crime, he finds that a family’s been stabbed to death by a young man who sits on the edge of the maroo, skin covered in boils and the blood of his victims, with eyes glazed over as though in a trance.
Boils on the skin, mental derangement and subsequent serial killings of those around him/her are symptoms found among several murderers (victims) throughout the village. The noticeable pattern along with the rumors going about town that the suspect who is spreading this disease (or possession) is a strange Japanese fisherman (Jun Kunimura) who lives deep in the mountains, eats deer carcass raw, rapes women and curses people. These rumors start to pile up inside officer Jeon’s imaginary.
One day when Jeon and his partner break into the fisherman’s house, they find a small dwelling densely packed with photographs of the victims, candles, shaman ritual rope, and personal belongings of the villagers such as shoes and clothes. The last straw for Jeon is when he sees symptoms appear in his young daughter Hyo-jin–played by the very impressive Kim Hwan-hee–who appears to be about 10 or 11 years old. It begins with her erratic behavior; the young girl who was once so sweet to her old man suddenly throws fits; she screams and curses at her father leaving her entire family aghast but frozen in fear at the sight indicating everyone’s helplessness. Doctors have no answers. The police are useless. A spiritual intervention is the only answer for them.
In part two of the film, the child’s grandmother invites a well-known shaman named Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min, The Unjust (2010), Veteran (2015)) who is apparently quite expensive but rumored to be the best there is from Seoul. Jeon tells Il-gwang of the situation. Jeon explains all of this to his trusty Korean shaman who assures him that he will take care of the matter–put it to rest. Il-gwang tells Jeon that what’s plaguing the town is not a person but a ghost. Jeon asks how a person he’s seen in the flesh and blood can be a ghost, and this is the difficult question he struggles with for the rest of the film, along with the more obvious questions, “Why me? Why my daughter? Why my hometown?”
Freud’s uncanny is a duality–a yin and yang, for instance, which may coexist. Yin and yang are prevalent themes in throughout the film. For instance, during his rituals, Il-gwang offers up white chickens and goats to the spirits whereas the Japanese stranger kills black chickens and goats to cast his curse.
Another spiritual force haunts the town, representing yang, and it is played by the wonderful Chun Woo-hee ((Sunny (2011) and Han Gongju (2014)) who is referred to by the film’s credits simply as “mu-myeong,” which translates into “no name.” Mu-myeong is the first witness that officer Jeon encounters at the second murder scene where a deranged woman killed her entire family then burned the house down before hanging herself. At the crime scene, Mu-myeong tells officer Jeon that the old Japanese man is a ghost who is possessing these people and driving them to commit these murders.
What’s interesting to note is how in these scenarios one person gets possessed then murders their own family members. The killings aren’t random. They are specifically towards their own flesh and blood or clan members. What does that say about the ghost’s intentions? What does that say about the ghost himself who is a spirit but in flesh and blood?
This ghost also appears to have a hobby for photography. He takes photographs of his victims in 35mm with a Minolta camera, which he seems to develop on his own at his creepy house. It nudges against the superstition that existed or still exists in tribal countries that photographs steal a person’s soul. The haunting theme that emanates from the Japanese stranger is that he is not a living person but a ghost–a dead man walking.
At Jeon’s question as to how a ghost could possibly have a body, Il-gwang tells him that when a ghost captures enough bodies for his own, he can eventually become a person albeit not a living one. This image of a strange man staring who appears to be dead or a strange man trying to enter haunts at least several people’s dreams.
Horror Genre Mashup
The epidemic throughout the town is most certainly an homage to the zombie genre. With that said, the film is not a zombie film necessarily. In fact, at one point in the movie, when a team of men who are out to hunt down and kill the Japanese man-ghost, they encounter a zombie, who was evidently brought back to life although he was initially dead just like the other victims, covered in boils and rotting away like a victim of leprosy.
At the scene of the zombie attack, the film reaches a point of satiric comedy. The men who’ve never seen a zombie before don’t know how to react to it, nor how to treat it. At first they try to help him and speak to him as if he’s a regular person, but when the zombie starts to attack the party by biting them, the men go around taking turns both beating the zombie and getting attacked himself. At least two men can’t bear the sight of another man whacking this apparently ill person with a stick and tries to stop the attack. Big mistake. The zombie then attacks the good Samaritan. It’s a likely metaphor for Korea’s clumsiness at the introduction to any Western concept. The zombie isn’t found in Korean folklore. (The closest to a zombie that Koreans might know from Chinese legends is the Jiangshi or gangshi in Korean which has its own set of cultural rules/references.)
In a way, there is perhaps almost every element of a horror film ever made in this movie; Edgar Allan Poe-inspired cats and crows, rabid black dogs, dead deer carcasses; the possession of a little girl has strong connotations of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973); institutions are critiqued for their inability to make sense or get control of the situation such as the police and the church.
The film, of course, contains a twist in the third act, but it’s a twist on a twist that baffles not only Jeon but also the audience. The manhunt for the strange Japanese man ends when he gets thrown off a mountain hitting Jeon’s windshield. Jeon and his friends toss him on the side of the road assuming he is dead. Jeon later finds his daughter at the hospital who appears to be fine; the symptoms seem to be gone and her normal state appears to have returned.
We come to understand that Mu-myeong is perhaps a spirit if not a shaman herself when we see Il-gwang lose a vast amount of blood from his nose and vomit uncontrollably when he encounters her. Mu-myeong drives him out of the village. Il-gwang, whose hex ritual went interrupted by Jeon who could no longer bear the sight of his daughter’s suffering, tells Jeon that it wasn’t the Japanese man who is the evil spirit; it is a young woman clad in white–Mu-myeong. Jeon’s faith in people’s stories gets tested here when Mu-myeong tells him to trust in her and Il-gwang tells him not to trust her but in his words.
Jeon ultimately doesn’t listen to Mu-myeong and enters the house thus breaking whatever spell she’d cast on the house to save his family. Jeon, of course, finds that his daughter did what he’d feared this whole time and slaughtered his wife and mother to death.
Mu-myeong had warned Jeon that Il-gwang and the Japanese stranger have been plotting together (they share the same loin cloth and similar rituals). This is confirmed when a case full of photographs from the Japanese stranger’s walls are found in his possession. Given Korea’s long history of religious scammers taking advantage of the nation’s superstitious/fatalist tendencies, Il-gwang’s appearance here is the yin within his overall film presence as the yang.
Biblical themes are prominent throughout. There’s the bilingual theologian working his way towards becoming a priest working as a liaison between Jeon and the Japanese stranger. There’s the Father of the church who appears useless at the face of the epidemic and demon that is haunting the town–another indication of institutional incompetence. There’s an attack of moths on a car’s windshield that brings to mind the plague of locusts in the Old Testament. The opening shot of the film begins with a verse from the book of Luke when Jesus reappears before his disciples and asks them why they are afraid of the sight of his body, and challenging their doubtful minds. When Mu-myeong tells Jeon to wait for the rooster’s crow three times before entering his house in order to save his family, it is a clear reference to Christ’s warning to Peter that he will deny knowing Christ three times before the rooster’s crow. When Jeon finally realizes that the Mu-myeong is always clad in the victims’ clothes, he loses faith in her words and goes into the house.
Time is always unfriendly to Jeon in this film. He is temperamental and impatient when patience is of utmost necessity, and frozen stiff, speechless or bumblingly incompetent at times when his actions are completely called for. The film satirizes Jeon’s lack of faith and impatience. Doubt and faith are like yin and yang throughout the film, and they are the forces that maintain the momentum of the film.
The film ultimately confronts the audience with the same question that Jeon is faced with: which story are you going to believe? Depending on who is talking to you–a shaman, a priest, a ghost, the devil, or your daughter–your faith will be tested against the story you’ve lived your life believing in. Religion, according to Na’s film, is no different from a folk tale, a spooky town rumor, or the horror movies you grew up knowing and loving. When what occurs externally doesn’t match with what exists internally, that moment becomes the precarious point between doubt and faith. Na’s film plays with genre, religion and spirituality freely throughout but without ever letting us bring down our guard.
The first act has strong notes of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003)–everything from the misty, rain-filled blue hues, the frightening image of nature, and the slapsticky black comedy–a new quality to Na’s filmmaking which are not present in his earlier two films. The film was shot by Bong’s frequent collaborator–cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (although he did not film Memories). The music is perhaps the film’s strongest quality, scored by Jang Young-gyu.
Reception so far has been decent. Trade reviews remark that Na’s film lacks logic. This may be true but I say that such an assessment is a cop out (we’ve all seen Magnolia). The Wailing is certainly packed with a whole lot to deconstruct but it is not inscrutable. There are plenty of signals and clues. It’s just a matter of interpreting the narrative, and it takes awhile, and that interpretation is likely to evolve. The film’s positioned to be a cult hit that’ll produce a great deal of wholesome dialogue among cinephiles but only among those who’ll bother to take the time to do it.
I needed another fix of Yoo Ah-in starring in yet another dramatic period piece, and this time by filmmaker Yi Joon-ik with Sado (2015). It stars Song Kang-ho who plays King Yeongjo, a father with mountain high expectations of his second son, Jang-jo (posthumously named Crown Prince Sado) who history writes as an insane and troubled soul that went around raping and killing people randomly throughout the palace due to his mental illness largely attributed to the deep anxiety caused by his strict father. Yeongjo’s constant disapproval and disdain for his son’s actions drove Jang-jo mad with rage.
One day, after an attempted murder of the King, Sado is captured and forced into a wooden rice crate and left inside of it for eight days straight until he dies of dehydration and starvation. It’s a dramatic epic, and pretty awesome one at that. Just listen to this music. Beautifully crafted imagery, and truly idiosyncratic performance given by Song Kang-ho. I’ve never seen an actor play a period epic blending cool and casual wit with cruelty, sorrow and passion in such balanced synchrony.
The film is ultimately a family drama. The women in the film, again, don’t have it easy. There’s tension between concubines, and among the queens, although in general, the women seem to look after one another a little better than in the Hui Bin drama…
Yoo Ah-in, in Sado, plays the grandson of King Sukjong, which he himself played in Jang Ok-Jung (2013). Yoo’s performance is excellent as well albeit I feel like I’ve seen his range already in Jang Ok-Jung. Also, great cameo appearance by heartthrob So Ji-sub.
For more info on the film, please refer to this great review on The Hollywood Reporter.