The question often comes up in interviews: What is a unique, distinguishing characteristic of Korean films? What makes them different from other movies in Asia? It's an almost impossible question to answer in good faith—Korean cinema is so diverse, and the influences that shape Korean directors are so broad, that any answer comes off as a banal oversimplification. However I've long sensed something interesting or unusual in the way Korean films depict romantic relationships. The following is a crude attempt to articulate that feeling.
From an outsider's point of view, one of the most striking aspects of Korean relationship films is the "pure/dirty" dichotomy. Imagine a spectrum ranging from the purest of love stories to the most vile tale of lust and obsession. Worldwide, and especially in Hollywood, most onscreen love stories stick to the middle. Young couples meet, date, and sometimes go to bed together. Being frank about sexuality gives films an added layer of realism. A film like Mike Nichols' Closer goes out of its way to occupy the middle ground: Jude Law's character is a failure in love because he can't accept that people are a mixture of the pure and the dirty.
Korean cinema is unusual in being so effective, and so comfortable, at both ends of the spectrum. While embracing realism, Christmas in August presents the developing love between its two leads as something almost ethereal: Too delicate to even be spoken of in words. My Sassy Girl may revel in condom and yogwan jokes, but ultimately the film is too shy to even allow Gyeon-woo and The Girl an onscreen kiss. (You can't even imagine them having sex.) At the other extreme, films like Lies or Desire take us on a virtual tour of places that Hollywood lacks the courage to visit. Lee Chang-dong, while shooting Oasis, referred to it as "the world's most vile melodrama," while Park Jin-pyo's Too Young To Die sets out to destroy our preconceived notions of romance. Kim Ki-duk, meanwhile, first won over his legions of fans in Europe with the tortured, twisted love stories in The Isle and Bad Guy. For international viewers, both types of romance—pure and gritty—come across as fresh and new.
At its heart, the pure/dirty dichotomy is a moral issue, debated over in the context of society. Perhaps one reason why Hollywood films about this aspect of romance lack imagination is because it is seen as more or less a solved issue. Americans need only decide whether they are conservative or liberal, and then society provides very clear guidelines about acceptable modes of behavior. Society's attitudes towards the moral issues faced by young couples haven't changed much in the past 30 years.
In contrast, the moral landscape that young Koreans face seems much more complicated. The generation gap between older and younger Koreans is much wider than in most countries, yet strong family ties make it harder to ignore parental pressure. Younger generations have a different, evolving sense of morality and gender, and on top of this many young Koreans study abroad, exposing them to yet another set of moral values. So many mixed signals must make it difficult for young couples in love to know how to act towards each other.
If there's a silver lining to the complex moral issues that pervade Korean society, it's that filmmakers exploring romance have more interesting material to work with. These days, Korean cinema seems to take the issue of romance and relationships much more seriously than any other national cinema I can think of. This may not be unique to Korea, but it does provide Korean love stories with an energy that is lacking in most contemporary Hollywood films.
― Darcy Paquet, Why I Like Korean Love Stories
Taken from [ this Hankyeoreh/Cine21 article ].
I think he touched a very important aspect of the American cinema1 that I have also noticed: Love stories are so prudent they get tasteless. There are countless romantic comedies and dramas hitting the movie theatres every week, but few, if any, directly and/or substantially questions the basic premises and rules of romance. They may deal with individual events and piecemeal facets that arise from individual instances of romance, but most of them stays within the boundaries of romantic standards prescribed by the society.
Mr. Paquet cited the rapid changes and transformations the modern Korea is going through in terms of romantic standards, and I agree that is one valid reason the Korean cinema attains the broader spectrum of acceptable topics. However, in addition to that, I want to point out that the difference in viewers' attitude must also be taken into account.
How artistically open and forthcoming the moviegoers can be grants filmmakers an acceptable range of topics. When the moviegoers remain passive and measure all films in terms of shallow entertainment values, filmmakers are severely restricted by the fact that their film must meet the level of entertainment. Those that deviate from the criteria get shunned because
they are not fun to watch, and when combined with the limited opportunity to reach the nationwide distribution, such films quickly become deprecated no matter how creative and artistic they may be. In this atmosphere, it is generally hard to explore new possibilities (i.e. topics).
Unfortunately, this seems like the case in the U.S. film market, where movie watching is generally regarded as a good pastime rather than a branch of art. People usually go to Century Theatres or rent videos from Blockbuster not because they crave for some intellectual yet comprehensive form of art, but rather because they have some time to kill. In this relatively light mindset, there is a greater risk that any socially challenging movie (i.e. one that surprises/shocks the viewer and makes him think deeply about the relevant standard) will be met with a lukewarm
meh and become avoided.
From my experience, the situation is a bit different in Korea, where people are more appreciative. There is a closer association between movies and art in most people's mind, and as such, when something in the movie they watch is tasteless or even downright disturbing, they usually give it a second thought ala
Hm, there may be a hidden meaning the director is trying to convey here... rather than reject the movie downright. The net result is that filmmakers can make a safer bet when they choose to deal with a topic that coincides less with the relevant social norm. There is still a chance that the audience will not like the topic, but at least it will not be simply because the topic failed to appease the audience's conservative appetite in a smooth, non-obtrusive way.
1 I am talking about mainstream—not independent—American cinema here; likewise, Mr. Paquet is talking about the mainstream Korean films which are distributed and shown nationwide. Independent films are another story, and I do not think there is such a pronounced issue about said conservativity in either Korean or American cinemas.