There were two shows my parents watched while I was growing up: 60 Minutes, and a Korean variety show called Sunday Night. 60 Minutes aired weekly on CBS, but for Sunday Night, my parents would go to the local Korean grocer’s to pick up a taped videocassette. Since the advent of the DVD and of streaming, the practice of taping shows has died out, but that memory remains. Looking back, those tapes are maybe the aptest, most literal metaphor for my relationship with my heritage as a first-generation Korean-American. As a child, I took those recorded shows for granted. It never occurred to me that they weren’t ubiquitous, in the same way that I didn’t consider the fact that everyone watched the news. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more aware of the place that Asian variety shows have as curios in Western society, not to speak of Asian culture in general, and I’ve had to make more of an active effort in seeking them out if I want to watch them.
I saw more Korean films in theaters in 2016 than I have in any other year preceding – four, to be exact. I can’t remember even being aware of more than one or two Korean releases per year prior to this, never mind any that would have opened outside of Korea or generated discussion. And yet, this year, all four (The Wailing, The Handmaiden, Train to Busan, and The Age of Shadows) are counted among the best. For me, they’ve been an antidote for how little representation there’s been in movies otherwise — for whatever its flaws may be, I loved Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven for its casting of Lee Byung-Hun, especially in the face of the upcoming live-action Ghost in the Shell and the long-gestating Akira — as well as a long-overdue reconciliation between my heritage and my love of movies.
I’ve been turning to Korean movies and TV more often in the last few years out of a displaced sense of homesickness. I say displaced because I was born in the States, and apart from a summer several years ago, I’ve never spent more than a week or two in Korea per year. I’m lucky to live in New York, where I have easy access to Koreatown and the neighborhood-specific change in dominant language, cuisine, and culture that come along with it, but outside of that, I rarely hear or speak Korean outside of conversations with my parents, and I don’t often see people who look like me around me, let alone onscreen.
The genres that I love aren’t those that have historically lent themselves to particularly diverse casts, but this year’s releases have proved that it’s possible. The Age of Shadows is maybe the most obvious out of the bunch; as anomalous as it may sound (it takes place in the 1920s), it’s a Cold War film. It has more in common with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Third Man (both cited by director Kim Jee-Woon — responsible for another genre-bender, the Korean western The Good, The Bad, The Weird — as direct influences) than the typical Asian costume drama. That isn’t to say that The Age of Shadows eschews any Asian influence — if anything, the movie has the best of both worlds. Following the trials of a Korean police captain as he works to root out the Korean resistance on behalf of the Japanese occupation, the film’s best moments come in the same kind of meditative silence and tension that characterized Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. When it breaks into action, it’s effortless, reminiscent of the scene with Smiley and Esterhase on the airfield, or the most beautiful set pieces in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The best film of the crop, however, is The Wailing. It doesn’t call to mind any such overt references; it’s arguably much more alien to a Western audience, as the Korean traditions and superstitions around grief and the supernatural that suffuse it are almost completely different from any Western practices. (Has there been anything in a Western movie quite like the death hex scene?) The only real presence Western culture has in the movie is in the invocation of Christianity in the battle against the unknown. But genre-wise, it’s familiar, and all the more striking as such.
The last couple of years have seen the birth (or rebirth, at least into more mainstream pop culture) of the tragedy disguised as comedy. Fargo, Bojack Horseman, Ash vs. Evil Dead, and Eastbound & Down are the best examples; the stakes may seem high, be it fighting the living dead or the machinations of Hollywood (sorry, Hollywoo), but the battle that’s being fought is ultimately one of domestic proportions. The biggest monster is personal. As someone who grew up in the Midwest, tragedy-as-comedy is a genre that I’ve come to associate with that setting. The best examples of it all seem to boast a home there. The habit of giving tragedy a veneer that ill befits it is the unmentioned cousin of “Midwestern nice.” We often don’t like to consider that tragedy can manifest as something other than profound loss, because everything that isn’t that should be surmountable. It’s difficult to accept when it isn’t. Tragedy can stem from the shake-up of normalcy, which was once thought immutable (as in Fargo), from self-doubt and personal crisis (as in Eastbound & Down), or from a sense of the inevitable and unhappy compromise (as in Ash vs. Evil Dead). All three color The Wailing, and it’s what ultimately vaults the film from being a black comedy or a horror movie to being a full-blown tragedy.
The movie opens with policeman Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-Won) being late to a crime scene because he stopped to have breakfast with his family. It’s the kind of misstep that characterizes the rest of his policework from here on out; he’s just not particularly good at his job. It’s a source of comedy at first, but as the nature of the foe he’s facing becomes clearer, it becomes a source of heartbreak, instead. He’s earnest to the core; he’d do anything for his family, but it’s not enough. And isn’t that the ultimate fear? That, even if one were willing to sacrifice everything, it still wouldn’t be enough?
As his daughter falls under something that resembles a curse more than an illness, the lengths that Jong-Goo goes to in order to try to save her become more and more extreme. He begs the help of a Catholic priest, then a shaman, and even encounters what may or may not be a ghost. As disparate as these things may seem — each suggests a different view on life and death and is born of different roots — they come to a head as the movie reaches its agonizing conclusion, and the overlap is nothing short of perfect. Each thread ties together without dismissing any of the others. The fight between God and the Devil doesn’t preclude the existence of the monsters and ghosts that populate Korean mythology, and the presence of the supernatural doesn’t preclude the human core of the story.
The story alone was enough to reduce me to tears, but that seamlessness struck me just as deeply. Identifying with two different cultures has always felt more like an either/or than an and, especially when it comes to the movies that I’ve always loved. I’m at the multiplex more often than not, but what’s playing has never been particularly inclusive. The Korean movies that make it to U.S. audiences are “cult” hits — Oldboy or The Host, for instance. Granted, the most high-profile Korean movies this year aren’t exactly wide-release, but they’ve still generated the kind of buzz that I’ve never really seen for a Korean movie before. It’s thrilling to see that representation, especially when each of these films is uniquely Korean, despite whatever Western influences they boast. So, sure, while the practice of videotaping shows might have gone the way of the dodo, I’m starting to find home at the movies.