Entertainment: Why I like Korean films
Like millions all over the world, my normal life has been derailed by the pandemic. This is only to be expected, but what I did not expect was the silver lining in the all-pervasive dark cloud. Let me begin with a short introduction.
I happen to be a hard-core Calcuttan who used to live and work in that city till recently. Eight years ago, circumstances forced me to divide my time between Kolkata and the National Capital Region where all my children live. I would come to Gurgaon in the first week of March and stay till the onset of winter. The kind of work I do can be done from home. So I would bring my writing assignments to Gurgaon which kept me busy for the six months that I stayed here. But, last year, the pandemic started and I was stranded, I did not know what I would have done if it was not for Netflix.
Let me explain. Normally I am not a great TV watcher. But, this long pandemic break has left me without any occupation. The only way out was Netflix. After watching selected favourites I ventured into exploring unknown territories. That is how I stumbled on my first Korean film, Crash Landing On You, the title was intriguing. It was the story of a South Korean woman para-glider drifting into North Korea and finally landing there. It is highly amusing and interesting in spite of the sub-titles. Thus encouraged, I tried another, this one was called Marriage Contract (2016), this too was very absorbing though in a different way, I was getting interested in this new kind of films. After my third attempt, Netflix took over. They began to offer me film after film, serial after serial, each more fascinating than the other. I was hooked good and proper.
A couple of weeks ago, I came across an article in one of the national dailies about the dramatic rise in the popularity of Korean films and TV serials. Apparently it is a wave sweeping across the country.
My immediate reaction was: Thank god! Then I am not the only one. My admiration for the above- mentioned art form has evoked a lot of ridicule in my family. This is because they are completely brainwashed by western films with maybe just a few desi ones thrown in. I was, thus, gradually being cornered when this article appeared as a life-saving straw to a drowning woman who was being forced to think that there was something wrong with her understanding. That article, which was an objective analysis of this highly unexpected turn of events, gave me a fresh lease of hope and the courage to take up my pen.
My reason for liking Korean films and serials can be grouped under the following heads: Tradition, family, woman power, food and male expression of emotion.
Watching them, I have come to realise our own shortcomings or to put it more bluntly, the fact that we are still suffering from a post-colonial hangover, and of how little we know about people closer to us, other Asians, Koreans for example. I was in for surprises at every step. I was surprised to find how westernised their lifestyle has become. But I was even more surprised to find how finely they have balanced it with tradition, hot pants and spike heels notwithstanding. If Kipling was alive today, he would have been compelled to change his oft-quoted line about ‘never the twain shall meet’. To give just a few examples, they have retained the Asian habit of taking off their shoes before entering a house. We in India follow this custom too but it is not considered sophisticated. But in their society (I am assuming that films hold a mirror to life), this custom is followed by one and all, from the middle-class to the super rich. They also sit cross-legged on the floor to eat from a low centre table. Of course, dining-tables are there but sitting on the floor is not looked down on. In fact, they do it on other occasions as well, like when one is depressed or upset for some reason, he or she flops down on the floor or on the nearest staircase in a way the gora log would never do. How can they ? Their limbs are not that flexible, the reason why the best badminton players are from South and South East Asia. Also, traditional and very Asian is their custom of offering tea to anyone who drops in any time of day and night. East wins over the West in their love scenes, so modest and tender even in the most passionate moments which stand out in sharp contrast against the gross physicality of western love scenes.
In all Korean films, family has a very big role, which brings them very close to the Indian mindset. For them, a cousin is as important as a brother and this is very much an Indian concept too, the reason why we do not have a one-word Indian equivalent for ‘cousin’. The respect they show to their elders is expressed through their body language. We are aware of the Japanese habit of bowing but it is also done in Korea. I am impressed by the way they kneel before a senior, mostly parents, if they have a favour to ask, or apologise, or even to ask permission to date the daughter. In one sixteen-episode serial, the entire issue was about getting the parents to agree to a marriage. They could have easily done it on their own but no, the consent of their parents is something they can’t do without. Their dear ones, even after they have gone, are very much a part of their lives, they visit the community memorial halls where photographs of their dead relatives are on display. People go there not just to offer flowers, but also to communicate.
In a land of corporate culture, it is natural that big companies play a major role in almost all films. But what is most striking is that many of these houses are headed by a grandmother. Not that fathers and grandfathers are not there, but the women are shown as most powerful. The chairperson is a mother or a grandmother, who holds the key to everything. The rest of the family is in awe of her. In a popular soap Secret Garden (2010), the mother is so vindictive, so keen on exerting her power to ruin her own son that she would put the darkest villain to shame. From the way she carries herself, talks, sits, tilts her head, she could teach a thing or two to the monarchs of Windsor. Her dignity, her style exudes power. Of course, she is (they all are) very fashionably dressed, though the make-up is much too heavy for my taste but perhaps done with a view to making them larger than life. It is woman-power at its best and worst.
A special feature of Korean movies is the way male actors display their emotions. They are not ashamed to show their feelings. Tears come to their eyes at the slightest provocation. They sob, they weep, even howl, and when they are particularly happy, they jump on the bed or sofa, do a jig or run about like young boys. Of course, they are good at fighting too, who wouldn’t be, in a country famous for martial arts. But no stiff upper lip – that is the main idea. Rivals in love do not waste time in talking, they come to blows. Even otherwise, the profuse use of slaps and kicks gives their films a distinctly different flavour. That is one of the reasons why it is such a delight to watch Korean films and serials.
Another dominant feature is their attitude to food. Eating for them is not just a means of survival, it has other meanings too. ‘Have you eaten?’ generally means. ‘Do you love me?’ Food not only occupies a very important part of their lives, it is basically a problem-solver. Whenever there is a crisis, personal or official, it is always resolved over a beverage and delicious-looking side-dishes. Coffee Prince (2007) is totally about the owner and others involved in the running of a coffee shop. Each meal looks like a celebration. It seems, for them life itself is one long food festival. No wonder, I am addicted to their shows and films!
Enakshi Chatterjee, 87, has authored and translated several books in Bengali and English. She ran a weekly TV review column and has won several awards for her work
From HT Brunch, May 2, 2021
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