Asia Extreme and the Westernisation of South Korean Film Music.
The most popular avenue for South Korean cinema to enter the West, outside of the art-house festival circuit, is in the form that has loosely been dubbed “Asia Extreme”. This isn’t just South Korean film but also Japanese cinema as well as a number of others. The sub-genre is often very violent or horrific with complex, emotional stories, extremely accomplished visuals and often shocking scenes of violence. With this description already, it is sounding a world away from the gentle melancholy of Im Kwon-Taek. This is however the point in question.
Its success in the West can be seen as a gateway opened up by the sub-genre label itself made ready by the already well accepted Japanese titles. “The transformation of Korean cinema over the past decade is closely related to the South Korean government’s open-door policy.” argues Shin, suggesting that all of the aspects discussed within this essay are essentially modern, though some are more so than others (Shin, 2005, p.52). Japanese cinema is an interesting comparison in one sense as it shows a differing relationship to consumption in the West. Whereas Japanese cinema, whether overtly Japanese (Ozu, Naruse) or Western influenced (Kurosawa), began to enter the West at roughly the same time thanks to film festivals, the same cannot really be said for South Korean cinema. The more Westernised films (visually and musically) have had no real trouble coming through and it is only thanks to these that, the more traditional currents, both past and present, are beginning to make their presence felt at least on festival circuits. The more Korean titles on the other hand, seem to occupy that same area as Western art-house cinema, forever the cultural currency of the culturally affluent.
The parallels between the musical scores and this ease becomes striking once drawn up, though it is no doubt only one of a number of factors that has a role within this relationship. Looking at the most famous examples of South Korean Asia Extreme exemplifies this relationship perfectly. Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy is possibly the most famous South Korean film in the West. Jenkins suggests that:
“Global convergence is giving rise to a new pop cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitans embrace cultural difference, seeking to escape the gravitational pull of their local communities in order to enter a broader sphere of cultural experience. The first cosmopolitans thought beyond the borders of their village; the modern cosmopolitans think globally.” (Jenkins, 2004, p.117).
Park and Oldboy could therefore be described as the product of modern cosmopolitanism and this rings true when realising that not a single piece of printed media referenced in this essay mention his name or work once. The film has numerous editions on all regions of DVD, it has a high place in the Internet Movie Database Top 250 (a list which is overtly Western) and is currently being remade in Hollywood by director, Spike Lee. The film has a transnational feel for a number of reasons. Its source material is a Japanese graphic novel so this instantly makes it more accessible to Western audiences (with manga being extremely popular) but it is in its music where the most obvious arguments lie.
The first aspect to note is its use of Western classical music, most obviously when Antonio Vivaldi’s Winter is used. Here, the film is already using that very Western tradition of reappropriating classical music for its own uses, a technique often used by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. Whereas Im would use more tradition based sounds to ground his films in a more authenticated South Korea, Park instead seeks to show the cosmopolitanism of modern South Korea with a transnational, Westernised style palate. Some would argue, as Chung does, that the Western influence has been there since the American presence in the 1940s; “The unabated influx of American films since the U.S military occupation (1945-48) and the Korean war (1950-53) significantly affected the melodramas the genre formations of the embryonic South Korean industry.” (Chung, 2005, p.123). This however is too sweeping a statement to define a whole national cinema in the digital age.
This is further added to by the composed nondiegetic score by Hyun-Jung Shim which is electronic and tonally Western, sounding not unlike music by the Cocteau Twins or other electronic bands. Even when the soundtrack was released, each individual movement was named after an American film noir or other Western film that the director and the composer liked. This is not surprising, especially in the context of his other work but has Park Chan-Wook submitted to the pressure from the West and gone down the route of “prostitution” that the characters of Seopyeonje did everything they could to avoid?
Whereas out next case study will show this to be the case in another, slightly ironic context, it seems unfair to chastise the director and composer for such a creative choice. Jenkins believes that “Adopting a position that if you can’t beat them, merge with them, the American entertainment industry has become more aggressive in recruiting and collaborating with Asian talent.” (Jenkins, 2004, p.119). The Western pressure on Park and the like must therefore be enormous. Their influences are very clearly and obviously very different to that of Im Kwon-Taek, allowing for all sorts of different economic, cultural and political factors to mould their choices of visuals and music. Though Park Chan-Wook’s last film was made entirely in English with an American cast and a score by Clint Mansell, it is unfair to take apart the obvious Westernisation of his filmmaking choices when they are very clearly born from homage and influence rather than an overwhelming desire to achieve a Western, commercial success. Our next example however will show that this is not always the case.