South Korean Film Scores and Ease of Distribution – Part 5 (Blades of Blood and Conclusions)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Blades of Blood (2010) – Joon-Ik Lee

Joon-ik Lee’s 2010 film Blades of Blood shares a number of similarities with both the previously mentioned examples. The film is a modern, violent period picture based on a graphic novel. It is stylistically similar to Oldboy, especially within its colour palate though rarely recreates the standard set by Park. It is also of little success in the West by comparison though is still a lot easier to see than the majority of Im Kwon-Taek’s work.

These are only passing points when discussing Blades of Blood. Its most important link to our analysis is its music which at first seems very typical. It is a cheaply synthesised almost faux, Western thriller musical score full of clichéd string movements and loud symbol hits more akin to Western “straight to television” film soundtracks. It comes with great surprise then to find that this score is by the same composer as Seopyeonje, Soo-Chul Kim. The differences are already massively apparent, almost shockingly so.

The political contexts of his score for Seopyeonje have vanished and been replaced with an obvious leaning towards traditional Western film score practices. There is a clear overabundance of score, emotionally leading even the most obvious of scenes. The music is made with technology which sounds only vaguely superior in quality to the music produced almost twenty years earlier. Gone is the subtle synthesised strings and microtone playing flutes, replaced instead with ironic, pizzicato strings that resemble music from Nintendo computer games and overly dramatic movements for battle sequences again resembling video game music.

The score for Oldboy, no matter how Westernised, seemed honest in its intensions even it was very obviously a product of globalisation and the increasing transnational culture of the modern, digital age. Here though, the ultimate progression has taken place, from skilful craft on Seopyeonje and TaekBaek Range of Mountains (1994) to a ridiculous Western pastiche. Out of all the composers that could have been susceptible to the “prostitution” that the Seopyeonje characters were so appalled by, it is sadly most applicable to the composer of the film that questioned this ideal in the first place.


“The media globalization in Asia needs to be recognised as proliferating, indispensable, yet highly complex and contradictory resource for the construction of identity within the lived experience of everyday life.” (Kim, 2008, p.12)

When discussing the practices in any area of film for a whole country, it is always going to be difficult not to generalise. This is especially so for a country whose cinema is still only just finding its way to audiences outside of its national viewership. When criticising Soo-Chul Kim’s seemingly metamorphic change to more Western practices, it may at first have seemed unfair. In the context of this essay this isn’t the case but outside, this will undoubtedly be a far more complex issue, outside of arguments of authenticity and tradition.

When focussing on the practice as a commercial occupation, it seems farfetched to expect the artists of Asia to not adapt to the cosmopolitan age. No matter what creative criticism can be applied to the more obviously commercial routes, it is in the end still a very commercial based art form. This means that for many cases, it simply must adapt to the new methods of distribution and consumption whether it seems ironic or not. Seopyeonje puts forward a very subtle but convincing argument for the preservation of traditional, musical practices; one which seems even more relevant in the age of world-dominating K-Pop; a genre barely distinguishable from Western dance music or even J-Pop. The fact that the cultural message has been all but surpassed in other forms of music is interesting but only a little surprising. Jung states that “In the early 1990s, under the more liberalized cultural policy, the booming economy of South Korea’s recently empowered civilian government, the Korean pop-music industry was booming, and Korean pop music continued to incorporate diverse stylistic input from abroad.” (Jung, 2009, p.76). The parallels between pop music and film music in the context of industry are therefore strong.

We must also consider the auteur interests of both the directors in question as this carries some bearing on the musical choices. Im Kwon-Taek was stuck in a repressive studio system for years, unable to question and look at what it means to be Korean and the issues that it brought up. When Kim Youngsam came to power in 1993, there seems to have been an almost instant deregulation of the film industry and the previously censored cinema from outside flooded in. While this new freedom can be seen to allow Im to look at his auteuristic interests, it can also be seen as the defining moment for the later directors such as Park. This influx of film, no doubt American amongst others, is clearly a point in time that allows the radical new generations to have taken on a multitude of influences (the first international festival appeared only three years later in 1996).

In the end though, the cosmopolitanism of these modern South Korean films and their musical scores has been shown to open the doorway for the likes of Im Kwon-Taek’s later films and even modern, traditional films to enter into new commercial territories. Ki-Duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) is a prime example of this with its most famous sequence even being accompanied by Jeongseon Arirang sung by Kim Young-Im. The film was produced in the same year as Oldboy and was then released in America a year later with subtitles. Lee believes that “The production of historical films in Korea may simply echo the increasing needs of the global film market in recent years. But, more significantly, it questions the contemporary interpretation of cultural tradition beyond commercial interest.” (Lee, 2005, p. 76). Ki-Duk Kim’s film is the perfect example of this reasoning, proving that an evolution has taken place in consumption, production and distribution. It perhaps proves the point then that transnational cross pollination is a means to an end; where emphasis is best placed on the potential end product, its consumption and its distribution, rather than the commercial journey towards it.

Adam Scovell


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