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  • The Joy and Sorrow of Korean Melodramas
  • by Christopher Weatherspoon /  Mar 20, 2018
  • A Look at the History of Korea’s Most Enduring Cinematic Genre

    The Korean melodrama has long held an important place in the Asian market. Derived from a portmanteau of the Greek word melos for ‘sweet music’ and drama, these films often make use of a heightened version of reality and feature characters and storylines that make strong appeals to emotion.

    Though the word melodrama was only officially introduced into the Korean lexicon in 1958, the genre has maintained a strong presence in its nearly 100 years of existence in Korea. A nascent form of melodramas first appeared during the Japanese occupation. Following the liberation of Korea from restrictive Japanese colonial rule, new freedom and an influx of foreign films contributed to a domestic cinema boom with Korean melodramatic films being a lucky beneficiary. Since then, melodramas have remained an important part of Korean cinema. With the recent release of Be With You, KoBiz looks back at the evolution of this quintessential Korean cinematic genre.

    The melodrama’s resilience in Korea is due in part to the genre’s ability to easily combine with other genres and styles to create appealing narratives while mirroring contemporary Korean issues and sentiments. Korean melodramas combine universal problems with traditional Korean cultural elements, such as devotion to family, Confucianism and self-sacrifice, while continuously adapting to keep up with social change. As a result, melodramas have managed to reemerge each decade as a relevant genre to provide an outlet for the Korean national psyche.

    1950s and 1960s

    Following the Korean War, Korean melodramas tended to reflect society's desire for reconstruction and reunification. Melodramas released during this time period frequently featured a father figure whose suffering and sacrifice would provide resolution for the family’s problems, and in turn, help sate the public’s needs for postwar harmony and relief. Korean melodramas reached their height in the 1960s when positive public sentiment and the desire for family reunification together helped spur the ‘family drama’ melodrama subgenre. The family melodrama boom, in turn, led to the eruption of the ‘home drama’, which was a format that featured everyday people in tragic, melodramatic narratives that ended with a positive tone. Conventions from the home drama later made their way to television dramas as the medium became more widespread.

    1970s and 1980s

    In the 1970s, competition from television brought an end to the dominance that melodramas had enjoyed during the previous decade. Likely due in part to the private wealth that had begun to accumulate during this period, melodramatic narratives in the 1970s began to move away from family-centered storylines and instead began to examine themes of individuality. Additionally, melodramas released during the 1970s saw a different kind of protagonist emerge. In contrast to the past, where the story would have centered on a patriarchal figure, now young college co-eds and independent career women were free to pursue love and their own paths in life. In addition, the PARK Chung-hee regime had encouraged the production of softcore erotic film content in an attempt to distract the public from its military government’s political issues. This convergence of limited sexual freedom and female empowerment allowed women to finally express desire on screen, but storylines were still often limited to viewpoints from male-centered mindsets. Following the end of the PARK regime and the country’s political stabilization, melodramas veered back towards conservatism. However, filmmakers still attempted to capture the dynamic energy of the country’s rapid growth during this tumultuous time period.

    In Our Joyful Young Days (1987) the socioeconomic changes that were taking place in Korean society in the 1970s and 1980s were placed front and center. The melodrama centers around Young-min (AHN Sung-ki) who has fallen in love with Hye-rin (HWANG Cine). After seeing her perform on stage, Young-min admires Hye-rin from afar and sends her flowers and fruits anonymously. When he finally gets the courage to openly pursue her, she reveals that she is marrying a doctor and will move to New York. When the two meet again sometime later, Hye-rin reveals that she is divorced, and they are free to pursue their feelings for each other. However, after the two marry, one final tragedy changes their lives forever. Though Hye-rin’s initial decision to choose financial freedom over love could be seen as an example of the partial liberalization of contemporary narratives, it is sensitive Young-min’s tale of devotion to family and sacrifice that shows how intertwined melodramas were with the Korean sense of family, even during a period of modernization. Our Joyful Young Days was helmed by BAE Chang-ho, who also directed several stylish melodramas and was one of the most commercially successful filmmakers of the 1980s. Typical of BAE’s works, Our Joyful Young Days revealed the world and mindset of what was then Korea’s young generation through the director's prowess of advanced filmmaking techniques and storytelling. 

    1990s and 2000s

    The IMF Crisis in 1997 brought an abrupt end to the rapid economic growth that Korea had enjoyed for several decades, leaving many Koreans at a great loss. The release of HUR Jin-ho’s debut feature film Christmas in August in January of 1998 would coincide with a time when Korean audiences needed a collective emotional release. HUR’s straightforward, old-fashioned melodrama would go on to comfort audiences while also redefining Korean melodramatic films. The plot summary for Christmas in August is the pure melodrama. Jung-won (HAN Suk-Kyu) is an upbeat, optimistic photographer who has remained in the small town he grew up in for his entire life. He has a romantic interest in Da-rim (SHIM Eun-ha) and is working to develop a relationship with her. However, when Jung-won discovers that he has a terminal illness, he has to decide how he will spend the remainder of his now drastically shortened life. Typical melodramas, Christmas in August examines themes of love, suffering, virtue, innocence and letting go. Though the film had lackluster box office numbers, its near flawless story construction and well-realized adoption of complex cinematic motifs would aid it in finding audiences beyond Korea. Christmas in August has since gone on to receive worldwide critical acclaim, including a mention in Japanese film magazine Kinema Junpo’s prestigious annual top-10 listing. HUR Jin-ho's follow-up film, One Fine Spring Day (2001) is also essential Korean melodrama viewing. Starring LEE Young-ae and YOO Ji-tae, this now classic drama depicts the love and separation of two lovers.

    Though Christmas in August represents what many would consider being the perfect Korean melodrama, since its release, the genre has fallen slightly out of favor with local audiences. This is due to a modernized Korean film industry that now focuses on releasing blockbusters. However, some melodramas have still managed to muster a competitive box office run. If Christmas in August showed the mature storytelling capabilities of melodramatic Korean films, KWAK Jae-yong’s My Sassy Girl (2001) showed the genres’ potential for commercial success and massive international appeal. In My Sassy Girl, engineering student Gyeon-woo (CHA Tae-hyun) saves a drunk girl (Gianna JUN) from falling off of a train platform. After an unusual evening together, the two begin a hot-and-cold, on again-off again relationship fraught with missed opportunities and sometimes plain bad luck. In her portrayal of “the Girl” Gianna JUN presents a mercurial character that is as compelling as she is damaged and in many ways, reveals the freedom that female characters have acquired in modern melodramas. My Sassy Girl was a runaway hit, not just in South Korea but throughout Asia. At the time of its release, it became the top-grossing Korean comedy of all time. My Sassy Girl had a string of remakes throughout Asia and even received a Hollywood adaptation. 

    Director KWAK Jae-yong's The Classic (2003) has also gained popularity throughout Asia. Additionally, SON Ye-jin, who played the film‘s heroine, has made a name for herself by taking on the lead role in numerous melodrama movies from A Moment to Remember (2004) to this year‘s Be With You. Other essential Korean melodramas born during this time period include time hop love story Il Mare (2000) which starred prolific Korean actors LEE Jung-jae and Gianna JUNBungee Jumping Of Their Own (2000) which featured LEE Byung-hun, and You Are My Sunshine (2005) which starred HWANG Jung-min and legendary Korean actress JEON Do-yeon.

    2010 to Present

    Though still in decline, melodramas continue to survive by mixing and compromising with other genres to bring in new and diverse audiences. These new films combine elements of melodramatic narratives with modern, popular genres such as LGBT, comedy, horror and even science fiction.

    IM Charn-sang’s comedy melodrama My Love, My Bride (2014) is a remake of the hit 1990 film of the same name. The film stars JO Jung-suk and SHIN Min-a as a married couple who learn the bitter reality of the sacrifices required to make a marriage work. When the movie begins, Young-min (JO) and Mi-young (SHIN) are a young couple that has been together for 4 years. After an awkward proposal, the two wed, but after the honeymoon, reality sets in. The immature Young-min frequently makes bad choices and through expressing her dissatisfaction, Mi-young becomes the nagging wife. The film examines the banal and mundane side of marriage often ignored in romantic comedies. True to melodrama conventions, the film employs a heightened sense of reality, in this case through a careful mix of comedy and drama, to reward audiences with a story arch of genuine love. My Love, My Bride topped the box office its opening weekend and went on to attract a respectable 2.14 million viewers during its theatrical run. The film offers a blueprint for melodramatic works looking to cross-pollinate with other genres for box office competitiveness.

    BAEK Jong-yeol’s Beauty Inside (2015) is another fresh film that sees the Korean melodrama cross-pollinate with other genres. This romantic, body swap comedy combines elements of fantasy and drama to ponder the serious question of whether people can truly fall in love with one‘s inner beauty.

    Though the decline and dilution of Korean melodramas over the past decade has caused concern among some fans, one could ask if a genre that has become so ingrained in the consciousness of the Korean public could ever be in danger when almost all Korean films today contain some element of melodrama. Even movies advertised as high-octane action films, such as The Villainess (2017), managed to find ways to employ a heavy use of melodramatic conventions in their cinematic narratives. With producers essentially creating content to narrowcast to diverse but specific demographics, the future offers the opportunity to widen the definition of Korea’s most enduring film genre.
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