I just saw a Korean movie that surprised me in a few ways:
- I understood enough of it to get surprised looks from the girls who were sitting next to me (strangers, but, see, Korean theaters used assigned seating and no matter how uncomfortable they are with the idea of sitting beside some old foreigner, pretty girls usually just go on ahead and obey their tickets and sit down beside me). I realized after that it was because I was laughing at things in the dialogue that they assumed I would not understand, as well as laughing when I heard one girl explaining the plot to another… and clarifying that the boys “byeongwanaeseo manasseoyo” (met in the hospital).
- There were gay characters in the movie. They were, yes, minor characters and mostly the (pardon this) butt of some jokes… but they were also focal in the moment when the main character screws up his relationship with the leading lady. The gay student is in love with his teacher and his female friend (the leading lady) tells the teacher (whom she herself loves); the teacher shows something much less than sympathy, treats the student harshly, and breaks off his teacher-student relationship with the boy. The leading lady, a somewhat simpleminded and but kindhearted and sweet female character (common to Korean romances) reprimands him and demands that he show more compassion and he refuses… but later, meeting the boy and his male lover (whom, yes, he met in the hospital), he is kind and accepting and not at all vicious or (seemingly) judgmental. I was rather surprised at this near-Shakespearean resolution, where not only did all the heterosexual characters who mattered find themselves in love relationships… so did the geeky gay boy, and he managed to get treated relatively much more sympathetically than I imagined possible in Korean cinema! (Which I don’t mistake to mean a profound deeper reflection of much more acceptance of gays than I thought existed here… I think it’s probably still profoundly unacceptable in this society, except maybe in some parts of Seoul, but I do think this aspect of the film must reflect something, maybe something more complex than acceptance… maybe the struggle with the struggle with acceptance? I don’t know…)
- Japanese tourists. Oh man. In this Korean film, a comedy, there was a joke made about Japanese tourists that made me think back to how North American movies always portray Japanese tourists. In the movies I’ve seen they are usually voiceless, or completely incomprehensible, camera-toting faceless stereotypes. The Japanese tourists in this film had somewhat more character; their tour guide’s explanations to them were all subtitled in Korean, and when they stumbled upon a wedding-proposal-in-progress, instead of snapping photos the way Hollywood would have made them do, they get involved in the proposal, chanting encouragement to the painfully reluctant groom-to-be. It was refreshing and again, surprising.
- The leading lady was a Dabang Girl. Now, being that the band I play in is called Dabang, I of course know what a Dabang is, at least as well as any decent fellow in this country knows. I know that these “coffee” shops, which also send girls out to “deliver coffee”, are in actual fact a front for home-delivery prostitution services. Not all Dabang Girls actually exchange sex for money, apparently, but it is well-agreed-upon that this is part of the job. Yet unlike prostitutes, Dabang Girls seem to be an appropriate subject for humor, both in common conversation and for wholesome romantic comedies. One friend put it this way: prostitutes solely work in sex, while a Dabang Girl (he claimed) has a choice, and can say no if she wants. She can, if she wishes, only deliver coffee. This ostensible ability to choose which services to render seemed, to my friend, to suggest that a girl could theoretically remain “pure” while having that job. This certainly seemed to be the assumption of the movie. While she is to some degree highly sexualized as a character (at one point she is chased down the street by a pack of lecherous high school boys, who everyone knows are the horniest animals on earth), it’s all semi-cryptic, and everyone does their best to ignore it, focusing instead on her cutesy mannerisms and the milk of her kindness.
It was just a silly romantic comedy, but… it did suprise me. I’d be surprised if it ever becomes available outside of Korea, except in very big cities… and perhaps it wouldn’t surprise or interest (non-Korean) people who don’t live here or haven’t lived here. But I was, at least a little surprised by these things. It was an okay film, not great but not bad, as far as romantic comedies go…