Koreanizing Lovecraft (on a Budget)

This entry is part 13 of 15 in the series Making "The Music of Jo Hyeja"

I’m still thinking this over, since I first mentioned it last January.

Had an interesting talk on a couple of weekends ago with some of my Korean SF-fan friends about Lovecraft, the contents of which surprised me. I though ol’ H.P. was popular here, given that a large number of his works had been translated and published — in some cases, there are collections containing some of the same stories, worked over by different translators, put out by different publishers, even. But I was told that Lovecraft hasn’t really caught on in any appreciable way, which also makes it hard for anything built off his work to catch on here. (One example is Stross’ Laundry books, which I was told can’t really have a following here because most people can’t follow the Lovecraft references.)

While there’s been enough original Lovecraftian fiction written in Japanese to fill out a four-volume set in English translation (with more to spare, I’m guessing), I haven’t heard of any Korean authors writing Lovecraftian stories so far. (That doesn’t mean nobody has done it, mind you. I’d be overjoyed to hear about it, but I sure haven’t so far, and I have asked around!)

Indeed, two suggestions were made about “The Music of Jo Hyeja”:

  1. That the whole “cosmic horror” deal might not make so much sense to a Korean audience; it’s an alien aesthetic here, apparently, and a little more unpacking might be necessary for that audience, and…
  2. If the film could get shared around, it might provoke some interest in Lovecraft among Koreans.

This came on the tail end of my editing a long-ago story of mine, experimentally, from being a kind of Korean ghost story (where the ghost is of someone living, not someone dead) into a kind of twisted-up Lovecraftianized moment in Korean history. The fit was good, but I think the story needs one more pass before I send it out somewhere.

I’ve been thinking for a while about how to go about making a feature-length film featuring Lovecraftian themes, but set in Korea and twining together the Lovecraftian, the cosmic horrific, and truly Korean cultural content. If you ask me, the optimal thing would be to set it in the 1920s, before the rigidity of post-colonial and post-Korean War politics set in, but also at the time when Lovecraft himself was writing. There’s an occupation to work into the story at that time, but it’s not nearly as brutal as what would come in the 1930s and 1940s; that means negative memories of the late Joseon could also continue to be harbored widely among the populace. There would likely still be some hanbok worn out deep in the countryside, and probably even some villages where nobody from outside has set foot in decades (villages, indeed, who may not yet have heard that Korea has been occupied); there’s Japanese scholars wandering the countryside too, poking around where they shouldn’t be  and in the process disturbing ancient tombs and monuments and forgotten temple ruins (cue spooky music); there’s access to Pyongyang, which I would serve as a wonderful Innsmouthian setting.

But shooting a film set in the 1920s takes money… a lot of money, which we don’t have. Indeed, shooting a film set in anytime other than the present day is a big budget-related issue. And what I’ve learned from our production of “The Music of Jo Hyeja” is that projects like this, even on a small budget, can suck you dry just in the basic expenses of equipment rentals, production, paying the actors, and feeding cast and crew during production. The key, then, is to eliminate (or at least minimize) unnecessary expenditures, especially when you know you’re not going to get support from outside. So a story set in the present is, apparently, the way to go.

I’m still thinking over plotline and themes at the moment, and so I’m working on a few shorter projects, including a script treatment of a famous Korean SF story, a couple of anthology projects, and more. I’m still considering whether another Lovecraftian film is the way to go, or whether something more hard-SFnal would be a better use of our time. Korean film is short of good SF narratives too, and I’d like for us to make a contribution to that genre as well.

But one thing did come up in my mind this morning was that I’m glad I’m not one of those who depends on the whole tentacle thing for Lovecraftian effect.

Because, after all, in a society where tentacled creatures are widely enjoyed (however occasionally) at the dinner table, such appendages are not necessarily likely to inspire a visceral sense of horror the way they seem to for Western Lovecraft fans. In fact, I’ve seen so many sea creatures that inspire such a reaction in me–but which Koreans around me see as no more than dinner options, albeit in some cases not-too-appealing ones; for example, I don’t know many young folks who often eat these critters:

–but they have seen them enough to be, well, less than shocked or horrified by the very sight of them, let alone some verbal description of them. And, you know, being served a dish of squirming tentacles from a freshly killed octopus? That’s not really weird here.

I think it’s safe to say the trappings of a Lovecraftian horror aesthetic would have to be built upon a somewhat different foundation over here… though that was always the case: the tentacles are window-dressing, or, well, cosmos-dressing, I suppose.

And, of course, you can make it work: think of the octopus-eating scene in Oldboy:

Still, I think we can do better in general, in searching for a deeper basis to an authentically Korean Lovecraftian aesthetic.

Lovecraft’s work was informed by a horror at the decline of great families and bloodlines; an undeniable racism; by his atheism and his sense of the universe as a cold, meaningless, uncaring place; by his sense of dislocation by modernity, by immigration, by changes in American culture and literature. Some of those changes–immigration, dislocation from rapid modernization, and changes in culture–map really well onto Korea. But are there other anxieties that would be exploitable by the would-be Korean-Lovecraftian?

The ones that come to mind for me immediately are related to the universals of modern life in the industrialized world:

  • The fracturing of community and the isolation of living in a big city, but also the way we are embedded in so many inhuman institutions like schools, workplaces, churches, and so on–which are of course a little different in each place. Strangers and neighbours, when they are the same people, can be unnerving.
  • The increasing fracturing of society, including the accelerating gaps between rich and poor, older and younger, liberal and conservative. The fracturing of society isn’t always a bad thing–I for one am thankful to have grown up somewhere I didn’t constantly get pushed to define myself by inherited terms of identity–but such fracturing nonetheless is usually stressful.
However, I think there are some more that are specifically Korean, which could give the story more of a local flavor:
  • The increasing multiracialization of Korea, which clashes with the race-based nationalism that dominated here for a long time. The divide between city and countryside is heightened by the fact that in some rural areas, you see a lot more “foreign” people, especially mail order brides and the children they have with their Korean husbands. Blood mixing and immigrants… that’s a very Lovecraftian anxiety, though one doesn’t want to demonize the immigrant. Meanwhile, one also does not want to characterize Koreans collectively as racist: plenty of Koreans aren’t; it’s the institutionalized racism (and its broad toleration) that deserves to be attacked publicly. What one wants is something horrifying that doesn’t discriminate between races, but which is nonetheless foreign and nonetheless relates to blood-admixture. Or something.
  • The anxiety regarding foreign contagion. This is a powerful driver: a few years ago, there were mass protests in the streets of Seoul over the idea that American beef could be imported and sold in Korean supermarkets, causing an outbreak of sickness among Koreans. (Here’s the article I wrote about that.) Lovecraft’s “foreign” contagion tended to come from outer space, but Korea’s is as likely to come from some other nation.
  • The sense of ancient history and forgotten, long-ago conspiracies. This stuff has universal appeal, but is especially useful for telling scary stories to a society that claims a five-thousand year history. Okay, but what about before that history started? What (not who) ruled the earth back then?
  • I also think horror can very effectively work by exploiting anxieties the audience may not realize they had; for one thing, I find that even among young people, there’s a funny mixture of technophilia and of early-adoption of tech, and of technophobia. Young people seem quite ready to accept and repeat narratives featuring the evils of new technologies, clearly based in technophobic anxiety: everything from computer games to smart phones get labeled as dangerously addictive so often I’ve come to expect it. Perhaps the anxiety could invoke an ironic reversal of that fear: it’s the failure of those embraced-but-feared technologies (like, say, GPS navigation systems in cars) that leads to deaths, dooms, destructions.
  • In Korea, I think the stresses of the work week for adults, and of study-related pressures for kids, also each offer their own cornucopia of horrors. Sometimes, the strain and pressures people seem to endure seem downright Lovecraftian in themselves. Just as with  William Browning Spencer’s Resumé With Monsters, I kind of feel like exploring the hidden, darkly Lovecraftian depths of wage slavery or of hakwonization of kids’ lives might be a way of Koreanizing Lovecraft. The guy who gets taken to the room salon by his boss, only to discover, drunkenly, that the call girls have webbed fingers (and here, I suppose, tentacles could still be creepy); the woman who starts working in a company and then discovers her boss is often making trips to the basement, and follows him down to discover horrifying things; the kid whose hakwon has, behind a locked door, a room for the veneration of Nyarlathotep or some similar god–unnamed, of course, but identifiable to those in the know–to whom sacrifices are made to ward off bad grades, at the cost of the childrens’ sanity. That hakwon example seems cheesy, but something a little better could probably work.
  • There’s also the other particularly high stresses I observe within Korean culture, which seem to accumulate just in normal social actions. While I still have mixed feelings about Debitou Arudou’s discussion of “microaggression” towards foreigners in Japan (and its application to expats in the Korean context) — I think microaggressions are probably a human universal, and to some degree normative in any culture, meaning, we find people microaggressing against people of the same race, sex, age, and so on. But I find myself taken aback with how overt and socially accepted some kinds of microaggressions are between Koreans, compared to what I remember as being normative or socially acceptable from back in Canada. If you think it’s hard being overweight in Canada, try being overweight in Korea. (Especially if you’re a Korean woman.) Or, for an example I’ve seen drive people functionally crazy a few times, try being an unmarried woman at the age of thirty, with relatives and friends making you feel like a spinster constantly, with relatives constantly pestering you to marry, with your own personality warped to the point where you perceive younger women with boyfriends as actively harming you by taking away eligible marriage partners. Matchmaking, there’s a fair bit of the Lovecraftian underlying that in these parts, to be sure!
One question that remains is how much one wants to localize one’s story. The Host was very Korean in a lot of ways, but at the same time, it was also universal enough for international audiences to relate to it, and to enjoy it. The President’s Last Bang, good film though it is, probably would be hard for an audience to get without some knowledge of modern South Korean history.  For a Lovecraftian narrative, you want it to fit with Korea well enough not to alienate the audience (and to point the way to how an authentically Korean Lovecraftian aesthetic is possible); but you certainly don’t want to alienate a non-Korean audience given how small the audience here is for a Lovecraftian film. Indeed, the optimal thing would be to make the story seem like it was completely comprehensible to a Korean audience that didn’t know Lovecraft, while having enough of a Lovecraftian  subbasement — and openings into it — for the audience that does get the references to see the film as Lovecraftian.
But of course, I’m talking from the outside now–which isn’t always a disadvantage for looking at a culture: I sometimes learn things about my culture when I hear people from other cultures talking about it inquisitively–but I am curious which anxieties Koreans would suggest as the the most sensitive (and thus, in a narrative, most exploitation-vulnerable) for the adaptation or localilzation of the Lovecraftian aesthetic.

Comments are welcome! I’ll be pondering this more over the next few weeks as the time approaches for me to launch into a full-length feature film scriptwriting project.

Bonus: By chance, I ran across this post by Bryan Thao Worra about adapting both Steampunk and Lovecraftian literary sensibilities to a Laotian setting. Interesting stuff, though I am still curious about the cultural dimension. When I was in Lao, there seemed to be a strong mythology about nagas and other beings that could easily fit into a Lovecraftian vision of the world; Korea seems short on those, or at least the mythologies seem not to have much place in the popular imagination today.

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10 thoughts on “Koreanizing Lovecraft (on a Budget)

  1. Inspiring post! I’m very interested in the beginnings of Korean modernization, and these ideas make me drool. I’m no filmmaker, but perhaps I will write a novel about unspeakable horrors in a Korean Colonial setting?

    1. Are you into horror fiction? I’m actually putting the finishing touches on a longish short story that combines the story of Sado Seja with a lot of Lovecraftian stuff… and am going to work it up into a film script soon, as Mrs. Jiwaku wants to shoot it…

      And yeah, I’m still thinking that, in terms of Korean stories, some kind of intersection between the horrors of the colonial era and more supernatural horrors would be extremely fruitful. What’s odd is that (to my knowledge) nobody’s done very much with it at all…

  2. Pan’s Labyrinth comes to mind, with its juxtaposition of a Grimm, brutal fairy tale world with another kind of real world brutality, and I’m sure something similar could be done with the time period you speak of. That shit was done REALLY well, as was The Orphanage, often mentioned in connection.

    1. I can’t really remember The Orphanage, despite having seen it with friends one Hallowe’en night–one friend I watched it with in Seoul is right here in the room, and he can’t really remember it either–but at least when it comes to Pan’s Labyrinth I whole-heartedly agree.

      The one anxiety I have about politicizing horror in a Korean context is doing it so that it doesn’t just go straight to the kind of anti-Japanese jingoism I so loathe. (I prefer the characters in my horror stories humanized, both the colonizers and the colonized.)

      The thing about colonial societies is how the colonial presence fractures the colonized, bringing out the worst in some people (and usually those are the people who do well for themselves in that system)–and how it exploits the poor both in the mother country and in the colonized society.

      That’s one reason I liked Samgeori Geukjang (Midnight Ballad for the Ghost Theater, I think it was called in English): there was a Japanese ghost who was, well, stereotypical, but in the end no more of an asshole than any of the Korean ghosts alongside whom he haunted the eponymous cinema.

  3. Good point, as the story I just formulated this afternoon is about a “Comfort Woman”… and given my gut tendency to fly into a blind rage when it comes to sexual violence, I suspect I shall have a hard time not falling into the trap of demonization. But your note about colonization being harmful for inhabitants of the mother country as well, it brings me back to sanity.

    Besides, if done well, I think an Eldritch abomination could be enough to a presence to make politics and polemics meaningless. That’s the effect I hope to achieve, anyway.

    1. Wow, you write fiction too?

      With the Comfort Woman issue, I’ve always wanted to write about it, and do it justice, but always found it very difficult to do so as a white, western man. Not that I feel my point of view isn’t valid, mind. Just that I tend to be critical of the mainstream Korean historical memory of all this. I mean, we’re talking about a time when it wasn’t all that uncommon for girl children to be named things like Seob-Seob and Hu-nam (“Disappointment” and “Boy-Next”). One thing I found is that in written Korean accounts, nationalist agendas have tended to soft-pedal the decades of horrible treatment these women got once the war was over and the colonial occupation ended, as well as avoiding the question of how many of the families of these girls actually knew or cared about the fate of their girl children. That sounds harsh, but I’ve read historical accounts where girl children were sold off in the late Joseon, so it’s not like this is a ridiculous thought.

      (My point is not to exonerate the Japanese army or the men who used these women, obviously those are horrible things. But it takes place in a transculturally misogynistic environment, and that it probably does no good to think of it in a racial or political binary when that shared misogyny was an active part of what made the mess possible.)

      Good point, as the story I just formulated this afternoon is about a “Comfort Woman”… and given my gut tendency to fly into a blind rage when it comes to sexual violence, I suspect I shall have a hard time not falling into the trap of demonization. But your note about colonization being harmful for inhabitants of the mother country as well, it brings me back to sanity.

      Yeah, that too. The Yasukuni shrine’s museum is a jingoistic horror show for anyone who knows anything about the history of the Japanese empire. But when you visit anti-war and anti-nuke museums in other places in Japan, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you get a different picture: peasants swept up by the same cultural forces that swept Korea; some complicit, some wanting to resist but not knowing how, and others resisting quietly, in whatever way they could. Rich, connected Koreans and rich, connected Japanese had more in common with one another than with their poorer fellow nationals, and in what I’ve always felt was a sad irony, the poor of both nations probably had more in common with one another than with their leaders… if only they had been able to realize it.

      There’s probably an alternate history story somewhere in there, where some trans-cultural Donghak-type rebellion overthrows both the Joseon Dynasty and the Meiji Emperor and they set up some kind of peasant kingdom in its stead… even if in the end it probably wouldn’t last, or at least wouldn’t be fun to live there…

      Besides, if done well, I think an Eldritch abomination could be enough to a presence to make politics and polemics meaningless. That’s the effect I hope to achieve, anyway.

      Maybe… though I’ve read some Japanese Lovecraft stories where the eldritch horror and the political content melded together to enhance one another. (The first book in the Kurodahan series has a couple of stories I’ve read so far that were like that, mainly set around WWII.) And definitely in our own Korean Lovecraftian movie (“The Music of Jo Hyeja,” the project that grew from these very musings) uses the Lovecraftian eldritch horror to articulate things about being a younger, underprivileged, outsider female in Korean society. (Being a stranger to Lovecraft, the actress in fact depended on those metaphorical resonances to play the character properly.)

      I’m very curious to read your story when it’s done, if you’re open to that sort of thing… :)

      1. I feel rather sheepish, as I haven’t written fiction (which includes fanfiction, oh horrors) since high school. But if you’d be willing to read it, I’d for sure jump at the chance for constructive feedback.

        1. Meh! I’d be happy to read it and give you my comments. And I wrote fanfic too, though not in high school.

          (Still, some of my first fiction was Ghostbusters fanfic, featuring myself and my friends as a Canadian ghostbusters franchise…)

      2. I’ve actually visited the sanctuary for survivors of sexual slavery in occupied times, as well as the adjunct museum (there’s a recreation of the living quarters of the women, which is depressing as all get out). It is as you say, often the parents were not there, either due to indifference or absence. The halmoni we talked to had been sold into domestic servitude, and when she was turned over to the Japanese, she was under the impression that she was going away to school, to get the education she so desperately wanted.

        And obviously very few of them went on to have their own families, even though most of them were still in their early twenties at the times of liberation. I gather this was more due to societal stigma rather than psychological trauma, though admittedly the two intersect. And it’s no secret (though no one talks about it) how awful the Korean government is about supporting these survivors. But then what do you expect in a country where the current nominee for Head of the Supreme Court has outright called these women “liars”?

        1. I never made it to the sanctuary, though a good friend of mine did and told me a lot about it. (Including that the guides there were much more critical of the Korean reaction to the situation at the time than most South Koreans tend to be.) Apparently they were also quite willing to discuss how poorly the government was about supporting those women… though I can’t blame only the government alone: society as a whole knew a hell of a lot about what was going on at the time, as was clear from the reports of plenty of women who experienced this — plenty were told, as girls headed to Japan, to do whatever they could to avoid the fate that many Koreans in Japan knew awaited them. Yet it took until the 1990s for anyone to say anything… and the person to break the story first was a Japanese journalist who was shocked to discover such a program had existed… at least, if I remember right.

          Yeah, depressing stuff. And what can be expected? Not bloody much, in my opinion.

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