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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:
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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