K-Popcorn 2015: Scene Take 2! Part 4

Scene: Korea…Take 2! Part 4

Talking about Korea using the term “little” is somewhat funny now. It has the 27th largest population and 13th largest economy in the world. Even in terms of its movie market, it ranks 7th in the world with a revenue of 1.4 billion dollars just behind the UK and India’s 1.7 billion in 2014. However, it has not always been this way. It has only been about 45 years since Korea moved above what would be considered the 3rd world absolute poverty line. It has been 35 years since Korea proved that the sliver of success it had in the previous decade was not a fluke. Before that, Korea was more or less what we think North Korea is now. Well, it was worse. In fact, for most of this region’s history, it was more of a dirty little dump neighboring China that lowered the property value of the whole area.

“What a journey!”

While I did spend pages just before going over why I’m mentioning this in a book about Korean movie from 2015, I’ll repeat myself. Korean movie are made for the Korean audience. It is not made for universal appeal. I would actually say that one of the major issues with Korean movies is that we, Koreans, simply don’t know how to craft a story with universal appeal because we refuses to dig below the layers of Korean historical and cultural debris which have accumulated over generations to reach the core of the story which is in fact universal. While I’ll end up going over this is more detail down the road, in brief terms, the culture doesn’t support it and the audience doesn’t want it. So, you are left where you stand unable to move forward especially if you aim to be mainstream.

This means that you really need to have some understanding about Korean history to watch Korean movies properly.
“So where do I start?”
“Well, 5000 years ago, a horny son of a god came down to earth and had sex with a bear…”
I may have gone too far back in time. And I’m not joking about the F**king bear thing. The foundation myth of Korea has an element of bestiality to it. Well, technically you could say it is not really bestiality because of “magic” but let’s not deceive ourselves. It is weird if you think about it. In any case, this time of antiquity does not have much of a relevance to our topic. So, fast forward to 1393 A.D.

This year is important since this is the year when the “Joseon” dynasty was established. If you have seen any historical Korean movie or drama that doesn’t totally look like a cheap fantasy knockoff, it would most likely be set in the Joseon dynasty.

“Okay a lot of Korean historical dramas tend to come up cheap and clucky.
“However, we’re not talking Xena: Warrior Princess level for recent Joseon dynasty era stuff here”

The prior dynasty, the Koryo dynasty, is not as significant for this book’s purposes because it has far less actual impact on who Koreans of the present are than its successor. After more than half a millennia under its rule leading up to the modern age, the Joseon dynasty is when the basis of who modern Koreans are was establish. However, it is not only the duration it lasted or the minuscule success it achieved during its lifespan that made this dynasty so significant. What is really important is that this change in dynasty was not just a change of who was sitting on the throne but I paradigm shift in what Korean society looked like.

“Let’s use the word revolutionary with a lot of red...comrade”

In trying to describe an ancient foreign culture, providing a shorthand for the reader to draw upon is never easy. How to describe the difference?

In the average Korean’s mind, Koryo dynasty is basically conceptualized in the same vein as how the average American views medieval fantasy minus the fire breathing dragons. And this is not a bad image to draw upon for non-Koreans. In simplistic terms, Koryo dynasty can be seen as an early medieval kingdom with the power of the church not as pronounced as we like to imagine. The dynasty was basically a feudal alliance with a king sitting on the throne, who had to wrangle the nobles with his own power, in the center. The nobles, on the other hand, had obligations to the king but enjoyed a certain level of autonomy. These nobles were part warrior, part agricultural land lords, and part merchant.

While it cannot be said that the life of the common folk were great since all feudal kingdoms in ancient times end up sucking, it could be said that it was a more loosely organized society with both the nobles on the top and the salves in the bottom numbering few. In terms of religion, the state religion of Buddhism was not as organized nor all reaching as we imagine the Catholic Church to have been in the middle ages. This all changes when the Koryo dynasty was overthrown in an internal military coup. However, just calling it a coup is not giving the event the credit it deserves. It was more of an ideological revolution in the vein of Vladimir Lenin’s October Revolution of 1917 that created the Soviet Union.

“Oh did I mention why Korea is called Korea? The name originates from Koryo dynasty”
“Koryo to Korea.”

“Get it?”


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