091013 - In Review: Closer to Heaven (Park Jin-pyo, 2009) and Melodrama in Korean Cinema

Since the beginnings of narrative cinema, the genre of melodrama has held an important place in popular movies. In American cinema, the melodramas of D.W. Griffith helped establish film as a powerful medium. Since then, they have provided the framework for many of the most popular films around the world, from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) to TITANIC (1997). This form proved so popular that many of the best loved movies of other nations also called on a version of melodrama, including the Korean industry. From the post-Korean War period to the present, melodrama has continued to be a major draw at the box office.
The term “melodrama” is slightly problematic, as it has many different meanings. It sometimes is seen as a specific genre, like the female-centered Hollywood drama of the classical era. But it can also be seen as a much larger mode of cinema practice. This is how scholar Linda Williams defines the term, and she lists 5 relevant features: (1) begins and hopes to end in a space of innocence; (2) heroes who achieve virtue through suffering; (3) characters who are clearly “good” or “evil”; (4) oscillates between passion and action, between being “too late” and “in the nick of time”; and (5) borrows from realism, but the realism serves the melodramatic passion and action. Using this definition, much of what counts as popular cinema is melodramatic. To this definition, I would also add the general “excess” of emotion often associated with the very adjective “melodramatic”.
Many Korean films belong to this mode, including classical Korean films like MADAME FREEDOM (1956) and THE HOUSEMAID (1960). But a number of contemporary films have sought to combine the basic melodramatic situation with a greater realism that mitigates the emotional excess. Korean film critic Darcy Paquet identifies one such film, Hur Jin-ho’s CHRISTMAS IN AUGUST (1998), as representing a re-examination of the traditional melodrama even as it shares characteristics of this mode. I would also consider Lee Chang-dong’s work as belonging to this Korean realist melodrama subset, especially OASIS (2002) and SECRET SUNSHINE (2007). All of these films have plots that one would call melodramatic: a dying man starts a romance with a young woman; a woman with cerebral palsy starts a relationship with an ex-con; a young widow loses her young son to a murder-kidnapping; etc. But directors like Hur and Lee seek to ground this material in reality through their reserved use of film technique, especially the use of long takes. They also de-dramatize the situations, refusing the normal excesses of emotion typically on display.
Director Park Jin-pyo’s 2005 film YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE can also be considered as part of this movement, and the first half of his new film CLOSER TO HEAVEN seemed headed in this direction. The plot revolves around a man, Jong-woo, suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He begins a romance with a woman, Ji-soo, who works at a funeral parlor. Despite this overwrought set-up, the film chooses a much more distanced approach, allowing the relationship to develop naturally and avoiding the cliches of “disease of the week” stories. There is even an homage to CHRISTMAS IN AUGUST when Jong-woo takes his own “death photo”, and the story resembles OASIS in pairing a victim of disease with a social outcast (in addition to her job at a funeral home, Ji-soo has been divorced twice). Unfortunately, the promising first half gives way to a second half that seems to be simply a showcase for actor Kim Myeong-min. Like Moon So-ri’s in OASIS, this is a physically demanding role involving massive transformation. Of course, ever since Robert DeNiro’s Method-style weight gain in RAGING BULL, endangering one’s body in the service of art has been the ultimate signifier of actorly truth. The performance here is indeed fine and admirable, but Park does not really use it for anything of interest. Instead, it is simply a borrowing from realism that is just servicing the pathos of the passion and action of this couple’s doomed romance. The second half takes place mostly in a hospital ward, in which we see a number of other patients and their sub-plots. None of these characters are really established, and even a fairly ordinary film like AWAKENINGS (1990) handles this material better. Park even mentions briefly the controversy around euthanasia that is often associated with this disease, but it is never actually explored. The last 20 minutes features at least 3 or 4 places where the film could logically end, but it never does. There is little consistency in tone, and the ending feels like pandering. This is really too bad, because there are things to like here. But one would be better served to explore some of the previously mentioned titles. Unless, of course, you want just a straightforward weepie, in which case this will serve you fine.
CLOSER TO HEAVEN is currently playing with English subtitles at selected theatres in Seoul, including Cinus theatre in Gangnam (subway line 2, exit 5).
Posted by Marc Raymond in Film on Oct 1 2009