Descent into Modernity

South Korea has always had a symbiotic relationship with American pop culture, and much of its fashions and music in the 60s and 70s derived from its Western counterparts. In the clip below, from the 1971 film Korea Tomorrow, the pop duo Pearl Sisters, with their miniskirts and playful sexuality, serve as an emblem of the country’s rapid modernization, as the director juxtaposes the young women’s voices, the cameras in the TV soundstage, and the satellite towers. The fluid, single take crane shot that descends and then ascends from the performers call attention to the technological apparatus fueling that shift. As the audience–an old woman in traditional hanbok costume and a younger man wearing unpretentious earth colors–watch at home, they literally catch a glimpse of the future, represented by the fusion between the rock ‘n roll beats of the song, and the melodic, pansori-like singing of the women. This will be one of the key struggles for Korean society–balancing traditional familial roles with the increasing demands of capitalism and its changing gender roles and social mores, and is one of the themes of This Burns My Heart

The One I Love

Below, the full song, as the Pearl Sisters sing their biggest hit, “Nima,” which means “My Dear” or “My Adored.” Released in 1968, it combines American guitar rhythms with a soulfulness that is uniquely Korean. The concept of han–the internalized sorrow that serves as national mood and is the byproduct of suffering countless attacks, colonization, and a devastating war–suffuses the melodies with a feeling of alternating hope and despair. In This Burns My Heart, the song plays a key role during an important scene, in which a group of young Pearl Sisters fans force the heroine to confront certain truths about her own marriage. 

A New World

In the 1970s, through a series of draconian measures in which mandated government policy, rather than the free markets, controlled the Korean economy, Koreans experienced unparalleled growth. Hordes of citizens left small towns to begin businesses, join factories, and provide labor in the big city, experiencing newfound freedoms, but still facing limited personal freedoms. The push and pull between wanting to have time for meaningful relationships and the need to keep up with the incessant demands of labor-intensive 24/7 modernity is dramatized by the music video below, which was actually made in the early 80s, but serve as an illustration of the country’s abrupt shift away from rural towns, into a nation of cities.

Madame Freedom

Directed by Han Hyeong-Mo, Madame Freedom is a classic 1956 film that provides a fascinating window into the changing social mores of postwar South Korea. Based on the serial novel Ja-yu Bu-in, the film is about a college professor’s wife (Oh Seon-yeong, played by Kim Jeong-Rim) who begins a part-time job to contribute to the household’s finances. As she tastes more and more independence, she falls in love with a young neighbor who teaches her how to dance to Western music, while her own husband begins a flirtation with a student. At the time of its release, the film was enormously popular, as well as controversial for its depictions of public affection and flirtation, the revealing clothes worn by some of the characters, and its modern notions of female independence–both at work and in the bedroom.

One of the remarkable technical aspects of the film is its use of elaborate dolly shots and big-scale cinematography, considering that it was made only three years after the end of the war. Seoul was badly decimated by the war, and yet its small film industry mustered the resources to make this film. Also, in a fascinating mixture of Western narrative and Eastern values, the film borrows widely from the melodrama of Sirk, Fassbinder, and especially Ophuls in its screenplay and mise-en-scene, but the film’s ending is thoroughly Korean, and speaks directly to Confucian values of filial duty. Seon-yeong’s reintegration into her household and her community marvels in the exalted bonds between parents and children. In Korea, children are supposed to revere their parents, and that cultural norm plays out as the keydeus ex machina that resolves the fall-out from Seon-yeong’s attempted infidelity.

Below, a clip from the documentary I’ll Be Seeing Her, which includes a scene from the film around the 1:50 mark.

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