Reviewing the Aesthetic Sense of Korean Cinema through a Western Canvass

The cinema of Korea is a fascinating medium to understand the Hermit nation’s unique culture that developed in isolation over hundreds of years. Watching Korean cinema is an excellent learning exercise to appreciate the nuances of the country’s austere culture which in my observation, feels strangely familiar to Western sensibilities but at the same time, has a mystical allure rarely seen in these parts.

To further illustrate my observations about the visual appeal of Korean cinema, I will review two sample movies, “Seopyonjae” and “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring”. In doing so, I will explore a couple of themes common to both which I believe, represent the heart and soul of Korean visual aesthetics: melodrama and nostalgia.

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Taking the example of Seopyonjae, to say that it is a tear-jerker would be an understatement; the film literally haunts you with its melancholic appeal as it explores the lives of two singers who have been brought up in the Korean tradition of Pansori, a traditional musical art form.

The film is staged in the period following World War II where a man named Dong-Ho and a woman named Song-Hwa grow up with a Pansori teacher Yu-Bong who forces them to undergo deep pain and suffering in order to learn the art in its true essence. Yu-Bong believes that a true Pansori singer must experience grief and sorrow in order to perfect their talent.

Another facet of this film is about a decline of interest in traditional Korean values among people of South Korea, partially due to the brisk pace of Westernization that followed World War II. Clearly, for the latter half, the film harps back on nostalgic themes with the characters yearning to connect with their roots.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring is an allegorical tale that represents the core of Buddhist metaphysics: the values represented by the wheel of life, the cycle of life and death, the continuous slipping away of time. As the titular theme suggests, each season represents a phase in the life of a Buddhist monk – ranging between childhood, teen age, adulthood, middle years and old age.

The film depicts a beautiful, sentimental journey that begins with the lead character’s playful, childish innocence (Spring) where he is castigated by his Master for tormenting a snake, a frog and a fish. In his teenage years (Summer), he gives in to lust and against his Master’s wishes, decides to abandon his monastic existence to seek real pleasures of life.

As he turns to his thirtees (Fall), he murders his wife which drives him insane with guilt so he returns to his Master who chastises him for attempting suicide. In his middle years (Winter), he takes over the monastery following his Master’s death and receives a veiled woman who hands him over a baby. Finally, in his old age (as Spring returns), the monk is guiding the directional path of a fresh apprentice, thus, symbolizing the cycle of life.

Clearly, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring conveys the two discussed themes of Korean cinema: melodrama and nostalgia. Along with Seopyonjae, it is somewhat subtle in its depiction of tragic circumstances, but tries to be somewhat fatalistic in its conclusion; as if everything is pre-destined and human beings have no control over their lives.

Members of Western audience have a hard time trying to figure out how anyone could give up on their lives so easily, without putting so much of a struggle. The Korean movies make no attempt to depict the outer struggles: the real struggles lie inward.