Mise En Scène: The Sexiest Korean Commercial Ever?

It’s much easier to say than do, but it’s true: sexiness is an attitude. To whomever is responsible for the spate of “sexy dances” in the Korean media in 2009, the vast majority of which have been anything but, let me counter with this 2005 Mis en scène commercial featuring Ha Ji-won (하지원), whose smoldering gaze at Jo In-sung (조인성) has burned in my memory ever since:

Granted, perhaps you had to be there: something really is lost in the transition to your smaller computer screen. And apologies for the poor quality, but this is now the only copy of the 30-second version available that I am aware of. Still, it’s worth preserving, even if only for myself.

I didn’t realize just how much however, until I saw this alternate 16-second version. While this particular copy – again, the only one –  has better video quality, and is worth watching just for that reason, it ultimately falls flat because it lacks the build-up of the music:

By the way, it’s actually her gaze at 0:21 (or 0:09) that really did it for me in 2005, but I’m certainly warming to her long lingering one at the beginning. Meanwhile, like it or loathe it, can anyone suggest any more genuinely sexy Korean commercials, subtle or otherwise? Perhaps I should start a new series…

Update: This was part of a series of several with the couple, most of which you can find here or on Youtube. Considering how easy those were to find though, I was surprised and disappointed at how this one slipped through the net so to speak (no pun intended).

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The Alphabetization of Korean Women’s Body Types: Origins

(Update, 2013: See here and here for much more up to date posts on this topic, and for similar cases in English-speaking countries in the 1910s-1930s and 1940s.)

That the female body has occupied a central place in the Western cultural imagination hardly comes as news, says comparative literature writer Susan Suleiman. And while I lack knowledge of Korean counterparts to the historical examples in the visual arts, literature, and religion that she mentions, I don’t doubt that they exist.

But what to make of the recent Korean trend towards categorizing the female body and/or body parts into a plethora of different romanized “lines”? Where do they fit in?

It’s been easy enough to prove that they have become a pervasive feature of Korean popular culture; so much so, that many have acquired a life of their own, bearing little resemblance to the (idealized) women’s bodies they were first used to describe. But those earlier observations of mine were devoid of context, something which began troubling me once I paused to consider the source of the above article on the most recent manifestations of the trend, about Korean cosmetic surgeons classifying woman’s buttocks into four types. To be precise, it raised two questions, which I would appreciate readers’ help with.

The first is that is this trend of categorization qualitatively and/or quantitatively different to that which occurs in the Western media? As to the former, probably not: I need hardly point out the similar obsession with women’s bodies there, or that it also provides often impossible ideals to live up to. And however much English speakers may find Koreans’ romanization habit in this particular case both curious and amusing (and thereby memorable), arguably it merely reflects Koreans’ general obsession with English, grafted on to an interest in women’s body forms that is not dissimilar to that of the West. Indeed, even some native English sources are beginning to describe women’s bodies in terms of letters (see below), and while that failed to catch on, are they really different to describing women’s bodies in terms of bananas and hourglasses and so forth?

(Image sources: top; bottom. The results are from this 2005 study)

Forgive me for stating the obvious perhaps, and I mention all that not to exonerate the Korean media for the ways in which it warps and distorts women’s body images. Rather, that if I still feel that it does so more than its Western counterparts nevertheless (and I do), then that something more than my gut feeling is necessary to convince skeptics. And perhaps the difference simply lies in the much greater extent to which S-lines and V-lines and so forth are mentioned? After all, not for nothing do I describe them as a “pervasive feature of Korean popular culture.”

Unfortunately however, providing empirical proof of that is rather difficult, at least for a humble blogger. But I can provide indirect evidence in the meantime, which I would very grateful if any readers could add to.

The first is the source of the article on women’s buttocks I’ve translated at the end of this post. While it may not be obvious from the opening image, it’s actually on the front page of Focus, a free daily newspaper: the image on its left, not coincidentally an advertisement for a chair which supposedly shapes one’s buttocks, part of an accompanying cover.

To your average Westerner, I’d wager that this choice would immediately single out the newspaper as a tabloid—”Women have four kinds of ass! Read all about it!”—but I’ve been asking my 20-something students’ opinions of Focus and other newspapers over the past week, and only a minority considered it such. And why would they, considering that the article was also covered by numerous other news sources (see here, here, and here), including the authoritative Hanguk Kyeongjae, a business newspaper, and which even had a helpful graphic?

Ergo, the bar for tabloid journalism is rather lower in Korea, and this extends to mainstream Korean portal sites, about which I wrote the following in my last post:

Unlike their English counterparts, you have roughly a 50% chance of opening Naver, Daum, Nate, Yahoo!Korea and kr.msn.com to be greeted with headlines and thumbnail pictures about sex scandals, accidental exposures (no-chool;노출) of female celebrities, and/or crazed nude Westerners.

To which I should have added—of course—numerous thumbnail pictures of female celebrities’ S-lines, and also a warning to never look at any of the otherwise innocuous images in the “image gallery” at the bottom of Yahoo!Korea in particular, for if you do you’ll frequently be greeted with advertisements for videos of celebrities’ nipple-slips and so on alongside those birds, flowers, and interesting landscapes.

What’s more, if portal sites are fair game, is it any wonder that children are also encouraged to be concerned about their S-lines and so on? And don’t get me started on ubiquitous narrator models.

Finally, consider what Javabeans wrote on the subject, a blogger on Korean dramas who is a much more authoritative source on Korean television than I will ever be:

…while this [romanization] practice is seemingly frivolous on the surface, it actually belies much more pernicious trends in society at large, when you have celebrities vocally espousing their alphabet-lines and therefore actually objectifying themselves as a conglomeration of “perfect” body parts rather than as whole, genuine people. (my emphasis)

With that combination, something has finally clicked for me: why it is so difficult to find Korean language sources on sexism in the media, and on advertisements in particular? I’ve been looking on and off for years now, and while I accept (and would be more than happy to learn) that perhaps I’ve simply been using the wrong search terms and/or looking in the wrong places, that it is so difficult in the first place is surely telling. A solution though, is perhaps provided by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust – no, really – who had this to say about anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany:

A general problem in uncovering lost cultural axioms and cognitive orientations of societies since gone or transformed is that they are often not articulated as clearly, frequently, or loudly as their importance for the life of a given society and its individual members might suggest. In the words of one student of German attitudes during the Nazi period, “to be an anti-Semite in Hitler’s Germany was so commonplace as to go practically unnoticed.” Notions fundamental to the dominant worldview and operation of a society, precisely because they are taken for granted, often are not expressed in a manner commensurate with their prominence and significance or, when uttered, seen as worthy by others to be noted and recorded. (Vintage Books Edition, Feb. 1997; p.32)

Not lost or transformed, but equally obtuse to someone from another culture perhaps, and which I’m still only just starting to make a dent in.

But a good grounding for that would be the origins of Koreans’ obsession with romanizing women’s bodies, the second question the article raised for me. Or to be honest, an element of the subject I realized I’d paid little attention to when, serendipitously, Korean reader Chorahan provided this extremely informative comment on the subject on another post. With permission, I am happy to now place readers in her more than capable hands:

…I think the specifics of the alphabetization of Korean women are best approached in the context of the classification of women into certain rigid subtypes (read: simplified stereotypes) of women. The S-line and V-line are part of the ‘formula’ for the ‘pretty girl’ here, as are humongous pupils in big double-lidded eyes, cosmetically unaided pallor, bone-tight ligaments, etc. I would suggest that people here perpetuate this mind-boggling state of sheeple-ness precisely because this ‘formula’ serves as helpful, socially constructed and ordained criteria – with which to deduce the type of woman being dealt with, and to adjust manners to suit.

Manners are adjusted according to the woman’s ‘type’ because it is widely taken as a given that certain things can/cannot be said/thought about women depending on how they look (value-judgment wise). The socially ‘accepted’ or ‘conceivable’ scenario that follows any such encounter is rigidly stratified into according variations. My take on this phenomenon is that this is directly derived from a warped and popularized Confucian principle popularized in the Chosun dynasty called 정명론 (正名論), or literally ‘right name idea’, in which the ‘father should be fatherlike and the son sonlike etc.’ A beauty should be treated as a beauty, or a ‘talking flower’; an ugly girl can be laughed at/with (hence the ‘ugly’—or, as I like to put it, ‘uglified’—comedian typification.)

I’m a Korean girl and I’ve lived in Seoul nearly all my life, going through the average Korean educational system to enter the undergraduate level here. Inferring from the numerous social contexts in which I’ve encountered such blunt references to conventionally ugly/pretty features, I would venture the possibility that in originally familial, communal societies where everyone had to stick together whether they liked it or not, the ‘insult’ was not only an insult per se, but also employed as a form of veiled endearment. This is widely considered the ideal sort of 부담없는 (easygoing) interaction between two close individuals—dialogue employing insult as endearment, or ‘constructively realistic advice to help you in the real world’—and is often the most commonly resorted-to excuse for horrific verbal abuse. (Coloring vacuous praise according to these featural types is also just such a form of ordained interaction, considered honest and respectful and completely normal.)

I do not, however, think that this should simply be chalked up to individual stupidity on the part of people that blindly follow this line of thought/action—quite the contrary. I think it’s very telling that the homogenizing retardation of the populace in this regard is and has always been spearheaded by *the commercial/entertainment media sector,* which is—big surprise— notoriously homogenized/stereotyped! It has even resorted to homogenizing certain snapshots of stereotyped ‘diversity’ or ‘unconventionality’ in the form of teen idols that are held up on pedestals as somehow being harbingers of Korea’s ‘openness’ and ‘creativity of the youth’.

As a twenty-something Korean woman towards whom those commercials are directly marketed, I find all this very sad and disgusting and lame, and I am very troubled by the thought that people actually think Korean society is improving/ has improved in its bridging of (sexual or gender-based, if that’s your cup of tea, though I don’t think that’s all) dichotomies (if dichotomies are indeed criteria on which to issue any normative judgment.)

I think it is not people being stupid, but the other way around (stupid being people, or stupidity donning the guise of specific individual avatars): the root of the problem (of not seeing people for the people they are, and adjusting social perception/performance according to formulas hammered in by peer pressure since birth) is a sort of warped ‘commodification of human beings’ + ‘Confucian backwash’ that is only being exacerbated as people constantly look to external/ international solutions to symptoms that stem from an overlooked, simplified, but inherently endogenous disease that must be addressed within its own context.

I definitely think something fundamental has to give. This isn’t just an odd cultural quirk to cluck tongues over – this S-line, this V-line trope, this alphabetization of women just as much as the stereotyping of men – it’s seriously symptomatic of some skewed rift in the goodness and saneness and kindness of people here vs. the expressed, contorted manifestations of such potential strengths.

Not exactly concise, but this is my very understandably strong opinion regarding the topic of this post. But I’m no sociologist, so I wouldn’t know.

p.s. In first paragraph—sorry, this could be misunderstood, i don’t propose any normative suggestion—I’m suggesting as an explanation that people ‘are perpetuating’ etc. (end)

Despite all that context however, one still shudders at the thought that the following was the first thing millions of Koreans read one November morning:

Korean Women Have 4 Types of Buttocks

The results of a survey about the different types of Korean women’s buttocks have just been released.

Baram (wind) Cosmetic Surgery Clinic, which focuses on operations on the body rather than the face, performed operations on the lower bodies of 137 female patients in 2008-2009. An analysis of their different types of buttocks was performed, and the results released on the 23rd of November. All in all, Korean women have 4 types: “A”, “ㅁ,” “Round,” and “Asymmetrical/Imbalanced.”

According to the team of doctors there, women with type A have a lot of accumulated fat in their thighs, making buttocks look big and their legs short, and those with type ㅁ, a lot of accumulated fat in their thighs and around their waists, making their hips look relatively narrow. Both comprise 47% of Korean women each. On the other hand, those with relatively smooth and curved hips and buttocks have a Round type, and those with an asymmetrical or imbalanced pelvis have an asymmetrical or imbalanced type, compromising 4% and 2% of Korean women respectively.

As the doctors explain, even though Korean women’s bodies are Westernizing, Korean women still have these 4 East-Asian types of buttocks.  According to the doctor in charge of this study, Hong Yun-gi, “because Korean women’s buttocks don’t have much volume at the top, but have a lot of accumulated fat at the bottom, they look a little droopy” and so overall “their buttocks look boring overall, and their legs short.” (end)

No, the extrapolation from 137 cosmetic surgery patients to all Korean women was not a mistranslation I’m afraid. And I beg to differ on Korean women’s buttocks looking boring also, but that discussion is probably best avoided. Instead consider, first, Jezebel’s take on “the ridiculousness of dressing for your shape,” many guides to which came up as I researched this post, especially this one from The Daily Mail, a UK tabloid. Next, another case of Korean romanization gone mad that I originally planned to look at alongside the above, albeit of women’s dresses rather than their bodies per se:

And finally, literally the very first thing that came to mind when I saw the Korean article on women’s buttocks: the following picture from a post on male objectification from Sociological Images, because I wondered if men’s buttocks would ever similarly be categorized. But given that a page exists on Wikipedia for “female body shape” for instance, but not on male’s, then I suspect not in the near future.

On a side note, and not that I want to repeat the experience anytime soon, but searching for images of Korean men’s buttocks instead proved impossible, at least on Korean portal sites. But perhaps again…*cough*…I’m not looking in the right places?

Korean Sociological Image #27: What, Koreans Can Do The Love Shake Too?

Something that manages to combine both the best and the worst of the Korean media.

Go to the Korean portal site Nate at the moment, and you’ll see a small advertisement with an old VW Beetle on it with the words “흔들리는 자동차 안에선 무슨일이?” or “What is happening inside the shaking car?”. And if you’re using Internet Explorer – this is Korea after all – then it will invite you to move your cursor over it. If you do, then the screen above will pop up, with the following commercial:

The good point about the commercial is the joke about having sex in a car…and just a few days after I wrote that you never see that sort of thing in the Korean media too; hopefully, this shows how much attitudes are changing. Not that there wasn’t already a great deal of sexual innuendo and increasing amounts of skin in the Korean media of course, but the latter especially is by no means a reflection of open and healthy attitudes to sex per se.

If any readers can think of any similar references to sex in the media before it though, then I’d be happy to be proved wrong. And if you do, then I’d wager that you too first found them on a mainstream Korean portal site. Unlike their English-language counterparts, you have roughly a 50% chance of opening Naver, Daum, Nate, Yahoo!Korea and kr.msn.com to be greeted with headlines and thumbnail pictures about sex scandals, accidental exposures (no-chool;노출) of female celebrities, and/or crazed nude Westerners. Which brings me to the commercial’s bad point.

I first saw this advertisement on a work computer during a break this afternoon, already thinking of writing about it here as soon as I saw the shaking car (and as a side-benefit, it meant I could put off the translation for the post I originally planned!).  But when I saw who the occupants were I was simply floored. For in a supreme irony, just two minutes earlier I had been doing a free-talking activity with my students about national stereotypes.

Don’t believe me? Sure, I admit I’m not averse to embellishing details for a good story on occasion. But I really had been doing page 22-23 of my edition of Taboos and Issues with them (which I highly recommend by the way, and I was surprised that my students shared many of my stereotypes about European nationalities). And regardless, I would still have been sat there thinking why, oh why, did the second couple have to be Westerners?

Now, I’ve already written a great deal about how many Koreans have stereotypes of Westerners as being much more sexually liberal and promiscuous than Koreans (especially women), so I won’t rehash that here. And of course there’s a certain element of truth in that (most Koreans live with their parents remember), and it’s not meant entirely negatively and/or without a sense of envy either, although I have heard from some Western female friends that it can lead to some Korean men expecting guaranteed sex on a first date, and so on. Examples like this commercial though, demonstrate why that stereotype is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Against that, I grant that it appears to have been filmed in a Western city, and that if you watch the video to its conclusion, then you see the Korean couple deciding to get wholeheartedly into the “Love Shake”™ too. But to which I reply a) Why not a Korean city? and b) wouldn’t the Korean couple have appeared more confident and prouder of their nationality if, instead of the Westerners, it had been them in the shaking car, with the Westerners later copying them?

Seriously, how to explain not having either without some serious Occidentalism going on, of which artificial sexual dichotomies have always been a core component? I’m open to suggestions.

Update: On a side note, I know little about the actors Seo Woo (서우) and Im Joo-hwan (임주환) sorry (see Dramabeans for more information on both), but I can confirm that this innocent(ish) looking image of Seo Woo is consistent with her role in both Tamna the Island (탐나는도다), ironically groundbreaking in that it featured a romance between a Korean woman and a foreign male (I think – I only watched the first few episodes sorry), and also Paju (파주; see #7 here)…or at least consistent with the way it was advertised. I just mention that because many Korean celebrities appear in so many commercials that their brand easily gets diluted so to speak, so I couldn’t help but notice that she doesn’t appear to be making the same mistake.

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here)

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Lusting After Teenagers…or the Maturing of Women’s Fan Culture?

Update, September 2013: My original commentary on this article became outdated, so I’ve since removed it. Instead, please see here, here, here, and here for more on the controversial “uncle” or “ajosshi” fandom of teen girl-group members, and here for more on why middle-aged women came to dominate soccer fandom back in 2002 — an important precursor to their fandom of pop stars and actors described here.

Middle-aged People are Head Over Heels about Young Idols

Fan Culture is Changing

#1. Mr. Kim (46), a department manager of a medium-sized business, knows the names and personalities of all 9 members of Girls’ Generation. He thinks that the Wondergirls and 2NE1 do not even come close in terms of purity and class. He dismisses accusations of having a Lolita complex, and says that watching the girls of Girls’ Generation, who are about the same age as his daughter, give him a feeling of life and vitality.

#2. Film company CEO Mrs. Kim (39), suffered severe depression after her movie did extremely badly 2 years ago. But she was able to recover because of her interest in male idol groups, and when she analyzes the charms of members of 2PM, or discusses the potential for the new group MBLAQ, she is indistinguishable from an expert in the music industry. Her dream is to make a movie like Attack on the Pin-up Boys (2007) that Super Junior starred in.

Middle-aged People Are Actively Participating in Fan Clubs

As the name implies, “older brother” fan club members used to be mainly teenagers, but this is no longer the case. But as active consumers of culture, middle-aged women passionate about flower men‘ and middle-aged men heavily into girl groups are actively changing fan culture.

For instance, on flower man Lee Min-ho’s fan club “Dave,” there is an “older sister” section for 30-50 year old women to exchange information about their star, and when there are fan meetings with him they make up over 80% of the audience. And whenever SS501 [James: if you don’t want to show your age, say “double-ess” rather than “ess-ess”!)] have a concert in Korea or attend some event in their region, their middle-aged female fans prepare packed lunches with healthy foods such as red ginseng for them.

(Source)

And whenever there is an event featuring Rain, his middle-aged female fans call the media and request favorable coverage. Before the release of his first Hollywood movie Ninja Assassin (2009), they even delivered rice-cakes to them, a symbol of good luck for a new venture.

Indeed, it has become quite normal for there to be fan clubs that only allow those older than the flower men themselves to join. And this is true for male-only fan clubs for female idols too. In the Girls’ Generation’s “Girls’ Generation’s Party” and the Wondergirls’ “Wonderful” fan clubs for instance, middle-aged men have regular virtual meetings where they exchange opinions about how the groups can progress and thoroughly how they can celebrate group anniversaries and birthdays and so on.

A New Fan Culture is Actively Forming

Many people have dim views of middle-aged men and women who don’t act their age, dismissing them as merely chasing after their lost youth. But an alternate view is that this demographic shift in membership is an inevitable change.

Professor Tak Hyeon-min, on sabbatical in the Cultural Contents Department of Hanyang University, said “People of the 386 Generation, who have finally established their own unique culture, are used to actively absorbing new things,” and that “from their 20s until now, they have demonstrated that they are the biggest consumers and purchasers of cultural products.”

Also, “members of this generation are stuck with heavy family, home, and/or social responsibilities, so as a means of escapism and renewing themselves, they have created a middle-aged fandom in a sense, fundamentally changing Korean fan-club culture in the process.” (end)

This Little Piggy Went to Kindergarten…

( Source: All Size Wallpapers )

Apologies for the 6-day hiatus everyone: my 3 year-old daughter Alice caught Swine Flu from someone in her kindergarten earlier last week, then my 1 year-old daughter Elizabeth from her, then my wife. Frankly, I’m amazed that I haven’t caught it myself yet.

Testament to my eating a clove of garlic everyday since November? Who needed friends anyway…

Seriously though, naturally I was a little worried when I first heard the news about Alice on Monday, and especially Elizabeth on Wednesday, small for her age. But fortunately all 3 are almost better (my daughters were put on Tamiflu), although Elizabeth is still coughing a little.

Meanwhile, now that things have settled at home, I’m able to concentrate on catching up with writing posts and responding comments and emails and so on. That will take a lot of work though, so I’ve decided to skip adding more by forgoing this week’s open thread sorry. Merry Christmas until the next one on the 26th though!^^

p.s. For those of you wondering when my Korean Gender Reader posts will restart, apologies for the delays, and that will be on Monday the 4th!

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Open Thread #2

( Source: Jeong-in )

Some graffiti-art for your enjoyment this week, as I rarely see any in Korea (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing). Now that I look at it more closely though, I’m not entirely certain if it is actually Korean? There are no details at the Korean photography blog I got it from unfortunately.

Meanwhile, I received the following email from reader Jackie earlier this week, which I’ll let speak for itself. If you would like to help her but don’t want to provide details publicly here, then please contact her at jackieee.kim@gmail.com:

“I am a junior sociology major who is hoping to go to Korea this summer to either research with a professor or work for a nonprofit organization. I am contacting you to ask if there were any organizations or people you could direct me towards or connect me with. I’m interested in working in the areas of cultural  exchange, community development, race & ethnicity, gender inequality, or children & youth. I’ve been searching for people and places on my own, but my Korean is only conversational at best and I do not have very many connections so have not had much luck. I will be applying for a summer grant from my school, so I would not need funding. I would really appreciate any help or advice you could give me. Thank you.”

Have a nice weekend everyone!

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(NSFW) Korean Movie Review #2: Samaritan Girl/Samaria (2004)

( Source: Naver Movies )

To my surprise, there can actually be some advantages to being a fledgling movie reviewer.

For instance, lacking the knowledge of experts, I can drop all pretense of objectivity. And indeed, my long-held preconceptions of this movie did have a profound effect on my ultimate enjoyment of it.

Also, only having seen one other of director Kim Ki-duk’s (김기덕) earlier works in passing – The Isle (2000) –  then I am in no position to analyze Samaritan Girl/Samaria (사마라아) in the context of his movies as a whole.

Well of course, I hear you say. But this is more important than it may at first appear.

This is because of the plethora of reviews already available, I have noticed that positive ones tend to include extensive references to Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003) in particular, while negative ones are more likely to analyze the movie in isolation. Not exclusively of course, but the division is noticeable. Rather than implying a potential forest for the trees phenomenon here though, I mention it because I have also heard Kim’s movies are very hit and miss, and hence that your opinion of them can be heavily affected by which film you watch first.

And therein lies the problem, for much about Samartian Girl is vague, confused and/or simply incomprehensible, and not in the positive sense that this encourages you to engage more with the movie in order to fill in the blanks. And while I strongly suspect that watching his earlier movies would clarify a great deal, by itself this movie would not encourage most viewers to do so.

( Source: Naver Movies )

In fairness though, I did set myself up for being disappointed.

I first heard of it two years ago, via a newspaper article I translated about how 3 in 10 internet dating sites were being used to arrange teenage prostitution. While I haven’t really pursued the subject since, deferring to the excellent work done by Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling on it instead, the post was picked up by Shinsano at the East Windup Chronicle (as well as by Matt himself), and the back and forth I had with him there gave me the impression that Kim was a much-needed Korean social critic, welcome overseas but ostracized at home because of his constant airing of Korea’s dirty laundry.

That image of him is by no means incorrect. But despite not having seen it, somehow it also inflated the quality of the movie in my mind over the next two years, especially as the blog came to acquire its present focus. Suffice to say that by the time I finally began to watch it last week, I fully expected a fierce and piercing critique of the teenage prostitution industry here.

But just the marketing of the movie itself should have given me pause.

Consider the two promotional posters above from 2004, featuring Kwak Ji-min (곽지민) and Han Yeo-reum (한려름) respectively. Never mind that Kwak is topless, and as a minor when the picture was taken, meant that it was technically illegal; as this case with a 14 year-old in January and this case with an 18 year-old earlier this month demonstrate, the Korean authorities still seem strangely reluctant to prosecute this sort of thing. Rather, the point is that far from discouraging one from having sex with minors, both posters seem to be positively encouraging it.

True, as author of this blog, I can hardly fault someone for using such images for the sake of popularity, even if they send mixed messages. Also, at risk of sounding hypocritical, I’m not going to feign outrage at topless photos of someone just a few months shy of the legal age to pose for them either. But I do have my limits:

( Source: Celebrity Movie Archive )

This is the second of two bathhouse scenes in the movie, at just 6 minutes and 16 minutes into it respectively. Neither is entirely pointless: the implied lesbian relationship is central to understanding why Kwak Ji-min, pimping for Han Yeo-reum as they save money for permanently escaping to Europe, clearly becomes distressed when Han shows signs of enjoying her work, in particular becoming attached to one of her clients, a music composer. Derek Elly at Variety also notes that:

Wisely, Kim has opted not to show the sex scenes [with clients], and there’s tenderness (with gently lyrical music) in those sequences sketching the girls’ friendship — playing in a park together, or bonding in a Korean-style bathhouse.

Apparently so much tenderness though, that it put blinders on this unnamed reviewer at Asian Film Reviews:

There is minimal nudity in this movie, which is surprising considering the subject matter. The lack of nudity preserves the girls’ innocence and reinforces the integrity of the movie. If Samaritan Girl featured explicit sex, it would seem trashy and the message would be lost in all of the excess. Instead, this movie is a tender, touching story about shattered dreams and lost innocence.

TR at TimeOut London puts it rather differently however:

The actual paedophile sex is kept offscreen, but Kim’s enraptured gaze at the two naked girls washing each other in a public bath is as prurient as they come.

And while both scenes were certainly compelling viewing at the time, I was left wondering if it was really necessary to see them naked to appreciate their bond?

( Source: Naver Movies )

Probably not, and this adds a certain poignancy to what Adam Hartzel writes about Ki Ki-duk at KoreanFilm.org:

In tag-lining his Silver Berlin Bear award-winning film Samaritan Girl with the biblical reference, “He who is without sin, throw the first stone,” director Kim Ki-duk has allowed himself cover from critics. Such a tagline deflects any negative criticism before the critic has even criticized. It argues that only the critic who is without criticism themselves should throw damning words at Kim’s film, otherwise, the critic should remain silent. And who among us is without “sin”, hypocrites that we all are? Such underscores the marketing acumen, if not directorial skill, of Kim, a man who has quickly risen, justified or not, to become one of the most recognizable Korean directors throughout the world…

In combination with the posters then, those scenes were arguably far more for commercial reasons rather than the artistic ones Kim Ki-duk is better known for. While that does not make Samaritan Girl a bad movie in itself though, it does point to an emphasis on style over substance that plagues the entire movie, and after just 6 minutes into it to boot.

To a certain extent, this criticism is just personal taste. Friends that recommended Peppermint Candy to me for instance, only to be dismayed by my scathing review of it later, have since pointed out my preference seems to be for movies where everything is explained to viewers. That’s a fair assessment, and indeed my incomprehension at Kwak’s bizarre decision to sleep with all of Han’s former clients after her death, returning their money as some form of atonement (hence the title), means that I would have been unlikely to have ever warmed to Samaritan Girl. And in hindsight, being aware of that element of the plot is what put me off from watching it for two years too.

But I can still acknowledge the benefits of such an approach, and indeed to have provided more detail would probably have detracted from the haunting, slight surreal tone of the film, with occasional combinations of long, drawn-out, but otherwise compelling scenes and stunning cinematography that reminded a newbie like me of, well, the Italian movie Il conformista (1970). There is also a lot of symbolism and references to Christianity, redemption, and – most notably in my book – there is the decision by Kwak and one client to have a liaison on the riverbank in front of the National Assembly Building. A metaphor for something deeper perhaps? A thinly-veiled political message?

( Source: Naver Movies )

Alas, probably not. While it would be unfair of me to criticize Samaritan Girl for completely lacking the piercing critique of teenage prostitution I had projected onto it (albeit not unreasonably given Kim’s reputation),  I certainly didn’t expect the movie to almost glamorize it instead. But this is no exaggeration: with the exception of the composer Han became attached to, all of Kim’s clients treat her with (paternalistic) respect and kindness for instance (one can understand Han’s affection for them), most liasons take place in immaculate hotel rooms, and some immediately see the error of their ways after Kim surprises them by giving money back to them afterward.

There is no violence, no refusals to wear condoms, no STDs, no pregnancies and abortions, and apparently no impacts whatsoever on Kim herself, who someone manages to sleep with dozens of men in the afternoons despite being an otherwise ordinary middle-school student.

Indeed, the only unwelcome element in this fantasy is the police, first in the form of the officers raiding the hotel, forcing Han to jump to her death from a hotel window in order to escape, and later in Kim’s detective father Lee Eol (이얼), who discovers what she is doing but who chooses to confront Kim’s clients – in increasingly violent episodes – rather than confronting her.

Of course, Samaritan Girl does have some redeeming qualities. Kwak in particular seems to mature as an actor literally over the course of movie, and the tension between her and Lee – an excellent casting choice – that is the focus of the last third of the movie is both palpable and compelling. But both positive and negative reviews of the movie mention that Kim never quite manages a balance between surrealism and providing a convincing story, and even for those that don’t like to be spoon-fed all the details of a story like myself(!), there are simply too many gaps to make the necessary leaps of faith.

( Source: Naver Movies )

Instead of Samaritan Girl then, I heartily recommend You Are My Sunshine (2005) for an examination of the unsavory reality of the Korean prostitution industry, albeit only in passing. But I would appreciate any other suggestions.

Next review: My Wife is a Gangster (조폭 마느라; 2001).

(For all my Korean Movie Reviews, see here)

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