Korean Movie Review #3: Paju (2009)

(Sources: left, right)

I’m not allowed to love this person?

Because you say I can’t, I want it all the more.

With posters like these, then you could be forgiven for thinking that Paju (파주) is about some forbidden, Lolita-like relationship between the 2 main characters. Indeed, add promotional photoshoots of Seo Woo (서우) and Lee Sun-gyun (이선균) necking, or Seo-woo perched expectantly on the side of a bed, then why wouldn’t anyone believe initial media reports that this is basically a tale of an “outrageous high-school student” who, with “a mix of innocent and provocative appeal”, falls in love with her older sister’s husband?

A deep and complex movie that actually features nothing of the sort, Paju (파주) is very much undermined by such prurient marketing, and leads the cynic in me to believe that was designed to counter its otherwise ponderous and depressing tone by titillating audiences. Add that Paju requires: numerous suspensions of disbelief; is often frustratingly vague; and ultimately doesn’t seem to go anywhere, then, despite its accolades, it’s not a movie I can easily recommend to anyone but the most dedicated Korean film buffs.

And yet despite myself, I still agree with reviewer Darcy Paquet that it is “without question, one of the best Korean films of 2009,″ for reasons I didn’t fully appreciate when I first saw it six months ago.

One of those reasons is that, with events unfolding in a sequence not unlike Pulp-Fiction (1994), Paju has a confusing patchwork of flashbacks and flash-forwards that defies recounting here. But while this was very frustrating at first however, the timeline of events does resolve itself in the end, and in the meantime it forces audiences to think for themselves for a change.

Also, although ostensibly about Joong-shik (Lee Sung-gyun), Paju is really about his relationships with three women: first, with Ja-young (played by Kim Bo-kyoung/김보경) eight years earlier, that ends with a harrowing incident involving her baby that sets the tone for the rest of the movie; next in his marriage to Eun-su (played by Shim Yi-young/심이영), whom we soon learn dies in a gas explosion in their shared home; and finally with his much younger sister-in-law Eun-mo (Seo-woo), the relationship which anchors the story. And in particular, these women’s roles (and the skill with which they are acted) are very much one of the strengths of the movie, and something that can be difficult to appreciate for those that aren’t very familiar with Korean cinema (like myself). For, as Elizabeth Kerr of The Hollywood Reporter explains, director Park Chan-ok (박찬옥):

…is able to do something many filmmakers can’t or won’t, and that’s draw a realistic picture of modern femininity that’s blessedly free of the stereotypes that make up movie women. There’s no shrieking or weeping from Eun-mo when she recalls the events that lead to her sister’s death; Eun-su’s reactions within her fragile marriage are empathetic; and Joong-shik’s first live-in lover Ja-young, doesn’t have any ulterior motives when she re-enters his life.


Nevertheless, it is also these relationships – or, rather, Joong-shik’s role in them – that are ultimately the movie’s undoing too. Because, constantly running away from her problems aside, if Eun-mo did indeed both have the hidden strengths and be as mature beyond her years as the movie suggests, then, despite Joong-shik’s fears, (spoilers begin) she would likely have been able to recover from learning that she accidentally caused her sister’s death. But this is moot: in one of Paju’s biggest plot holes, Eun-mo wouldn’t have needed to be told any details beyond the fact that Eun-su died in a gas explosion in their home (only Joong-shik knew how it was caused), and indeed she soon learns that through her own clandestine investigations anyway. Yet by telling her that Eun-su died in a hit-and-run instead, then, rather than protecting her, all it serves to do is lead her to believe that he’s hiding something.

When he professes towards the end that he’s loved her all along then, in fact only marrying Eun-su to be close to her, his apparent deception is the main reason she doesn’t reciprocate (the other, presumably, being how he used Eun-su). And the audience can hardly blame her: not only does his confession seem somewhat forced and awkward, he never expressing anything but platonic love for her previously, but it suddenly diminishes his character, rendering what at one point seemed to be a genuine closeness developing developing between him and Eun-mo into something much more calculated on his part.

But it does at least present us with an interesting enigma: why does he permanently sabotage any chances of them becoming lovers by refusing to tell the truth?


Granted, he doesn’t realize she already knows about the gas explosion. But still, he doesn’t actually ask why she rejects him, which is inexplicable considering how he feels about her. Why not?

One solution, I think, I discovered indirectly, by realizing what so bugged me about an unrelated observation by Darcy Paquet:

In part, it is the film’s willful obscurity that gives it its strength….Personally I liked that the story’s misunderstandings persist through to the end: this is not a film where all characters come around to accept the same interpretation of the events we have witnessed. Because each character carries a different understanding – and no character possesses complete knowledge of what happened – there is a layered complexity to the film’s emotions.

In short, I think this is a fundamental misreading of the obscurity’s purpose. Rather, it’s only really two characters that have different understandings of events, and, like I said, Joong-shik very much possesses enough knowledge to change Eun-mo’s. But he doesn’t because, soon in a jail cell falsely accused of Eun-su’s murder and/or insurance fraud, he readily acquiesces in his incarceration, seeing it as a sort of penance for either the accident with Ja-young’s baby and/or his (oft-stated) insincere social activism. And, in hindsight, this is something he’s been seeking ever since he arrived in the city of Paju, and this gives us a fresh perspective on other alternative motivations for his entering into a loveless marriage with Eun-su too.

Not only is he buoyed by the knowledge that he is protecting Eun-mo from anguish then (a noble sacrifice that reminded me of the ending to The Crying Game {1992}) (spoliers end), but, if you watch the following beautiful scene from Strange Days (1995), which I was very surprised and lucky to find on YouTube, then suddenly what he’s doing really does begin to make sense. Please indulge me for 96 seconds, taking special note of  what Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) says at 1:24:

Unlike Strange Days however, which showed Lenny Nero the ultimate futility of atonement, Paju suggests that therein lies Joong-shik’s salvation. And in that sense, Paju is so much closer to Crime and Punishment (1866) than it is Lolita (1955), and cinema goers in 2009 would have appreciated the movie all the more if its marketing had reflected that.

(For more Korean Movie Reviews, see here)


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:

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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)