Well, it’s been quite a summer for traveling. Lisbon, Munich, Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand, London and now I’m just back from two intense weeks of lecturing and consulting on 3-D film projects in South Korea. There I was the guest of Seoul’s Dankook University, which is running a program to explore 3-D Storytelling.
I’d never been to South Korea before and found it fascinating but also somewhat challenging. I often felt like an astronaut in a science fiction story, stranded on an alien planet. The language barrier is a huge mountain range that is very difficult for a Westerner to cross, and I can only imagine that it’s just as hard for Koreans to make their way in the U.S., outside of Korean enclaves like “Koreatown” in central Los Angeles. I would walk for four five blocks in the busy Gangnam district of Seoul without seeing a single American or European, and found that few shopkeepers, restaurant workers or taxi drivers spoke English at all, leading to some inconvenient misunderstandings.
While S. Korea is proud of its rich traditions, it’s also thoroughly modern, at least the parts I saw. Seoul is built up like downtown Los Angeles or Manhattan, but that same density of development is extended over a much larger area.
The film business in Korea is flourishing at the moment. I saw some wonderful films, including a Korean War movie that I really liked, English title “71: Into the Fire”. Directed by John H. Lee, it’s a kind of Alamo story about 71 ill-prepared student soldiers, holding a school against an enormous North Korean army, led by a charismatic, stylish general. All the actors were good, but I loved this actor the most. His name is Cha Seung-Won, a tall, slender guy exuding cool and wearing a dashing white uniform. He reminds me of early Lee Van Cleef. Apparently he is a top model in S. Korea and like other actors in the film, is part of a South Korean phenomenon known as K-pop. In recent years Korean rock stars, models and actors have become cool and very popular throughout Asia. Korean culture in general, with its unique mix of traditional and modern styles, is considered cool and interesting. 71: Into the Fire was cast with fan favorites from pop music and fashion, and like Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra in their day, they bring a lot of style and presence to the screen.
71: Into the Fire is representative of the new Korean cinema, which has successfully competed against Hollywood product in Asia with a strategy of adopting Hollywood style and polish but applying it to uniquely Korean subjects. It works, producing films that are quirky and original, but thoroughly enjoyable on the technical and artistic levels. 71: Into the Fire has battle scenes, stunts and explosions that would pass muster in a Spielberg movie, balanced by good cinematic storytelling and compelling characters.
Another S. Korean film I enjoyed was OLD BOY, directed by Park Chan-Wook. It’s a twisty thriller, working from a “Count of Monte Cristo” premise but with some daring touches and all the style of a Korean Tarantino movie.
The core of my work in Korea was to “talk story” with a small class of graduate students and film professionals, four hours a day for two weeks, Monday through Friday. About half of the students understood English fairly well and got what I was saying on the first round, but for the rest we had an interpreter who repeated each English sentence in Korean, and who translated into English the questions and comments of the students. As you can imagine this was time-consuming, meaning I could transmit about half as much information as normal in the given time. It required a great deal of concentration on everyone’s part.
But it seems to have gone over well. I felt that the students were ready for it and eager to hear both about standard Hollywood story concepts and the more mythical approach that is my stock in trade. My book (The Writer’s Journey) has been translated into Korean and so many of them knew about it but were interested in my recent thinking. I gave them a little preview of some material I will be presenting in my next book, “MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT: Secrets of Structure and Character” that I’ve just finished with my co-writer David McKenna, and that will be published in summer 2011. One of my chapters is about the traditions of “vaudeville”, a term none of the Korean students had heard before.
A few cultural tendencies became clear as I worked with some movie treatments the students had written. There is a strain of fatalism in S. Korean, or perhaps it’s more like being in love with a beautiful death. Many of the films I saw and many of the student projects ended in the death of the hero. I felt something that I had also noticed in Portugal this summer — a kind of sad but beautiful nostalgia for times past, and a resigned acceptance of inevitable change.
Compared to the U. S., Korean society gives higher priority to the group than to the individual. Family names are given first to emphasize that one’s family is more important than one’s personal name and identity. If people want to appear more Westernized and less traditional, they will sometimes turn their names around Western style, personal name first, on one side of their business card, while still giving it in traditional order on the Korean flip side of the card. Some who have traveled extensively in the West or who deal with foreigners a lot will make up more Western-sounding names for themselves. The director John H. Lee, who lived in the U. S. and went to the NYU film school, also has a traditional Korean name, Lee Jae-Han.
One of my guides told me that Koreans tend to describe things in a general way, as if thinking habitually in terms of the collective rather than in the language of specifics. I found I had to keep encouraging the students to add more personal details and specific adjectives to describe their characters. They tended to just give the character’s name without identifying any special characteristics at all. As a representative of Hollywood storytelling, which places high value on the individual, on one person’s ability to change his or her life and even change the world, I felt I needed to nudge them slightly towards a more personal style of film-making and thinking. This is assuming they will want their films to travel beyond the Korean market.
They seemed to find my wide-open Western style refreshing and grew quite emotional as the two weeks came to an end. On the last day I gave them my closing story of “Trust the Path” which always chokes me up and usually makes the audience tear up a little too. The students threw a nice party for me that evening, with a full traditional Korean feast, sitting on cushions on the restaurant floor, and barbecuing beef and pork over hot coals in pits embedded in the low tables.
I hope Korean film-makers will continue to express unique Korean themes. Their movies, with their inventive plots and unpredictable rhythms, are already being scrutinized as Hollywood remake material, and a few have made it into the art house circuits, but I’d like to see them reaching wider audiences around the world, without compromising their special Korean qualities. Perhaps a new generation of well-traveled film-makers like John H. Lee will be able to work easily in either Korean or English so we can more easily see and hear what this vibrant culture can produce.