It has been said of cinema that it is much lesser an art that it should be because it cannot afford the unpredictable. Therefore it seeks the security of successfully established formulas (Encyclopaedia Britannica 904). This may be the reason why Korean films, like most Asian films, tend to focus on domestic issues. The most important part of Korean life is family, and Koreans are proud of their excellent relationship among family members. Members of the family are tied to each other by very strong bonds.
Over the years, however, the Korean family has undergone tremendous change in terms of structure and function. These changes in family structure and function are dramatically mirrored in Korean films. Korean films show viewers about how the Korean family has evolved over the last few years. In addition, Korean films reflect the rapid change that the structure and function of the Korean family is undergoing.
Value for Family
Family welfare is much more important to Koreans than individual needs (“South Korea – Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette”). This may be the reason why Korean families are called a ‘small society’. The action of each family member becomes a reflection of the rest of the family. Koreans put into mind that family is the most important group for themselves and for their country (“Korean Family”).
The Korean value for family is depicted in the film A Romantic Papa, a Korean film released in 1960. This is a story about an employee at an insurance company who is the head of a happy household which consists of his wife, two sons and three daughters. When his company began downsizing, however, he is forced into retirement. He does not tell his family about losing his job because of fear of disappointing them. His children learn the truth as they thought of a way of comforting their father.
A Romantic Papa is a film which depicts the traditional Korean family. The film also shows that the father holds supreme power in the family. When the protagonist loses his job, he does not tell his family because he does not want to disappoint them. This goes to show the great value that Koreans place over their families.
In an unconventional sort of way, the film also shows the father, who holds supreme power in the family, stepping down to relinquish his authority to the next generation. A Romantic Papa was adapted to the big screen from a popular radio drama. It was directed by Shin Sang-Okk and starred Choi Eun-Hee, Kim Jin-Kyu, Shin Seong-II, Kim Seung-Ho and Joo Jeung-Nyeo. (“100 Korean Films”).
Mr. Park, which was also released in 1960, is another Korean film which depicts the traditional Korean family. The film is about a man who has provided for his children by repairing charcoal fireplaces. He disapproves of the fact that his eldest child is dating a hoodlum. He is also unhappy that his younger daughter is dating her co-worker. He, however, bestows his blessing upon his son when he expresses the desire to marry. His eldest daughter runs away and his son asks his permission to work in Thailand after marriage. The film ends with him accepting the man his eldest child wants to marry while granting permission to his son to go to Thailand.
The film is Korea’s representative family melodrama. It reveals the conflict of values through the clash between the protagonist and his children. The film was directed by Kang Dae-Jin. It starred Kim Seung-Ho, Cho Mi-Ryeong, Kim Jin-Kyu and hwang Jeong-Sun. (“100 Korean Films”)
The Extended Family
The extended family was the social norm about 50 to 60 years ago in Korea (Bae). This is reflected in the film Festival which was released in Korea in 1996. Festival was directed by Im Kwon-Taek and stars Ahn Seong-Ki. A film about family, Festival is about a renowned writer who received word that his mother had passed away. The death of his mother elicited different emotional responses from various persons. As the funeral begins, so did conflict deepen among his family members. As the funeral progresses, their conflicts find gradual resolution.
Festival is about filial piety, a Confucian ideal that places the virtue of caring for one’s parents among all else. Filial piety connotes being good to the parents and to take care of them. It connotes engaging in good conduct towards parents and towards society so as to bring a good name to the parents and ancestors. It also means performing the duties of a job well to obtain the material means to support the parents.
The film The Birth of a Family also depicts extended family life. Released in 2006, the first part of the film is about Mi-ra and her trouble-making brother, Hyung-chul. After being discharged from the military, Hyung-chul goes missing. He comes back five years later with a middle-aged woman whom he introduces as his wife. Mi-ra allows them to stay with her at the family home until Mi-ra’s daughter Chae-hyun arrives and the three reach a breaking point.
The second part of the film concerns a young woman called Sun-kyung whose relationship with her estranged mother is aggravated by the mother’s relationship with a married man. Her mother dies of cancer, however, and Sun Kyung must care for her half-brother Gyeong-suk.
The third part of the film brings together the two story lines with the relationship of Chae-hyun and Gyeong-suk who is accepted in the end by Chae-hyun’s adopted family from the first part of the film (“The Birth of a Family”). The Birth of a Family was directed by Kim Tae-Yong. It starred Moon So-ri, Kong Hyo-jin, Jeong Yu-mi and Bong Tae-gyu.
Extended family is also portrayed in the 1998 film A Quiet Family. This is the story of a family who buys a hotel in the mountains. At first, no one comes to check in at the hotel but after a while a guest checks in and dies. Two more guests arrive and suffer that same predicament, and soon the bodies start piling up. This movie is a comedy but effectively portrays the modern extended family and their relationship to each other (“The Quiet Family”). The Quiet Family was directed by Ji-woon Kim and starred In-hwan Park and Mun-hee Na.
Single Parents, Divorce and Late Marriages
It is said that the economic crisis in the late 1990s was the catalyst in changing the Korean family structure in an essential way. Before this, concepts such as single parents, divorce, late marriage and having children at a later age were unheard of to most Koreans. Today, however, this is no longer the case (Bae). Mirroring the theme of being a single parent is the film Mother which is a Korean film released in 2010.
Mother is the story of a Hye-ja, a single mother who sells herbs and acupuncture treatments to support her mentally slow son. Her son, however, becomes involved in the murder of a schoolgirl and is thrown into jail. This is when Hye-ja’s quest to prove her son’s innocence begins (Harris). The film shows the hardships and difficulties of being a single parent and what a mother’s love can do for her beloved child. Mother was directed by Bong Joon-ho and starred Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin. The film stayed within the top 50 films on the United States box office.
Being a single parent is also depicted in the film A Family which was released in Korea in 2004. A Family is about the extraordinary love between a father and his daughter. Pickpocket Jeong-eun comes back home to a father and an eight-year old brother after being in prison for two years. Her father Joo-suk loves her dearly but does not know how to express it. The film A Family is about troubled relationships and conflict between family members, but above all, it is a story about family in these modern times (“A Family”).
A film that also depicts the hardships of being a single parent is The Way Home, a Korean film that was released in 2002. The Way Home is the story of a spoiled city boy whose single mother ships him off to his grandmother in a rural town. The grandmother is a hunchback and a mute who works hard without complaining. The boy disrespects his grandmother at first but learns a lesson about love and selflessness after seeing all the sacrifices she made for him.
The film is a drama about the healing power of love. The unconditional love the grandmother gives to the boy is something that he is not used to. This eventually softens him. He also begins to see the downside to his selfishness (“The Way Home”).
Single parenthood is also shown in Marathon, a 2005 film which deals with an autistic youth training to be a marathon runner. The story is primarily about the relationship between the boy and his mother. Because of his condition, his mother controls various aspects of his life in the name of ‘protection’. The film also tackles the realities of being mentally ill (“Marathon”).
Marathon became the runaway box office smash of 2005. The film marked the directorial debut of Jeong Yun-Cheol and starred Cho Seung-Woo and Kim Mi-Sook.
In 2007, the film Cherry Tomato tackled single parenthood by way of a grandfather caring for his granddaughter. When his son is released from prison and steals his savings and his bicycle-drawn cart is destroyed, he ends up trying to steal meat for his hungry granddaughter (“Cherry Tomato”). This film depicts the love a grandfather has for his granddaughter and the actions that he is capable of doing in the name of love. Cherry Tomato was directed by former television producer Jeong Yeong-bae and starred Sin Goo and Kim Hyang-ki.
Meanwhile, the theme of divorce is exemplified in the film The Marriage Life which is a film released in Korea in 1992. The Marriage Life is about a couple who gets married for love despite objection from their family and friends. Their married life seems successful at first until endlessly busy nights made conversation almost nonexistent. Their marriage then begins to suffer. Their clashes began to become intense that they finally resort to divorce (“100 Korean Films”). Marriage Life was directed by Kim Yui-seok and starred Choi Min-Su and Shim Hye-Jin.