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Complicated Currents

Chapter 13

REMAKING THE KOREAN ROMCOM

A CASE STUDY OF YEOPGIJEOGIN GEUNYEO AND MY SASSY GIRL

Jane Chi Hyun Park, University of Sydney

Dr. Jane Chi Hyun Park has a PhD in Radio-TV-Film from The University of Texas at Austin and an MA in English from the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on representations of race and ethnicity, particularly of East Asian peoples and cultures in film, television, popular music and new media. She has published articles in Global Media Journal and World Literature Today and book chapters in East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture edited by Shilpa Davé, LeiLani Nishime, and Tasha Oren (NYU Press 2004) and Mixed Race in Film and Television edited by Mary Beltrán and Camilla Fojas (NYU Press 2008). Her first book, Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2010), examines the ideological role of Asiatic imagery in US films from the 1980s to the present.

INTRODUCTION

In the past few years, the South Korean film industry has become one of the strongest in the world outside the United States and India, with local movies accounting for almost 50 per cent of overall ticket sales and often outperforming the biggest Hollywood blockbusters (Paquet 2005: 32–50). Its meteoric success has caught the attention of the US film industry as evidenced by the growing number of articles in trade journals, which have spotlighted Korean films and particularly studios’ acquisition of remake rights to domestic blockbusters such as My Wife is a Gangster (Jopok manura 2001), Oldboy (Oldeuboi 2003), The Host (Gwoemul 2006), The Chaser (Chugyeokja 2008), and many others.

This paper looks at a recent attempt to remake one of the most commercially successful and culturally influential of these contemporary movies: the romantic comedy Yeopgijeogin geunyeo (hereafter YG, distributed in the US under the title, My Sassy Girl), which was directed by Kwak Jae-young and released in Korea in 2001. The remake, also titled My Sassy Girl (hereafter MSG), went direct to DVD in the US in August 2008 and did poorly upon its theatrical release in Korea a few months later. I use MSG as a case study to think about moments in global flows of media culture when narratives do not resonate cross-culturally and what we might learn about globalization and its limits from such moments.

More specifically, I examine how MSG was unable to convert the ideological codes of love and courtship recognized and enjoyed by East Asian audiences to those preferred by Hollywood. I suggest that this (mis)translation may have been due to two related factors: first, the conditional consumption of East Asian cultures in the US through the filter of orientalist stereotypes, and second, the continued existence of cultural differences between Korea and the US with regard to notions of gender, sexuality, and love despite Korea’s rapid modernization since the 1960s. I discuss these factors through the lens of gender and genre, centering on the social dimensions of romance, melodrama, and comedy that constitute the romantic comedy genre, or ‘romcom’.

The paper is divided into two sections. The first section notes the ways in which Korean commercial films have attracted the attention of US producers and distributors. It then goes on to consider why combinations of historically masculinized genres such as the action, thriller, and horror have thus far been remade more often and more successfully than those utilizing historically feminized genres such as the romance, melodrama, and comedy. The second section highlights the cultural literacies that the romcom assumes of its audiences in Korea and the US through readings of YG and MSG, focusing on the following elements: narrative style and structure, development of the male and female protagonists, and depiction of the protagonists’ relationships with their families and friends. Along with pointing out formal and ideological connections between Korean and US films, my readings consider those moments when narrative aspects fail to translate in comprehensible or otherwise pleasurable ways. In so doing I hope to provide a kind of cultural barometer for assessing both the continued power of hegemonic US values and the potential challenge to that power posed by the global circulation of Korean popular culture.

‘COPYWOOD’, HOLLYWOOD, AND THE ROLE OF GENRE IN THE ‘REMAKE CRAZE’

As a number of film scholars have shown, the ways in which filmmakers in Asian countries such as Hong Kong, India, and Korea have drawn on and reworked the Hollywood blockbuster to appeal to local and regional histories and cultures, tastes and trends reveal that globalization is no longer (if it ever was) a purely Western-centred or driven phenomenon (Lau 2001; Berry 2003: 217–229; Desser 2003: 516–536; Kayoori and Punathambgekar 2008). I would like to take that observation a step further by considering how US remakes of Korean blockbusters further complicate the notion of global cultural flows as unilateral, or even for that matter, bilateral.

The first Korean movie to self-consciously model itself after the Hollywood blockbuster and market itself as such was the spy drama action thriller, Shiri, directed by Kang Je-gyu, which helped bring the film industry out of its longtime slump when it was released in 1999. The film grossed an estimated $27.5 million at theatres, broke the Korean box office record set by Titanic in 1997, and helped Korean films to take 35.8% of the domestic market that year (Shin and Stringer 2007: 57). While the film displayed traits associated with Hollywood movies such as an emphasis on spectacle and special effects, a memorable theme song, a tight, character-driven storyline, and of course, a big production budget, its theme centred on the uniquely Korean legacy of national division and desire for unification, a tension played out in the tragic ending when the espionage and romance plots converge. It was this combination of Hollywood style and Korean content that led Shiri to usher in a new era and style of commercial filmmaking, which Chi-yun Shin and Julian Stringer have dubbed the ‘new Korean cinema’ (Shin and Stringer 2005: 6).

Since the debut of Shiri, filmmakers have followed Kang’s lead, using the narrative and economic models of Hollywood to tell stories about Korean characters that resonate in Korea but ostensibly are flexible enough to make sense as potential US remakes without the Korean settings, themes, and ideologies. Also, like Hong Kong and Hollywood films, they blend many different genres to appeal to as many audiences as possible. Differently from their US and Hong Kong counterparts, however, generic diversity in the new Korean cinema often produces surprising, sometimes startling, narrative twists and outcomes, as David Diffrient and Darcy Paquet have discussed (Diffrient 2003: 60–71; Paquet 2000). All of these formal aspects, along with a well-organized system of film production, marketing and distribution, contribute to the appeal of Korean movies for US producers and distributors looking for fresh new story ideas. Both in and outside Korea, these so-called ‘Copywood’ movies have been critiqued as derivative of Hollywood and thus less representative of ‘authentic’ Korean culture than the art films of auteurs such as Im Kwon-taek and Lee Chang-dong. Yet this strategy makes practical sense given that the biggest market remains the local one, followed by Japan and France, and that the US is less interested in distributing Korean films – art house or commercial – than it is in remaking them for notoriously ethnocentric American viewers, most of whom will avoid reading subtitles.

In the wake of the highly successful Hollywood remakes The Ring (2002), based on the Japanese horror film Ringu (1998), and The Departed (2006), based on the Hong Kong thriller Mou gaan dou (2002), US producers and distributors have gone ‘remake crazy’, shopping for story ideas from other parts of the world, especially Asia and Latin America, to inject new life into the increasingly dull and predictable American film industry (Elley 2002; Rooney 2003; Chute 2005). As mentioned earlier, in the past decade, studios have bought the story rights for several Korean films and remade a few, including The Lake House (2006), based on Il Mare (Siworae 2000); The Uninvited (2009), based on A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon 2003); and Possession (2009), based on Addicted (Jungdok 2002). It is telling that thus far more movies emphasizing action and horror have been produced and are in development than those emphasizing romance and melodrama. For instance, the action thriller Oldboy, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Will Smith, will be released in 2010. Other high-profile remakes in the works are the monster movie The Host, directed by Fredrik Bond, also slated for release in 2010, and the psychological crime thriller, The Chaser, currently in development at Warner Bros. with Leonardo DiCaprio rumoured to play the lead.

Why is Hollywood so interested in remaking these violent, traditionally masculinized genres from Korea? According to Korean-American producer Roy Lee of Vertigo Entertainment, who has brokered most of the pan-Asian remake deals in Hollywood, action thrillers and horror films are simply more universal – and therefore, more easily adaptable – than others (Park 2008). Indeed, our visceral reactions to the highly visual, adrenaline-charged scenes that characterize these genres make up most of our viewing pleasure, and such embodied responses are shared, for the most part, across cultures. Due to their ability to appeal to a wide range of audiences, ‘high concept’ genres such as action, horror, fantasy, and science fiction unsurprisingly prove most successful at the US box office.

Another possible reason for Hollywood’s privileging of Asian action and horror films is that these are the primary genres associated with Asia in the US thanks to the exposure of American audiences to martial arts films, Hong Kong action movies, video games, and mecha manga and anime. As Julian Stringer notes, generic categories are used by film producers, critics, and fans not only to sell movies but also to give audiences aesthetic and cultural cues for ‘reading’ them (Stringer 2005: 96). According to Stringer, essentialist debates in Korea over film genre as representative of Korean national values or character (e.g. melodrama as more culturally authentic than comedy) become ‘quest[s] to secure subcultural capital’ when these films enter the global market (101). In their drive to make sense of this generically diverse body of Korean movies, Western critics regularly compare them to Hollywood and other well-known Asian films in the US. It would seem to follow from this that American producers are more enthusiastic to remake genres from Korea that are recognizable to US audiences, whether associated with Hollywood or, for example, Japan, China, and Hong Kong.

This situation might help explain why few melodramas, for instance, have been remade in Hollywood. While extremely popular in Asia, sentimental East Asian melodrama, romance, and comedy films have not been distributed in the US to the extent that slick Asian action, science fiction, and horror movies have, and thus remain less recognizable to American audiences. Although it is too soon to tell how the former genres will ultimately perform as Hollywood remakes, the reception of Korean romantic films that have been remade thus far suggests they will not fare so well. The melodramatic fantasy romance The Lake House enjoyed modest success at the box office thanks to the combined star power of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock but was critically panned for the most part. MSG, as noted earlier, did not make it to theatres, and My Wife is a Gangster, another hyped remake of a Korean action romcom, seems to be languishing in permanent development at Miramax after years of rumours that Queen Latifah would play the lead role.

The very reasons for Hollywood interest in Korean action, horror and thriller films give insight into its lack of interest in Korean romcoms. First, whereas the former genres have been consistent high performers at the box office, romantic comedies have not had the spotlight in Hollywood since the reign of the screwball subgenre in the 1930s. According to Tamar Jeffers McDonald, the contemporary romcom is ‘aware of its own impoverishment and exhaustion’ after its last coherent cycle in the 1990s, which was characterized by such ‘neo-traditional’ Nora Ephron films as When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and You’ve Got Mail (1998) (McDonald 2007: 106).

Second, as mentioned earlier, the Asian genres that have been privileged so far in the US – martial arts, horror, action, and fantasy – necessarily decontextualize and dehistoricize Asian characters, cultures, and places – a phenomenon I have elsewhere called ‘oriental style’ (Park forthcoming). In other words, if Hollywood audiences are not used to well-developed Asian characters who have deep and complex relationships with their families, friends, and co-workers, then romantic comedies and melodramas, which foreground such relationships, no matter how well done, may simply not be interesting to viewers who do not understand or have limited understanding of the histories, cultural codes, and social trends on which these social interactions draw.

Furthermore, one final and perhaps obvious reason for the lack of interest in the Korean romcom might be that the popular attitudes the genre reflects about gender and sexuality vary quite a bit cross-culturally. By looking at how ideas about love and romance in Korean romcoms fail to cross over to the US, I do not mean to suggest that these two cultures are reducible or irreconcilable. Instead, what I want to underscore is that conceptions and expectations of romantic love are always socially and historically constructed and thus understood, experienced, and performed differently in different cultures. More to the point, in the following readings of YG and MSG I want to suggest that looking at how romcoms from two different cultural contexts narrate the evolution of love relationships sheds interesting light on these differences.

YG AND MSG

YG was the second top grossing film in Korea in 2001, earning $26 million at the box office and drawing 1.76 million admissions (Kim 2002). The film was based on stories posted on the Internet in 1999 by recent engineering graduate Kim Ho-sik, describing his experiences with his ex-girlfriend (Kang 2008: 43). It traces an offbeat romance between college student Gyeon-woo (Gyeonu) and the attractive but violent object of his affections: the unnamed Girl (Jeon Ji-hyeon) who has a strong penchant for drinking and bullying. One of the primary representatives of the hallyu trend that began to sweep East and Southeast Asia from the late 1990s, YG also did well regionally, grossing $1.67 million in Hong Kong in 2002 and $4.2 million in Japan during a limited release in 2003 (Kan 2002; Paquet 2006). The film subsequently spawned a huge fan base, leading to a so-called ‘yeopgi’ craze in Korea as well as other East Asian countries such as China where the aggressive flirting style of the female protagonist became a popular trend amongst young female viewers (Wang and Ho 2007: 623–638). Yeopgi literally means ‘weird’, ‘novelty-seeking’, and even ‘delinquent’, but in recent usage has come to signify cool transgressiveness (Kang 2008: 75–76).

Along with drawing on Hollywood romcom and teen films, the film is part of a cycle of so-called ‘femme antiheroines’, or ‘female stereotype-breaking characters’, appearing in a number of coeval Korean films such as Take Care of My Cat (Goyangi-reul butakhae), Kiss Me Much (Besame mucho), and One Fine Spring Day (Bomnal-eun ganda), and the aforementioned My Wife is a Gangster, which were all released to commercial and/or critical acclaim in 2001 (Kim 2001). These films showcase strong, complex, and often contradictory female protagonists who reverse and/or critique traditional representations of Korean women as either socially and sexually transgressive figures that must be punished, passive victims in need of rescue, or marginal narrative devices used to cement central male homosocial relationships.

In sharp contrast, men in the abovementioned movies play peripheral roles, either as backdrop or as emasculated partners who are younger and/or occupy lower social positions than their more powerful female lovers. Similarly, MSG provides an image of a strong female protagonist, albeit from the perspective of her male lover. Describing the film as ‘an offbeat romantic comedy of manners between a mother-dominated twentysomething and a weird, self-centred girl he falls for in the subway’, Variety columnist Derek Elley commented that the movie seemed ‘unlikely to make much impression beyond East Asia but [would] be appreciated by anyone with a broad interest in current Korean cinema’ (Elley 2001). Remaking a film with so much Asian ‘cultural odour’ (to use Koichi Iwabuchi’s term) in the US, would require not only some understanding of contemporary Korean youth culture, but even more importantly, a good idea of which aspects of this culture would appeal (and not appeal) to American audiences.

Dreamworks seemed to have found a promising strategy when, after buying the story rights from Shin Cine for $750,000 in 2002, it signed British Indian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha to direct, and executives from Madonna’s production company, Maverick and Vertigo Entertainment (well-known for brokering Asian remakes) to produce. At the time Chadha was receiving critical acclaim for her crossover hit Bend it Like Beckham (2002), and appeared to be an outstanding candidate to direct the remake, given her focus on strong female characters and sensitivity to cultural difference (Nechak 2005). Three years later, however, Gold Circle bought the remake rights from Dreamworks, Chadha dropped out of the project, and rookie French filmmaker Yann Samuell was signed to direct (McClintock and Laporte 2005). Samuell had just directed Jeux d’Enfants (2003), also a screwball romcom involving violent displays of affection (Gardner 2006). Vic Levin began adapting the screenplay, and young rising stars Jesse Bradford (Flags of Our Fathers 2006) and Elisha Cuthbert (The Girl Next Door 2004) signed on to play the lead roles. MSG eventually was released direct to DVD in the US in August 2008, with very little mention in the trades or major newspapers. It opened in theatres in Seoul in late October, with box office takings far below the top ten movies (Han 2008).

NARRATIVE AND CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

As Kyoung-Lae Kang points out, production company Shin Cine’s clever marketing of YG toward the teen to mid-twenties target audience, which made up the large existing fan base for Kim’s Internet novel, played a key role in its runaway success in Korea and the rest of East Asia (Kang 2008: 43–45). The movie makes self-reflexive allusions to intertextual links between the extradiegetic and diegetic narratives – i.e. between the novel and the film and between author Kim Ho-sik and character-turned-author Gyeon-woo – which are clearly aimed not only at Kim’s fan base, but also the early twenties demographic depicted in the film. These allusions are dropped in MSG since the target US audience is not assumed to be familiar with the Korean novel or, for that matter, the Korean movie on which it is based. Although the remake features university students in their early twenties falling in love through almost identical plot devices, because cultural norms, expectations, and attitudes differ significantly in the two countries, what elicits laughs and identification in YG often appears odd, puzzling, or simply implausible in MSG. In the remainder of the paper, I will discuss examples of these variations, especially regarding gender, sexual, and family dynamics, in a few key scenes.

CONSTRUCTIONS OF MASCULINITY: MOTHERS, FATHERS, CAREER GOALS

Both movies open with a flashback at a tree where a year previously the lovers had buried time capsules containing letters expressing their feelings for each other. Through voiceover, after the male protagonist (Gyeon-woo in YG, Charlie in MSG) introduces himself through a comic montage of his childhood, he begins narrating the story of how he met the female protagonist (The Girl in YG, Jordan in MSG). Differences in how the two films construct these characters and the sort of masculinity they represent become immediately apparent in these montages.

Gyeon-woo’s montage follows a short scene in which he is having his professional photo taken for employment purposes. While the photographer is taking the picture, Gyeon-woo’s paternal aunt calls on his mobile phone. After politely telling her he will call her back, Gyeon-woo recounts his childhood through a series of baby pictures in which he is dressed in a female hanbok and crying. We learn that his mother had dressed him as a girl until he was seven because his parents had wanted a daughter. Shortly thereafter, we see Gyeon-woo as a twenty-something back from military service, drinking with his friends and checking out girls from the restaurant window. His mother calls, loudly reprimanding him for not returning his aunt’s call. From the phone conversation, we learn that Gyeon-woo strongly resembles his aunt’s dead son, and that the aunt is eager to set him up with a girl. The would-be family matchmaking, facilitated by the aunt and encouraged by the mother, is repeated at the end of the film and ironically serves to reunite the lovers. We learn that The Girl is precisely the girl he would have met earlier through his aunt.

The initial montage is noteworthy primarily for two reasons. First, the photos of Gyeon-woo as a baby boy in drag clearly feminize him, playing up the ‘mama’s boy’ aspect of Korean masculinity and foreshadowing his emasculating relationship with The Girl. Second, it reverses the traditional notion of Korean women wanting and favouring sons over daughters. Unlike American men whose masculinity depends on not being perceived as ‘mama’s boys’, Korean men generally have close relationships with their mothers, due to a neo-Confucian family structure in which women have traditionally been expected to sacrifice everything for their children, especially sons. Gyeon-woo is (re)masculated at the end of the film when he enters the workforce and contains The Girl in a proper relationship recognized by their families and headed for marriage.

Tellingly, however, Gyeon-woo is only able to achieve these goals through the aid of his mother and the mother-figures played by The Girl and his aunt. Gyeon-woo’s mother, whom we never see in close-up, seems to run the household, loudly scolding and beating him when he sneaks home after his misadventures with The Girl. His father appears only once, to make sure that Gyeon-woo is doing his homework instead of looking at Internet porn, and rather than a disciplinarian, he comes across as a meek co-conspirator likewise living under the whip of the mother. Similarly, The Girl’s father, while playing the role of the patriarch, is drunk both times he appears (when he meets Gyeon-woo and forbids him from seeing his daughter) and is accompanied by his wife, who discreetly tells him what to say. As I will discuss shortly, Gyeon-woo’s career as Internet author and screenwriter (modeled after Kim Ho-sik) is directly indebted to and enabled by his experiences with The Girl. Also, as her mother does with her father, The Girl continually tells Gyeon-woo what to do, and, like Gyeon-woo’s mother with her son and husband, she expresses her ‘tough love’ through what seems on the surface to be mental and physical abuse. Finally, the aunt serves as an alternate mother-figure for Gyeon-woo when she introduces him to The Girl as a substitute for his cousin, who coincidentally turns out to be The Girl’s ex-boyfriend.

Conversely, the mother and mother-figures play little to no role at all in MSG with respect to Charlie’s masculinity. His montage is a cartoonish film, which caricatures his growing up in the American Midwest, known for its politeness and ‘family values’. We learn that Charlie’s father has faithfully worked for Tiller King, the largest employer in their small town, all of his life, and his parents’ biggest dream is for their son to become a middle manager at the company. Charlie moves to New York, the first person in his family to attend college, in an attempt to realize that dream. The humour of this montage derives from the familiar Hollywood trope (presented self-reflexively here) of the innocent working-class boy from a wholesome small town moving to the dangerous big city. Unlike Gyeon-woo’s mother, Charlie’s mother functions simply as an extension of the father, whose example his son is expected to follow and surpass (and is embodied in the embarrassingly parochial Tiller King representative he meets later in New York). Significantly, both parents only appear in the montage. Also, while MSG uses the plot device of the aunt and dead cousin to reunite the lovers in the end, we never learn how the aunt is connected to Charlie’s parents, what brought her to New York, and why she occupies a very different (upper) class position. Meanwhile, the film makes no mention of Jordan’s mother, and her father is painted as a tyrant, continually forbidding Charlie from seeing his daughter without ever asking him about himself or his plans for the future (as does The Girl’s father with Gyeon-woo).

Thus the characteristics of the male protagonists’ masculinity (or lack thereof) that drive the humour are quite different. In MSG, the comedy derives from Charlie putting up with not just Jordan’s abuse (which is much tamer than The Girl’s) but, perhaps more astonishingly for American audiences, her insistence on keeping the relationship chaste. Meanwhile, in YG the comedy derives from Gyeon-woo’s obvious emasculation by The Girl, and sexually suggestive situations that are funny because of their innocence. The shift from comedy to melodrama, from laughter to tears occurs when the lovers break up and enter a trial separation period. In both films this separation is brought on by parental rejection of the male protagonist and the emotional confusion of the female protagonist (who feels guilty for falling in love with someone who so strongly resembles her dead ex-boyfriend). It is interesting to note, however, that when the lovers are reunited (presumably through fate), the Korean male protagonist has evolved from aimless university student to professional screenwriter, unwittingly meeting his family’s expectations. In contrast, the American male protagonist has transformed from motivated student to slacker who, in declining a management job at Tiller King, renounces the future his family had envisioned.

CONSTRUCTIONS OF FEMININITY: SEX AND VIOLENCE, ALCOHOL AND MOVIES

Meanwhile, the ‘sassy’ female protagonists in each film follow a similar developmental trajectory, from uncontrolled and uncontrollable girls who repeatedly, sadistically test their devoted, castrated suitors to mature, self-disciplined young women who happily settle into serious, long-term relationships. As in most romcoms, their power decreases as that of their partners increases. Neither is shown with female friends or as having a close relationship with her mother. Jordan lacks a mother, and The Girl is aligned more with her father than her mother, mostly through their shared propensity for drinking and passing out. The only woman with whom the female characters bond is the matchmaking aunt, who functions both as mother-figure and a potential mother-in-law representing the patrilineal family.

This formula follows the ideology of the romcom, in which female protagonists are ultimately defined by and through their relationships with men. Put simply, the female protagonists in YG and MSG are introduced as ‘unruly’ young women in the first, comedic section of the film, which segues into the melodramatic break-up and separation period during which the female characters are humanized (read: feminized through tears and revelation of vulnerability) so that they can be contained as good wives and future mothers at the end. As Kathleen Rowe notes, this shift from the playful pre-oedipal or semiotic stage (characterized by carnivalesque attitudes and behaviour) to the mature oedipal or symbolic stage (characterized by the law of the father, or patriarchy) also follows a generic shift from comedy as social and gender transgression (courtship) to melodrama (separation) back to comedy as restoration of social order and reproduction of family/community (reunion) (Rowe 1995: 40–42).

In addition to aggressive, unfeminine behaviour, chronic drinking characterizes both female protagonists in the pre-oedipal, ‘sassy’ stage. Indeed, alcoholism leads them to meet their future mates, who rescue them from falling drunkenly onto subway tracks. However, The Girl’s drunkenness is played up much more, drawing on elements of the ‘gross-out film’ – a comedic subgenre characterized by ‘toilet humour’ that emphasizes bodily functions such as farting, burping, defecating, etc. Here, humour derives from a long sequence in which The Girl vomits on an older gentleman’s toupee on the train after which she passes out, having called Gyeon-woo ‘darling’, and inadvertently sparking their relationship. Gyeon-woo reluctantly takes her to a motel because he is too conscientious to abandon her in the station and is repaid for his thoughtfulness by being thrown in jail for alleged rape. Meanwhile, Jordan exhibits none of the gross-out behavior of her Korean counterpart; Charlie takes her to his university dorm and is promptly thrown into a campus lockup. This sequence makes no sense, however, as US universities are neither allowed to have jails nor do campus police have the right to arrest students for having sex.

Here we run into another point of cultural difference. Whereas in the US most young people leave home to attend university, the majority of young people in Korea continue to live at home until they get married. Premarital sex, while not at all uncommon, remains more of a social taboo in Korea than in the US where it is considered the norm. For this reason, Gyeon-woo’s first few dates with The Girl, which end up at a motel, are both funny and realistic, since we know they are not having sex and since he literally cannot take her home. YG does not have to justify the lack of eroticism between the main characters. Certain scenes, such as when The Girl prompts Gyeon-woo to run after her in high heels by telling him she is not wearing panties, tantalize the male protagonist and the audience with the promise of eroticism. Yet these promises remain unfulfilled. Conversely, MSG pathologizes Jordan’s delay in having sex with Charlie even as it valorizes Charlie for waiting. Gyeon-woo suffers from physical abuse; Charlie suffers from not getting laid.

Moreover, alcoholism is seen as a social problem and personal addiction to be overcome in the US, while drinking is regarded as an important social lubricant in Korea, functioning as a sanctioned outlet and bonding activity, particularly among men. Although Korean women have gained more legal and economic power with their entrance into the workplace, they are still required to meet expectations of ‘soft’ and ‘innocent’ femininity. Such expectations run counter to those exerted on American women to be assertive and sexually empowered. Perhaps for this reason, Jordan’s drinking is to be read as much more pathetic and pathological than The Girl’s, which is funny in the Korean context. Whereas The Girl’s heavy drinking reverses the feminine role expected of her, Jordan’s paints her as a spoiled, alcoholic socialite. Later, of course, we learn that broken hearts have led the girls to drink and they are shown as sober during and after the separation period.

Finally, both female characters are aspiring screenwriters and themselves rewrite famous Hollywood and Korean movies as well as various film genres, humorously reversing the gender roles of male and female protagonists. The Girl rewrites Terminator, a famous Korean melodrama of young love, The Shower, and a martial arts film; Jordan rewrites Titanic and a western. Ideologically they place the female protagonist in the position of power vis-à-vis her male counterpart. It is telling, therefore, that during the separation period, when The Girl and Jordan are simultaneously humanized and domesticated, they stop writing their screenplays. In contrast, Gyeon-woo and Charlie become much more active, improving their athletic skills in swimming, kendo, and racketball. While Charlie dates other women to make the time go faster, Gyeon-woo, assuming the character of Kim Ho-sik, publicly sublimates his pain by writing about his experiences with The Girl on the Internet. In doing so, he inadvertently appropriates the role of author that she has aspired to. In other words, The Girl (unnamed throughout the film) is doubly objectified, both in the Internet novel and its adaptation: her boyfriend not only contains her physical sassiness when she becomes a proper girlfriend but also her dreams of becoming a storyteller by telling her story for her.

Unlike their male counterparts, the female characters are immobilized during this period of separation. They cry and mope, though The Girl also goes abroad to England, presumably to study. Fate, with a little bit of help, brings both couples back together, and we are to assume each lives happily ever after. Yet the conclusion of YG is more satisfying because we can see how the characters have grown and developed through their relationship and because the film reaffirms the presence and power of the characters’ families in their lives (for good or bad), which is a recurring trope throughout the film. The conclusion of MSG, on the other hand, leaves the viewer hanging. Jordan and Charlie remain fundamentally the same characters as when the film began, except Charlie is ‘free’ from his parents’ influence, having decided to give up his original career goals. Whereas it is clear that The Girl and Gyeon-woo’s union is stable and sanctioned by their families, we have no idea how Charlie’s parents or Jordan’s father will react to their relationship, and we are not really supposed to care. This distinct difference in the role of the extended family underscores the communal nature of romance in Korea in contrast to the more individualistic approach to romance in the United States.

CONCLUSION

As I have tried to show in this reading of YG and MSG, the limitations of reworking Korean movies for US audiences are particularly apparent in genres such as the romcom, which foreground human relationships as expressed through the formal and ideological terms of a specific time, place, and culture. One could easily argue, of course, that the failure of MSG was related to the production process: perhaps under the direction of Chadha or a Korean female director, with different actors, or aimed at a different audience such as the teen demographic, the remake would have been more successful.

As it stands, however, the inability of the largely faithful adaptation in MSG to capture the character types, motivations and performances that made YG so popular speaks to the cultural distance between Korea and the US with respect to what romance is and how it is represented in the movies. A close examination of how and why some narratives fail to translate across cultures highlights not only gaps and disjunctions in the global mediascape but the continued existence of cultural and national differences in a supposedly swiftly ‘globalizing’ (read: homogenizing) world. As Asia becomes one of Hollywood’s biggest export regions (experts estimate that it will comprise 60% of the US market in the next ten years), and as stars, styles and stories increasingly ‘cross over’ from Asia to Hollywood and back, understanding and appreciating these differences will grow ever more important (Klein 2003).

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This paper was presented at “Global Korea: Old and New”, the 2009 Korean Studies Association of Australia annual conference on 10 July 2009. Subsequent versions were presented at the Asia Studies Seminar Series at the University of Sydney on 19 August 2009 and at the Centre for Korean Studies at Australia National University on 18 September 2009. I would like to thank the audiences at these talks for their insightful questions and comments, Stephen Epstein for his excellent editorial suggestions, and the editors for their kind invitation to contribute to the volume.

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Cite this chapter as: Park, Jane Chi Hyun. 2010. ‘Remaking the Korean romcom: A case study of Yeopgijeogin geunyeo and My Sassy Girl’. In Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia, edited by Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 13.1–13.12.

 

©Copyright 2010 Jane Chi Hyun Park

All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia's Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University ePress: http://www.epress.monash.edu/contacts.html.

Complicated Currents

   by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita