The persistence of the realist tendency is further aided by the expansion of its definition to include not just physical reality but psychological realism as well. Kracauer actually makes a similar observation about the gap between signifier and signified in film even though his theory is not based on semiotics per se. He points out that an inherent quality of film is that natural objects filmed exist in a sea of indeterminacy with their meanings determined very much by the changing contexts in which they are placed (303). As such, filmed natural objects have the potential to link the physical dimension to all possible latent psychological meanings they might possess until such a time where a specific psychophysical correspondence is privileged by the context set in the film. This allows filmed natural objects to possess what Lucien Sève calls the “anonymous state of reality” (qtd. in Kracauer 303), and what Bazin calls the “essence” of reality (312). The implication of this intersection between Metz and Kracauer is that even though the imaginary signifiers on screen present us with fantastic monsters, a non-realist film can still reflect a psychological real that is real enough to incite a genuine emotional response in audiences thus proving the continued presence and privileging of the realist tendency regardless of a film’s degree of fictionality.
I wanted to see if I could use Vivian Sobchack’s argument about the viewer’s lived body as the site of the “reversible (or chiasmatic) processes of perception and expression” (60), from her essay “What My Fingers Knew,” to explain in a step-by-step manner how we come to understand the cross-genre nature of Yudai Yamaguchi’s The 10th Night contribution to the filmic adaptation of Natsume Soeseki’s Ten Nights of Dreams (2006).
When Sobchack suggests that the “lived body is always already engaged in the… meaning-making capacity of its senses” (60-61), she makes clear that this process of meaning-making is always a result of acculturation (61). Hence, when we first see the protagonist stagger down the street with his insides on his outside, there is a palpable increase in tension in the lecture theatre as our lived bodies anticipate the torture-porn cinematic experience we have been acculturated to expect when we come in contact with such cinematic sequences. This is seen in the similarity between the screenshots below of Shotaro’s enucleated eyeball dangling by a nerve and a similar screenshot from Eli Roth’s torture-porn masterpiece, Hostel (2005).
However, the sequence that I am really interested in comes immediately after the title when Shotaro’s friend pulls on his eyeball, snapping it back into position:
The audio-visual cues perceived by the lived body such as the visible tension in the nerve as it is stretched, the subsequent speed with which it moves when it is released, coupled with the sound of rubber stretching and the popping sound it makes upon impact when it re-enters the eye-socket, all come together to communicate the notion of elasticity through audio-visual cues. However, more important than this multi-sensorial, synesthetic experience perceived by the lived body, is the instantaneous, non-verbal expression of laughter elicited from the audience during the screening.
Laughter here is important for several reasons. Firstly, it is a reflexive expression that happens “without a thought,” thereby illustrating Elena del Rio’s idea of “body and image no longer function[ing] as discrete units, but as surfaces in contact” (qtd. in Sobchack 65), that allow for such an instantaneous expression given the non-existent gap between body and image or perception and expression. Secondly, this non-verbal expression is an example of the “‘obtuse’ meaning that Roland Barthes suggests escapes language yet resides within it” (qtd. in Sobchack 60). And thirdly, it is an expression that still “resides within [language],” especially if we see “language” as representative of the Lacanian realm of the symbolic, and therefore functioning on the same tier as acculturation, because it is the body realizing before the mind the acculturated familiarity of such elastic bodies that can bounce back from an insane amount of abuse as being a feature of cartoons – a tame, non-threatening, child-friendly genre.
As such, the release of tension in the stretched eye nerve that snaps back into position parallels the flood of relief experienced by the audience that finds expression in involuntary laughter.
Sobchack, Vivian. “What My Fingers Knew.” Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2004. 53-84.
Ten Nights of Dreams. By Natsume Soeseki. Dir. Yudai Yamaguchi. Perf. Ken’ichi Matsuyama. 2006.
Pedro Almodóvar’s 2011 horror film The Skin I Live In is a strangely muted experience that leaves audiences a little dumbstruck if not a little confused because of its treatment of the conventions of the Rape-Revenge narrative.
From the inciting incident in the garden at a wedding party to the multiple events of rape that occur throughout the narrative, the film has a disquieting, desensitizing effect on the idea of rape.
What is rape? Is what happened in the garden enough to constitute rape? Does it matter that the girl, unsocialized and excluded from society as she had been, was accidentally (mis)leading the guy on? Or what about the fact that he was high as a kite? What if he pulled out the moment he realized there was a miscommunication or showed remorse later on? Can these be considered ameliorating circumstances? If so, does the punishment fit the crime?
In a typical rape-revenge narrative there are the excruciatingly drawn out moments of sexual violence enacted on a helpless (female) individual followed by a sequence where the violated individual recovers after her ordeal and plans her revenge before going all-out on her attackers bringing the narrative to a bloody conclusion.
Almodóvar’s film problematizes this by softening the inciting incident by suggesting multiple ameliorating factors, having the avenging figure be a male character, and creating an elaborate revenge plot, that some would argue is much too severe for the crime in question, that simultaneously allows the turning of rape itself into the revenge, particularly the rape enacted on yet another female body. I suppose on one level it makes you wonder why rape-revenge is even a genre that exists and when we watch films that are part of this genre what are we watching them for? For the rape or the revenge?
I wanted to say something about the shared dream sequence too but it doesn’t seem to quite go with the rest of this post about rape-revenge narratives so I’ll save it for another time.
According to Williams, characters in a melodrama seem to be psychically based on, and anthropomorphic embodiments of the Manichaean split between good and evil (77). If it is not clear by now that this is not true of Heartless City, let me just drive the point home by looking at some of the main characters in the series before looking at the presentation of the victim-hero’s perspective in Heartless City.
The first line of complication comes from how, as a whole, the series seems to create more compelling ‘bad guys’ than ‘good guys.’ From the Madame Jin-sook, to the mid-level drug cartel enforcer Safari Moon, to Baksa Aduel’s loyal and decidedly amoral right-hand man, Hyun-soo – these are characters who are given more air time on the show and whose motivations are clearly delineated. They are given flashback sequences and developed as rounded characters. Conversely, we hardly know anything about Hyeong-min’s past nor any of the police officers in the Special Branch taskforce. Thus the diegesis of the film and the formal structure seems to encourage audiences to identify with the ‘bad guys’ more than the ‘good guys.’
Even main antagonists like Chairman Cho, Commissioner Min, the corrupt Senator and Head of Prosecutors remind Baksa Aduel that even if he removes them, it doesn’t remove the seat in the criminal organization they occupy and that ultimately, everyone’s replaceable. I suppose that’s why the series is called Heartless/Cruel City, it’s because the source of evil is not the individual person but something larger, something systemic, and this runs contrary to Manichaean characterization of characters. Yet, at the same time fulfills the function of Manichaean characters, which is to portray virtuous suffering so that virtue may be recognized and acknowledged (66).
I guess the most compelling reason why the use of Manichaean characterization is not a major feature in Heartless City is due to the main character himself – Baksa Aduel (Doctor’s Son) a.k.a. Jung Shi-hyun. When it comes to the treatment of the victim-hero, Williams says that emphasis is given to the character’s point of view so that we may better empathise with the virtue of the suffering victim-hero (66). This, however, is atypical of Heartless City. Instead, the character appears opaque and we are seldom shown what he is really thinking. This is especially true of the first part of the series and instead of alienating the audience, the lack of information and screen time given to Baksa Aduel draws audiences further in.
Just to share a little bit about my own reaction to this k-drama, the first episode was fast losing my attention and interest until this scene about 30 minutes into the episode where Baksa Aduel has to explain to Scale why he still hasn’t handed over the drug money. Scale greets him by throwing a whiskey glass at him, which he dodges effortlessly. Scale dares him to dodge again and breaks a second glass over his head as he stands there unflinchingly with a trickle of blood rolling down the side of his face.
I wish I could show you a clip of this because my description of the scene really doesn’t do it justice.
Perhaps it’s the way the energy in the scene goes from 0 to 100 in just a couple of seconds. The stillness in the dining room is almost tableau-like in a pulled out establishing shot, the tense atmosphere set by the ominous soundtrack, Baksa’s slow traversing of the large room captured in a tracking shot, then suddenly a quick cut to Scale flinging of the glass and another cut to Baksa stepping out of the way as the glass shatters against the wall.
Suddenly, I was paying attention again. And when he took the abuse from Scale so coolly, I wanted to know more about what made this character tick.
It’s almost as if the character’s tight, almost absurd control of his own emotions becomes the form of excess one comes to expect in a melodrama. And it’s seen again in this next scene where after having to watch a childhood friend get shot right in front of him, he can’t even visit her grave because she was a cop and to the rest of the world, he is a crime boss.
Audience desire to know more about the character aside, you never really get any direct information about who this character is or what his motivations are and the narrative seems to sidestep this by giving you snippets of his past not through his eyes but through Safari’s, Kyung-mil’s, and Commissioner Min’s flashbacks of their shared past.
It’s not until much later in the series where another kind of excess in the character of Baksa Aduel begins to come to the fore. The excess of identity. Being both ‘good’ guy as undercover cop and ‘bad’ guy as crime boss and friend to both Jin-sook and Hyun-soo, this excess of identity becomes a flip on the Manichaean characterisation of characters found within melodramas. In the intense scene above, we see the character losing hold of who he is as his handler calls him Shi-hyn and, in a burst of action, he turns around and grabs him by his coat lapels and insists he be called Baksa Aduel instead.
To have both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ embodied in the character by way of this secret identity as undercover cop who has been undercover in excess of 4 years, only serves to make his character motivations even more ambiguous because you start to wonder, as he grows more and more disillusioned with the extent of the corruption (his own handler is one of the key villains), whether he is still acting as an undercover cop first and crime boss, and friend to Jin-sook and Hyun-soo, second.
As a parting shot about this character of ambiguous moral stance, let me leave you with this picture of Baksa Aduel and Hyun-soo looking out over the city as Baksa delivers this classic Übermensch line:
“Soo ah… See those streets? Let’s swallow them.”
Time and Excess
Manipulation of time within the melodrama in terms of the constant negotiation between being ‘too late’ and arriving ‘in the nick of time’ creates the tension between whether the character experiences a paroxysm of pathos or the exhilaration of action (69). And because of this negotiation, moments of high dramatic tension often take on a dual nature wherein the shortness of diegetic time gets prolonged by the formalistic elements of the scene (73), such that seconds within the diegetic world could be presented as minutes in terms of screen time.
Time in Heartless City, however, moves differently. Instead of embodying the immediacy of successful action or failed inaction as suggested by Williams’ choice of phrases “too late” and “in the nick of time,” the dramatic pleasure in the first half of the series comes from the exhilaration of action derived from Baksa Aduel being consistently and comfortably “one step ahead” such that the character appears almost omniscient, while the intense, almost hysterical, paroxysms of pathos in episode 14 & 15 comes from his impotence at being able to affect positive change in a key series of events entrenched in the distant past.
To illustrate what I mean by the character’s omniscience and mastery over potentially disastrous situations I will refer you to 3 dramatic fight sequences in the series that consistently involve Baksa Aduel’s early, unseen and unexpected arrival on scene, resulting in an element of surprise, which he then uses to triumph over his opponents single-handedly.
In this instance in the first episode, the mid-rank drug dealers, Scale, ‘Meth’ Kim and Halibut, are meeting to discuss a replacement for Baksa Aduel’s position because he had made known his ambition to ascend the ranks within the drug cartel at the start of the episode. Baksa Aduel is the first gangster to arrive on scene putting him in a position to spring a successful ambush on ‘Meth’ Kim, and be the only character to leave the scene unscathed, leaving Hyeong-min’s Special Branch task force in the dust.
In this instance, both the audience and the characters don’t even realize Baksa Aduel is on scene until he reveals himself. This fight is the first time we get a sense of his dualistic nature. As rising crime boss, his goal is to stop the influx of drugs from a competing supplier, and as undercover police officer, his goal is just to stop the inflow of any drugs. There is also a growing sense that this character’s competence and single-handed successes arise not out of proficiency or superiority, but out of necessity because of the isolation that surrounds him due to his dualistic role.
As we move further and further along into the series, the buffer zone that allows Baksa Aduel to be comfortably “one step ahead” begins to shorten. As it is, this fight is a reaction to an attempt on his romantic-interest’s life and actually forces him to form a partnership with Hyeong-min in order to secure a positive outcome.
This shortening of the temporal buffer zone that attributed a kind of comfort and ease, control and mastery of situation to the character has a direct relation to the second half of the drama where there is a collapse of time whereby the past intrudes on the present and throws the character into a paroxysm of pathos over his own impotence to change past events.
One of the lines of narrative in the series is Baksa Aduel’s deep-seated hatred of the drug trade because he own mother died of an overdose. This is coupled with a side quest to find out who killed his mother. Unfortunately, in episode 14-15, he finds out that he has been misled by his handler into believing that Safari Moon, a father figure of sorts to him, was responsible. Worse still, Safari informs him of his own culpability in his mother’s death by naively ferrying drugs between his mother and Safari for distribution in the neighbourhood in exchange for “errand money.”
The fissure in Baksa Aduel’s composure is built beautifully throughout the 2 episodes in a series of shots reminiscent of women’s dramas from the 50s and 60s that show the character out of sync with himself (the effeminizing of the male body through suffering represented through formalistic elements often associated with a female dominated genre):
Before finally culminating in an explosive paroxysm of pathos where inner torment finds outward expression when he smashes his own hand with a rock.
This is an interesting use of action in a melodrama because it is non-productive and brings the character no closer to reclaiming his lost innocence. Instead we see an excess of inner turmoil that can only result in futile and impotent outward action.
However, because of the excess of emotion, the (female?) audience is encouraged to step out of his/her identification with the character such that where we might previously have taken pleasure in identifying with the character’s unflappable nature and mastery of situation, we can now sadistically take pleasure in his pain. Which is why I look like this:
…when things like that happen. Hence why I continue to repeatedly come back to j/k-drama which spends so much time focused on the male body and encourages audiences to objectify it on several levels:
As sex objects
As suffering and effeminized male bodies due to physical trauma
And psychological trauma
To be a little bit less perverse, let me just tie this back to Williams. All these suffering male bodies seems to also hark back to what Williams says at the start of her essay in defense of melodrama, oftentimes it is not the physical that affects us so and to concentrate on the linear and the logical is a limiting and reductive misrepresentation of human reality that ought to come together with the search for a “fullness of signification.” It’s just that to me, this “fullness of signification” is a different kind of pleasure that one can find in and get from the melodrama in j/k-dramas that keeps me coming back despite their oftentimes, glaring lack of realism.
Sub-point on Romantic Excess or Lack Thereof
On a slightly softer but related note on romance in the series, Heartless City chooses to disengage almost completely from the tension between “too late” and “in the nick of time” which largely characterizes the romance plot in other K-dramas I’ve watched and termed the “will-they-won’t-they,” or in more Singaporean terms, the ai-mai-ai-mai plot line.
The negotiation of whether romantic leads will get together or not coupled with scenes of near-misses and the final consummation of the romantic (sub)plot is completely disregarded and refashioned in Heartless City.
The first time the two characters meet, happens purely by chance. As if to emphasize how passing the encounter is, there isn’t even a meeting of the eyes. Just this fleeting brushing of two lives against each other in the bustling city that is both brief and ephemeral, with all evidence of contact between the two characters quickly dissipating into the ether before either character and the audience even realize how interlinked their lives are.
This is of course juxtaposed in their extremely melodramatic second encounter where he saves her from an attempted stick-up despite having been all but gutted in a previous altercation only to almost accidentally slit her throat when she tries to help him up. Despite the melodrama though, the brevity of their encounter and the chance-nature of their meetings remain and continue to characterize the overall development of their relationship.
These accidental encounters seem, to me, more intense and more charged with meaning precisely because of their serendipitous nature that constantly leaves the audience wanting more. The absence of the contiguous progression of time to mark the development of their relationship serves to imbue each encounter with an excess of meaning whether it be romantic feeling or carnal desire because there is always the lingering sense that the transient nature of their relationship will take over and dissolve all ties between them. And this, to me, helps to keep audiences more engaged than in the typical K-drama where the characters practically share the same time/space continuum as the drama progresses because they almost invariably end up living together.
Lastly, the almost non-existent nature of their love affair and empty fuck near the start of the series belies their intimate connection in the dramatic plot over Baksa Aduel’s supposed involvement in the assassination of Soo-min’s big sister, Kyung-mil. This bait-and-switch tactic that exchanges the romance subplot for the actual dramatic plot opens up the narrative by giving the female lead far more to do in terms of interaction with the other characters, particularly Jin-sook, and creates a more rounded characterization for all the characters involved.
On that note, finally, on to character and characterization.
Space of Innocence
The space of innocence is clearly rendered as part of the landscape of the past. Foregrounded in sepia-toned flashbacks of how the main character gets his moniker, Baksa Aduel, and his makeshift foster family made out of small-time drug pusher, Safari Moon, and the neighbourhood’s most popular prostitute, Jin-sook, engaging in fairly normal family-oriented activities like playing in the rain and eating ice-cream together, we see these characters as family first, and criminals second. The only hint we have of their criminal connections comes from the intrusion of present troubles on these memories of the past.
As part of the plot, the shades of innocence here are two-fold. On one level, it is the wholeness of this makeshift family unit that has since disintegrated, and on another level it is about the innocence of being lower down the rungs in a crime-ridden world where one doesn’t need to deal with its politics or questions of how deep and how far reaching its corruption goes.
Thus as Baksa Aduel makes his way up the crime ladder uncovering just how deep the corruption goes, he is both moving further and closer to the restoration of a space of innocence. Closer because of his dual nature as rising crime boss but also as undercover police officer on a mission to find the root of the corruption so he can choke it off before it gives succor to another generation of crime bosses; and further because we watch him grow more and more disillusioned as he realizes just how deep the corruption goes.
It seems almost apt that by the end of the series, we see the narrative come full circle with Soo-min graduating from the police academy in Kyung-mi’s place and Baksa Aduel disappearing into the crowd yet again. But this time instead of starting on his undercover mission, it is to cement the success of his mission as the surviving piece of the criminal organization he spent the whole series dismantling so that even if he cannot return to a space of innocence, the characters who survive him can.
This sort of semi-tragic, and decidedly bittersweet ending in place of a full on happy ending where Soo-min and Shi-hyun (Baksa Aduel’s real name) get to live happily ever after, is the realist concession that Williams calls the 3rd tenet of melodrama.
One thing that I’m not too sure of, because I don’t know S.Korean politics, is that Williams says that “a melodramatic mode [struggles] to ‘solve’ the overwhelming moral burden of having been the “bad guys”… [wherein] The greater the historical burden of guilt, the more pathetically and the more actively the melodrama works to recognize and regain lost innocence” (emphasis mine, 61). So, as an AWOL/”KIA” ex-cop with no hope of a happy ending for himself, Baksa Aduel seems to have successfully stemmed the tide of corruption within the police force by bringing down the corrupt Commissioner Min. But even at the series’ end, there’s an atmosphere of this success being only temporary given the survival of the corrupt senator and Hyeong-min’s (the other male lead who heads a Special Branch looking into corruption within the police force) father, the Head of Prosecutors. And this is where the unreality of melodrama kicks in. The Head of Prosecution has a sudden change of heart after a heart-to-heart talk with Baksa Aduel about fathers and sons and decides to confess his corrupt ways becoming the lynchpin in Hyeong-min’s case.
So it sounds like the melodramatic mode seems to have gone into overdrive by the series’ end and according to Williams this only happens when there’s a great burden of guilt that needs to be resolved or explained away which she calls melodrama’s “compulsion to reconcile the irreconcilable” (75). But again, I don’t know S. Korean politics, and this is just a drama and Williams is just a film critic.
Direct continuation from Previous Post…
Williams goes on to argue that the methods of representation of the ineffable in melodrama come down, almost exclusively, to the excesses in representation of the key figure in the narrative in his or her struggle against time to regain a lost innocence. The protagonist’s journey will take one of two routes – s/he will either become an effeminised body that suffers a paroxysm of pathos or can channel this paroxysm into more virile and action-centred variants of rescue, chase and fight (58). Williams does suggest however, that instead of a fork in the road between virtuous sufferer and active hero, there can be instead a hero-victim and she provides Rambo as an example of such a figure.
It is in this same vein that I want to approach Heartless City (2013) in my analysis of its main character, the mysterious and extremely charismatic Baksa Aduel (Doctor’s Son), a.k.a. Jung Shi-hyun, to suggest that this series is an atypical melodrama in that it fulfills the overarching demands of a melodramatic mode of story-telling while defying most of the specific 5 tenet structure of the melodrama laid out by Linda Williams in her essay.
However, before I go into that, I want to reshuffle Williams’ 5 tenets of melodrama into 3 key elements. Firstly, here is a brief summary of Williams’ 5 tenets of melodrama:
- Melodrama begins, and wants to end in a space of innocence.
- Melodrama focuses on victim-heroes and the recognition of their virtue largely by concentrating on the point of view of the victim.
- Melodrama appears modern by borrowing from realism, but realism serves the melodramatic passion and action.
- Melodrama involves a dialectic of pathos and action – a give and take of ‘too late’ and ‘in the nick of time’ wherein being ‘too late’ results in a paroxysm of pathos and being ‘in the nick of time’ results in the exhilaration of action
- Melodrama presents characters who embody primary psychic roles organized in Manichaean conflicts between good and evil.
From these 5 tenets, I would like to regroup them into the following 3 headings. Firstly, “Space of Innocence”; secondly, “Time and Excess”; and Thirdly, “Character” (under which I will discuss Manichaean characters and the victim-hero). I have decided to place less emphasis on realism as a support for modern melodrama because I see this more as a formalist concern that was included to stave off the belittling of this filmic mode of storytelling rather than a true element of melodrama itself. However, that being said, I will touch on this under “Space of Innocence.”
Furthermore, of these 3, I would like to posit that the first tenet regarding the struggle to regain a space of innocence should be privileged above all other elements of a melodrama because the other elements seem to consistently feedback into this attempt to recoup a lost innocence. This is seen in the tension between being ‘too late’ or being ‘in the nick of time’ resulting in either pathos or action which impacts the victim-hero figure whose suffering (pathos) marks him as a moral character and therefore closer to innocence, and whose actions will consistently try to move him closer toward the recuperation of lost innocence. Moreover, Williams’ own opening of her essay posits the “retrieval and staging of innocence” as the ultimate concern of melodramatic narrative trajectory (42).
Why I continue to watch J & K Drama despite my seemingly obvious disdain for the genre:
As a continuation from my previous post, I wish to explain why, despite sounding like I’m someone who’s really disappointed with the genre as a whole I keep getting drawn back to it, whether it’s k-drama or j-drama, repeatedly. It seems to me that it offers something that’s very different from what I get when I watch an American TV series. There’s a unique quality to it and it provides a completely different kind of satisfaction despite it’s flaws and the leave of absences that realism tends to take, or perhaps, precisely because of it.
In order to legitimize some of the things I want to say, I will be drawing on Linda Williams’ defense of melodrama, “Melodrama Revised,” in which she talks about how melodrama is a much maligned, and assiduously ignored underlying mode of film that encompasses multiple genres because it is associated with an excess of emotions that is commonly associated with feminine behavior (43).
One of the stoutest lines of defense Williams offers for the value of melodrama stems from the unreality of this mode of film. Williams talks about how the excesses of melodrama that characterize it as unreal should not be seen as a weakness of this mode of filmic storytelling, as opposed to more realist genres that put stock in linear, logical and causal explanations for events because implicit in melodrama is the “recognition of the limitations of the conventions of representation” (Christine Gledhill qtd. in Williams, 48). This in turn forces into an aesthetic presence, within the diegetic world of the melodrama, attempts at representing a desire for the “fullness of signification beyond the powers of language to supply” in the search for things like identity, moral/ethical right, a sense of belonging, the greater good, purpose, calling and all that other ineffable stuff that exists on the upper tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that seem frivolous and non-essential but we actually can’t live without.
And we see this in dramatic high points in successful and well-received K-dramas like Personal Taste (2010). For instance in scenes like when Park Kae-In shows up at an architects’ exclusive meet-and-greet on the handsome Jeon Jin-ho’s arm, dressed to the nines to stick it to her ex who left her for another woman; or when she gets pulled into a passionate kiss with the same dude just as she’s about to be humiliated by her boyfriend-stealing, ex-bestfriend – these aren’t just moments of excess because of the romance, but what makes them profoundly romantic is that at the heart of these scenes are moments of self-actualization and self-worth for the character.
Furthermore, just to remove the anti-feminist taint that’s lingering at the back of my throat as I write this, I choose to see these scenes as female-empowering as well because it’s a rare instance where the male lead’s good looks are reduced to a prop to be used in subservience to the female character’s needs; and both character and actor are consumed as image by other characters within the diegesis of the drama and the viewing audience, whereas emotional investment and empathy in the scenes lie squarely with the female lead.
The other defense of melodrama that I found particularly rousing is the observed difference between tragedy and melodrama. Melodrama is typically dismissed because it is seen as manipulative and dealing with silly female emotions (43). However, if one were to assume that consumers of melodrama can also be critical, then “unlike tragedy, melodrama does not reconcile its audience to an inevitable suffering. Rather than raging against a fate that the audience has learned to accept, the female hero often accepts a fate that the audience at least partially questions” (47). This means that while tragedy encourages us to rail against a cruel fate we assume to be true, melodrama just rails against a fate we already mostly know to be false because its emotional excesses always and already indicate a break from reality and therefore a disruption of the suspension of disbelief in audiences.
To draw on some of the series I mentioned in my previous post, how can we possibly mistake the diegetic world for the real world when dramas like My Love from Another Star (2013-2014) feature an alien as a main character and a serial poisoner as the antagonist? And I Can Hear Your Voice (2013) whose main protagonist is a mind-reader? I just think that the force of magical realism is strong with this genre and while there are more realist melodramas in the market which make the distinction between diegetic world and real world a little harder to tell, I have not come into contact with them to be able to provide any sound analysis at this point.
This would suggest that in a melodrama, the audience has more agency than one that goes to see a tragedy and as such, may choose to identify with the character and take pleasure in the uniquely unreal circumstances they get put in, or s/he may choose to step out of his/her identification with the character and treat them as object subject to the audience’s gaze and interpretative whims.
er… this is actually the first part of a 3000++ word document I’m still writing so there’s more! (I’m breaking it up because I don’t think WordPress can handle the word count O_O) Anyway, Wait for it!
So… I’ve been watching an embarrassing amount of K-drama lately. Given the group of friends I hang out with these days, and the one class on Asian Media and Pop Culture I’ve been auditing in school, I’ve been strongly encouraged to revisit my teenage fascination with dramas.
And so far, I’ve conquered, and by conquered I mean completed in full, Master’s Sun (2013, 17 episodes), Pinocchio (2014 – 2015, 20 episodes), Personal Taste (2010, 16 episodes), and Heartless City (2013, 20 episodes).
And conducted a tactical retreat from My Love from Another Star (2013-2014, 21 episodes), I Can Hear Your Voice (2013, 18 episodes), City Hunter (2011, 20 episodes). And by tactical retreat, I mean I couldn’t finish the series for a myriad of reasons.
I feel like at this point there should be a disclaimer that these are just my personal thoughts on K-drama and that I mean no offense to anyone if I rag too hard on a series. I am also aware that these personal observations are based on a very, very small sample of all the marvelous offerings from the weird and wonderful world of K-drama; so if I extrapolate something about the genre as a whole, please know that I know that it is a biased opinion as well.
1.This is a woman’s genre. Written for women by women. And I didn’t need to do any research to figure this out. How did I know?
- All the guys are abs-tastic and the women are average-looking, silly, bumbling, over-dramatic, irrational, indecisive, and generally more trouble than they’re worth, but they get the guy anyway.
- Ok.. I’ll concede sometimes they have cool qualities too like Park Kae-in in Personal Taste who’s the only character who actually gets offered a job and completes it with aplomb… And I can’t think of any other female character from the 5 dramas listed above that I like
- obligatory shower scenes for the male characters where we get to ogle their hot bods; living together scenes at his place where we get to see the normally calm and unflappable male character get flustered; male characters getting injured/sick and abused
What does this mean?
As a female viewer, we want the guy to be hot and the girl to be completely average so we can seamlessly insert ourselves into her place and make-believe that a guy like that is totally within our reach without having to feel like we have to go out of our way to look like supermodels before we can snag a hot guy.
We want to see that our mere presence could unsettle and disrupt a character that’s normally portrayed as stoic and cool, calm and collected, and generally on top of things and in control because, hell, it’s empowering.
More than that, I think what’s key in a lot of these dramas is male suffering.
(Sweet, delicious pain. I swear I look like that when it happens too… There’s even the green glow.)
In a lot of these dramas, male characters are brought low by overpowering external or societal circumstance and made to suffer both psychologically and physically. And surprisingly (ok, maybe not that surprisingly), physical trauma dealt to male characters usually come in the form of penetration by various implements such as knives and bullets.
(Getting stabbed and then having to sew yourself back up… in Heartless City)
(Getting shot in the shoulder trying to flee from your sort of love interest who doesn’t know it’s you in City Hunter)
This becomes especially significant when you think about how the spectacle of male suffering is put on display by women writers for women audiences. Isn’t it also strange that these dramas are coming out of countries with very traditional and very conservative patriarchal societies like Japan and S. Korea?
I suppose this means if we want to talk about a flip on the Laura Mulvey concept of the Male Gaze and the cinema, instead of looking at Magic Mike XXL (2015) and saying that it still presents the male body as a triumph of athleticism without lowering its status to a slab of meat to be ogled by women the way female bodies are ogled by men on screen, we should totally be looking at K-dramas to establish this point.
2. The Gift-giving Language of Love is privileged. Narratives and especially romance plots, seem to narrow down to a prop that changes hands even when there’s no real need for it.
- Handphones (Heartless City; Pinocchio)
- Cars (Heartless City)
- necklaces (I Can Hear Your Voice; Heartless City; Pinocchio; Master’s Sun)
- giving each other canned drinks (All of the above mentioned series except Heartless City – no cheap canned drinks for them… only Bourbon in fancy glass bottles)
- clothes (Heartless City, City Hunter, Personal Taste, Master’s Sun)
- bags/wallet (City Hunter)
- shoes (Pinocchio)
And I’m sure there are a thousand and one other examples from the series listed above and other series available. But it does make you wonder how much of this is because of sponsorship and pressure to do product placement in a show just so it can get funded and made. And that sorta makes you wonder about how much of the narrative is controlled by product placement and dictates from the companies of those products and how much of a stranglehold these product company conditions have on the artistic vision of drama creators.
I think the most ridiculous example I heard from what my friends shared was when a series changed its title (The King 2 Hearts ) just so it sounded more like Dunkin’ Donuts because they were a major sponsor for the series. Like please. omg. I LOLed.
Anyway, If anyone’s interested in exploring that question further, Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me (2004) fame, as a thought experiment, looked at one extreme end of the continuum between filmmaker’s artistic control and pressure exerted by commercial companies with a stake in a film by constructing a narrative entirely around the process of getting sponsorship, and entering into negotiations over product placement and narrative control for a film in a 2011 release called The Greatest Movie Every Sold. It didn’t do super well at the box office, but it is still a fun watch and an eye-opening experience about what goes on behind the scenes before a film is even written or made except that the gonzo documentary film itself was an interesting collapse of the pre-production time-space and the production phase.
3. Privileging of the romance plot over the actual plot. At some point the K-drama narrative devolves into a will-they-won’t-they back and forth where both characters know that they like each other but seem to throw up imaginary roadblocks for themselves.
City Hunter: Wanting to be together because they like each other. Trying to stay apart because it’s dangerous to be together. Deciding to get together because this way they can watch each others’ back. Deciding it’s safer apart after all with the guy asking the girl to forget him and pretend not to know him because he can’t trust himself to do the same. And then… I don’t know. I found it too tedious to continue.
My Love from Another Star: Falling in love with her because she seems to be a reincarnation of someone from his past. Staying away because his sell-by-date is fast approaching and he needs to leave earth. Staying by her side because she’s in danger and he needs to protect her. She tries to distance herself from him because she finds out having him stay is killing him. And then… I don’t know. This was where I lost interest.
I Can Hear Your Voice: Stays with her to protect her. Disaster strikes… actually, no, amnesia strikes. They get separated and then back together because she needs to put his amnesiac life back on track and give it direction. But makes him promise to leave the moment he regains his memory. He pretends to not remember anything so he can stay with her. But then things get dire and he needs to reveal he’s gotten his memory back and then I get confused and a little bored…
Worse still, a lot of these dramas purport to have an actual dramatic plot and a romance plot yet the actual plot never really takes centre stage except during the first and last couple of episodes.
Case in point would be Personal Taste where this whole business starts with a really pressing need for a Small/Medium-sized Enterprise (SME) architectural firm to submit a sound architectural concept for the new Art Museum building in order to avoid going under. 14 episodes later no one’s done anything remotely architectural in nature.
This problem is not too severe in I Can Hear Your Voice where in the 18 episode run this legal drama with a hint of magical realism deals with three other cases apart from the main case which they revisit three times in various permutations. But it still pales in comparison to Hero (2001, 11 episodes) a J-drama where two interlinked cases are solved in each episode until the main story arc moves into full swing at about episode 8. Hero also seems to deal with more hard hitting issues in a more nuanced manner such as coerced confessions, unethical legal practices, corruption, obstruction from overzealous cops, sensationalistic media, interference from politicians and well connected, powerful elites and the general ennui that possesses his fellow prosecutors who feel disconnected and powerless in an overwrought legal machine.
Finally, there also seems to be an inability to advance more than one line of narrative at one time.
For instance in Heartless City it’s foregrounded how important it is for the police to match a face to the mysterious Doctor’s Son who’s taking over the underworld. Yet, important clues revealed in episode 5 don’t get revisited until episode 8 because they needed time to show girls going shopping, and the two male leads being romanced. Granted that much of the screen time was devoted to Doctor’s Son moving pawns into position but it got so frustrating waiting for the police dude to catch a clue…
4. Here’s a list of other plot set pieces & Trends that I’ve noticed (I wish I could do screen caps for all of these but copyright laws…):
- Authority figures are evil and are not to be trusted under any circumstance (City Hunter; Heartless City; I Can Hear Your Voice)
- Obligatory Hospital Scenes (Leukemia in City Hunter; Stab wounds in Heartless City; Amnesia/major stab wounds in I Can Hear Your Voice; fainting spells/concussion/poisoning in My Love from Another Star; Concussion from falling planks in Personal Taste; getting stricken with a particularly vicious strain of the flu in Pinocchio; Stabbed by a screwdriver in Master’s Sun)
- Columbarium Scenes (City Hunter; I Can Hear Your Voice; Pinocchio; Master’s Sun)
- Conveniently non-fatal knife and gunshot wounds that become a legitimate excuse for skinship (Heartless City; City Hunter; I Can Hear Your Voice)
- Orphans (Heartless City; City Hunter; I Can Hear Your Voice; My Love from Another Star; Personal Taste; Pinocchio; Master’s Sun): Because the young are the hope for the future and when you’re an orphan your ties to the past and the sins of the father are more tenuous and therefore easier to free yourself of
- Obligatory Shower scene (Heartless City; City Hunter; My Love from Another Star; Personal Taste; I can Hear Your Voice): They ALL have it! (I thought Daye was kidding when she said ‘obligatory’…)
- Living Together (City Hunter; I Can Hear Your Voice; My Love from Another Star; Personal Taste; Pinocchio)
- Providing Accommodations (Personal Taste; City Hunter; Heartless City; My Love from Another Star, Master’s Sun ) -I’m actually very surprised by the number of guys who end up giving girls buildings/architectural designs/houses/apartments… Is there some kind of wish-fulfillment/enculturation going on here?
- Kissing (Heartless City; City Hunter; My Love from Another Star; Personal Taste; I Can Hear Your Voice; Pinocchio; Master’s Sun)
- Sex (Personal Taste; Heartless City)
- Illegal U-turns on strangely empty four-lane roads (Heartless City; City Hunter; Pinocchio): It’s just funny because it seems so random yet so consistently used
- really bad tailing of suspects (City Hunter, Heartless City): I mean seriously? I know they have to clear the traffic for filming purposes but when there are ONLY TWO cars on the road, how can you not know you’re being followed?! And seriously, who tails someone in a BRIGHT RED CAR!? (I liked how in Pinocchio they actually vetoed the bright red car -_-“) I guess it’s moments like these when you see a clash between the needs of the narrative and the demands of product placement.
5. Lush accommodations and wardrobes
My Love from Another Star: 400 year old alien living the high life
Lee Min-ho’s decidedly un-vigilante-like fashion sense in City Hunter
Personal Taste: I have to admit they made pretty good use of the space in this drama though. A lot of significance attributed to one spot in the house where the characters do most of their living and bonding but this same spot is also a site of past trauma so there’s a kind of reclamation of it through the romance plot. The spatial doubling is quite aptly executed and the romance is sweet.
And I have a sneaking suspicion they use the same circular office for all their dramas – Hyun-soo’s office in Heartless City, Do-bin’s office in Personal Taste, and Min-ho’s office in Falling for Innocence (2015). I tried to get screenshots from all the series but dramafever.com and Netflix won’t cooperate and I think my tech-unsavviness is showing so here’s the only picture I could find online from Heartless City.
So like, there’s a consumerism angle in all of this, isn’t there? Shrouding your characters in glamorous clothes, jewelry; placing them in lush living environs, it’s a way of introducing your audience to the high life in the hopes that they’ll follow suit in their pursuit of their own personal piece of happiness.
These beautiful interior designs were really one of the first things I noticed when I watched the first series I was introduced to – My Love from Another Star. Who can resist falling in love with that gorgeous dark wood library? And I think that’s part of the thrill of watching these dramas, as well. For most of us, that’s about as close as we can get to such beautiful homes, and the pleasure comes from just being able to see and take in the sights of all that lush architecture, so much so that seeing itself becomes an act of consumption.
6. Viewing Practices
While I admitted earlier to feeling that some of the dramas started to feel a little tedious with their will-they-won’t-they back and forth in the romance plot, I did find myself still straining to find out what happens next. And this is why I called it a tactical retreat. Because even though I lost patience with watching the drama unfold, I found substitutes for it.
I began to notice some very interesting fan-practices that grew out of attempts to supply this need and that’s where I came across the Dramabeans website. This is a website that basically delivers blow by blow recaps and summaries of individual episodes for a host of different series. The strength of websites like these though, is really dependent on the ability of the writer to capture the key dramatic moments and represent them in all their melodramatic glory in words with the aid of screen caps.
I was fairly fortuitous that one of the first websites I found was the Dramabeans website because the writers are firstly, really attuned to where the key dramatic moments are; secondly, great writers with their very snappy, tongue-in-cheek summaries and comments; and thirdly, weirdly critical and analytical. I love this last part best because they take pains to be really thorough in pointing out things like themes, doubling, consistencies, inconsistencies, etc. And this kind of rigor in one’s writing can only lift the genre of k-drama up as a whole.
The other viewing practice that I currently find myself very much engaged in is skipping scenes on Netflix. I feel again quite fortunate that my favorite drama out of the five, Heartless City, is available on Netflix so this means I can skip to scenes I like and rewatch them as many times as I want.
So what about that male gaze, eh? If I, as a female viewer, can exert this much control over the drama in terms of the degree of manipulation of the image and my extent of objectification of the male body on screen – I mean for all you know, I could be watching that one shower scene over and over again to my heart’s content (and I totally am… I have to make full use of that $7.99 I’m paying for Netflix a month!). It sorta makes me feel like a puppet master with these characters on strings, performing for me on demand.
So what is this? Is it female empowerment? Or am I still subsumed in a larger system that is constructing these images for me fully aware of what I want as a female viewer and taking my money in exchange for providing me with this content?
Anyway, this is a blogpost and these are just random musings. I don’t have the answers and if I keep trying to find the answers before I post anything, I’ll never post anything.
So back to this critical, formalistic awareness we were talking about before in the critique of drama on DramaBeans – formalistic awareness is somewhat linked to my last gripe about K-drama before I go into why I really do still love watching k-drama despite all my grumbling.
Brief J Vs. K Drama Comparison (Hero  Vs I Can Hear Your Voice )
I was introduced to I Can Hear Your Voice earlier this year by some friends and as I was watching this semi-serious legal drama I was suddenly reminded of Hero (2001) an old J-drama I used to watch. I went to look up the first episode to rewatch it and I was struck by its formalistic awareness compared to I Can Hear Your Voice. Here are just some random things I noticed.
The opening sequence in Hero, Episode 1 is a coordinated synchronized raid of a politician’s house and offices where all the public prosecutors and the police come out in force at 8am sharp to seize any and all documents and evidence found at those place.
What’s interesting about this sequence is that it opens with extreme close-ups on just the eyes of the prosecutors who will form the main supporting cast of the series as they converse with each other. The close-ups leave a lot out of the frame and there’s very little visual information to go on in terms of being able to match lines of dialogue to faces or personalities. And this idea of framing and seeing, omission and getting the full picture that is foregrounded here gets revisited consistently throughout the first episode.
The next time we see it referenced is when we get a hint of what the inter-office and out of office relations are like amongst this small group of public prosecutors. We find out that the female prosecutor who’s visually coded as the vamp because she wears a lot of red while everyone dresses in drab office colors is sleeping with another prosecutor who’s married and has a son.
Despite appearing to be the vamp, she’s also victim because in a shot for shot repetition of their tryst at a hotel in the middle of the episode and at the end of the episode, we see that immediately after their tryst he goes home to his son and his wife without so much as a backward glance.
This sort of split between public and private personas is especially important given the fact that these characters are public prosecutors and civil servants thus this minor subplot of the office affair becomes a double for the main case with the politician who is also a public figure whose private greed has encroached on his public responsibilities in the form of embezzlement.
The other way in which this office affair subplot doubles up is in terms of appreciating depth of characterization because the first episode is also when the main character, Kuryu Kohei (Takuya Kimura), joints the Tokyo branch. Everyone doesn’t know what to make of this sell-a-vision addict from a small seaside town, a school drop-out who studied for and passed the bar as an private candidate, and shows up to work dressed in t-shirt, jeans and lurid orange down jacket. In fact, in their first encounter, they dismiss him as the TV repair guy. And as you can probably guess, despite his refusal to wear an actual suit and show up at the public prosecutor’s office like a normal office worker, he’s the most dedicated and hardworking of the bunch. So there, appearance Vs. reality split.
But what about this framing and understanding the big picture, wherein what appears in a picture can belie or occlude reality? These themes get interwoven into the two cases to be solved in the episode. One seems to be a small, open-and-shut case involving a panty thief with a prior record while the other is trying to crack the politician’s watertight alibi of being on a sailing trip in the open seas with his family when the embezzlement supposedly took place.
I’m like so super impressed that both cases are cracked by careful examination of the visual image – what’s in frame, what’s out of frame – thereby creating a beautiful marriage between form and function in this first episode.
The politician’s alibi comes down to a dated photograph of he and his family on his yacht in the open seas. But Kuryu observes that it’s a windy day and in order to get the shot of the yacht and the family in the frame, the camera would have to be at the furthest end of the bow of the yacht meaning that they couldn’t have relied on a tripod and another person had to have been on the yacht. Given that all the other staff had their own alibi, the politician had to admit that a passerby helped them snap the shot which would have been impossible if they were really out on the open sea. Ta-da! What lies outside the frame has a sneaky way of making its presence known in-frame as well leading to a collapse in the dichotomy between appearance and reality.
The other case of the panty thief was solved by a recording of a magical girl anime. The thief’s alibi was that he had to be home to record the anime manually because he didn’t know how to work his VCR timer. Nobody believed him. But when Kuryu looked at the recording for the day of the supposed crime, the was recorded perfectly and even omitted the 5min news bulletin special about the very public arrest of the politician which wouldn’t have been possible if the thief had relied on a timer. Ta-da! Omitted reality saves the day.
So granted that Hero kinda looked like crap because it was grainy, washed-out, low-budget and kinda minimalist in terms of set and wardrobe there’s something very striking about the way it was told that holds on to me. There seems to be a physical lack in the production values that impacts the look of the series detrimentally because it’s just not as beautiful? But there’s an excess of content and meaning that gets highlighted in the juxtaposition with the series’ minimalistic setting and wardrobe.
Since I’ve already told everyone about DramaBeans, here’s the episode summary for I Can Hear Your Voice, Episode 1 😛
So I wanted to go on and talk about what I still love about K-drama but this post is just getting way too unwieldy. I’m gonna conclude here and start another post with maybe some thoughts on melodrama and why I love K-drama so much and why I’ve been obsessing over Heartless City lately.
In the mean time feel free to comment, agree, disagree, with anything I’ve said so far and even recommend other series 😛
I really liked Personal Taste and Heartless City, so if you know any other dramas that follow in that vein I’m more than open to suggestions. Till next time!