1. Shinpa melodrama is one of the most prevalent and pervasive forms of Korean literature and media, both in television and film form, and has had a profound effect on Korean culture. Shinpa means "New Theater", and consist of tear-jerking, highly emotional stories that typically involve romantic relationships played up to an incredible degree. At first, when the Japanese form of melodrama arrived in Korea in the early 20th century, it was mainly a theatrical endeavor; kino-films, filmed scenes, would accompany them. Eventually, plays themselves would be filmed, turning the audience who still enjoyed the theatrical/film mix "low-class" (Lee 39).
At the beginning of the shinpa era, the plays and subsequent films were seen as lower-class, as fodder for the masses that did not have any artistic merit, especially as other sound films and film movements took over. However, the essence of the melodrama helped to tap into many unique cultural ideas that Koreans were feeling at the time. With a collision between old and modern values and cultures taking place, the plots and stories of shinpa melodramas helped to describe that confusion and befuddlement they were experiencing.
In the 1950s, an infusion of American media and culture entered Korea, particularly after the Korean War. Learning new ways of filmmaking from American films, different types of melodramas that included these newer sensibilities became popular, existing alongside shinpa in the annals of Korean popular culture. However, these new contemporary melodramas began to overshadow shinpa melodramas, and they quickly fell out of favor, becoming anachronistic and outdated. As film took over as the primary form of entertainment in Korea, shinpas became even more old-fashioned; however, the modernization of Korea and the subsequent class conflicts that took place brought these tropes back in different settings. As time went on, shinpa films seemed to expand in definition, to the point where nearly all contemporary melodrama would be dubbed shinpa. Any work with excessive emotions portrayed by the characters given exaggeratingly horrible events is considered to have some elements of shinpa now, as opposed to more subtle, contemporary films.
There is a unique and distinct style to shinpa melodrama that sets it apart from normal melodrama, no matter what media it is in. A Moment to Remember tells the story of a cute Korean couple that court each other and form a happy relationship, only to be torn apart by the wife Su-Jin's early onset of Alzheimer's disease. Like with many shinpa stories, the film revolves around a couple in love; they are usually young, attractive, and they find a way to be together despite social pressures and being from different classes (Su Jin is a relatively well-off fashion designer, while Chul Soo is a foreman at a construction site). In Please Look After Mom, the family of deceased matriarch Park So-nyo reflects on her actions and her impact on the family after she is lost at a Seoul train station. These moments are used throughout the book to highlight just how saintly "Mom" was, to the chagrin and sadness of her family, who was very selfish and demanded much of her. This tragic moment at the beginning of the book is a traumatic means of shaking them out of their indecency, remembering all of the things Mom gave up for them.
Shinpa melodramas typically have a very excessive emotionalism to them, where attitudes and personalities are heightened to the point of ridiculousness. When bad things happen, this destroys the people involved emotionally; there is constant crying, carrying on, fits of rage and sadness and so on. Emotions are never played close to the chest, instead with broad gesticulation and energy. Lee describes the emotions as a reaction to "antimony," where there is an opposition between forces that leaves no good answer for the main character, the frustration and confusion causing the excessive emotionality.
Another factor to shinpa melodrama is the tragic event; there is usually some sort of uncharacteristic and unsubtle tragedy that occurs, usually resulting in the death of a member of the family or loved one. This is the catalyst by which much of the emotional manipulation and exaggeration occurs in shinpa melodramas. Few if any shinpas end on a happy note; they may have bittersweet endings, but nothing ever turns up roses for the characters in these creations.
While both A Moment to Remember and Please Look After Mom have very clear ties to shinpa melodramatic tropes and situations, there are ways in which these pieces of media subvert these expectations and the traditions of the genre. A Moment to Remember has Chul Soo, the pinnacle of masculinity, be the grieving character and emotional anchor for the film, showing a sensitivity that many husbands or male lovers in shinpa are not typically the focus of such high emotions; however, Su Jin becomes then the lover with the problem, which she then remains brave about for the sake of Chul Soo. This subverts genre expectations, as the man is typically thought to be the one to suffer silently; in A Moment to Remember, Chul Soo wears sunglasses so as not to reveal just how much he is crying. Su Jin is the one to actively court Chul Soo at the beginning of their relationship, showing a much more modern take on the doomed lovers as Su Jin is seemingly the more assertive, proactive one.
In Please Look After Mom, the shinpa influences are very apparent, particularly the book's emphasis on the struggle between the hectic and soulless nature of life in the city and the heart and soul of small-town farm life. At the same time, the tragedy that causes the excessive emotionality is actually the crux of the novel, taking place at the beginning of the book; this subverts the shinpa idea of having the tragic event come after setting up the sympathetic protagonists. In this book, the family is far from likeable, as the children abandon their traditions in favor of the newfound pleasures of the city. At the same time, the book is overflowing with tears, as characters sob uncontrollably at the sainthood and sacrifices of Mom, and they are plagued with guilt at their own actions. This melodrama does not stem from forces outside their control; they are actually responsible for Mom's disappearance (by living so far away, and ignoring the signs of cancer that they saw).
2. In the melodrama genre of Korean film and television, the conflict often comes from interpersonal relationships and their varying complications. Many of these conflicts have to do with issues of class, gender and even sexual orientation; oftentimes, these characters are struggling with these problems just as Korea is. With the increasing modernization of Korea and its attempts to reconcile its old-fashioned traditions with a more ubiquitous, American secularism, these tensions can exert themselves in the films of the nation, especially through its melodramas. The films The Housemaid and Bungee Jumping of Their Own tackle dark and complex issues regarding gender and sexuality, ones which perhaps could not have been addressed at any point before their times of release. In the addressing of these new, complicated concerns, these films attempt to find ways to merge the old with the new, to reconcile tradition with modernity, and show the struggles of a Korea that is wrestling with the same issues.
In The Housemaid, the upper-class family of Hae-ra and Hoon is disrupted by the appearance of the au pair Eun-yi. Through a series of complex and interweaving events, Eun-yi begins an affair with Hoon, which involves pregnancy, shaming by the previous maid, Miss Cho, abortion, and eventually suicide. The film demonstrates the differences in sexual politics between many of the characters, particularly issues of pregnancy, abortion, infidelity and control. There are also strong examples of the conflict between rich and poor, especially for poor women, who often seen their sexuality as the only means of getting ahead in such a patriarchal and class-entrenched society (Kim, 2009). Eun-yi is seduced by Hoon, but even after Hae-ra finds out, it is Eun-yi who is punished. Eun-yi is the victim all throughout the film, her feeble attempts at gaining agency and control over her situation being met with scorn and violence against her on the part of Hae-ra and Miss Cho, also tackling issues of female competition over men and children.
In Bungee Jumping of Their Own, Seo In-woo and Tae-hee fall in love with each other, only for Tae-hee to be killed in a car accident. Years later, Seo finds himself falling in love with a male student, Hyun-bin; this is attributed to his being the reincarnation of Tae-hee. This film in particular tackles the subject of homosexuality, and its perception in Korean culture. In particular, In-woo has to struggle with this newfound set of feelings that he has for a man, which he has not experienced before. This makes him question many of his preconceptions about who he is, and he also has to deal with the response he gets from the rest of the school about his relationship with a male student.
The Housemaid reveals many different universals in modern cultures regarding women's politics and sexuality - the debate over abortion or its practicality, the acceptability or excusing of infidelity on the part of the man, and the desire of a wife to defend her marriage against potential "threats." What is interesting, however, about The Housemaid is the class conflicts that come into play - Eun-yi, an innocent lower-class girl, is effectively tricked into being used and hurt by upper-class individuals who want to control her or get rid of her. This shows the dichotomy between the upper and lower classes in Korea and many other industrialized nations - the rich are allowed to get away with everything, including using the poor for their own ends, and can dispose of them when it inconveniences them. Eun-yi's suicide is her final revenge against being used by the upper classes and hurt by older women who are threatened by her youth and beauty; she makes it public and ugly, lighting herself on fire in the very place where her cries for help from those who can provide it were rejected - the chandelier.
The way in which the homosexual relationship is handled in Bungee Jumping of Their Own addresses both the struggle that homosexuals are currently experiencing in terms of cultural acceptance in Korea, as well as the clash between tradition and secular modernity. In today's Korea, homosexuality is a subject that is not openly discussed except by LGBT filmmakers; even in larger company, very few will actually admit to being homosexual or talk about their experiences (Berry, 1998). There were also censorship laws that were in place until very recently that forbade the discussion of the subject in film and media. This mirrors just how reticent and hesitant In-woo is about discussing and exploring his love for Hyun-bin. Furthermore, the revelation that Hyun-bin is just Tae-hee reincarnated demonstrates the struggle to maintain Korean spirituality in the face of such modern acts and beliefs - is In-woo's relationship with Hyun-bin a legitimately homosexual and modern one, or is he just a reincarnated version of his old heterosexual love?
I believe The Housemaid is very effective at exploring the myriad issues that women of all ages and classes have in modern Korea. Traditional views of high-class marriages, as evidenced by Hae-ra's mother's experiences, involve the tacit acceptance of the man cheating, as you will "live like a queen" if you can let this inevitability go. However, Hae-ra feels threatened that a younger woman is stealing her man, touching on notions of the importance of physical beauty and youth in modern Western culture, now transplanted to Korea. Meanwhile, Eun-yi is an innocent young girl who is brought into this pattern of being used by a rich man then discarded when it is inconvenient. This lack of control over her life is something that many women, especially in Korea, feel deeply, and her role helps to illustrate that.
I do not feel that same level of discussion on a serious level with Bungee Jumping; in fact, I believe that its discussion of homosexuality is disingenuous since the homosexual relationship is never really homosexual; it is a heterosexual relationship that is being continued. Since In-woo fell in love with Tae-hee as a woman, it can still be considered acceptable to love him. I would have much rather preferred that In-woo actually have to wrestle with the idea of falling in love with a man, and what that says about his identity and his desires. Instead, it is possible that the revelation of Hyun-bin being Tae-hee's reincarnated self is simply an excuse to sidestep those uncomfortable questions and keep it, in the end, a straight love story. Hyun-bin as a being is just a tool to rekindle this existing heterosexual relationship, providing justification for In-woo to continue this socially unacceptable partnership. A braver move, I feel, would be to have Hyun-bin reject his theory of the reincarnation and force In-woo to change his perceptions, just as Korea needs to change theirs about homosexuals in the face of globalization and modernization.