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[HanCinema's Film Review] Putting the 'Han' in Korean Cinema: Meta-narratives and Cultural Identity

2011/11/05 | 1121 views |  | Permalink

Where are Korea's happy endings? If you have ever watched a Korean film you will know that they don't always conclude as they might have done if produced by Hollywood. The characters and their stories seem to be influenced by an invisible force that marks a film as typically "As One". From its melodramas to revenge thrillers, there is something tragic and constant driving the Korean film culture, but what exactly? How can one begin to understand Korean cinema in its entirety, as a product of cultural influences and collective consciousness? The exclusively Korean notion of 'Han' might provide some clues as to why Korean cinema has produced the type of films it has.

What is 'Han' exactly? Han is an extremely culturally specific term that even scholars cannot pin down to a single definition. It is an emotive term that denotes a seemingly paradoxical state of collective being deeply embedded within Korean culture. It's a personal struggle that incorporates past injustices, future obstacles, and the hardships that exist in them. It's a suffering that persists and serves to define one's actions and approaches to life's happenings.

For South Koreans han is as amorphous a notion as love or hate: intensely personal, yet carried around collectively, a national torch, a badge of suffering tempered by a sense of resiliency - Taken from "A complex feeling tugs at Koreans" by John M. Gilionna

 Cinema as art contains residue from the culture in which it is produced. Han can be seen as the driving force behind Korean cinema, subconsciously impacting on the choices, directions, and the paths of any given film. It is why certain genres are favoured and it defines the fate of Korean protagonists. It is present in a film's themes and its storyline, as well as being a cog in a film's mechanics as a tool used for conveying meaning and emotions. Han is the collective torch from which the shadows we see dance onscreen are birthed, the badge branded on the celluloid that marks it as Korean. As each frame dies and gives rise to the next, there Han can be found, flickering and dancing over and within the spectacle. 

"Peppermint Candy", "Mother - 2009", and "The Servant"

Korean films and genre have always seemed have a complicated relationship. The industry has shown itself to favour genres such as the melodrama, revenge thrillers, and tragedies. Films such as "Poetry", "Mother - 2009", and "Peppermint Candy" all exhibit Han as uniquely Korean emotion. Suffering and personal pain defines characters as they exist within a troubled world. These protagonists encounter tragic life events but the real tragedy for them is not what is shown so much as what is suggested. The emotive makeup of the characters is pre-existing and deterministic. In all of the above mentioned films our protagonist is already suffering in some way or another. The lives before we came to view them have already defined them as beings and what follows is less of character development as it is a playing out of the evitable. A synthesis marked by Han and played out by individuals as trouble entities within a troubled word. We are aware while watching these films, especially in "Peppermint Candy", that the narrative has not allowed or suggested that a 'happy ending' will present itself. Instead, we watch and suffer like they do, wallowing in the knowledge that the light and the end of tunnel may never come because it barely existed to begin with.

Conflict within Korean melodramas such as these exists as personal struggles against that which they feel powerless. But cinema can also act as a form of cultural dreaming, a wish to overcome, a chance to transcend troubles and pains, to empower oneself with the courage to challenge and seek out justice for past wrongs. Fantasy is film can offer a nation a chance to dream and become disconnected from the crippling concerns of their daily lives. But Korea is not know for their fantasy films, because even when give the powers to create an alternative reality the potency of their Han is one that defines rather than existentially exists. This being-in-the-world is identity for Koreans, and to separate them, even through textual dreaming, is to deny apart of themselves they call Korean.

"The Chaser", "Old Boy", and "I Saw the Devil"

A few months I wrote a post on the Korean revenge film and why this form of story telling seems so prevalent in the Korean film industry. Revenge is an act that attempts to balance the scales, an effort to resolve feelings of injustice and the resultant suffering. This effort is in vein, as many a bloody Korean film has shown. "Old Boy", "The Chaser", and "I Saw the Devil" all offer a narrative progression that symbolically seeks to overcome and transcend past pains. But the act of revenge is a sadomasochistic pleasure that neither defeats nor transcends the enormity and weight of the Han Korean's collectively feel as a nation. Violence and blood are the tools used to convey a purging of 'bad blood' but an individual's actions alone is not enough to redefined a nations sense of self.

This post is meant to be the seed of something greater; the beginning of an idea that I think will offer great insight into Korean cinema as a whole. I don't claim to have a concrete understanding of 'Han' but I intend to expand my knowledge of it in the hopes of returning to this topic in the near future. I have written two previous posts on the Korean revenge thriller and authority and power, both of which I think can fall under this meta-narrative of 'Han' and its role and influence within the industry. Since this is an unfinished thought, I would encourage people to comment and share their thoughts relating to the ideas I have put forward here. Also, if you have a something to add to my brief discussion of 'Han' please feel free.

C.J.Wheeler (

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