Blend of Aesthetics and Violence in the Korean Wave

In “Hallyu 2.0: The New Korean Wave in the Creative Industry,” Dal Yong Jin reminds that the original “Korean Wave” happened 15 years ago and made Asia love the Korean pop  product including Korean films. Dal calls this phenomenon “Hallyu 1.0” which means ‘Korean wave’ in Korean. Meanwhile the current Korean Wave that swept over the rest of the world should be called “Hallyu 2.0” as a wave of love for the Korean entertainment product spills over outside Asia.

Whereas Korean cinematic aesthetics has distinct characteristics of Asian love for well-balanced shots and clean beauty, it was tainted by Hollywood penchant for large gestures and impressive fighting stunts. As it was being formed in tumultuous times of political upheavals, Korean directors’ aesthetics was modeled after Hollywood blockbusters mixed with Eastern love for beauty. Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 Oldboy and Bong Joon-ho’s 2014 Snowpiercer are similar in following unusual patterns and being original in their content but at the same time they are very distinct in the genre and production, with one being very Korean with a Korean cast while the other appeals to the diverse audience with multiethnic cast. As example of the Korean Wave, Oldboy and Snowpiercer could win a transnational audience due a blend of visual originality and freshness with extreme brutality and cruelness. 


A transnational audience was ecstatic when Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy was released. The film received Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix in 2004, which signals that it can be interesting for the Western audience. Even though European audience might have spotted that the aimless imprisonment of the protagonist for the long fifteen years is similar to The Count of Monte Cristo by French writer Alexandre Dumas, Oldboy’s plot is still very complex and unusual and keep the viewer in suspense throughout the whole film. The major premise of the film is revenge. Protagonist Oh Dae-su swears to find the villain responsible for his imprisonment and revenge his fifteen years of his lost freedom. However, in the middle of the movie a plot twist reveals that Oh Dae-su’s imprisonment was Lee Woo-jin’s revenge for a casual remark about his sister being slutty that have resulted in the girl’s loss of reputation and a consequential suicide. Her brother Lee Woo-jin revenged her death because he loved her not only dearly but passionately too and had incestuous relations with her. However, the plot is interesting not only because in his revenge Oh Dae-su is turning from being a victim to becoming the villain and Lee Woo-jin is extreme both in his carnal love to his sister and his devious desire to revenge, but also because Lee Woo-jin messes with Oh Dae-su’s mind. In the ultimate twist, Lee Woo-jin reverses the incest scenario on Oh Dae-su and with the help of hypnosis makes him fall in love with a young girl Mido, who turns out in the end to be Oh Dae-su’s daughter.

As a typical blockbuster, Oldboy is saturated with fighting scenes but its strong point is that they are very realistic. One of the most impressive sequences is the one when Oh Dae-su returns to the prison to get revenge. The director takes the scene as a long take and Oh Dae-su has to walk the hall fighting many villains. Unlike traditional relentless superheroes who do not even break a sweat when fighting a host of bandits, Oh Dae-su looks like an average man fighting. The viewer cannot be confident that he will win because Oh Dae-su pants, falls on the floor, gets up, punches and is punched back. Overall, Oldboy wins the transnational audience because it is a successful mix of a good screenplay, a great director, acting and all the other component of a good film such as music, humor, cast, lighting, etc.

In contrast to Park Chan-Wook and the subject of revenge, Bong Joon-ho is interested in social inequality and determinism. In Snowpiercer, the traditional for a blockbuster fighting scenes are mixed with a social commentary which can be read as a warming that something similar can happen in real life unless people learn to use and distribute resources better (Agence France-Presse). In order to make the film interesting for a wide audience, the director mixes genres. As a blockbuster, it is able to gather a wide and diverse audience. Placing the story into a post-apocalyptic environment the director attracts the sci-fi loving audience. To appeal to a larger number of people and observe racial quotas, Bong Joon-ho has an international cast. The protagonist is played by Chris Evans while supporting roles are played by Tilda Swington, Ed Harris, Ah-sung Ko, Song Kang-ho, Octavia Spencer, and others. At the same time, the film appeals to the audience that wants to see some sense and logic and makes it a kind of parable that simultaneously makes a commentary on today’s racial and social inequalities and suggests that revolutions are not able to solve the problem. As a result, the film grossed 4.4 million dollars domestically, was released as video on demand, and had good results internationally making “its total ... to close to $100 million. 

Director Bong takes a very simple idea of social inequality when the rich are at the top and the poor at the bottom and conceptualizes it horizontally as a train running in perpetual motion around the earth. At the head of the train the elite revels in riches and comfort, whereas at the tail of the train the poor can hardly live on protein bars made of insects. The director juxtaposes the scenes of dirt and grime in the poor carriages with luxury of the rich carriages. Apart from visual allure of Snowpiercer, the film is interesting with its mix of action and philosophical musings. Moving from carriage to carriage the insurgents occasionally fight with the police and the army as well as have a quiet moment to think of their fate.

Snowpiercer also has an unexpected plot twist when the protagonist Curtis realizes that their uprising was choreographed by Wilford, a god-like figure who created the engine. Whist Curtis was sure that he was acting on his own will and his actions can free the people, the conversation with Wilford reveals that the good for everyone is impossible and from time to time some number of people should die so the train could carry on and the other people had enough food. Curtis becomes aware of the cynical design of intentionally encouraging uprisings and rebellions in order to reduce the number of people on the train and in a last attempt to win Curtis over Wilford offers Curtis to take his position and rule the train. Eventually the story of a perpetual train ride around the post-apocalyptic earth results in derailing and death for everyone apart from two children. This speculative ending suggests that some might imagine a very optimistic wayout when two children inhabit and repopulate the earth. However, the harsh weather conditions and a lack of any survival skills suggests a very pessimistic ending when humanity is over with the death of those kids who are not able to survive permafrost. 

Thus, both films treat similar concepts and ideas which have been around for some time and are not completely new. At the same time, the fresh vision of the Korean Wave directors gives them an opportunity to create something new and distinct as a result of the blend of styles and genres. Unexpected plot twists and spectacular fighting scenes unite the films. Yet each has a distinct character and atmosphere. Park Chan-Wook explores the subject of revenge whereas Bong Joon-ho makes a commentary on social inequality and inadequate means to solve it. 

Related essays