Sunday, January 06, 2013

Love Hurts: Korea Style

Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and mars
Any heart not tough nor strong enough
To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain,
Love is like a cloud, holds a lot of rain
Love hurts, oooh, love hurts. 
 "Love Hurts," written by Boudleaux Bryant and recorded by many 

I did not fully understand Nan's desire to see snow in Korea until we'd returned home and I settled down to watch the 20 episodes of "Winter Sonata," a much celebrated TV drama series that was filmed in part at one of the locations we visited, Nami Island.  By the time it ended, several days and a box of tissues later, I was a blubbering mess, but a dedicated fan of director director Yoon Suk-ho's masterpiece of romantic love.  Ten years ago, the popularity of this story helped set off the "Korean Wave" (also dubbed hallyu) that spread K-pop, K-drama, film and fashions across Asia.  I also came to accept my fondness for tearjerkers and the cleansing of the emotions that these stylized stories of love, innocence, tragedy and redemption can provide.

Nami Island contains plaques, posters and statues referring to scenes in "Winter Sonata," a epic drama of first love, lost love and love regained, against a setting of Korea covered in winter snow.   There was just enough snow on Nami for us to appreciate the connection.  The success of the TV series has dramatically insreased tourism to the island.  After decades of tension between Korea and Japan because of the early 20th century occupation and mid-century war, Japan has embraced Korea's cultural exports and its tourists account for much of the current boom. Bae Yong-Joon, who plays the male half of the star-crossed lovers, is a superstar there. In 2004 the then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi remarked that "Bae Yong-joon is more popular than I am in Japan."

In "Winter Sonata," Bae and actress Choi Ji-woo meet as high school students and experience first love and first winter snow at the same time.  An apparently fatal accident cuts short their time together.  Ten years later, Choi is engaged and working as an interior designer when she meets an architect newly arrived from America who looks strangely familiar.  Is he her first love, perhaps suffering from amnesia?  The plot thickens, revolving around issues of identity, memory, family and friendship, secrets and lies.  There is no sex (and only two short kisses).  It's the second installment of the director's "Endless Love" series of TV dramas which he has described as "non-violent, non-erotic and non-political."  Despite this claim, he flirts with intimations of illegitimacy and incest.  "Winter Sonata," the most successful of the four, has been turned into an anime series in Japan and also adapted as a musical for the stage in Korea.

There is something old-fashion and probably distinctly Korean about the air of innocence maintained throughout.  Terrible things are done, not the least by parents, and the various characters frequently say "I'm sorry" (although with few audible responses of forgiveness).  Tears flow copiously. Missing fathers are sought.  There are numerous meetings over tea sitting on the floor around a table.  Although the women seem quite capable, men are always promising to protect and stand by them.  Since it's winter, people are mostly dressed in heavy coats with colorful mufflers (which reportedly sparked a fad for them).  The twists and turns of plot are tied together beautifully by a musical score featuring several songs, partly in English, played by pianist Yiruma and sung by Ryu Si-won, with titles like "First Time," "My Memory," "Only You" and, yes, "Love Hurts."  I believe director Yoon must have been influenced by the film scores written by composer Francis Lai, for the infamous "Love Story" and also  for French director Claude Lelouch's "A Man and a Woman," but I can find no proof.

Korean TV dramas are very popular among Thais and their own episodic programs, called lakorn, show the influence.  Music is very prominent and each series has a memorable theme that is repeated with many variations.  While I can't understand much of the dialogue, I do appreciate the music and the strong emotions of the characters that move along with it.  Thai lakorns favor ghosts, gangsters and comedy, but there always seems to be a love angle, or more often a love triangle, to engage the audience.  In California I used to watched Mexican telenovelas in an attempt to learn Spanish and they seemed very similar to their Asian counterparts.  Unlike the popular soap operas on American daytime TV, these are miniseries with a limited run.  Even Brazil has its own romantic TV drama tradition.  All episodes of "Winter Sonata" are available on YouTube with English subtitles, and there are even episodes subtitled in Arabic (the anime version is also online).  Europe and the U.S., however, have not yet succumbed to the magic of Asian drama.  

Crying in films has required an adjustment to my sense of masculinity.  Nan always examines my eyes when I sniffle during movies or television.  It's not just bravery in war films or victory in sports films that set me off.  I used to weep during Hallmark card commercials on TV in the U.S..  Little kids lost that are found and the heroic pets that save them are sure triggers for my tears.  Death, certainly, and father-son relationships.  Men are taught to fear being seen as too emotional and I've always tried to man up when the women around me are sobbing over one thing or another with mixed success.  In real life over serious matters I rarely cry, even when my parents died.  The heartache I've felt in love has more often led to angry frustration rather than the cleansing of tears, and I acknowledge this as an Achilles heel.  I've had to resist the temptation of cynicism which wants to label love films and chick flicks as so much schmaltz.  I'll never forget the look on Cary Grant's face when he realized that Deborah Kerr had missed their appointment because of an accident that had made her a cripple.  Director Leo McCarey used music to great advantage in his film.  I was moved by the love stories in "A Summer Place," "Love is a Many Splendored Thing," as well as "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Titanic," among many, many others (and all had notable music to carry their romantic themes).

My real life does not have a soundtrack (except for music borrowed from others) and the plot of it rarely seems to move by my design.  I have blundered by pure chance into the most satisfying love affair of my life, one so improbable than a book about it would be dismissed as a fabrication.  Despite enormous differences, we complete each other. In the past I was a foolish lover, treating the women in my life with selfish abandon, seeing them through the fog of my imagination (fueled, it must be said, by cinematic romances).  I have often hurt others despite good intentions, and, like the characters in "Winter Sonata," I am truly and deeply sorry for the damage I have done.  Hurting them hurt me; the pain of love is a rolling stone.  Now, like the lovers in the best of films, I have a chance to redeem myself.

Why does love hurt?  Probably for the same reasons given by the Buddha's analysis.  As humans, we all suffer from sickness, old age and death, and make it worse by resisting change.  We cling together and pine away for health, eternal youth and immortality.  Our human habits of ignorance, anger and envy compound the problems of life.  In the shelter of love for a little while we can avoid the inevitable.  That we cannot stay there forever, hurts.

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