The Problem of Movie Soundtracks
Note: This is my contribution to the Korean Cinema Blogathon week. If you are here because of that campaign, welcome to Korean Indie.
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So a few years ago I was watching Choi Min-shik’s Springtime (꽃피는 봄이 오면), a movie about a failed jazz musician who gets roped into a high school teaching job in a rural mining town. It is not Choi’s best movie and is more than a little derivative of Brassed Off, but it was pleasant enough for the most part.
But one point the movie hammers home, over and over again, is that the reason Choi’s character is a failure as a jazz musician is because he is too good, too much of a purist. If only he would sell out and be more commercial, he might have had a good career, but, no, he insists on only playing “real” jazz. After hearing this kind of talk for 15 minutes or so, Choi finally gets on stage to play a concert—and he plays Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good.” Seriously. About the most mainstream, middle-of-the-road, non-jazz song ever written (pleasant enough, but it’s sure not “real” jazz, whatever that is).
For me, my interest in Korea was first about music. Sure, there have been a lot of great Korean movies over the years and the film business has been major part of my job since I started writing professionally, but for me Korean music came first, in particular its indie rock scene. From my early days in Korea, back around 1996 or so, I used to try to check out all different kinds of music, from the hair-metal of Mahatma to the quirky alt-rock of Hwang Shin Hye Band. Remember, this was before we had the Internet to help find things, and the English-language press in Korea rarely mentioned anything about indie music, so it used to be pretty tough for a fobby Westerner like myself to find out much about this sort of thing. But I did the best I could, and gradually I discovered that there was quite a lot of great music being made at the time.
So when Korean movies began to take off, pulling in good money in Korea and big awards abroad, I thought naturally these two media would start to help each other. But I was wrong. Very, very wrong. I was amazed how often music would be the weakest link in many Korean movies.
The most common problem (especially in “epics,” like Shiri or Taeguki) was simple excessive orchestration, as if someone had force-fed John Williams two pots of coffee, a bag of sugar, and a half-dozen hits of crystal meth. Especially as the emotional high points of the film hit, the soundtrack would pound with relentless symphonic histrionics. For some reason, Tube really comes to mind here. It’s like the filmmaker does not trust the power of his story and instead feels the need to shout at the audience: “You! Will! Feel! Epic! Sadness!”
And then there was a phase, especially around the middle of last decade, when way too many Korean films went Japanese for their music, featuring quirky, European-carnival-esque music. Some were quite good and a good match for the movies, but far too many were basically filler and rehashes. (How fitting that this year’s logo for the Korean Cinema Blogathon features an image from Bittersweet Life, one of the worst offenders).
Maybe others will think I am nitpicking, but to me, music can make a huge difference to a movie. Quentin Tarantino’s movies have made some amazing use of music (indeed, sometimes the music has been the best part of his films). But Tarantino using the Seventies, Nina Simone version of “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was an iconic part of Kill Bill. Kim Jee-woon’s use of the same song in The Good, the Bad, the Weird was merely derivative. Sometimes referencing a great soundtrack can make for an amusing parody, but most of the time it just tells the audience that the filmmaker is not very creative. Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, Wong Kar Wai – too many Korean filmmakers have worn their creative inspirations too openly, rehashing others instead of trying their own thing.
The strange thing is that Korean cinema does have a good history of soundtracks, especially in the 1970s when hit songs could inspire entire films. The Green Apple (푸른 사과) and Heavenly Homecoming to the Stars (별들의 고향) soundtracks, largely written by Shin Joong-hyun, are classics. More recent South Korean movies like The Contact (접속) or Tell Me Something (텔 미 썸딩) could surprise with songs by Tom Waits or Nick Cave. Jang Sun-woo used Dalparan on Bad Movie and Lies, and Kim Jee-woon had Baik Hyun-jhin on The Foul King. Even the North Korean movie Thaw (1988) had a surprisingly hip soundtrack, using Isaac Hayes’ classic theme from Shaft in a key moment of the film.
There have been a few good uses of modern music in Korean movies more recently. Anna talked about Apollo 18 in the recent Drifting Away. Even the terrible flop Who R U gave us Deli Spice’s classic song “Chau Chau.” But for the most part, Korean filmmakers have been way too derivative and obvious with their soundtracks. With so many incredibly talented musicians in Korea today, in rock, pop, folk, classical and more, I think the time has come for more filmmakers to use those musicians to make movies with more spark and originality.
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