A few years ago the movie “I am Legend” played in movie theaters in South Korea. This zombie/horror movie was very popular with the South Korean public. However in an interesting twist for South Korean moviegoers the lead character played by Will Smith dies at the end of the movie.
The fact that the lead character died in the South Korean ending is especially remarkable when considered in contrast to the American ending, the lead character survives and saves mankind. And while this seems a minor issue this different ending contains a lesson for South Korea as it struggles with a suicide rate almost triple that of the OECD average.
For South Korean movies, even comedies contain dark elements and invariably end on a sad note. Horror movies are extremely popular and lead characters die with a regularity that is regrettably predictable. In one of the most popular South Korean movies, Monster, the middle school girl heroine dies right as it seems she will be saved.
In contrast, in movies made for American audiences good invariably triumphs and the lead characters survive to fight another day. Even in movies where a “bad” character is successful, such success generally either brings redemption or the “bad” character is imbued with certain noble characteristics that make success acceptable. However, American movies unfortunately contain levels of violence and gunplay shocking to the average South Korean viewer.
Thus while the world stands aghast at the continued gun violence and mass murders in America and South Korea struggles to prevent another year of record suicides perhaps a causal connection does exist between these cultural issues and the types of stories that are popular within each society.
The American love of guns and the sacrosanct nature of gun ownership puzzle most of the world and yet it is a fundamental part of American culture. This culture derives substantially from the American experience.
Not only did individual ownership of guns factor into fighting wars, such as the American revolutionary war, but guns were necessary for day to day life; for hunting food and for survival and protection at a time when the government could not provide such guarantees.
While that pioneer time may have passed the culture attitudes and traditions remain and imbue the American experience and are reflected in the stories and tales that are popular. Unfortunately this noble historical background has been transformed by the film industry in recent years into a morbid glorification of guns and violence in modern American movies.
In contrast South Korean movies and stories often focus on the noble ideal of self-sacrifice in order to save the nation, family or reputation. Regrettably this focus on sacrifice has been colored by the brutal 20th century South Korean experience of invasion, occupation and fratricidal warfare.
Thus, like in America, once noble ideals have transformed for the worse in movies released in recent years. In South Korea this change has resulted in an unhealthy fascination with horror, failure and suicide.
In South Korean movies and dramas lead characters inevitably and repeatedly fail. They lose their love, their money and their reputations and in response often step in front of buses or drive their cars into the ocean; they hang themselves in closets and pen beautiful farewells in final futile attempts to salvage the reputation of their lovers, friends or families. In the end they save nothing and only contribute to the general aura of mystique that surrounds the once noble ideal of honorable sacrifice that has warped into a fascination with suicide in modern South Korean culture.
However, attributing America’s gun violence or South Korea’s high suicide rate solely to the movie and television industry ignores many other issues of economics, competition, education and relative deprivation that likewise contribute to these issues. Nonetheless the psyche of a nation is often reflected in its popular entertainment and South Korea, as America, should reflect on whether the consideration of these issues is warranted.
While the U.S. Congress debates enacting restrictions on gun ownership and the South Korean National Assembly debates enacting legislation addressing the high suicide rate perhaps at the same time the respective movie and television industries of both countries should reflect on their contribution to each countries respective dilemmas. While the film industry is certainly not solely responsible for the respective faults of each country, it is also not powerless in its ability to affect such issues in a positive manner.
Perhaps it is time for South Korean filmmakers to learn from their American cohorts and allow the lead character to more often survive and triumph. At the same time American filmmakers could learn from their South Korean cohorts and realize that successful storytelling does not always require a triple digit body count. And for the rest of us who enjoy watching such entertainment an occasional American action movie without excessive violence and an occasional South Korean movie with a happy ending would be welcome.
By Daniel Fiedler
Daniel Fiedler has been a professor of law in South Korea since 2006 and a licensed attorney in California since 2000 and Arizona since 1998. ― Ed.