Korean Melodramatic Genre and the Masculinity

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This work is devoted to comparing the masculinity of today’s middle-aged Korean man and middle-aged Korean man in 1960s – a protagonist in the film “Barefoot Youth”. The paper analyzes the characteristics of a man’s masculinity, what place the masculinity took in the Korean history, and how it is represented in melodramatic Korean films.

Modern Korean masculinity is in general perceived through and embodied in particularly local effects of industrialization-cum-modernization. It is affected by a range of circumstances such as morality, social status, working class, the level of development in the country and/or cities, health, social and economic changes, etc. From the early 1990s, Korea’s competitive advantage in the world market suffers a precipitous decline. Factors that propelled Korea’s remarkable economic growth during the 1970s and 1980s such as the occasional combination of low-wage, high-quality labor, and cheap foreign capital under favorable conditions for international trade diminished in the face of local wage hikes and increased price competition overseas. Corporations were in need of structural reform coincidentally phrased as a “constitutional improvement”. They responded by implementing labor control and intensifying the rationalization of production (Park, 1997). These reforms are seen generally as enabling the slow-footed giant conglomerate’s traditionally conservative and consensus-driven management to become more agile, more aggressive, and, most importantly, more adaptable on the furiously changing international business arena. For the first time in the modern Korean history, the corporate white-collar worker came to be viewed as a part of a problem.

Middle class white-collar workers are subordinate to the whole governmental system. They spend most of their time at work. The work distress, consequent problems in the family, and other circumstances influence people’s health greatly. Besides, there is a range of diseases that occur to middle-aged men in Korea. Middle age in this country is a period of life when a man has a nuclear family in which one of his children goes to school and the other one is not married yet. 

Being the head of the family and working most of the time, middle-aged Korean men go through much stress. Their health problems are caused by the inevitable fierce competition associated with industrialization. They drink too much coffee to keep themselves awaken; they eat junk and fast food right at their working place. In addition to that, men start drinking and smoking excessively in order to get rid of all that stress from work and family problems. They prefer to do this together with their colleagues rather than alone. Alcohol and smoking lead to various diseases including cancer which causes death among men in their forties. Nevertheless, not only diseases can kill a middle-aged Korean man. There were cases when people died at their working places due to simple alcohol or caffeine overdose. Some white-collar workers, tired of the way they live, commit suicide. The number of suicides in Korea is extremely high. Individual effort, exercise, and proper diet is a solution to avoid a strong dependence of alcohol and smoking (Lee, 1996).

A middle-aged Korean man should not only be a good worker and the head of his family. His ability to serve his country by means of military service and patriotism plays a significant role.

There is a term in the Korean language chuch’esong which is translated as “a loss of male subjectivity” and signifies an important national narrative in South Korea, one with its own gender, historical, class and generation coordinates. Male loss or dislocation – material, cultural, social, and physical – provides a ready grammar for articulating the costs of colonialism, the Korean War, and rapid social transformation in South Korea. In order to show women’s suffering, melodramatic genre appeared in the middle of the twentieth century in the Korean culture. Some scholars argue that melodrama works exactly to turn social and political spheres of life into domestic: as Elsaesser notes, “the characters are… each other’s sole referent; there is no outside world to be acted upon”. Some experts on Asian melodramatic genres in particular noted that characters’ troubles are framed outside of the self, in social code or beyond human agency entirely. As Koreans have been straddling a great amount of status systems for generations, the melodrama is intimately tied to the personal strategies that people have mobilized amidst the changes of social transformation. Melodrama has been a mode well suited to the narration of self and nation over the course of Korean social transformation. Golden Age melodramatic film has been a willing confederate in such gendered narratives at the heart of the sensibilities of the contemporary South Korea.

Reviewing the main male character of the film “Barefoot youth”, I can say that he is an example of a lower class Korean man of that time. DuSu is in his middle ages. He does not have any good background but wants to achieve everything by his hard work. Despite the fact that he is a gangster, he is also a gentleman who would come to help someone in trouble. That is what DuSu did when he saw men harassing two young women. He selflessly defended ladies not caring that he might hurt himself. The difference between DuSu and today’s Korean man is that he is not so patriotic due to being a gangster. The main character is a bachelor who spends his free time in bars. He does not seem to have that masculinity which today’s Korean men have. DuSu struggles with all his might to improve his conditions of life. Working for a local gang, he does not do much good for the society.

Main character’s life changes when he meets a beautiful woman HaNa. She comes to him to thank for saving her from thugs that tried to harass her and her friend. At first, DuSu is reluctant to accept Hanna’s gratitude, because he thinks that he did not do anything extraordinary. He believes that men are supposed to protect women from bad treatment.

The plot of the film shows us the stark class division in Korea in 1960s, economic struggles, harsh social dictates and, of course, a tragic love story that takes place in the thick of all those things. Through the barriers that prevent two main characters from being together, we can make a conclusion that “Barefoot youth” is melodrama. Falling in love with HaNa, DuSu starts to change. He cares for her enough to minimize his work with the gang. When DuSu realizes that he cannot struggle with his old life any more, he runs away with HaNa.

DuSu contends not only his own opponents, but also has to deal with HaNa’s mother who is against their relationship, because they belong to completely different classes of the society. He shows all his power fighting with the obstacles.

The tragic ending of the film demonstrates us that no matter how much the couple tried to bring their social differences together, DuSu will still belong to the lower class, and HaNa – to aristocracy even after the death. Having committed suicide, they did not expect to be separated again. Their desire to be together did not come true after all. 

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