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Diary: Watching Café Noir (카페 느와르), Marriage Story (결혼 이야기), and the Cinema of Seoul

We hit up a favorite Korean barbecue spot with my cinephile friend Michael, who recently came to Koreatown after five years spent in actual Korea. Naturally, the conversation turned to Korean films we both knew, and big names from the Korean cinema boom of the early 2000s came up: Joint Security Area (110 minutes), Memories of Murder (127 minutes), Oldboy (120 minutes), The Host (119 minutes). I include the runtimes to support the conclusion we happened to reach: Korean movies aren’t very long. Few of the major ones get much past the two-hour mark, and the average production feels closer to 90 minutes. And Korean three-hour films? Nonexistent, apparently.

No sooner did we decide that than another friend, a Korean-American who gets back there every once in a while, presented us with the opportunity to watch Café Noir, a Korean film that, at 197 minutes in, gets over the three-hour mark by a pretty safe margin. It immediately became (maybe apart from the full version of Until the End of the World, whose screenings legally require the presence of Wim Wenders) the motion picture I most wanted to see in the world, not just because of its length, but because of the background of its director: Jung Sung-il began as a film critic — “a representative man of the first generation of Cinephile in Korea,” says KoBiz, “with furious and continuous writing about film” — and only later turned filmmaker, a career path that, to my great disappointment, seemed to have died with Truffaut. Wasn’t filmmaking supposed to be the ultimate act of film criticism?

Café Noir has another unusual thing going for it: its view of Seoul. Given my interest in cities in cinema, I often ask Koreans to name their favorite films about that particular city, and most of them respond as if I’d asked them the distance between the moon and sun. (The second most common response is, curiously, Cold Eyes, a local remake of a Hong Kong picture from a few years before.) This despite the fact that most Korean movies seem to take place in Seoul, a condition which has produced a sort of accepted cinematic view of the capital.

Café Noir has a different one: much of the second half takes place in the freeway-turned-public-space of the Cheonggyecheon Stream (which I wrote about for the Guardian), and several memorable sequences play out in locations high above the city, such as on the funicular running up to Seoul Tower. Other sequences involve long tracking shots which give a strong linear sense of the city — and often not the parts approved by the bureau of tourism. I’d call it a cinephile’s movie, not just because of its form, but because of the extent of its references to other works of Korean cinema, all the way down to D-War (which — you laugh — may yet show up among my Los Angeles video essays).

chilsu and mansu

I can’t quite tell whether to call Café Noir an urbanophile’s movie — it hits the whole “isolation in the metropolis” feeling pretty hard — but I certainly enjoy its heightened awareness of a city that, like Los Angeles, so many films treat as nothing more than the default set of backgrounds. In my Notebook on Cities and Culture interview with long Korea-resident American film critic Darcy Paquet, we talk about films that take Seoul seriously (he mentions Cold Eyes), and more recently, for his 한국일 보 column on life in Korea, he wrote about the view of the rapidly-changing city you get if you watch the right movies from over the past few decades:

After beginning with some brief glimpses of the city in the years before the destruction of the Korean War, we see the outdoor markets and chaotic reconstruction of the 1950s and early 1960s, the slow urbanization of the late 1960s, and then the appearance of high rise buildings and overhead pedestrian crossings in the 1970s. (For some reason, every Korean film from the 1970s seems to prominently feature an overhead pedestrian crossing.) By the late 1980s, manifestations of wealth appear more obviously in the cityscape. There’s something unforgettable and bittersweet about the iconic helicopter shots of the Express Bus Terminal and Apgujeong Apartments at the end of Chilsu and Mansu.

You can watch Chilsu and Mansu, a picture we also discuss in our interview, free on the Korean Film Archive’s invaluable Youtube channel — or Marriage Story, a movie I watched just the other day, and which in most ways represents the polar opposite of Café Noir. Darcy writes about Marriage Story in his book New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves, describing that 1992 release as the first “planned film” in the industry’s history: not only did it get its financing from mighty conglomerate Samsung, it got not just tested but conceived by round after round of focus groups in which members of its target demographic dictated exactly that they wanted to see.

marriage story

That sausage-factory of a process produced a more interesting movie than you might expect, and, like most works of Korean cinema, one with sharper edges that you might expect. (Its frank depiction of wife-beating alone would feel horribly incongruous in any equivalently major American film, let alone a rom-com.) But although set in Seoul, I wouldn’t call it urbanistically interesting. The couple at its center live a lifestyle almost implausibly middle-class by the standards of Korean newlyweds in the early 1990s, and in many ways a more Western one than I live myself: they drive everywhere, for instance, which half the time reduces the city to a gray smear outside the car window. Still, scenes like their big rooftop fight around which the camera revolves and revolves do reveal the Seoul of that era, a metropolis still very much under construction.

Why would I watch such an aggressively mainstream film in the first place? For the same reason Koreans plow through entire seasons of Friends: language practice. Seven years into studying it, Korean remains, for me, an infuriatingly difficult language to reliably understand (and no matter how long you live in Korea, as I heard Darcy say in another interview, you never really master catching anyone’s name over the phone the first time). According to long-term foreign residents of Korea, nothing trains your ear as well as watching Korean movies with Korean subtitles (which the Korean Film Archive helpfully provides) over and over again. Hence my usual answer to the usual question about what got me into Korea: most truthfully, it was the Korean language, but almost equally truthfully, it was Korean cinema. If I didn’t like the movies, I doubt I’d persist with learning the language — and my interest in Korean cities has kept that feedback loop going to the extent that, in a matter of months, I’ll live in an actual Korean city myself.