2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
Visible “waves”: notes on Koreanness, pan-Asianness, and some recent Southeast Asian art films
by Anne Ciecko and Hunju Lee
As Korean cinema’s profile continues to flow and ebb in the international image market, it becomes clearer that the legendary Korean hanryu or wave of popular cultural products (television shows, music, movies and stars) is not a single globally encompassing tsunami but a complex system of many currents.[open endnotes in new window] While Korean cinema remains one of the dominant tidal forces in East and Southeast Asian markets, films from countries such as Thailand and Singapore have also been sweeping through the international film festival circuit. This article examines two recent striking cinematic cases, Royston Tan’s 4:30 (2005) and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves (2006) in order to discuss patterns of textual and contextual cultural displacements and convergences. The diegetic inscription of Koreanness within these films includes Korean characters (and, extra-diegetically, Korean actors) who must negotiate unfamiliar geographical and linguistic terrain. Additionally these films raise larger questions about the nature of Asian identities more generally, though interstitial and hybrid elements of pan-Asianness.
The Korean wave paradigm is a transnational media invention, with even the term itself, first coined by Beijing journalists, registering the presence of Korean cultural products in China. The term hanryu is a translinguistic homophone to an existing compound word suggesting a “cold current.” It has been suggested that hanryu has undergone four historical evolutionary moments:
Besides courting Korean blockbuster auteurs such as Park Chan-Wook and Bong Jun-Ho, Hollywood has registered the impact of hanryu with the casting of Korean actors and a growing number of co-productions. Veteran Korean actor Park Joong-Hoon co-starred in a cop thriller set in New York City and Seoul, American Dragons (directed by Ralph Hemecker, 1998) with the U.S. straight-to-video title Double Edge (although it reportedly had a theatrical release in South Korea). He also appeared in the tepid Jonathan-Demme-helmed Hitchcock remake, The Truth About Charlie (2002). The popular star of one of Korea’s major hanryu hits, the comedy My Sassy Girl (2001), Jeon Ji-Hyun, is renamed Gianna Jun and plays Saya a human-vampire hybrid in Blood the Last Vampire (Chris Nahon, 2009), the live action adaptation of the Japanese anime classic (Hiroyuki Kitakubo, 2000) which spawned popular manga and videogames. [See essay on Jeon Ji-Hyun in this issue.] One of Asia’s biggest pop music sensations, Korean singer-actor Rain (or Bi in Korean), has a small supporting role and a few lines of English dialogue in the Wachowski Brothers’ live action remake of the Japanese cult TV series Speed Racer (2008).
Korean actorJang Dong-Kun is an Asian futuristic hero in Laundry Warrior (written and directed by Sngmoo Lee, 2009) an English-language action/fantasy set in the U.S. West, and co-starring Geoffrey Rush and Kate Bosworth. Filmed in New Zealand, Laundry Warrior is a Hollywood, South Korean, and New Zealand collaboration that in an earlier incarnation was envisioned to be a Korean-Chinese co-production with a co-starring role for Zhang Ziyi. The New Zealand partnership is facilitated by the recent signing of a South Korean and New Zealand co-production treaty agreement and the participation of Lord of the Rings’ producer Barrie Osborne.
Films with U.S. indie origins are also increasingly featuring Korean actors. Never Forever (2007), directed by Korean-born Gina Kim, casts Ha Jung-Woo as an immigrant laborer who becomes involved in a relationship with a white American suburban housewife married to a Korean American man. Korean actor Jeong Jun-Ho has a significant cameo in the Korea-U.S. co-production West 32nd (2007), a New York Koreatown-set drama starring Korean American actor John Cho and directed by Korean American filmmaker Michael Kang. West 32nd was backed by Korean conglomerate CJ Entertainment, Korea’s largest and most powerful film producer and distributor in the post-Asian economic crisis (1997-98) era. CJ Entertainment has had successful partnership relations with Paramount and DreamWorks, as well as close ties with the multiplex via its subsidiary, CJ CGV. Kang’s film, although critically well-received, had limited release; presumably the Korean American experience was not perceived to be widely relatable or intelligible to Korean audiences. On the other hand, CJ Entertainment’s involvement with and investment in the Hollywood musical fairytale August Rush (Kirsten Sheridan, 2007), which featured small cameos by Korean actress Ku Hye-Sun and rapper Tablo from the Korean hip-hop group Epik High, led to huge Korean box-office returns.
With Asian artfilms such as Royston Tan’s 4:30 and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves, the casting of Korean actors can be viewed as a vehicle for “networking” in the international film festival circuit and international arthouse theaters. Such pan-Asian financing contributes to the creation of a cinema of dissociated and decontextualized Korean (and other Asian) characters. The casting of Kang Hye-Jeong in Invisible Waves, for example, enabled a fiscal co-production arrangement with CJ Entertainment (which also led to limited screening in Seoul multiplexes in May 2006). However some Korean critics and audiences took note of a self-conscious creation of pan-Asian filmic identity, and the transparent exaggeration of Kang Hye-Jeong’s image in the marketing of the film in Korea.
Both 4:30 and Invisible Waves have traveled widely, with screenings at major Asian, European, and North American film festivals; and their respective pedigrees are decidedly transnational. 4:30 had its premiere at the NHK Asian Film Festival in Japan in December 2005 followed by the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2006; it then screened the Deauville International Film Festival in France, the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Singapore International Film Festival, the Cannes Film Market, and elsewhere. Invisible Waves had its world premiere at Berlin just days before playing the Bangkok International Film Festival in February 2006, followed by theatrical release in Thailand and screening at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in April. Its festival life continued to India (Osian’s Cinefan Asian Film Festival), Toronto, Portland, Argentina, and elsewhere. Invisible Waves, which was submitted and then withdrawn as Thailand’s entry for the best foreign language film category of the Academy Awards, is a Dutch, Thai, Hong Kong, and South Korean co-production with dialogue in English, Japanese, Cantonese, Korean, and Thai. Made by Singapore’s enfant terrible filmmaker Royston Tan as the follow-up to his controversial street-kid debut dramatic feature 15: The Movie (2003), 4:30 is a Japanese and Singaporean co-production with dialogue mainly in Mandarin Chinese, as well as a small amount of English and Korean. The Japanese backer, the film fund of NHK (the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation) scouted the project in its early stages as a second feature at film festivals, and worked with it as a script translated into Japanese, developed from Tan’s treatment into a feature-length screenplay by collaborating writer Liam Yeo. Through NHK World television, non-festival Asian audiences in countries such as South Korea were exposed to the movie, which was also supported by Zhao Wei Films, the Singaporean independent production house started by filmmaker Eric Khoo and financial manager James Toh to nurture local talent. Several of multilingual/multiethnic Singapore’s national languages — which include Malay and Tamil, as well as Chinese (Mandarin dialect) and English — are spoken in 4:30. While the local vernacular patois Singlish with slang derived from the suppressed Hokkien Chinese dialect and Malay is used rather subversively in a number of other contemporary Singaporean films, such as those by pop auteur Jack Neo, Tan’s features to-date have been primarily in Mandarin and Hokkien Chinese dialect. However, 4:30’s unseen teacher ideologically drills her class on national identity in “proper” (although accented) English and berates the protagonist in the language; hers is a disturbingly unsympathetic neo-colonial voice.
4:30 focuses on the relationship between a fatherless, young, ethnically-Chinese Singaporean boy (Xiao Li Yuan) with an absent mother working in China, and a suicidal Korean male tenant (Kim Young-Jun) living in his home. Following his previous foray into the laconically surreal misadventures of a Japanese man in Thailand in Last Life in the Universe (2003, a Thai/Japanese/Singaporean/Dutch co-production), Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves incorporates the unlikely encounter between a Japanese man (again played by Last Life’s Japanese star Asano Tadanobu) and an at least partially Korean woman (Kang Hye-Jeong) on a ship between Macau and post-tsunami Phuket. In 4:30 the Korean character is profoundly isolated, abject, and self-destructive, and his alienation charges the boy’s fixation on him with a special poignancy. In Invisible Waves, the seemingly vacuous yet quirkily attractive Korean woman Noi, a distracted young mother and convenient romantic interest for a hitman on the lam, is literally set adrift in a state of interdeterminacy.
Royston Tan is quoted on the website for his film 4:30 as saying,
“The reason for using a Korean character was in part, a way of thanking the people at Pusan especially the Pusan International Film Festival for their tremendous support for many of my short films over the last few years. It was also my intention to show that loneliness is universal and cross–cultural….”
The Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF), with its successful promotional plan and industry market, is arguably the most powerful Asian festival in the current pantheon. Likewise talented Thai director Ratanaruang’s festival-darling embeddedness/indebtedness also has an impact upon and is impacted by his pan-Asian casting and connection with production/sales powerhouse company Fortissimo Films involved in the promotion and distribution of the film. These components reflect the fact that Invisible Waves is an international co-production with a team of collaborators that also includes Australian-born, Hong Kong-based (but increasingly global Asian oriented), prestige cinematographer Christopher Doyle. In addition to Tatanobu and Kang, the cast is rounded out by eccentric characterizations by Hong Kong veteran Eric Tsang and Macau-born singer-actress Maria Cordero, as well as several other Japanese actors in ambiguous, portentous roles.
In stark contrast to Korean actress Kang’s certifiable star reputation (having appeared in Park Chan Wook’s international sensation Old Boy (2003) as well as the domestic blockbuster Welcome to Dongmakgol, 2005), Seoul-based Korean actor Kim Young-Jun brings to his role in 4:30 a slender resume of TV credits. While Kang’s character in Invisible Waves may be seen as a curiously self-conscious reconstitution of her trademark, sexualized, naïf persona, Kim is arguably freed from such intertextual baggage.
Scrutinizing the inscrutable in 4:30
As the Korean tenant Jung in 4:30, Kim’s first onscreen appearance is via an intense closeup of his face with unspoken sadness troubling his countenance. As the scene progresses, the Korean is revealed as unsuccessfully trying to hang himself, his act witnessed by the young Chinese Singaporean boy who also resides in the house. Xiao Wu obsessively harvests and records Jung’s found and stolen physical traces (a pubic hair, a photograph, tears on a tee-shirt). The film’s title refers to the boy’s nocturnal ritual time of entering the Korean man’s bedroom to spy on him (often drunk and in various states of collapsed or collapsing consciousness), inspect his body or belongings, or wait for his return.
With the most minimal dialogue, the film suggests a broken romantic relationship as the reason for Jung’s deep melancholy, but his alienation is also registered via his difficulty in communicating and understanding his life in Singapore. He works nights, smokes incessantly, takes pills (to sleep?), and listens to rueful music. He rarely speaks throughout the film: On one occasion he struggles to order an ice cream from a street vender; on another he speaks a few lines in Korean to the boy, tapping fingers to his head and heart. (“Do you know where people you love go when they die? In your head and in your heart.”) Tan deliberately does not translate any of the Korean in the film — such as song lyrics (moodily recounting a lovers’ walk along the sea) by the late Korean folk-singer Kim Kwang Seok or the man’s few utterances. Also, no translation is given for the few Korean characters the young man writes to the boy saying, “Thank you,” in a note after he leaves the boy a glass of orange juice and a cup of his favorite instant beef noodles. The effects of silence and unintelligibility are further distancing, even when it appears that the man and boy have begun to make some potential connections with each other.
Through various cinematic and narrative devices, Tan draws parallels between the lonely boy and his adult counterpart. In one ironic scene, disaffected Xiao Wu’s strident English-speaking teacher comments on Singaporean citizenship. Isolated student Jung also clearly never feels at home throughout, as a perpetual outsider or foreigner in this seemingly pluralistic society. On one of the few occasions when the boy’s absent mother (on business in mainland China) calls, she asks about the Korean “uncle”(a Mandarin term the boy uses throughout to refer to other adult male figures). And the boy writes an embroideredly fictional school composition about his hero, his Korean “dad” who seldom smiles and smells of “baby Johnson’s powder and beer.” The boy’s playful Singlish syntax likewise colors outside the lines of the “proper” grammatically-correct English promoted by the state (which launched an ongoing “Speak Good English Campaign” in 2000 under then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.) This scene is arguably as an indictment of intolerance of nonconformity in Singapore, as much as it is a critique of the inadequacies of the school system.
4:30’s mise en scene offers visual matches, such as the rare moment when the boy and man are wearing identical white tank tees and sitting together on the outside stairs; or when the boy and man alternately bathe in the tub when the other enters to urinate (a pattern naughtily subverted by the boy who turns from the toilet to pee in the tub). Additionally the boy inserts himself into the Korean’s life by replacing the man’s CD with a recording of his own voice, customizing the man's cigarette box, and mimicking the tenant's gesture of leaving food and drink for him with his own reciprocal offering.
While Korean masculinity is a source of near-fetishistic fascination through the voyeuristic gaze of the child (a child in critical need of role models), both man and boy are in a state of most desperate crisis. Arguably, in 4:30, Tan suggests a pathology of the hanryu phenomenon as "imagined cosmopolitanism" in a claustrophobic and dysfunctionally Sino-centric cultural economy. By the end of the film, the depressed Korean and all his residual artifacts have literally disappeared from the Singaporean “home” that was never his own.
Deciphering the ciphers in Invisible Waves
The appearance of a pretty young woman, Noi, played by Kang Hye-Jeong is initially an apparent bright spot in the increasingly miserable existence of Kyoji (Asano Tadanobu), a chef in a Japanese restaurant whose life is directed by his Thai employer (Toon Hiranyasap). After killing, at the boss’s bidding, the restaurateur/gangster’s Japanese wife (played by Japanese actress Tomono Kuga) with whom he’s been having an affair, Kyoji is dispatched on a “vacation” which takes him from Macau to Phuket, Thailand. Noi, it seems, has also been conveniently/coincidentally sent away on the cruise trip by her boyfriend. Speaking in halting English throughout the film except for a few words when she writes down the digits of her telephone number (reciting them partially in Chinese with the last four digits in Korean), she takes notice of Kyoji on the ship’s deck and comments in halting English that she can tell he needs air and he looks as if he were seeing a ghost. The few Korean words she speaks and the charge of Kang’s persona are the only clear markers of Koreanness in the film.
Displaced and deterritorialized from their respective countries of origin and inhabiting unfamiliar environments and an underworld milieu where their native tongues are fairly useless and they are always “other,” the Japanese and Korean characters are reduced in their agency, drifting, and tentatively drawn to each other. In Kyoji’s interaction with Noi, he seems to respond to her simplicity as something potentially desirable, a release of sorts from all the anxiety and guilt caused by carrying out the boss’s orders. Noi’s singular unwittingness about everything, from appropriate and responsible ways to attend to her baby, to all criminal activity around her, is underscored in the diminutive meaning of her name in Thai. She shares this name with a (Thai) character in Pen-ek’s previous film The Last Life in the Universe, also scripted (or co-written, with director Pen-ek) by Thai writer Prabda Yoon. In fact, Noi’s baby’s name Nid, with another diminutive meaning, is also used in the previous film. In some press materials for the film and in its portfolio for the HKF Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (which describes Invisible Waves as “a truly pan-Asian film”), it is suggested that Noi in Invisible Waves is both Thai and Korean, although the character and the star power of Korean actress Kang seem even more unsettled by this hybrid construction. Some members of the Korean audience for the film criticized the film's marketing strategies, emphasizing Kang’s participation in a movie that is mainly a showcase for Japanese star Asano. Some Korean critics compared this narrative to aspects of the Korean film A Bittersweet Life (directed by Kim Ji-woon, 2005) and Hye-Jung Kang’s character Noi to her role as Mido in Old Boy. That was the film that reportedly inspired Pen-ek to cast her, Park Chan-Wook’s Korean masterpiece. Prior to working with Pen-ek, Asano Tatanobu had appeared in some forty films and with major Japanese directors (among them Kitano Takeshi, Oshima Nagisa, and Miike Takashi — and Miike actually plays a yakuza in Pen-ek’s Last Life in the Universe), often portraying perpetual loners, killers and/or depressives. Asano has himself been recognized as having a hint of exotic allure because of his mixed ancestry, an American maternal grandfather of Navajo heritage. Prior and subsequent to his two films to-date with Pen-ek, he also demonstrated his pan-Asian currency by starring in other hybrid productions including the French-titled Japanese/Taiwanese co-production Café Lumiere (directed by Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2003) and the Central Asian Genghis Khan mega-epic Mongol (a Kazakh/Russian/Mongolian/German co-production helmed by Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, 2007).
As the narrative of Invisible Waves slowly unfurls, relations and interconnections between characters, newly and tentatively forged or suggested, contribute to a sense of a kind of purgatory of pan-Asian in-betweenness, corrupted by a financial system of exchange. One central bonding gesture in the couple's demi-courtship on the nearly desolate and from Koiji’s perspective absurdly bleak, decrepit, and labyrinthine ship is a tender moment of the two slow dancing with the baby. Noi discloses that she was sent on this trip as a “gift,” and Koiji is uncannily lured to his fate by an exchangeable woman he doesn’t yet realize is connected to his boss. Writing her cellphone number on a Hong Kong 100 dollar bill that Koiji gives her as note paper, she jokes that she loves it when men give her money, and she directs him not to “spend my number.”
Kyoji is initially given money and a directive to leave Hong Kong by a mysterious monk with a bandaged head (played by Eric Tsang, whose accumulative roles in many triad-themes Hong Kong action films bear intertextually upon his fleeting and cryptic presence in this film). Later, after Kyoji is robbed and beaten up at his Phuket hotel, he phones his Thai boss for assistance and is directed to the cheerfully depraved karaoke-loving Lizard, played by Japanese actor Ken Mitsuishi who turns out to be a hitman and his designated executioner. Other Japanese characters that enter Kyoji’s surreal world that speak to his disconnectedness include a shipboard bartender who may be his father (he looks just like a photo in Kyoji’s former apartment) who serves him his drink of choice, milk (“such an innocent drink for someone like you”) and talks to him of guilt and atonement. Kyoji is also accosted shipboard by a man he doesn’t recognize, who claims to be a former classmate from Osaka: “Even the sea can seem so small.” Within the dystopic limbo of Invisible Waves, shared Japanese nationality — or any national, territorial, linguistic, or ethnic identity for that matter — does not guarantee a sense of comfort or loyalty. Nor does getting lost in the world, as Kyoji’s experiences are a nightmarish travesty of tourism.
Conclusion: cinematic currents
Pan-Asianness and co-productive border-crossings are not a new phenomenon in Asian cinema. Sectors of independent and commercial/studio filmmaking and national cinemas themselves have been formed by issues of economics, geopolitics, and flows of people and capital. For example in Singapore’s film history, prominent influences in a city-state where movies have always been multicultural are Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Malay (as well as American and British). The Korean hanryu has been described as another such influence, part of a larger “region-wide ‘reassertion of Asian identity…kind of a pan-Asianism.’” In Royston Tan’s 4:30 and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves, modes of production, film financing, and casting inform/are informed by unresolved and ambiguous cinematic narratives that traverse boundaries and deal critically and creatively with a variety of dislocations. Traces of national, linguistic, and ethnic identities become markers of difference and signifiers of alienation, loss, loneliness, and something akin to nostalgia. However, in each of these films, tentative bonds are formed that hint at the possibility of solace and redemption in interstitial pan-Asian environments. For their makers, spaces-in-between and floating lives open up cinematic possibilities.
Acknowledgments: The authors are grateful to the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts for a half-time Research Assistantship that enabled Hunju Lee to collaborate on this project. Anne Ciecko’s sabbatical research in Korea was funded by a Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation fellowship; and she would also like express appreciation to the Pusan International Film Festival, the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and the Rotterdam International Film Festival for the opportunity to interview and watch films by some of the directors discussed in this essay. Special thanks to the editors of Jump Cut for their helpful comments and suggestions.
1. The recession of the Korean wave has been noted by industry insiders starting in approximately 2006. Examples of Variety Asia’s coverage include “'Korean Wave' Breaks as Film Exports Slump” (18 January 2007) by Darcy Paquet, noting 2006 international sales figures of Korean films reported by the national film organization KOFIC, especially declining sales to the Japanese market,
and “Crash of ‘Korean Wave’ Continues as Cannes Sales Slump” by Patrick Frater (25 May 2007),
2. See Go Chan-Su’s discussion of “Hanryu and Cultural Policy,” a paper presented at the Korean Policy Forum (KOPOF) in March 2006 and summarized for this article by Hunju Lee, from the Korean internet source, naver. The original Korean-language policy paper can be read at
However, as suggested in the above-cited Variety coverage and elsewhere, not all industry-watchers are optimistic about the future of hanryu, as some note or predict stagnation and/or backlash. The current trend seems to be toward viewing the most regionally and globally potent wave as syncretically pan-Asian rather than exclusively Korean.
3. Anne Ciecko interviewed New York-based filmmaker Kang, who was premiering his debut feature The Motel to Korean audiences at the Pusan International Film Festival, his first visit to Korea, in November 2005. He discussed pan-Asian and Asian diasporic themes in his increasingly global filmmaking. Kang’s ambitious Africa-set third feature-in-progress has been supported by Pusan’s Overseas Korean Foundation prize and has been represented in the Pusan Promotional Plan (PPP).
4. Kathy Rose A. Garcia discusses this phenomenon in her article titled “‘August’’s Success in Korea Surprises US Producer” in Korean Times January 16, 2008
5. Tan describes the process of working with the Japanese financiers in the Filmmaker Seminar Series with Royston Tan and [film producer] Gary Goh on the Singapore New Wave website
6. See the director’s statement on the Zhao Wei Films production house website, as well as the interview by Anne Ciecko with Royston Tan in this issue.
7. Fortissimo’s company profile describes the ways the company has “entered into activities related to the development, financing and co-production of films and earned production credits” on movies including Invisible Waves.
8. This trope is used by Kelly Fu Su Yin and Kai Khiun Liew in their article “Hallyu in Singapore: Korean Cosmopolitanism or the Consumption of Chineseness?” in Korea Journal (Winter 2005) 227-228.
9. HAF defines itself as the most important film-financing forum in Asia, its mission is to connect “filmmakers with upcoming projects with internationally prominent film financiers for co-production ventures”:
http://www.haf.org.hk/haf/ ; see the Invisible Waves project profile which describes Noi as Thai-Korean at
10. This information was compiled by Hunju Lee from a variety of Korean-language magazines and blogs including the review of Invisible Waves by Jeon Eun-Jung in NKino (May 12, 2006).
11. See Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde’s chapter on “Singapore: Developments, Challenges, and Productions” in Contemporary Asian Cinema: Popular Culture in a Global Frame, edited by Anne Ciecko (Berg, 2006), pp.71-82.
12. This quote comes from Singapore-based sociologist Habib Khondker in Dean Visser’s article “’Korea” fever is sweeping pop culture scene in Asia,” AP Breaking News (February 3, 2002), also cited in “Korea as the Wave of the Future” by Jim Dator and Yeonseok Seo published in Journal of Futures Studies, 9.1 (August 2004): 31-44,
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.