In 2003 I went to a screening of ‘Memories of Murder’ at the Raindance Film festival in London and was captivated by the film in the first opening bars of music that was composed by Tarō Iwashiro. A simple phrase on the piano against quiet synthesised harmonics and the visual backdrop of countryside and golden corn that now encapsulates the mood of the movie. The soft tones hold menace if you know the story, and add in the haunting song ‘Dejected Letters’ sung by Yu JaeHa that was a key part of the original investigation and you have a winning score, one that lingers in your head as a musical signature.

Memories of Murder

This might not sound unusual for a film, after all, a musical motif is key to a lot of Motion Pictures in the USA – I’ll bet if I mention Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, Titanic, Braveheart, Harry Potter and ET the main themes will jump to mind instantly evoking favourite scenes.  It is however less usual in Korean film, mostly because dramas are more the staple viewing than films.

Dramas set trends – marketing objects and mementos from series that often have a cult following. They have slick marketing and high budgets and even more profit when it comes to advertising. They aim carefully are various demographics and fire off dolls, keychains, postcards, photobooks and jewelry – a lot like a Hollywood blockbuster! Every drama OST has a hit song by popular singers or groups, hopefully one that will make it to the charts and promote them further and distinct musical themes that hook into your head easily and give instant recall when hearing it again.

Whilst there are some really wonderful scores in Korean cinema, none really seem to reach the same level of recognition with me like those of Western films. Instead of the music being an essential member of the cast, it is an essential prop, one that provides a function but not an identity.  Characters and scenes have main themes just as you would expect, a theme song and each will suit the mood like it should do. Then drift into being forgotten.

Of the 60 or so Korean films I’ve seen only four have scores that are instantly recognisable to me – ‘Memories of Murder’ which I have mentioned already, ‘Natural City’, ‘Bichunmoo’ and ‘Wontak’s Angel’.  Of the 20 or so dramas I’ve seen  – well each one sticks with me to be honest, perhaps because of the constant repetition within the time span of 16 hours. Films only get two hours of anyone’s attention.

Natural City

Its not something I have a problem with though, perhaps because of the over commercialisation of dramas. The fact is, Korean films are still allowed to be films and not a merchandising experiment. sure you have the youth movies, but to me is still feels largely that Korean Cinema is still an art form.  Sure, there might not be a catchier musical phrase than than the Harry Potter chimes in Korean cinema, but really, does there need to be?

I’m keen to know if anyone else has this experience with Korean Film scores or if they are a big business in Korea as they are in the West, not actually living in Korea I could simply be missing out on the hype and buzz an exceptional score produces!