If you happen to be a regular viewer of films, you probably would have noticed some similar patterns among different movies. For example, most crime-action movies of questionable quality will feature at least one visit to a strip club. Or how about female characters who run up the stairs to escape a killer, instead of running out the front door, inevitably leading to a fall from a great height or a tumble down the stairs? Or how about villains who put in the extra effort to explain their evil plans, giving the hero a chance to escape certain death and foil those plans? Yes, I am talking about movie clichés, the well-worn conventions and contrivances that have become the bane of film critics and jaded moviegoers, as well as fodder for plenty of web sites and books (such as Roger Ebert's "Little Movie Glossary").
Mind you, there are actually some legitimate reasons for the persistence of clichés, particularly when one considers that every minute of screen time translates into dollars of the film's budget, making it in the best interest of filmmakers to tell their stories as quickly and as cheaply as possible. For example, 'economy of storytelling' refers to providing only the necessary details or making certain assumptions to move a story forward, instead of bogging down each scene with unnecessary action or dialogue. This is why characters will usually find a parking space right in front of the building they are going to (unless the search for a parking spot is the point of the scene), every apartment in Paris will have an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower, and the watches of all characters are perfectly synchronized.
Production constraints are also another reason for the clichés you find in movies. Everything that is shown to the audience has a price tag attached, and by removing unnecessary characters or props, a story can be told on a lower budget. This is the reason why artificial gravity is so prevalent in outer space adventures, since it would be too expensive to simulate weightlessness (and in certain movies, it may even stretch the acting abilities of the cast). Similarly, the majority of the apartments seen in the movies are extremely spacious (providing room for the production crew to place cameras), even if the character has a low-paying job and could not possibly afford such a place.
Of course, there is 'just plain laziness' of writers and directors who 'borrow' bits of dialogue or concise visual statements from other films instead of finding new ways to convey the same ideas. As a result, noises in dark houses or alleyways are always caused by cats, cops die on the job just a few days before retirement, and the poignancy of a plane crash is often highlighted by a child's doll (appropriately charred) amidst the wreckage.
Like their Hollywood counterparts, Korean filmmakers are no strangers when it comes to dabbling in clichés. That is why high school students have, or are rumored to have, exceptional martial arts skills, as seen in "No Manners (Pumhaeng zero)", "My Tutor Friend (Donggabnaegi gwawoehagi)", and "Bet on My Disco (Hae-jeok, discowang doeda)". Or if a young female character is revealed to be pregnant, she will either have a miscarriage or an abortion, both of which result in the film's male protagonist coming to her rescue (three different films in 2001, 2002, and 2003 relied on this tired cliché). Of course, many of the conventions found in Korean films stem from the cultural idiosyncrasies of Korean society, such as the abundance of Internet cafés and text messaging via cell phones in youth-oriented films (reflecting the target audience's popular pastimes), characters slapping each other on the head and shouting what sounds like 'a-she-ba', and baseball bats and sticks being the weapons of choice under the strict gun-control laws in South Korea. But like everywhere else, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, resulting in a disproportionate number of female characters being abnormally mouthy, belligerent, and violent since the release of "My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin geunyeo)", or legions of gangsters finding themselves in odd and humorous situations since the runaway success of gangster comedies in 2001.
Those moviegoers interested in seeing a laundry list of Korean movie clichés in action need to look no further than the 2003 melodrama "Scent of Love (Gukhwaggot hyanggi)" (also referred to as "Scent of Chrysanthemums"). The film is based on a best-selling novel of the same name that has also inspired two television series, one in South Korea entitled "Autumn Tales" and another in China. And though I have not had the benefit of having read the novel "Scent of Love", I suspect that it is nowhere near as foul as the cliché-ridden and painfully predictable film that it has begotten.
With an opening scene echoing that of "My Sassy Girl", university student Seo In-ha (Park Hae-il of the far superior "Memories of Murder") falls in love with a young woman he sees on the subway. Later on, he joins a book club at school based out of a bookstore run by a kindly old man facing serious inventory management and merchandising issues. There, In-ha is pleased to learn that the girl of his dreams, Min Hui-je (Jang Jin-young of "The Foul King", still sporting the same short-haired look she adopted in "Sorum"), is also a member. Unfortunately, not only is she a year older (which just about kills any chance of his scoring), but In-ha ends up receiving the business end of her abrasive personality after demonstrating a poor grasp of Korean history, the result of having grown up in the United States. Despite making a lousy first impression, In-ha continues his pursuit of Hui-je, but he still ends up being disappointed when Hui-je rejects him during a summer vacation, citing his younger age and their lack of chemistry. Meanwhile, In-ha fails to notice the special attention being paid to him by another co-ed, a fetching medical student named Choi Jung-ran (Song Sun-mi of "My Boss, My Hero").
Echoing "When Harry Met Sally", several years pass with In-ha and Hui-je going their separate ways. He becomes a producer at a local radio station, while she becomes a commercial artist and prepares to marry her long-time boyfriend. However, tragic circumstances and the help of common friend Jung-ran end up bringing In-ha and Hui-je back into each other's lives. Alas, before they can 'live happily ever after', their relationship is put to one final test...
Aside from being a typical Korean romantic melodrama, "Scent of Love" offers very little in the way of originality. First, writer/director Lee Jeong-wook has concocted the film using a parade of well-worn Korean movie clichés. Does the female protagonist demonstrating her sassiness against a man hogging a seat on the subway? Check. Is there a scene with the female protagonist being rushed on a gurney through a hospital with her true love running alongside, only to be separated when they reach the emergency operating room? Check. Is there rain-drenched pathetic fallacy while the male protagonist's heart is breaking? Check.
Second, "Scent of Love" filches a number of familiar elements from other films. At the risk of revealing key plot points in "Scent of Love" (which are probably already given away in the trailer, and assuming you still want to see it), the film's latter half splices "A Day (Haru)" and "Last Present (Seonmul)" together. Viewers familiar with these two superior efforts will immediately recognize how key themes (such as the overriding importance of children in Korean family life), story developments (such as an outsider being asked to hide the truth about one of the characters), and even key scenes from both of these films have been replicated in "Scent of Love", leaving few surprises.
Furthermore, "Scent of Love" does a very good job of telegraphing its intentions in almost every shot. For example, an early scene at the book club is framed in such a manner that it is fairly obvious which character will join In-ha and Hui-je in the story's love triangle, as Song is awkwardly placed in the foreground of a group shot. Later on, as a group of characters set out on a car trip, it does not take long to figure out where that scene is going.
Among the cast, Jang is the standout performer. As the character Hui-je grows from a sassy sophomore to a mature woman with a heavy heart, Jang is believable, even if the material is not. Meanwhile, Park seems to have graduated from the 'Jo In-seong school of acting', exhibiting the same inexpressive thesping that plagued the actor of "Madeleine" and "The Classic". Finally, completing the triumvirate is Song, whose character is shortchanged by the troubled script.
Famous film critic Roger Ebert once remarked how neat it would be if a movie could be made completely out of clichés-- alas, he soon came to the sobering realization that such a movie is already being released theatrically on a weekly basis (e.g., almost anything with J. Lo in it). In the realm of Korean movie conventions, "Scent of Love" is just such a movie, two hours chock full of clichés and borrowed ideas ideally suited to a drinking game or two. However, if you are in search of a worthwhile film that takes romantic melodrama in new directions, you will be better off turning your nose up at "Scent of Love".
This movie is available for purchase from DVDAsian.com