The Berlin File—De-Westernizing the Korean Blockbuster

When Steven Spielburg’s 1975 film Jaws broke box office records by generating over $100 million in revenue, the term “blockbuster” entered the public lexicon. Since then, Hollywood has consistently produced films intended to achieve this same benchmark of the blockbuster designation. Since its first use and continued to the modern day, the term “blockbuster” has been closely tied to the United States film industry and can be considered an American phenomenon. (Shone) In recent decades, many Asian countries have responded in different ways to the dominance of the Hollywood blockbuster. In China, the government issued strict quotas on the number of American films allowed to be screened in the nation—the “big ten” of each year. (Berry) In Hong Kong, the film industry responded with its own distinct film style, which was eventually imported back into some Hollywood films to a small degree. (Yau) South Korea used a quota system in the 1980s and 1990s, but has recently started responding to the dominance of Hollywood blockbusters in a new way. Instead of trying to resist the Hollywood model, South Korea has instead embraced it and adapted it into its own films. Films from this era of South Korean cinema simultaneously emulate the style of Hollywood blockbusters, but address issues relevant to the local Korean audiences as well. It is not entirely a Hollywood blockbuster nor entirely a South Korean film, but rather a combination of the two. Through this combination, South Korean cinema offers a “de-westernization” of the American blockbuster. (Berry) Ryoo Seung-Wan’s 2013 The Berlin File is an example of this phenomenon and represents the eventual outcome of globalization—not the dominance of one culture of another, but rather the middle ground and mixing of cultures and their media products.

In order to analyze the ways in which The Berlin File is a fusion of American and South Korean film styles, it is important to start with a basic understanding of what constitutes a Hollywood blockbuster. The term “blockbuster” has a very fluid definition, and is a constantly moving target. Many different films share this label, and often do not share the same qualities. Film theorist Julian Stringer characterizes blockbusters as being unique in their quality of “bigness.” According to him, blockbusters are distinct from other films because they bigger in almost every way—a large production budget, a big narrative with high conflict, impressive visual effects, and of course big box office revenues. (Stringer) These criteria are vague, but apply to the wide array of films that can be considered Hollywood blockbusters. In The Berlin File, Ryoo uses many of these elements of bigness, while simultaneously adding elements that are local to his South Korea audience.

Because The Berlin File is similar to an American blockbuster, it has wide appeal in many international audiences. The film follows the conventions of the spy thriller genre, starting from its basic premise of a skilled secret agent operating in a foreign nation. In The Berlin File, North Korean agent Pyo finds himself at odds with Dong, another North Korean agent, and Jung from South Korea as well. Narratively, the film follows the Hollywood blockbuster model—it frequently features elaborate fight sequences, car chase scenes, as well as general spy and espionage activity. Even though an international audience might not understand the minute details of the tension between North and South Korea, the basic model of spy thriller is still familiar. Additionally, many of the film’s formal elements mimic the Hollywood model as well. From the very beginning, the heavily stylized title sequence with many visual effects and loud fast-paced music prepares the audience for a spy thriller genre film. Throughout the film, there are short shots with fast cuts, especially during fight scenes. There is also heavy use of artificial “punch” sound effects, another style closely related to the Hollywood blockbuster. Finally, the film ends with Pyo making a phone call to a North Korean general and threatening his revenge by saying, “I’m coming to you.” This sets the film up for a potential sequel, and potentially an eventual franchise—a key characteristic of American film. Because of these stylistic and formal elements, The Berlin File follows many of the conventions of the Hollywood blockbuster, despite being a South Korean film.

However, there are still many ways that Ryoo does not follow Hollywood conventions, and thus does not necessarily meet the definition of a blockbuster film. First, the narrative of The Berlin File stays from the Hollywood model in a few key ways. One key example of this is that Pyo, the protagonist, does not really win in the end. In most Hollywood blockbusters, the protagonist will achieve their goal and be better off at the end of the film than they were at the beginning. But for Pyo, things certainly got worse. His wife and unborn child were murdered in a gunfight, and he finds himself on the run from both North Korea and South Korea. Pyo can be considered as both a hero and an anti-hero, but regardless of interpretation it seems clear that his character has lost in the end. Another narrative element that is subversive of the Hollywood blockbuster model is the detailed characterization and portrayal of the North Korean and South Korean agents. Rather than leaving their relationship as a simple case of good guys v. bad guys, Ryoo presents a more nuanced and more complicated dynamic. Pyo and Dong, though both agents for North Korea, are characterized very differently. Dong is violent and impulsive, whereas Pyo is loyal to the state, but shows compassion and concern for his family’s well-being too. In fact, both the North Korean and South Korean sides of the conflict have times where they seem like the “good guys,” yet both have times where they could be considered the “bad guys” as well. This complex and dynamic portrayal of the North-South relation is unique to The Berlin File and is another way that it strays from the Hollywood model. Finally, some of the cinematic elements of the film deviate from the model as well. One key example of this is the way in fights are portrayed in the film. When Pyo and Dong are fighting hand-to-hand, the combat is much more violent than is typical in Hollywood blockbusters. Though punches are certainly thrown in American film, The Berlin File is unique in that the stakes of the fight are much higher and much more real. Neither Pyo nor Dong can walk away unharmed from their fight. Even at the beginning of the film, an agent is thrown onto his back, and it is specifically mentioned that he will have a permanent spin injury. Whereas Hollywood films often contain gratuitous violence with no real consequences, when someone is hurt in The Berlin File, it has realistic and long-lasting effects. By specifically not following the Hollywood model, Ryoo targets the film at to the local Korean audience, and references relevant local issues such as the North-South relation and recent cultural memory of the violence of the Korean War.\In The Berlin File, Ryoo blends the elements of the Hollywood blockbuster with elements that are unique and local to the South Korea audience. In this manner, the film is a model for a new form of South Korean film so that it “may emulate Hollywood and seek out international audiences, but [also] use the blockbuster as a site to speak to local Korean issues.” (Berry) Not only does this define the new model for South Koren cinema, but it demonstrates a new way of viewing and studying the issue of globalization as well. One popular theory is that of American Cultural Imperialism, which asserts that through its media products—such as Hollywood blockbusters—American culture exerts dominance over other cultures, which are powerless to resist it. However, The Berlin File proves that it is possible for two cultures to co-exist and blend together through their media products. Culture does not always flow in a single direction, and by finding the middle ground between American and South Korean film, Ryoo has perhaps stumbled upon a new and wider model for the blockbuster film.


Works Cited

Berry, Chris. “‘What’s Big About the Big Film?: De-Westernising the Blockbuster in China and Korea.’” N.p. Print.

Ryoo, Seung-wan. The Berlin File. N.p., 2013. DVD.

Shone, Tom. Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. London: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.

Stringer, Julian, ed. “Introduction.” Movie Blockbusters. London ; New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Yau, Esther. At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World. 1 edition. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2001. Print.

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