Saturday, September 1, 2012

KOREAN MOVIES: PSY’s “Gangnam Style” and Gangnam Oppa in “Architecture 101” (4)

 Gangnam Oppa: The Age of Riches


This review is solely my interpretation of the 2012 Korean movie "Architecture 101." 
So I understand even if you don't like it or don't agree with me.

At a glance and at its simplest, the 2012 Korean movie “Architecture 101” seems to depict unrequited love, a twisted love/hate triangle, and misunderstandings. But I think it is a man's coming of age story in the midst of economic and social polarization and conflict in South Korea from the 90's through 2010's. It is actually an autobiographical film from the writer and director Lee Yongju. (If you don't want spoilers, go watch the movie first on Youtube (HD with English captions).)

Back then, he was watching her, hoping her to love him;
and now, she's watching him, hoping him to love her again.

--- 2012 Korean film "Architencture 101"

The movie basically revolves around two college freshmen, Seungmin and Seoyeon (Lee Jehoon and Bae Suzy (of Miss A)) who first met each other taking Architecture 101 in the spring of 1995. (In South Korea, the new academic year starts in March.)  And it was less than 2 years before the 1997 Asian financial crisis, aka “IMF crisis” in Korea which derived from the fact the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had approved a 21 billion US dollar loan for Korea.

On the first day of Architecture 101, Seungmin finds out Seoyeon  lives in his neighborhood, Jeongneung-dong, located in Gangbuk.  While marking his route to college over hers which is identical with his, he seems to feel some kind of emotional connection with her.  And there is our Gangnam oppa, Jaewook (Yoo Yeonseok who played young Woojin in "Oldboy"), who couldn’t care less about the world outside Gangnam. Just like the Korean peninsula is divided along the demarcation line, the city of Seoul is seemingly divided along the Han River.

In the year of 1995, the economic polarization between Gangbuk and Gangnam had not set in yet hence was not as significant as it is now.  However, it was there obviously enough to make this smart, proud guy feel secretly awed, intimidated, and debilitated by his rich college mates from Gangnam.  He's literally a dragon risen from  a shallow stream (gaecheone yong개천의 용), which is a Korean expression that translates to "a man risen from a humble family."  Back then in Korea, it wasn't too hard to find such dragons and people used to think very highly of them. According to the Hanguk Ilbo article published in 2011, though, about 70 percent of Koreans surveyed believe the Korean society hardly produces such dragons any more.1 Some people who were brought up in the materialistic Korea thus who are so deeply entrenched in the materialist worldview don’t even try to hide their contempt for such dragons, demeaningly calling them gaeryong (개룡), an acronym of gaecheone yong.

1.  67 percent (two-thirds) of people surveyed and 83 percent (four-fifths) of people in their 20’s and 30’s say "no" to the question, “Can an individual in Korean society go to an elite university regardless of his/her family’s socio-economic status but only judged by his/her own abilities, talents, and efforts?” 70 percent of people surveyed also answer “no” to the question, “Can an individual in Korean society win his/her dream job regardless of his/her family’s socio-economic status but only judged by his/her own abilities, talents, and efforts?”

Of course, anywhere and everywhere, few poorer students go to prestigious universities hence are deprived of better job opportunities compared to middle class students; but the thing is, in Korea, the middle class has constantly dropped to the bottom of the pyramid (as it has recently started turning into poor in the U.S.), and only a very small top class (1 percent of the whole country) seem to have monopolized high-quality education, careers, hence power.  According to the 2011 Korea National Statistical Office survey, 45.3 percent of respondents feel that they belong to the low class, 1.9 percent to the high class, and 52.8 percent to the middle class.  (News Source

The survey projected the Korean socioeconomic status to look like an hourglass if over 50 percent of respondents start feeling, within a decade, that they belong to the low class.  And I agree since (i) I think the above percentage of the alleged middle class might have been inflated ‘cause people tend to consider themselves positively, hence in this case, belonging to middle class; and (ii) the survey shows 58.7 percent of respondents say they don’t think they will ever move up to the upper class.

Seungmin's obviously a clever and proud guy from a low-income family, aka, gaeryong. His mom seems to have been a widow for a long time and her sundae house in the traditional Korean marketplace located in her neighborhood Jeongneung is the sole means of her family's livelihood.  And it seems he's beginning to feel the era of gaeryong is going away hence secretly experiencing emotive dissonance and ambivalence about things out of his reach which are epitomized in this place called Gaepo-dong and this Gangnam hyung called Jaewook. And even though the professor tells the class to love and understand their neighborhoods in order to understand architecture, he doesn't seem to understand what it means or doesn't seem to have reasons to do so.

In the following video, the professor asks the class to go to see a "faraway" place, the "farthest" place from home. He asks them to think about the meaning of the word "far." To Seungmin, it means Gaepo-dong, located in Gangnam, 42 bus stops away from his Gangbuk home; and since childhood, he's felt the place is so far away both physically and emotionally.  It's just like the distance between the real GUESS t-shirt and the fake one he wears for a special occasion.

On the other hand, the farthest place to Seoyeon has been Seoul itself. Growing up in Jeju Island, she' been dreaming of living in Seoul, thinking everything in there is great. Unlike Seungmin who already recognizes the socioeconomic gap between Gangbuk and Gangnam and secretly admires the way people in Gaepo-dong live life, she doesn't even know it's the name of the Gangnam neighborhood.  In short, she feels the same way about Seoul as he does about Gangnam except that she loves everything about the place.

He begins harboring a hope she may feel the same way about him, a "Seoul" guy, as she does about Seoul.  And while listening to their "theme" song together, he begins thinking she may feel the same way about the world as he does.

It turns out Seoyeon in fact feels the same way about Seoul as Seungmin does about Gangnam: The ambivalence of emotions. The more she admires Seoul, the more she feels inferior to its residents.  She reveals that her classmates make fun of her calling her "a student from a local piano class in Jeju Island" as most of the prospective students of the Korean music schools take lessons from music professors. She says she wants to be a TV/radio announcer to marry a rich man and asks him to build her a dream house free of charge someday.  I think it's her way of expressing her feeling for him; by asking him to make her dream come true "free of charge," she tells him, consciously or not, to be a successful, rich architect and build their home, sweet home. And I think he gets her message; so he kisses her while she is asleep and she's aware of it as she pretends to be asleep.

However, having a crush on Jaewook is a completely different story to Seoyeon. He's already got everything girls are wanting.  As she puts it herself, "he's good-looking, tall, from a rich family and an architecture student."  (Architectural designing and engineering used to be one of the "it" careers in Korea in the 90's.) While Seungmin's also an architecture student, he doesn't seem to belong in the "hot guys" category for he's not a rich kid and his future still remains uncertain.  To top it off, Jaewook is the reason why she chooses to take Architecture 101 in the first place and she doesn't seem aware that she admires the idea of wealth represented in his image.

On the other hand, even though it doesn't matter at first to Seoyeon whether Jaewook is from Gangnam or Gangbuk, it matters a lot to Seungmin that Jaewook is from Gangnam 'cause (i) he knows his confidence evaporates in front of this Gangnam hyung and (ii) losing her to Jaewook may mean losing his everything to the one who seems to already have everything.  He's always afraid that Seoyeon and Jaewook may eventually end up together.

Since their first kiss, however, Seoyeon seems to have become convinced that she really likes Seungmin and now all that's left seems to let their love bloom.... until they are interrupted by Jaewook who makes fun of Seungmin in his presence (even though he's pretending to be asleep) for wearing a fake GUESS t-shirt and Seoyeon laughs at it with him. Ouch! Moreover, not only does she deny her feelings for Seungmin, but she breaks the news to Jaewook, not Seungmin, about her moving to Gangnam. Ouch, ouch!

I think I kinda understand why she did it even though it's hard to explain. Maybe she just wanted to cater to Jaewook, thinking Seungmin was not listening, 'cause that Gangnam oppa was her ideal man anyway. Whatever the reason, I don't think she really meant to hurt Seungmin's feelings; she didn't know what it felt like for him to be ridiculed by that Gangnam hyung. His t-shirt with a misspelled brand name was more than just a fake shirt; it was none other than himself who pretended to be someone he was not. The damage to his pride and ego. Also it represented his frustration he later vented on his mom and on the cheap green metal gate to his house.

So Seoyeon moves to Gangnam, saying something like, "All other things being equal, you would pick Gangnam." Here, Gangnam means nothing more than luxury and wealth.  So she's more than happy to be in her semi-basement one-room, which is nothing better than Seungmin's, only because it's located in Gangnam.  And as she puts it, they are now on the opposite sides of Seoul and he's worried the geographical distance may break their emotional connection.

So Seungmin chooses to confess his love for Seoyeon.  He stays up all night and even skips the classes on the last day of semester building a scale model house for her. But the love story takes a tragic turn when he sees her together with Jaewook.  The same way Jaewook once bragged to Seungmin about how he scores girls, he carries drunken Seoyeon to her room.  Seungmin briefly tries to eavesdrop on them but turns around and gives up right away. Lots and lots of female viewers accused him of leaving her alone with this philandering scumbag and called him jjijiri (찌질이, "a loser"). But he just can't help it. As I mentioned above, his confidence evaporates in front of this Gangnam hyung. He just can't help but feel he's no match for the guy.

Now it doesn't really matter to Seungmin whether Seoyeon refused Jaewook's kiss or whether she really slept with him. That night, he saw an insurmountable barrier placed not only between Jaewook and him but also between Seoyeon and him. And that's what matters most now. He realizes she is not the kind of girl who he thought would be. Born and raised outside of Seoul, she's never been able to feel the same way about the world as he does; she's not even aware of this obvious gulf between Gangbuk and Gangnam. When he realizes he misunderstood her from the start, he chooses to return her CD he's been pretending to listen to and stops pretending to be someone he is not. Just like that, he cuts her off.

Some people jokingly say, "If Seungmin and Seoyeon had had cell phones as we do today, they wouldn't have fallen out over such misunderstandings." But I think, with or without the night's incident, or with or without Jaewook, they were not meant for each other in the first place. Just as shown in the poster above, he's watching her, hoping her to love him for the person he is, hoping her to embrace his inferiority complex that has thrived on him while wanting to be someone he is not, but she's looking somewhere else.  So just like that, they both go their separate ways.

In the meantime, the Asian financial crisis which started in Thailand in the mid 1997 spread to South Korea. This crisis, aka the “IMF crisis,” caused innumerable mergers, acquisitions, plant moves, plant closures, downsizing, cutbacks, and also large scale layoffs in Korea. As the working and middle class got laid off, downsized, or outsourced, they had no choice but to sell their properties at giveaway prices. And it was the upper strata of society (1 percent of the whole country) that purchased those properties as they had stable and abundant cash flows even in the crisis. As the middle class started turning into poor, their children has been deprived of high-quality education, which has led to much less opportunities to go to prestigious universities, which has led to much less opportunities to get better jobs in the society where highly specialized, high-end white-collar workers earn more money, respect, and power. In short, the IMF crisis created an endless vicious circle of poverty in Korean society. And as the 2011 Korea National Statistical Office survey shows that 58.7 percent of respondents say they don’t think they will ever move up to the upper class, Gangnam in the 21st century epitomizes the upper strata of society, i.e., off limits to the rest of the country

And now in 2012, Seoyeon (Han Ga-in) lives in Gaepo-dong that used to be Seungmin's faraway "dream" neighborhood. She failed to become a TV/radio announcer but instead married a medical doctor. At a glance, she seems to have successfully settled in Seoul as she hoped but it turns out she's separated from her husband and has filed for divorce. To sum up, she couldn't accomplish her dream of becoming a rich citizen of Seoul. Seungmin (Uhm Taewoong), on the other hand, is now a promising architect engaged to a rich girl (who I guess is from Gangnam).

One day, Seoyeon comes to meet Seungmin for the first time in 17 years and asks him to build a house for her. Maybe she wants to go back in time and undo their twisted fate in order to bounce back from basket case. Maybe she thinks their unconsummated love was the the main cause of her failures and misfortunes. While building a house for her, he had a chance to "be in her heart and see how much he means to her" (as the lyrics to their theme song read). And he kisses her (and probably sleeps with her). 

So, does Seungmin think he can be the savior of this woman he's been calling "a bitch"? But the reality is, he still lives in the same old house in Jeongneung with his mom who's still wearing his old fake GUESS t-shirt. And his mom still has to spend all the money she made from selling her sundae house, her lifelong source of income, to support him. He knows too well he'll never be able to become one of those Gangnam oppas.... not without "a little" help from his wealthy fiancée, a Gangnam girl. When he realizes he can (and will) never undo the twisted fate of love just as he can never undo the damage he did to the gate 17 years ago, he weeps.

Seungmin chooses to look away from Seoyeon who's watching him, obviously hoping him to love her again. So he returns her CD and CD player he's been keeping for 17 years and follows his dream of being someone he is not. Just like that, he leaves her behind. And no one really knows what will happen: he'll probably eventually become one of them or become just like Seoyeon.

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P.S.  The theme song of the movie is Gi-eoge seupjak (기억의 습작, "Etude of Memories"), written by Kim Dongryul (or Kim Dong-ryul, Kim Dong-ryool) and performed by Exhibition, a Korean music duo (1994-1997) consisting of singer-songwriters Kim Dongryul and Seo Dongwook. FYI, the movie's writer and director Lee Yongju and Kim were Architecture students of the same university (Yonsei) only 4 years apart: Lee entered Yonsei in 1990 and Kim in 1994. They are not personally acquainted with each other though.


  1. Thanks for Pointing me towards that Movie, i came here to learn more about Psys's Gangnam style which a friend showed me as an Hilarious Movie ("well its KPOP what do you expect, the same guys that make laws for Esports"). and was astonished that there are so many more apects to that movie!

    After months i finally got time to watch Architecture 101. and im Amazed by that Movie!
    I loved it!

  2. wutzibu, glad to know you enjoyed reading my post. :)

  3. Since the time that my curiosity was drawn to the satire in PSY's Gangham video, I've enjoyed reading your My Korea blog. I'm interested in class issues to the extent that they tell something about how people form and use / misuse strategy in their individual and group efforts. Materialism and power struggle are important areas of activity to me. It's been a lifelong interest of mine - part of my interest in biology and ecology, really. While I understand that your blog posts reflect only your research and understanding of the subject, I value your commentary. I live in Kyoto. I was born and raised in the States, living in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Arizona, primarily.
    Thank you.

  4. Thanks for the great review! It gives wealth of background context of the movie that might be lost from many viewers not familiar with the location of the movie.

  5. Anonym @2:08 AM, thanks for your kind words as my review of the movie has been the unpopular part of this four-part series - PSY’s “Gangnam Style” and Gangnam Oppa in “Architecture 101”. It means a lot! :)

  6. i think seungmin already left so yeon from the moment he gave her back the cd. And in the future, giving her back the cd and cd-player is just the way of him to say that he fullfilled the promise with So Yeon to meet her at the 1st day that snow drops, and more than that, i think he also wanna say that between them, there's no more misunderstanding, no more regret, he'll just back to present, to who he is now. It's my opinion about the ending of movie. But im really thank you for showing me another amazing side of the movies. :)

    1. Yes, you're so right! Just like books belong to their readers once written, movies belong to their audience once made, which means it's up to each viewer to interpret each event in a movie. And welcome to my blog, huy! :)

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