Originally published on September 2014
This month, BGST has the privilege of Prof Robert Banks teaching an immensely interesting course called Finding God in the Movies: Christian Perspectives on Film. We look forward to him sharing with us his experience on this subject. Unlike Prof Banks, I am but an amateur in such matters – films were not in vogue during the patristic period! Nonetheless, I am also an amateur in the original sense of the word (‘lover of’), in that, I have always enjoyed watching movies and television dramas. Since the Church Fathers were experts in communicating ideologies through stories and portraitures of Christian figures, it may well be that I could apply some of the analytical tools I learnt in patristic studies on a pastime I share with my wife: watching Korean dramas. Here goes.
Ten years ago, when I was just about to head for Regent College, the Korean drama and music craze was just beginning. At that time, K-Pop groups were not well known, and the use of flamboyant hairstyles and dyes were still quite restrained. Of course, no one, including Psy himself, could have imagined how YouTube would revolutionise K-Pop and his reputation so dramatically. But fast forward ten years and what do we see? The last count on 31 May 2014 indicates that there are more than 2 billion views of Psy’s Gangnam Style1 music videos on YouTube – a record that even Justin Bieber can’t match. Korean Entertainment is now a worldwide rage.
This brings me to a recent popular Korean drama series called My Love from the Stars (aka You Came from the Stars). During a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was amazed at how much the show (or more so, its main cast) has penetrated popular culture. Kim Soo-Hyun and Jun Ji-hyun were everywhere on the streets. Kim carrying his red Samsonite backpack; Kim endorsing Faceshop cosmetics, and the two enjoying their Chinese bottled water! But what was more amusing was this. During the recent Baeksang Arts Award, the wife of a HK tycoon actually ran a full page ad (at a cost of US$39,000) to wish Kim all the best! (In case you are wondering, he won four awards, including Best Actor for Film and TV). All these arising (more or less) from the dramatic success of My Love from the Stars.
What is this drama series all about? What made it so popular? While I will not attempt to explicate this in detail, I would still like to reflect briefly on a few elements that made this show so appealing. As a start, there are several aspects of the drama that are formulaic: a cast of extremely beautiful (and well- dressed) celebrities, such as Kim and Jun; the standard plot of handsome (and rich) boy meets damsel in distress and rescues her from all sorts of dangers; and well timed comedic and climatic moments. In fact, those familiar with philosophical hermeneutics will notice that Korean dramas are quite amenable to structuralist analysis, since the narrative structures of most of these dramas are remarkably similar. But for now, let’s return to the Stars.
Briefly, the story is about a human (and handsome)-looking alien, Do Min-Joo, who arrived in Korea during the 16th century Joseon Dynasty, but missed his flight home due to his unsuccessful bid to save the girl he loves. Fast forward 400 years and we meet the same guy, now sleek looking, a university lecturer and extremely rich (since he bought much of the land that eventually became the most expensive parts of Seoul). Do is also neighbour to Cheong Song-Yi, a famous actress who had fallen into hard and dangerous times (being an unwitting witness to a rich man’s murderous plots). Like most Korean dramas, fans are brought through the ups and downs of the couple’s relationship, with them denying their affections for one another initially, until, right at the end, they yielded to each other’s love. All these, plus the fact that the drama was so well and aesthetically choreographed, and the absence of poor editing (and redundant scenes) that afflict so many Korean dramas, go far to explain the drama’s success.
Yet, there is more to the appeal of Stars. Whether self-consciously or not, I think the drama series explores a lofty subject, that is, what does it mean to be human? Right from the start, Do was of the opinion that human friendships and affections were meaningless because (1) all humans will die despite their hopes for an enduring love and (2) his initial interactions with, or attempts to help humans actually created misfortune for them instead. For these reasons, he saw no point in befriending others and did not even bother to find out the names of his colleagues. In his lectures on human psychology, he would disdain emotions, such as love, jealousy or the longing of one’s beloved, as irrational or mere chemical reactions. As he saw it, what was valuable in life was to indulge in world of knowledge and culture, as may be seen in his Harvard education, immense (and enviable) personal library and collection of antiques. He was, if one may put it, a Korean Immanuel Kant – an astute observer of the world, but never a participant in it.
Then Cheong came stumbling into his world, looking so much like the beloved he lost in the Joseon era. By the halfway point, Do was breaking all the rules he believed in and caught up in the emotions he once ridiculed – jealously, longing, and the rest. He also came to discover that love itself has an enduring quality, even if mortality does get in the way. Furthermore, he also found himself willing to sacrifice both his money and his life just to protect his beloved Cheong. What happened was this: after 400 years on earth, the moment he could return home finally arrived. If he did not leave this time, he would most likely disintegrate and die. Surprisingly, Do actually chose to stay on (and risk dying), until Cheong insisted that he leave. As she saw it, it was better to be separated and know that he is alive, than to be together and have him die on her. OK. No more spoilers beyond this.
Some reflections are now called for. As I see it, Do’s transformation is almost a microcosmic reenactment of the 18th to 19th century debates between the Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers. While the former privileged reason (and knowledge) as the chief expression of humanity, the latter saw this bias as impoverishing humanity and missing out on an important point. That is, human intuition and emotions are equally essential to what it means to be human. Indeed, what made the series immensely popular, I think, was its esteem and affirmation for the manifold expressions of human love: the longing or desire of the other, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the sake of the other, and the recognition that head knowledge should never be alienated from heart knowledge. The subtext, it seems, is that the disdain or neglect of this aspect will make one less human. This being said, Do’s initial thought on how death can so cruelly cut short human love remains valid. In his defense of monasticism, the great fourth century church father, Gregory of Nyssa, made a similar point – no matter how perfect one’s wife is, one day, her beauty will age and crumble into bones. We will be devastated by the terrible loss. Personally, I thank God for my fifteen years of marriage with Rina and that she remains my best friend to date. Yet, as I cross the 40 year mark and put on progressive glasses, it is occurring to me more regularly that we have finished more than half our lives. One day, all these will end at death and we will part. Perhaps today. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps in 40 years’ time. Only God knows. But it will come eventually. And all that we cherish, all that we long for will dissipate. So, if Stars has rekindled in us a renewed desire for love and its endurance, it also seems to leave us no better, having provided its audience no solution to the dilemma of death. Or maybe not? Perhaps, just perhaps, once the desire for love and eternity is set alight in our hearts, we will be compelled again to seek a resolution for this aching desire. And perhaps we will keep seeking until one day when we find our rest in God (Augustine, Confessions I) and His promise of resurrection. To put it differently then, Stars, with its dramatic exploration of human desire does seem to rekindle in me (and hopefully in its millions of fans) a desire for eternal love and life. For Christians, Stars can also be a wonderful affirmation of God’s promise to us, that one glorious day, Jesus Christ, our Lord will return and raise us to His glory and we will be with Him and one another forever. On that day, I will be able to hold the hands of Rina and those whom we love, knowing this time, our love will truly endure. And at that time, I think I will seek out Augustine of Hippo and tell him that his Confessions has been so inspiring for me. Hopefully, either he can speak English or I the Latin tongue by then.
DR. LAI PAK WAH
Principal of BGST and Lecturer of Church History and Historical Theology.
A graduate from BGST himself (Grad Dip CS) and Regent College, Vancouver (MCS, ThM), Dr Lai completed his PhD at Durham University, where he specialised in Christianity in Late Antiquity, that is, the history, theology and spirituality of the 2nd – 5th C church fathers (Patristic Studies) with particular research on John Chrysostom. He has also published The Dao of Healing: Christian Perspectives on Chinese Medicine. Previously, Dr Lai was a full-time lecturer at the School of Business, Singapore Polytechnic, and engaged in investment promotion work with the Singapore Economic Development Board.