Analysis – Housing “Possibility” in ‘Architecture 101’ and ‘3-Iron’

A paper I wrote for a class I took called ‘Core Romantic Values in East Asian Premodern Literature and Contemporary Film.’ I’ve actually never watched anything Korean prior to this class, so writing a comparative paper proved to be an interesting experience. Overall, I was really pleased with ‘Architecture 101.’ It’s heartfelt, but doesn’t have the sting (or blatant bludgeoning) that I had expected from the Korea drama stereotype.

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Architecture 101 (Lee Yong-Joo, 2012) tells a story of love that is constructed temporally and spatially, with the concept of the house framing the narrative. Architecture and houses lay the foundation upon which the romantic relationship between the two main characters is built, working as a metaphor for its development and possible renovation after their estrangement. Shelley Hornstein suggests that place is a construct that can be tied to memory and even generate memory.[1] I’d like to project this idea onto Architecture 101, as I believe that the home works as a narrative device that is able to symbolize, house, and even bring apart a relationship. Houses in 3-Iron (Kim Ki-duk, 2004) are used in a strikingly similar way, and I’d like to show how houses offer windows of possibility for characters in both films.

The story of the relationship between Lee Seung-Min and Yang Seo-Yeon is told non-linearly. The narrative continually switches between the present and flashbacks of their relationship 17 years ago when they first met in college. Despite the amount of time that has passed, there are strong parallels between scenes from both past and present, highlighting what has changed and what has persisted over time. At the beginning of the film, present-day Seo-Yeon approaches Seung-Min and asks him to design a house for her. This is a strong sign that she still has feelings for him and that she wants to probe around to see if he feels the same. While planning the layout of the house, they decide to renovate the existing house rather than build one up from scratch. Like their relationship, the framework already exists and all that is required is to collaborate on its final design.

Between the past and the present, the two characters take on very different stances on what home is, and these perspectives undergo a reversal after they grow up. The young Seo-Yeon is depicted as a fairly independent individual, living by herself in apartments and enjoying the thrill of moving around. On the other hand, the young Seung-Min is very passive and has lived in the same small house with his mom for all his life. He’s very reliant on his mother to do things, like wash a shirt so that he can wear it for an outing with Seo-Yeon, for him and this makes him come across as childish. In the present day, the general roles are now reversed. Now Seung-Min is the one moving forward as a talented architect, with plans to move away to America with his fiancé. Seo-Yeon never achieves her dream of being a radio announcer and after divorcing her husband, she desires to start a new life in her hometown in the house that Seung-Min will build for her.

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In talking about the significance of the home, I feel that it’s necessary to mention the importance of the parental figures in Architecture 101. Both characters are raised by single parents and a connection to Confucian influences can made, as they both display a large amounts of xiao for them, particularly once they’ve grown up. At this time, their parents play a pivotal role for where the children want to live. More than anything else, it seems like both of the main characters wish for the well-being of their parents. Previously distant from her father, Seo-Yeon now wants a new house for the two of them to live in and for him to live out the last of his days in. When he’s younger, Seung-Min seems ungrateful for the hard work that his mother does around the house. However, when he’s older he wishes to repay his mother for everything she’s done by providing her with comfortable living conditions, but his mother ultimately refuses and insists that he moves to America to further his architecture career.

The division of roles and the cyclical progression of events throughout the film are indicative of Daoist influences. The main characters have distinct differences in personality, which we could categorize as yin and yang. This is especially apparent in their past selves. The young Seo-Yeon easily comes across as the yang character in the relationship, due to her vibrant personality and how she always drags Seung-Min around. Seung-Min is the yin side, as he’s very passive and is often unsure how to take initiative. For every approach, he has to consult one of his friends for advice before proceeding with his actions, reminiscent of, but admittedly not quite the same as, the intermediators we see for female characters in caizi-jiaren stories. However, we never see this happen with the young Seo-Yeon. As far as we know, all of the decisions she makes with regards to her feelings for Seung-Min are made by herself, lending to her self-sufficient character.

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In the present, it feels like the yin-yang balance has been switched. While the division may not be as sharp as it was before, I think the balance has shifted to where Seung-Min has moved to the assertive yang position. He’s more vocal about his opinions, particularly during his moments of disagreement with Seo-Yeon. Seo-Yeon maintains a lot of independence of mind, which often comes across as stubbornness, but she has been largely been moved back to a more subordinate role. As with the time in the past, her future after their reunion ultimately hinges on what Seung-Min wants to do and whether he reciprocates her desires to rebuild their relationship.

The first relationship between Seung-Min and Seo-Yeon never officially progresses past phase A, and this may be the catalyst of Seo-Yoon’s desire to restart her life. (Phase A = pre, Phase B = mid, Phase C = post) Having never received closure, she gets trapped in both phase A and phase C simultaneously. For Seo-Yeon, it seems that she’s stuck in a state of mind in which her relationship with Seung-Min never began or ended. And yet, it strangely feels like it’s managed to do both at the same time. Everything is left open and unfinished, with only a foundation and a few blueprints as evidence for its existence. A sense of wholeness is never achieved between the two, and Seo-Yeon vocalizes this issue. She compares her own life with “spicy soup,” which is so named despite whatever other contents may be in it. Since Seung-Min was the one who terminated the connection between the two, it’s easy to see how he’s able to move forward since then. However, when Seo-Yeon approaches him for the house construction, he is also brought back to this phase A/phase C limbo and is forced to decide whether to leave his fiancé for his first love.

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While the overall circular shape of the events may imply a closed cycle, the couple’s relationship actually feels very open. The architecture of their residencies also reflect this idea of open and closed. In the past, the places where they live feel very small and closed-off. Seung-Min’s house is portrayed as dirty and poorly kept, with even trash falling out of the refrigerator. His attitude suggests that he wishes he didn’t live there and that he feels trapped there. While Seo-Yeon’s apartment is much cleaner by comparison, there’s still a sense of isolation by how dark the room is and how it’s located in a basement, with the only source of light coming through a small window.

These living situations are contrasted with the vacant house the two stumble upon in their neighborhood, which appears to be missing some walls and part of the roof. It’s in this shared space, which is literally open due to architectural failures, that they first create memories together by cleaning it up and planting plants in the garden. It’s also the place where their first relationship ends, when Seung-Min misses a meeting with Seo-Yeon, believing that she had chosen an upperclassman over him.

This idea of open architecture comes up again in the present with how Seung-Min designs the house. Upon its completion, the house’s interior is displayed through a series of spectacular wide shots showing off its size as well as the large set of windows he installed on the sea-facing side. The house’s architecture is designed with openness, flexibility, and Seo-Yeon in mind. It could be an indirect way for Seung-Min to communicate to her that he still loves her. However, in the end he decides to leave her behind for a life in America with his wife, leaving their relationship open and in limbo once again.

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The last shot of the film shows Seo-Yeon alone in the completed house, looking out at the sea while listening to a CD she had lent Seung-Min. He gives her back the CD when he verbally ends their friendship, and it’s left by Seo-Yeon in the vacant house after she thinks Seung-Min has stood her up. However, he’s the one who mails it back to her, indicating that at some point that day he went to the house and perhaps wanted to reconcile their relationship. The ending shot of Seo-Yeon parallels an earlier scene when the two listen to the same CD and the aptly-titled song “An Essay of Memory” on an open rooftop. The first verse of the soft ballad opens with a male singer wistfully singing the words “Now, I can no longer hold on,” encapsulating the entire message of the film in one brief melodic passage.

While I would like to think that there may be a possibility for a caizi-jiaren style ending, in which their love is able to triumph over all of the lost time between them and they eventually get back together some time in the future, I feel that that is not the interpretation the film hints at. The overarching structure of the narrative seems to follow the caizi-jiaren template for most of the film. The two are depicted as smart, talented individuals with single parents and meet because they share a class and the same route to school. However, a happy ending together does not seem to be the ultimate outcome for the couple.

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The house that Seung-Min and Seo-Yeon design together stands as a monument to their time together and will persist with more permanence than any renovated relationship ever could. In this sense, the story seems to follow the Daoist worldview that change is the natural course of things. If they somehow ended up back together again, one could make the argument that that situation would be a perpetuation of a Buddhist spiral of suffering and desire. Through that particular lens, we might say that Seung-Min and Seo-Yeon have to part ways. Otherwise, their futures will be ensnared by events of the past, and neither will be allowed to proceed forward with their life.

Just as the house that Seung-Min designs represents what could have been, the houses that Sun-hwa and Tae-suk visit throughout 3-Iron act as windows into lives that they could have together. I feel that this line of thought becomes exceptionally powerful if we take the interpretation that the entire venture with Tae-suk, and even Tae-suk himself, is a product of Sun-hwa’s imagination as a way to cope with her husband’s abuse. I believe this interpretation is in agreement with Shelley Hornstein’s argument that architecture can be “a constructed environment – whether in natural, manufactured, or imagined materials – that demarcates space”, as well as a “mapping of space – physical, mental or emotional.”[2]

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In this film and with the dream interpretation, we can say that these different locales and architectures are used by Sun-hwa as a way to explore a love relationship that she might never have had before and may never be able to have in the future. In this way, this venture with Tae-suk is a literal dream relationship in which memories can be created in the safe space of these conveniently empty houses, not unlike what happens with the young Seo-Yeon and Seung-Min in the rundown house they find. Like in Architecture 101, the theme of healing and repair is prominent in 3-Iron. While Seung-Min has the ability to renovate houses, Tae-suk is often seen repairing electronics, like clocks or CD-players. As such, we could say that Tae-suk, real or not, is healing the emotional damage that Sun-hwa is harboring.

The stereotype of Korean melodrama seems to be present in both films and can be traced back to the concept of han. Various plot elements seem to exist with the intention of invoking han within the viewer. The most obvious element would be the Sun-hwa’s abuse by her husband in 3-Iron, which triggers han not only for the character Sun-hwa but for the viewer as well. In this way, we could argue that the dream is not something Sun-hwa creates but rather it’s an imaginative scenario created for her out of han-fueled empathy by some outside entity.

In Architecture 101, there seems to be little logical reason as to why the young Seung-Min and Seo-Yeon must cut all relations with each other. In the universe of the film, it may make sense, but the viewer will immediately contest to the logic and even hope for an alternate ending. Perhaps they could strike up a conversation at school one day, or their friends could help them reconcile. However, as viewers we already know this is impossible because the outcome is made known from the beginning by the non-linear narrative. This brings out han within the viewer because it seems like the characters should have options, but due to the nature of the film’s construction, they do not. The characters are forced to play out the will of the film’s creators, and while these characters are fictional, it still evokes a type of injustice that leads to han.

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While quoting Georges Poule, J.E. Malpas mentions that “beings surround themselves with the places where they find themselves, the way one wraps oneself up in a garment that is at one and the same time a disguise and a characterization. Without places, beings would be only abstractions.”[3] Likewise, the illusion of Tae-suk is created as an extension of Suh-hwa’s inner desires, with the different houses providing anchoring the dream of love with spatial context in an attempt to bridge fantasy and reality. The end of 3-Iron leaves the viewer with the words “It’s hard to tell that the world we live in is either a reality or a dream.” This embodies much of the ambiguity that surrounds 3-Iron as the story is drastically different depending on which interpretation is taken.

I want to draw a connection with the quote and the ending of Architecture 101 because I believe the same issue is present, not because it’s hard to choose one or the other but rather because both seem to be presented at the same time. Seung-Min builds the perfect house for Seo-Yeon. It’s a “dream home” that represents the possibility that they could have been together, but it also stands as a reminder of the harsh reality that things did not work out that way. One may even argue that Seo-Yeon has been trapped in a dreamstate following her estrangement with Seung-Min and that the non-linear nature of the narrative is an indication that memories of the past, especially for Seo-Yeon, are things that are always at work even in the present. This mixing of past events with the flow of the present has control over Seo-Yeon and creates the dreamstate. It’s born from trauma, albeit much different from the trauma that I argue gives birth to Sun-hwa’s dream. A much looser definition of “dream” is present in Architecture 101, but I believe that it’s in line with what is outlined in the Buddhist worldview and that there’s a strong relation to the significance of the dream aspect in 3-Iron. In both films, the dream aspects are constructions of what could have been but ultimately can never be, and no amount of healing can change that reality.

 B.W.

[1] Shelley Hornstein, Losing Site: Architecture Memory and Place, 3.

[2] Ibid, 4.

[3] J.E. Malpas, Place & Experience: A Philosophical Topography, 176.

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