Hope, tragedy, and han in Akdong Musician’s Melted
Han is an expression of the complex feeling which embraces both sadness and hope. The sadness stems from the effort by which we accept the original contradiction facing all living things, and hope comes from the will to overcome the contradiction. In the present, we accept it; in the future, we will overcome it. Life for all living things is full of contradictions… Where there is a beginning, there is also an end.
Akdong Musician’s music video for Melted – the second music video accompanying the duo’s debut album Play – stands out from its peers in the K-pop industry because its performers, brother-sister duo Lee Chanhyuk and Lee Soohyun, make no appearance in it at all. It also stands out because it takes place in a setting that’s likely unfamiliar to much of its audience, following characters who are, at first glance, external to the concerns of the Korean public. And yet, watching the story unfold to AKMU’s haunting vocals, viewers may sense a universalism in the “obscure destinies” of the characters: neither protagonists or antagonists, all must struggle to overcome their alone-ness. The lyrics capture the simultaneous tragedy and hope shown in the video: “If the ice melts, a warmer song would come out. Why is the ice so cold?”
Filmed in Vancouver, Canada, by award-winning filmmaker Dee Shin, Melted‘s music video presents a man reflecting on experiences from his adolescence that shaped him. We can infer from the drink in his hand and his leisurely pause near the window in a high-rise building that he is now quite successful, but we learn that he did not start out this way. In flashback, we see his journey as a boy, headed to the big city as a hitchhiker with a couple of bags and a vintage camera. His bold and inquisitive nature is obvious, and it does him no favours. When a harried businessman picks him up from the side of the road, the boy uses his camera to document the scenery, the man’s reflection in the rearview mirror, and even the boxes of paperwork in the backseat of the car. Incensed at this invasion of privacy, the man tosses the boy’s bags out the window and ejects him from the car.
As the boy continues his journey into Vancouver, we see how adults betray the boy, unable to keep promises or extend sympathy beyond what is convenient for them. We also see how adults have put up barriers between themselves and others that prevent them from enjoying human connection: at a park, the boy watches homeless men fight over bottles in the trash and mothers arguing about their children’s playground misdeeds as the children look on in confusion. The boy finds a chaperone and accompanies her to a bar, where he falls asleep – until the woman drives away with all his belongings and leaves the boy with her tab. The irate bartender, more upset about his business loss than the child who’s been left without help or resources, throws the boy out and beats him, breaking the boy’s prized camera in the process. Later that evening, the police are uninterested in helping the boy recover his belongings or find justice.
It’s at this point – face bruised, camera broken, possessions gone – that the boy is close to complete hopelessness. His encounters in the big city have shown him that he is disposable and inconsequential, and now everything seems to be against him. Walking outside the city now, he tries one last time for a connection, leaning down to greet a dog tied outside a trailer. But the dog barks at him, and for the first time, the boy returns the hostility he’s received, bellowing at the dog in despair and anger. The boy does not think: he reacts with instinctual ferocity.
The noise brings out the owner of the trailer, poised with a crowbar to defend his property. But what this man sees is different from what the other adults saw, and it causes him to act differently. This man sees a child in need of kindness. He offers the boy a warm meal and fixes the boy’s camera. He does not solve all the boy’s problems, and we are left guessing how the boy went from runaway to successful adult. But in the final shot, that adult places his drink next to the now-repaired camera, suggesting that the significance of that final encounter stayed with the boy as he matured.
The tragedy of the video is that all of its characters have something in common with each other, yet they protect themselves instead of responding to each other’s suffering with kindness – which in the end only causes more pain. The homeless men in the park fight each other off instead of collaborating; the mothers yell at each other instead of helping their children learn to solve problems. The white woman in the car hides her true self when she sees the boy watching her, creating an image of a kind person but revealing how little she cares about the boy when she leaves him behind. The man delivering balloons and the man posing as a statue are obviously lonely and unhappy, but they do not seek out connections with others. The boy himself is a symbol of the commonalities between people, since he appears to have mixed racial heritage. But instead of accepting and caring for the boy, people of various ethnicities reject him again and again.
There’s a certain irony, then, in the way the boy is rescued from his damaging experiences in the city. The man who emerges from the trailer is Native American, and everyone else in the video, the boy included, represents the invasion and colonization of his ancestors’ lands. We might also guess from his trailer home on the city’s periphery that this man has not received much kindness from institutions or individuals in his life. Yet the man’s reaction to the boy is not one of malice or ferocity: it is one of genuine caring. He provides for the boy’s immediate needs without regard to the boy’s faults or past. And the act of caring visibly changes the boy. His face brightens – and, we can assume, his outlook on life changes.
The adults shown in Melted‘s video are, with one exception, cold and uncaring, reacting to their suffering with hardness toward others (this fits well with the song’s wordplay on “ice,” 어름들(eoreumdeul), which sounds like “adults,” 어른들(eoreundeul)). Their interactions with the boy cause him to slowly harden and lose hope himself, until an act of kindness – embodied in a warm meal – melts his hostility and heals the spiritual wounds inflicted by an uncaring world.
The way the music video tells this story taps into a sensibility that’s probably recognizable to many K-drama fans, as it dramatizes each act of coldness in ways that mainstream American filmmakers usually would not. Whenever the characters in the video put up barriers or hurt each other, the frame speed slows down so that we see punches and hurtful words in slow motion. And it’s whenever the boy is betrayed and abandoned that we see his face close up, bringing his emotions to the foreground of our attention. His anguish at his broken camera is perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of the video. Until then, it is literally his lens for viewing and making meaning of the city and its denizens, even as they distrust and abuse each other. The boy’s facial expressions and the camera as a symbol for making meaning – broken by a gratuitously violent act – increase both our empathy with the boy and our sense of the wasteful tragedy inherent in the “real world” which the boy is encountering for the first time.
The music video thus draws out a contradiction that reflects author Park Kyungni’s thinking about han, a concept commonly associated with Korean art and literature. Han is often translated as sadness or resignation, but Park Kyungni points out that han also encompasses hope: it is both a resignation to suffering of many kinds, and a belief that such suffering can be overcome. “When we are poor, we think of Han. We therefore work hard in order to buy lots of land. When we are ignorant, we are mindful of Han. We educate our children in order to deliver them from Han, that is why the passion for educating the young is so ardent in Korea,” Park explains. The music video shows us a city where kindness is tragically absent, but it also shows us how kindness, rare as it is, can be transformational in the life of a young person.
While it’s certainly possible that this story could have been told anywhere, including Korea itself, the juxtaposition between the setting and the lens with which we view the story are important to conveying its message. Seeing mostly Western characters in a Western setting draws attention to how those characters are portrayed and how they interact with each other. We are not seeing these people as they see themselves; rather, we are seeing them through the lens of han, as the camera literally focuses on the sadness and suffering these characters both endure and inflict on each other. We become attuned to the boy’s emotional state, and we are that much more affected when the Native American man offers the boy help and care. In witnessing the tragedies of daily life in such stark terms, we may also see the possibilities for change. Regardless of the context of its audience members, Melted helps us to become more sensitive to suffering in our own everyday lives – and it challenges us to overcome sadness, so that we can offer others kindness, connection, and hope.
Thanks to Lizzie for contributing ideas for this piece!