Digging for earworms

Park Ji-min in “Return to Seoul” (2022) features diegetic music, notably the song “Petal” by Shin Joong-hyun

Last week I went to see Return to Seoul, in which a young French woman returns to South Korea to try and find the biological parents who gave her up for adoption, and in the process realises how little she knows about the country of her birth, or herself. It’s a slow-burning character study with a fearlessly uningratiating performance by Park Ji-min, in the course of which I was unexpectedly smitten by a song.

The piece of music in question was not part of the score but what we film snobs call diegetic – music to which the characters themselves are listening. I couldn’t find the title in the end credits or on IMDb, but hurrah for 21st-century social media! Within half an hour of venting my frustration on Twitter, an Asian music aficionado had seen a trailer and instantly identified my favourite new earworm as Petal, a psychedelic-adjacent 1967 pop song by Shin Joong-hyun and the Donkeys, featuring vocals by Lee Jung-hwa. When Twitter finally self-destructs, I shall miss the way you can ask anything, and someone will respond with the inevitability of the Star Trek: The Next Generation computer honouring Jean-Luc Picard’s request for “tea, Earl Grey, hot.”

This is a far cry from the 1970s, when instead of IMDb and Twitter, all I had was my music-loving dad. Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), an avant-garde short featuring Kenneth’s friends (including author Anaïs Nin with a birdcage on her head) swanning around dressed as gods and goddesses, exercised a questionable influence on my art college slideshows even as I was going mad trying to put a name to the accompanying satanic-sounding choral music. I kept singing the opening bars to my dad, like Delius humming to his bemused amanuensis Eric Fenby in Ken Russell’s Song of Summer (1968). Hmmm hmm hm hm hmmm hm hmm! For some mysterious reason, my father failed to recognise what it took another decade for me to discover was Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.

Anaïs Nin in Kenneth Anger’s “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” (1954) featured a satanic-sounding choral score

My dad and I had no more luck identifying the backing music to Peter Barkworth blowing his brains out on Primrose Hill in a short called Mr. Smith (1976). (For the benefit of younger readers: in the 1970s and 1980s, UK cinemas often squeezed in short films before the main attraction.) What was that lachrymose threnody? Luckily I only had to wait a few years to put a name to this one, since Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings cropped up again in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). Interestingly, that film’s composer, John Morris, advised Lynch not to use it, saying “this piece is going to be used over and over and over again in the future… and every time it’s used in a film, it’s going to diminish the effect of the scene.” Never a truer word was spoken, since we were subsequently bombarded with the Barber pathos in everything from Platoon (1986) to Kevin and Perry Go Large (2000), not to mention a gazillion other films and TV sitcoms. What had once seemed an outpouring of poignancy has now become a bad joke.

I can’t be the only one whose classical music horizons have been expanded by cinema

Susan Sarandon, Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie in “The Hunger” (1983), the first film to use Delibes’ “Lakmé” in its musical repertoire

I can’t be the only one whose classical music horizons have been expanded by cinema. How many listeners would have heard Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra or the work of Krzysztof Penderecki if not for Stanley Kubrick using them in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or The Shining (1980)? Penderecki’s eerie experimental oeuvre has since become a staple of the horror genre, though luckily no single piece has yet been cheapened by overuse. But as Morris predicted, filmmakers keep returning to the same musical well instead of branching out into less familiar tributaries of the vast classical repertoire. And even lesser-known pieces risk being recycled until they become clichés. When Tony Scott used the Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé in The Hunger (1983), it was probably the first time non-Delibes completists had heard it, but soon – possibly due to some form of sibling rivalry dating back to squabbling over gramophone records in their Northumberland boyhood – Tony’s brother Ridley was using it in Someone to Watch Over Me (1987). And then Tony was reusing the very same piece when Christopher Walken shoots Dennis Hopper through the head in True Romance (1993). In the meantime, British Airways TV ads ruined it forever by thrusting it into our living-rooms on a daily basis, reducing it to a recurring bromide in the likes of Sex and the City (2008), Piranha 3D (2010), Happy Death Day 2U (2019) et al.

It’s not as if there aren’t any number of lesser-known yet catchy pieces of music that haven’t yet been done to death by the unadventurous hive mind. (Everyone knows Aram Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance, but how about his Violin Concerto, eh?) At least I can bask in the certitude that an obscure Korean pop song like Shin Joong-hyun’s Petal won’t be featuring on a million soundtracks in the near future. I’ve had enough of favourite tunes being spoiled by overfamiliarity.

Unless, heaven help us, someone from British Airways’ ad agency decides to go and see Return to Seoul.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

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Arts & Culture, Billboard, May 2023

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