Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 1, January 2003



Hye Seung Chung


One Culture, Two Cinematic Nations: Korean Cinema



Hyangjin Lee

_Contemporary Korean Cinema: Identity, Culture, Politics_

Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000

ISBN: 0719060087

viii + 244 pp.


Although South Korean cinema has gained sporadic media attention in the international film festival circuit since the late 1980s, the scarcity of English-language scholarship and subtitled films has discouraged non-Korean researchers from delving into the subject, despite burgeoning interest in East Asian culture in the West. It is therefore reassuring news that a small number of English-speaking scholars residing in the United States (David E. James, Kyung Hyun Kim, Nancy Abelmann, Kathleen McHugh, and Frances Gateward) are in the process of publishing pioneering anthologies on various aspects of Korean cinema. Nevertheless, it can safely be said that Hyangjin Lee's _Contemporary Korean Cinema: Identity, Culture, Politics_, a slim volume deriving from Great Britain, is the first English-language academic book on Korean cinema published outside of Korea. Moreover, Lee's contribution to the field is exceptional because it is the first book in any language to comprehensively examine the parallel histories of North and South Korean cinemas -- an attempt that has not yet been completed even in Korea. Despite its shortcomings, _Contemporary Korean Cinema_ deserves attention from students and scholars keen on exploring the fascinating discourses surrounding the ideologically divergent, yet culturally convergent cinemas of the two Koreas.


In her introduction, Hyangjin Lee sets the premise of her book as a comparative study of 17 North and South Korean films which explore 'socio-historical themes' specific to the concerns of a divided nation (2). She points out that ideological dissimilarities in films from the communist North and the capitalist South are counterpoised by ethnic and cultural homogeneity (the rhetoric of single nationhood and Confucian familialism) permeating the fractured national cinemas (4). Defining ideology -- specifically that rooted in gender, class, and national identity -- as the conceptual framework of her project, Lee also provides a succinct survey of 'theories of ideology' from Karl Marx and Louis Althusser to Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault, as well as hermeneutic configurations erected by Clifford Geertz and Roland Barthes. Lamentably, one of the weaknesses of Lee's book is that the author fails to connect these theories to the body of her film analysis in either an organic or judicious fashion. Although she name-drops Marx and Geertz later in the volume, the theoretical discussion in the Introduction seems to stand independently from the rest of the book, which primarily focuses on the relation between film and political history rather than theory.


In the first chapter, entitled 'The Creation of National Identity: A History of Korean Cinema', Lee charts out a comprehensive overview of Korean cinema from its embryonic stage during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45) to the bifurcation of respective national cinemas in the post-Liberation North and South. As Lee argues, Korean film has constantly been subjected to stringent state censorship (16), whether it was the colonial government suppressing anti-colonial, nationalistic films, the North Korean Workers' Party directly controlling all aspects of production, distribution, and exhibition, or South Korea's authoritarian, military regimes (1961-1993) severely censoring politically subversive subjects. Lee consigns some 160 Korean films made during the colonial period to five categories: *Shinp'a* dramas (melodramas), nationalistic resistance films, the KAPF (Korean Art Proletarian Federation)-initiated 'tendency films', literary films, and pro-Japanese propaganda films (24-5). Whereas South Korean film historiography embraces the colonial period as a germane component, the North Korean counterpart severs its connection to the pre-socialist era in spite of the fact that KAPF filmmakers contributed to the erection of a 'socialist-realist tradition' during the early 1960s (29, 34). In North Korea, cinema has been a propagandistic tool for educating the masses about Party policies and the legitimacy of Kim Il Sung's absolute leadership. The North Korean film industry fell into the bellwether supervision of Kim Jong Il -- the son of Kim Il Sung and a renowned film buff -- who was appointed as the director of film art in 1968, and authored _The Theory of Cinematic Art_ (the 'bible' for North Korean filmmakers) in 1973, before he succeeded his late father in 1994 (31-2). Lee identifies two critical moments of change in the North Korean film history: the late 1960s to the 70s when the KAPF socialist realism was replaced by 'Great Leader's literature' (anti-Japanese revolutionary films), fostered by Kim Jong Il to establish the cult of his anti-colonial father; and the 1980s, which saw the emergence of the 'hidden hero' films glorifying ordinary workers' contributions to the socialist society and the popularization of historical films with less didactic content (38-9).


Despite political oppression and censorship under successive anti-communist, military governments, South Korean cinema has generated more diverse generic, stylistic, and thematic expressions in the logic of entertainment -- its commercial industry standing in marked contrast to that of its propaganda-oriented, nationalized northern counterpart. Since the mid-1960s, the South Korean government has maintained a screen quota system which requires exhibitors to play domestic films for a certain number of days a year (gradually increasing from 90 to 146 days), thus regulating the import of foreign product. Under the double-edged system of governmental protection and censorship, South Korean cinema saw the emergence and withering of the 'Golden Age' of the 1960s, the 'Dark Age' of the 1970s, and the New Wave in the late 1980s to the 90s. Lee's account paints a panoramic picture of South Korean film policies, representative works, and generic tendencies in the context of social and political history, while omitting the auteuristic approach to major directors such as Shin Sangok, Yu Hyonmok, Im Kwont'aek (Im Kwon Taek), Chang Sonu (Jang Sunwoo), Pak Kwangsu, and Hong Sangsu, that many in this field have grown accustomed to.


In chapter two, 'Gender and Cinematic Adaptations of _Ch'unhyangjon_', Lee compares five films based on one of Korea's most beloved folk tales, _Ch'unhyangjon_, out of more than a dozen versions produced in both North and South Korea. Although Lee regretfully did not (or perhaps *could not* because of unavailability of the film at the time of writing) investigate Im Kwont'aek's most recent adaptation, _Chunghyang_ (2000) (the first Korean entry into the competition section of the Cannes Film Festival and one of the few Korean films available in the North American video/DVD market), her comparative analysis of three South Korean and two North Korean adaptations admirably illustrates how the shared cultural tradition is variably registered by filmic versions from two radically opposed ideological systems. _Ch'unghyangjon_ is an archetypal Confucian tale which eulogizes an ideal feudal womanhood, epitomized by the female protagonist Ch'unhyang, an illegitimate daughter of a *yangban* (the ruling-class) and a *kisaeng* (courtesan). The story celebrates an inter-class romantic union between the virtuous heroine and a man of the *yangban* class. Despite its setting in the pre-modern, caste-dominated Choson Dynasty, _Ch'unghyangjon_ invites repeated modern interpretations due to its relevance to contemporary gender and class problems. According to Lee, all five films uphold the Confucian gender role between men and women, which can rather expectedly be articulated as male domination vs female subordination (90). Three South Korean films -- the Golden Age auteur Shin Sangok's _Song Ch'unghyang_ (1961), Pak T'aewon's _The Tale of Song Ch'unhyang_ (1976), and Han Sanghun's _Song Ch'unhyang_ (1987) -- furthermore reflect the transmogrifying contemporary sexual morality, respectively featuring Ch'unghyang as a chaste, mature woman; a childlike teenager; and an erotic sexual object (75-83). Whereas the South Korean films concentrate on a love story between two individuals, North Korean films -- Yu Wonjun and Yun Ryonggyu's _The Tale of Ch'unhyang_ (1980) and _Love, Love, My Love_ (1985), a musical version made by allegedly abducted South Korean director Shin Sangok -- foreground the class struggle between the abusive ruling-class and the exploited masses (97). In the North Korean versions, Ch'unghyang is a 'figure of dual nature as a respectable wife and a representative worker' (99). While both South Korean and North Korean Ch'unhyang films conform to the patriarchal gender hierarchy, Lee notes, the latter examples interject a socialist translation by stressing the heroine's indomitable working-class spirit.


The third chapter, 'Nationhood and the Cinematic Representation of History', offers an intriguing yet incomplete interpretation of the role of ideology in the nation-building of the two Koreas. Lee argues that anti-imperialism and anti-communism respectively serve as the undergirding ideologies articulating nationhood in North Korean and South Korean films (105-6, 118). While Lee convincingly analyzes _Ch'oe Hakshin's Family_ (1966), _The Sea of Blood_ (1969), and _Wolmi Island_(1982), three North Korean films which overtly express anti-imperialistic sentiments against either U.S. troops or Japanese colonizers to justify the communist cause and Kim Il Sung's leadership, her reading of anti-communism in South Korean films leaves much to be desired. As Lee admits, her first example, the Golden Age classic Yu Hyonmok's _A Stray Bullet_ (1960), does not address anti-communism but speaks of the post-war chaos embodied in the 'clash between traditional Korean culture and the Western, or more precisely, US culture' (120). However, her second example, Im Kwont'aek's critically-acclaimed _The Banner Bearer without a Flag_ (1979), exudes direct anti-communist messages by identifying the corruption and brutality of communist agitators as the root of social illness. Chong Chiyong's (Chung Jiyoung) celebrated _Southern Guerrilla Forces_ (1990), Lee's last example, problematizes the black-and-white ideology of anti-communism through the humanistic story of fugitive communist guerrillas rebelling in remote areas of the T'aebaek Mountains during the immediate aftermath of the Korean War. Lee contextualizes this ideological shift in the global political scene of the late 1980s, which assuaged the hostility between the two Koreas (130). She elaborates that 'the rejection of the hackneyed Cold War ideology [in _Southern Guerrilla Forces_] testifies to the shifting sensibility of the audience toward films dealing with the South-North political confrontation and their demands for a more mature discussion of nationhood in the 1990s' (135).


In this light, it is ironic that the action blockbuster _Shiri_ (1999), filled to the gills with conservative Cold War cliches, broke box office records upon its release. _Shiri_'s unprecedented commercial success was subsequently challenged by another gargantuan hit, _JSA_ (2000), which depicts the oscillation between friendship and tension among North and South Korean soldiers patrolling the Joint Security Area. Lee's analysis might have been richer and more complex by updating her film selection to include more recent representations of the North-South relation and adding an auteuristic perspective to her textual examination. Im Kwont'aek and Chong Chiyong, for example, come from completely different generational, intellectual, and professional backgrounds. Having entered the industry not long after the Korean War with little formal education and no other ambition than making a living, veteran director Im has maintained his prolific career with minimal interference from censorship boards because of his politically flexible work ethics and predilection for cultural and familial subjects. Chong, on the other hand, is a politically-conscious New Wave filmmaker armed with an elite literary education who, along with Chang Sonu and Pak Kwangsu, represents a generation who came of age during the 1980s *minjung* movement, an anti-authoritarian democratization effort collectively waged by intellectuals and workers. Like _Southern Guerrilla Forces_, Chong's 1992 anti-war epic _White Badge_ provides a counter-hegemonic view of contemporary history by questioning the legitimacy of participation in the Vietnam War.


Lee's transparent dichotomy of North Korean anti-imperialism and South Korean anti-communism also fails to capture the dubious role of U.S. soldiers in South Korean films. Although South Korean films do not represent U.S. troops as outright evil scallywags, like North Korean films do, many films -- including _Silver Stallion_ (1990), _Spring in My Hometown_ (1998), and _Address Unknown_ (2001) -- portray American soldiers negatively as either womanizers, rapists, or even killers, exerting anti-imperial sentiments in a similar, albeit less explicit, way as those found in Lee's North Korean example, _Ch'oe Hakshin's Family_. Perhaps the author might have expanded her ideological interpretation by revisiting and substantiating her theoretical summation from the Introduction; for example, her quote taken from Foucault: 'as soon as there is a power relation, there is a possibility of resistance' (8). Despite oppressive military regimes' anti-communist propaganda, resistant, dissenting voices have always existed in South Korean cinema in the works of iconoclastic directors, including Yu Hyonmok and Yi Manhmi in the 1960s, Yi Changho and Ha Kiljong in the 1970s, and a group of talented New Wave filmmakers from the late 1980s onward, whose films have criticized unequal distribution of wealth, the exploitation of working-class people, and American military intervention and cultural imperialism. Hence, it is difficult, nearly impossible, to determine the coordinates of a 'national identity' through the prism of any one ideological perspective without risking the exclusion of numerous oppositional voices that challenge the official discourse.


The last chapter, 'Class and Cultural Identities in Contemporary Korea', abruptly reformulates her earlier emphasis on ideological conflict as the source of national division and split subjectivity, by foregrounding class as not only a determining factor of Korean cultural identity but also a 'major contributor to the breakout of the Korean War' (144). According to Lee, both North and South Korean societies are stratified into distinct class groups: the core (or ruling), the unstable (or basic), and the hostile (or complex) stratum in North Korea; and the working, new middle, old middle, and capital classes in South Korea (145-7). Lee perceptively identifies education as a crucial determinant of class mobility in both societies. As she notes, in both North and South Korean films, 'intellectuals are assigned a privileged place in society as a role model for the uneducated masses' (183). Her class model is indeed useful in recounting the selected South Korean films, Pak Chongwon's _Kuro Arirang_ (1989) and Pak Kwangsu's _Black Republic_ (1990), 'realistic' social problem dramas made by New Wave directors whose status as intellectuals directly reflects that of their diegetic protagonists who step out of the constricting boundaries of their middle-class lives to represent and educate the *minjung* (oppressed masses). Again, one might wish that the book delved more deeply into recent class situations and the role of intellectuals as represented in 1990s Korean cinema. Two significant factors attributed to destablizing the authority of middle-class (male) intellectuals since the latter part of the 1990s: first, the collapse of communist countries and the termination of the *minjung* movement and military dictatorship which dissolved their political causes for class struggle; and second, economic stagnation and the dramatic 1997 foreign currency crisis (the IMF Crisis) which generated massive layoffs and resulted in the unemployment of white-collar workers, and considerable reduction of the middle-class population. Accordingly, a number of South Korean films produced since the mid-90s -- such as Chang Sonu's _To You, From Me_ (1994) and _Lies_ (1999); and Hong Sangsu's _The Day a Pig Fell into the Well_ (1996) and _The Power of Kangwon Province_ (1998) -- depict emasculated, frustrated intellectual males futilely attempting to escape the boredom of daily life and circumvent the pressure to achieve professional, monetary success through exploitative and deceitful sexual relationships with underclass working girls, married women, or underage temptresses.


For educators and scholars working in various disciplines -- whether film studies, media studies, East Asian studies, or Korean studies -- _Contemporary Korean Cinema_ is undoubtedly a valuable resource. Obviously, this book can best be used by those who are specifically interested in socio-historical aspects of both North and South Korean films rather than traditional auteur, genre, and film theories. For seasoned film scholars, the author's frequent Bazinian collusion of film and reality, the lack of systematic theoretical treatment of auteurs, genres, spectatorship, and post-colonial Third Cinema discourse, and anemic aesthetic analyses of selected films can be rather frustrating. However, as Lee specifies in the Conclusion, the premise of her book is to illuminate the potential of Korean cinema as a 'subject for sociological research' (193) and the value of this study lies primarily, if not exclusively, in this particular purpose.


University of California, Los Angeles, USA



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003


Hye Seung Chung, 'One Culture, Two Cinematic Nations: Korean Cinema', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 1, January 2003 <>.


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