Competing Views on Korea’s National History

A review of The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea, Henry Em, Duke University Press, 2013.

Henry EmAchieving sovereignty, and attaining equal standing with other sovereign nations, was Korea’s great enterprise as referred to in the book’s title. It was a thoroughly modern project: previous generations did not feel the urge to compare with other sovereign states or to assert Korea’s distinctiveness. Beginning with the turn of the century, Korea’s commitment to the great enterprise was a necessary condition for avoiding subordinate status in the face of imperial ambitions. Then, as Japan came to dominate Korea, it became a way to break free from its colonial ruler and to campaign for its independence. Later on, emphasizing national sovereignty meant proclaiming the nation’s unity in the face of the North/South division.

Achieving national and individual sovereignty

Historians played a great role in this endeavor. They produced the great narratives that allowed Korea to project its national identity onto citizens. As Henry Em writes in his introduction, “sovereignty provided the conceptual language for writing national histories, but it also constituted the site for the continuous production of oppositional subjectivities and political alternatives.” Sovereignty is not just a prerogative of the state; it is also an attribute of the modern subject. In order to become sovereign subjects, Koreans had to severe their ties with tradition and to reorder their society into a unitary whole. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the birth of the modern individual in Korea. New figures emerged, such as the modern girl with bobbed hair or the political activist facing state persecution. Although collective affiliations are constitutive of the sense of identity in Confucian cultures, the individualist streak runs deep in Korean society. Especially mistrust of rulers is ingrained in the Korean people, who cultivate the spirit of resistance and autonomy.

The discourse of national and individual sovereignty remained a contested field throughout the twentieth century. Competing visions were offered on what it meant to be Korean; when and where national identity originated; and how it could assert itself in the face of imperial dominance or political repression. A characteristic of Henry Em’s book is to refuse simple binaries: between the colonizer and the colonized, between North and South, or Right and Left. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he demonstrates that liberalism retained “an essential link to imperialism and colonialism”. During the colonial period, Japanese were instrumental in shaping Korean identity and helping Koreans connect with their past. After independence, many southern historians migrated north, and continued to be referred to in the historiographic literature, albeit in oblique fashion so as to avoid censorship. In the modern era, the so-called New Right welcomed scholarship inspired by postcolonial studies, and developed a critique of the nation-state that the nationalist Left had left untouched.

Translating and enforcing the nation-state in East Asia

Sovereignty is different in essence from the Mandate of Heaven that Choson dynasty rulers claimed as a justification for their rule, along with the subordinate status they maintained with Ming and then Qing China. Paradoxically, it was the Japanese who introduced the notions of sovereignty, independence, and modern statehood in Korea, confirming Carl Schmitt’s remark that “a nation is conquered first when it acquiesce to a foreign vocabulary, a foreign concept flaw, especially international law.” King Kojong’s Oath of Independence, pronounced in 1895 in a ceremony mixing the antique and the modern, was inspired if not dictated by Inoue Kaoru, Meiji Japan’s envoy to Korea. As the author notes, “by leading the way in utilizing the post-Westphalian sovereignty-based conception of international relations, Japanese statesmen like Inoue Kaoru positioned themselves as the preeminent translators and enforcers of international law in East Asia.”

Whereas the China-centered theory and practice of tributary relations, based on ritual hierarchy and actual autonomy, provided a buffer for the Choson state and warded off imperial ambitions, it was the principle of equal sovereignty and national independence that paved the way for Japan’s domination over Korea. The paradox of sovereignty extended beyond the realm of international law. In order to be what they claimed to be, aspiring sovereign states had to become others, and incorporate cultural traits from European civilization. They had to demonstrate their commitment to modernization by adopting Western institutions and practices, and by discarding some of their age-long traditions.

Korea’s entry into modernity

Lastly, the emergence of the individual as sovereign subject required sweeping reforms touching on language, education, and imaginaries. Korea’s entry into modernity was accompanied by the “inauguration of the Korean alphabet as the national script in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the beginning of modern Korean historiography in the first decade of the twentieth century, the emergence of modern Korean literature, and a host of other beginnings.” As is well known, many Korean words were taken from the Japanese, including minjok (ethnic nation), kukmin (national citizen) or even the word designating the economy (kyongje). Less well-known is the role of Protestant missionaries in promoting the Korean vernacular script, the hangeul, helping to transform it into an icon of national identity. Protestant missions were also instrumental in the creation of the first Western-style schools and modern newspapers, which stand as necessary elements for the emergence of a public sphere and the formation of “imagined communities”.

More controversial perhaps, the author shows that the Japanese authorities played a critical role in shaping Korean’s national identity. Nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the field of patrimonial policies and art history. As the author notes, studying the story of the “discovery” of the Buddhist statue of Sokkuram in southern Korea, “the colonial authorities did not just teach Koreans about their past; they had to restore it for them.” Japan’s encounter with Korean art did not only take the form of looting and plundering, although such forms of colonial exploitation also took place. “Like the British in India and the Americans in the Philippines, the Japanese colonial state invested time, money, and human resources to carry out excavations and surveys, to study Korea’s past and restore some cultural sites (but not others) in order to establish the categories and the narrative strategies by which Korea and Koreans would be understood.”

Competing visions of Korea’s history

It was the Japanese colonial state that identified Sokkuram as an example of Korea’s cultural and religious past, and that restored the statue to its former glory. Yanagi Soetsu, founder of the Mingei folk craft movement in Japan, praised Sokkuram as the “culmination of the religion and the art of the Orient.” Of course, Japan’s self-designated role as a curator for Asia’s art did not just emanate from a consideration of art for art’s sake, and it had political and ideological motivations as well. As reinterpreted by the Japanese, “the story of Sokkuram — its creation and subsequent slide into obscurity — was the story of Korea: a brilliant past that was Asian rather than Korean, followed by a downward slide into the vulgar and trivial art of the Choson dynasty, pointing to the necessity of Japan’s tutelage of Korea and Koreans.” This imperialist vision of art was reinforced by colonial historiography. Through popular essays and media reports, “the Japanese came to believe that Japan had ruled Korea in ancient times and that the Japanese colonization of Korea in modern times represented the restoration of an ancient relationship.”

Of course, Korean historians developed a completely different story. Whereas ancient Korea was divided in terms of village or region, clan or lineage, class or social status, the Koreans became Korean partly thanks to national historiography, when modern intellectuals such as Sin Chae-ho began to write Korea’s national history. “In place of loyalty to the king and attachment to the village, clan, and family, and in place of hierarchic status distinctions among yangban, chungin, commoners, and chonmin, nationalist historiography endeavored to redirect the people’s loyalty toward a new all-embracing identity of Koreans as a unique ethnic group.” It is Sin Chae-ho who emphasized the mythical figure of Tangun as the common ancestor of the Korean people. The Tangun legend later led to various interpretations. Japanese historians dismissed it as a story fabricated in the thirteenth century by the Buddhist monk Iryon. As a nationalist historian, Choe Nam-son read the Tangun story as the expression of religious practice dating to prehistoric times, as an ancient narrative that indicated a common cultural sphere for all of northeast Asia centered around Ancient Choson. In the story of the female bear transformed into a woman and married to Tangun’s ancestor, the Marxist historian Paek Nam-un saw evidence of the beginning of both class differentiation and the privileging of the male over the female descent line in primitive times.

The three schools of Korean historiography

The 1930s saw Korean historians coalescing around three competing schools: nationalist historiography, Marxist or socioeconomic historiography (Paek Nam-un), and positivist historiography (Yi Pyong-do and the Chindan society). Paek Nam-un’s Chosen Shakai Keizaishi was the first book of a comprehensive history of Korea’s historical development in terms of class formation and social forces internal to Korea, as it went from primitive tribal communism to a slave economy and to an Asian feudal society until “sprouts of capitalism” began to emerge independently from outside interference. In the immediate post-liberation period, Marxist intellectuals, with Paek Nam-un taking the leading role, sought to establish hegemony over intellectual production, reaching out to non-Marxist scholars, including nationalist historians who had not capitulated to colonial power. By 1948 many Marxist intellectuals had left Seoul and gone north of the 38th parallel, pushed by anti-communist repression in the South and pulled by offers of employment and opportunity to take part in the DPRK’s national democratic revolution. The progressive historian scholars who stayed found refuge mostly in economics departments.

Although the student revolution of April 19, 1960, that toppled the Rhee regime was crushed by a military coup in 1961, that democratic opening nevertheless allowed a younger generation of historians to narrate history in new ways. Under a nationalist canopy, scholars like Kim Yong-sop and Kang Man-il revived and confirmed Paek’s disclosure of the internal dynamic underlying Korea’s historical development, in which class struggle was central. In Korean History Before and After Liberation, Song Kon-ho presented an ethical critique of how 1945 marked the beginning point of the most horrific chapter in Korean history. Song reminded his readers that it was Syngman Rhee who had allowed notorious collaborators to evade punishment, including former Korean police officers who had hunted down, tortured, and killed independence activists. Spurred by Bruce Cummings’s research on the Origins of the Korean War, a passionate debate took place on the role of various parties and events in starting the war.

The New Right and post-colonialism

As “revisionist” historical narrative gained currency in the 1980s, conservative historians became increasingly frustrated at historiography that conceded nationalist credentials to North Korea and seemingly denied historical legitimacy to South Korea. In an interesting twist, the so-called New Right welcomed scholarship inspired by postcolonial theory that insisted on the acquiescence and participation of colonized people in their imperial domination. With this, the New Right turned to criticism of nationalism in general, and leftist-nationalist historiography of the 1980s in particular, attacking the later for questioning South Korea’s legitimacy. But this accommodation with postcolonial and postmodern scholarship was only tactical, as shown by the New Right’s support of alternative history textbooks that are avowedly nationalistic. In a region still marred in border disputes and nationalist sensibilities, historians should look forward to the day when nationalism can be dispensed with.

If You’re the Average K-Pop Fan, This Book is Not for You

A review of The Korean Popular Culture Reader, Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe Ed., Duke University Press, 2014.

KPop ReaderWhy publish a reader on Korean popular culture? Because it sells. This is the startling confession the two editors of this volume, Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe, make in their introduction. They are very open about it: their scholarly interest in Korea’s contemporary pop culture arose as a response to students’s interest in the field. It was a purely commercial, demand-driven affair. As they confess, “Korean studies had a difficult time selling its tradition and modern aesthetics in course syllabuses until hallyu (Korean Wave) came along.” Now students enrolling in cultural studies on American or European campuses want to share their passion for K-pop, Korean TV dramas, movies, manhwa comics, and other recent cultural sensations coming from Korea. Responding to high demand, graduate schools began churning out young PhD’s who specialized in such cultural productions. Course syllabuses were designed, classes were opened, workshops were convened, and in a short time the mass of accumulated knowledge was sufficient to allow the publication of a reader.

Teaching Korean pop culture on American campuses

But the average K-pop fan or drama viewer will surely be taken aback by the content of this volume. If they are looking for easy clues to interpret Korean dramas or the latest fad in boys bands’ hairstyle, then they will probably drop the book after a few pages. There are magazines or websites for this kind of information. As scholars, the authors have loftier interests and higher ambitions than just discussing whether Girls’ Generation really empowers young women or instead reproduces sexual cliches, or why the ‘Gangnam Style’ video generated so many clicks on Youtube. In fact, in another candid move, the editors confess what they really think about K-pop: it sucks. Or as they put it, “Thus far, Korean popular music has yet to produce one single progression of chords that has created a ripple effect of global critical response without the aid of inane music videos and excessive use of hair gels.” Yes, you read it right. For a book devoted to Korean pop culture, with a section on popular music that discusses artists ranging from Seo Taiji to the girls band 2NE1, this is the strongest indictment one could make.

But the ambition of the editors, and of the authors they assembled, is not only to sell books. They have a hidden agenda: they want to show that popular culture matters, and that it is no less noble and worthy of study than manifestations of high culture. As they see it, a discipline should not be judged by the prestige associated with the social reality under consideration, but should be valued from the perspectives and viewpoints it brings on seemingly arcane or mundane topics. There is even a general law at play here: the lower the culture, the higher the theory. The commoner your research topic, the more dexterity you have to prove in using difficult concepts and arcane prose. Conversely, commentaries of high cultural productions can accommodate a bland style and a lack of theoretical references. You may use Bourdieu or Deleuze to comment on photography and other minor arts, but paintings from the Italian Quattrocento or Baroque architecture demand more conventional writing tools. Some critics, such as Slavoj Zizek, have become masters at commenting low brow cultural productions with high brow philosophical references.

So the solution of the authors is to trick students into enrolling in their class with the promise of studying catchy topics such as K-pop or K-drama, and then to brainwash them with a heavy dose of politically-correct theory and academic scholarship. Lured by the attraction of pop culture, they are given the full treatment associated with the cultural studies curriculum. This can be summed up by three injunctions: contextualize, historicize, theorize. The aim is to contextualize contemporary Korean culture within its local and regional or global environment, while historicizing its colonial and post-colonial legacies, thereby leading to new theorizing about global cultural futures. Another move is to broaden the scope of phenomena under review to the whole spectrum of popular culture. The Korean Popular Culture Reader therefore includes chapters on sports, on cuisine, on advertising, and one video games. Conversely, there are no chapters on cultural heritage or on folk productions associated with traditional Koreanness: crafts, calligraphy, ceramics, Korean painting, pansori, seungmu dance, etc.

Contextualize, historicize, theorize

The first injunction to contextualize is taken very seriously by the authors. Cultural artifacts are not symbolic signifiers or self-referential texts that could be subjected to a purely formal, textual analysis. They are social facts, and should be explained as such. The authors refrain from sweeping assumptions about Korean popular culture as expressing essentially Korean cultural traits or as being naturally in tune with other Asian peoples’ aspirations. Instead, they look for archival evidence and locally grounded causalities. They seek neither to defend nor to attack popular culture, but rather attempt to place it in a context and describe how it works. Beyond apparent continuities, they uncover historical ruptures and shifts, and insist on the singularity of each domain of cultural practice. They are also careful to situate Korean popular culture within its regional, global, and transnational context. As the success of hallyu illustrates, Korean pop culture is now represented on an international stage and can no longer be understood narrowly through a model of national identity.

The chapter on the failure of game consoles, and the rise of alternative gaming platforms played on computers at home or in PC bangs, is a fine example of social contextualization. Home computers caught on in Korea for the same reason game consoles didn’t: blame Confucianism and the heavy focus on education. Parents bought their children computers to run educational software and improve English skills. Similarly, PC bangs offered young people a public space that was outside the remote reach of parental surveillance or elder supervision. PC bangs have thrived by giving young people the chance to translate online relationships into real-life ones, or to team under the leadership of a master player to attack a castle or win a battle in role-playing games. The Korean professional game player, who excels in MMORPG games and becomes a worldwide celebrity but who cannot speak English, has become an iconic figure in game-related media.

The political potency of the melodrama

Analyzing street fashion and movie cultures in 1950s’ Seoul, Steven Chung shows that Korea’s compressed modernity takes place against the background of global cultural circulation that cannot be reduced to a unilateral Americanization process. The 1950s was a remarkable decade for movie stars, and the roles played by actor Kim Sung-ho illustrate the ambivalence toward familial patriarchy and political authoritarianism. The political potency of the melodrama is nowhere more apparent than in North Korean movies, with its aesthetics of socialist realism and the overbearing gaze of the benevolent leader in hidden-hero narratives. Bong Joon-ho’s movie Mother strikes Korean viewers with the discrepancy between the iconic status of the two main actors, Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin, associated with motherhood and with idol stardom, and the role they endorse in the narrative, an abusive mother and a half-wit son.

The book cover featuring the glitz and chutzpah of Korean contemporary scene–with a picture of a live concert–is there to deceive as much as to allure. In fact, only nine chapters out of seventeen focus on the contemporary, and only two essays address issues commonly associated with the Korean Wave–one on K-drama fandom and another on girl bands. Many contributions to the volume deal with the colonial or post-colonial past, as contemporary Korean popular culture remains intimately connected to the history of colonial modernity. It was during the early part of the Japanese colonial era (1910-1945) that the first instantiation of the popular emerged. The idiom “popular culture” is not easy to translate into Korean, but the words inki or yuhaeng, taken from the Japanese, suggest the mix of individualism, commercialism, and cosmopolitan ideals that stood at the core of Korean colonial modernity. The history of cultural transfers, collage, plagiarism, and creative adaptation is repeated in many sectors, from popular songs to manhwa and even to Korean cuisine, as processed kimchi and makgolli appear to own much of their popularity to their adoption by the Japanese consumer.

At the origin of modern Korean literature, we find love of the romantic kind, translated into Korean as yonae or sarang. As Boduerae Kwon writes, “It was by leaning on the concept of romantic love that Korean literature tutored itself in the art of writing, nurtured the awakening of individual consciousness, and sharpened the powers of social critique.” Boy meets girl was a new concept in early century Korea: as a new import into the Korean language, yonae required a pose that suited the novelty of the word.” North Korea relied on its own set of concepts and ideologies, such as taejung (the masses) or inmin (the national citizen). It is no coincidence that both Stalin and Kim Il-sung recognized the power of film and considered it not only the most important art form but one of the primary means for creating a new art of living as well. “Cinema was used as the primary technique and medium for the construction of socialism and the creation of a national people,” writes Travis Workman, who uses Baudrillard and Debord to show that socialist realism was in many ways more real than really existing socialism.

The stoking of male fantasy

As much as they put popular culture into context and trace its historical development, the authors put cultural phenomena in theoretical perspective. The book is not too heavy on theory: most of the savant references and conceptual discussions are put forward by the two editors in the short introductions preceding each section. But all authors share an ambition that goes beyond the mere description of cultural facts. Cultural studies is predicated on the premise that the cultural sphere has replaced the socioeconomic sphere as the main site of political struggle and ideological production. At the same time, popular culture is caught in a process of commodification and commercialization that makes it incapable of articulating a coherent worldview that would effectively challenge domination. Perhaps most striking in Korean pop culture is the absence of the transgressive element. K-pop acts, or more specifically female K-pop singers, are visual stars who epitomize the “stoking of male fantasy” while cultivating a shy innocence and mild appearance. Although Seo Taiji upset the established order in the 1990s with his school-dropout status and signature snowboard look, “there was no profanity, no sexism, no use of any substance, no piercings, and no tattoos.” This lack of rebellious impulse is what may have conducted the editors to formulate their damning indictment of K-pop.

Supporting the Korean National Team

A review of Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea, Rachael Miyung Joo, Duke University Press, 2012.

Rachael Joo.jpgThe participant observer is the one who spoils the fun. He or she comes up with questions and doubts at the moment when the public wants answers and certitudes. Participating and observing are often two irreconcilable tasks. The observer introduces a distance when participants want to adhere to the show, and creates distinctions when the group wants to feel as one. Despite the pretense to the contrary, the researcher cannot fully belong, cannot fully take part into the action. Even when he or she choses to live among the natives, the anthropologist reminds people that he or she retains other obligations and belongings. The anthropologist dwells in the village but belongs to academia. The group can never claim him or her as one of them, because both know that he or she will have to leave one day and that his or her stay is temporary. Anthropologists are those who write things down at the end of the day: their commitment goes to scholarship, and they are dedicated to writing a book or a monograph about their experience in the field. They maintain critical distance and cultivate abstract reasoning, using categories that are in essence different from the ones that people use to frame their own experience.

The participant observer is a person who spoils the fun

Rachael Miyung Joo is the typical party spoiler. She is the only one who doesn’t wear a red T-shirt when the Korean national team is playing and people are watching the football game retransmission. When her female roommates cry and go crazy to celebrate victory, she stands back and watches from a distance. She feels closer to a solitary male supporter who sheds tears of emotion at the beauty of the game than to the crowd of cheering girls and boys who have only limited knowledge of the game rules. She bluntly confesses to her friends that she finds the players from the Italian team more attractive. She uses categories such as gender, race, and nationhood, and introduces critical distance with the immediacy of experience, when people around her just want to enjoy the fun and share the excitement. She highlights the constructed nature of national unity and the ambivalence of ethnic categories at the time when media coverage celebrates Korea as one and heralds the advent of global Koreanness. Whereas media attention focuses on female fans and their mild display of sex appeal, she brings in feminist theory to denounce the commodification of women’s bodies and the prevalence of heterosexual norms.

Rachael Miyung Joo’s fieldwork took place around the date of 2002, the year of the soccer World Cup tournament hosted jointly by South Korea and by Japan (the Japanese part is sorely lacking in the book). It is a two-sited ethnography, based on participant observation made in Seoul and in Los Angeles. In addition to soccer, Joo also documents other sports where Koreans fare particularly well: golf, where ethnic Koreans dominate the Ladies Profesionnal Golf Association, but also baseball, with the participation of ethnic Koreans in the Major League, and figure skating, dominated by multi-medalist Kim Yuna. Her ethnography uses analytical categories borrowed from philosophy, anthropology, gender studies, media studies, and critical theory. She draw from Althusser’s notion of “interpellation”, which describes how individuals are hailed through ideology. For example, the South Korean state attempts to “interpellate” Koreans in the United States as overseas Koreans—that is, loyal Korean national subjects.

The 2002 Football World Cup as a high mark of Korean transnational identity

She borrows from media studies the expression “assemblage”, a combination of institutions, images, and people that constitute the genre of media sport. Appadurai’s anthropology of the global provides her with the notion of “diasporic public spheres” that are constituted though collective and simultaneous engagements by subjects located in different spaces around the world. She offers her own concepts, such as “intimate publics”, a notion that combines the individual sphere and the public realm, or “everyday forms of self-fashioning” that she observes in Seoul’s streets. She elaborates on the notion of the transnational which is declined in all her book’s chapter headings: “transnational media sport”, “transnational athletes”, and “transnational publics”. She defines “multicultural nationalism” as “a culturalist notion of diversity that erase material differences and power inequalities between and among groups, as well as one that sees racial, national, and ethnic differences as essentially the same.”

Her main study is on the 2002 FIFA World Cup. As she writes in the introduction, “this month-long event was not primarily about sport per se; it was a great opportunity to celebrate with millions of others under the aegis of supporting the nation.” People knew they were participating in a historical event of global significance, because this had happened before: the 1988 Olympic Games are still remembered as a turning point in Korean history. One generation had passed, democracy had settled, and Koreans were even more self-confident. They felt united as one, and gave unanimous support to their national team. Young women were particularly conspicuous: they wore the color of the national team, painted the national flag on their faces and bodies, and led the crowds who were chanting and partying in the streets. For the author, “the sexual desire and excitement generated around Korean national athletes operate as allegories of desire for the Korean nation.” This desire for a fantasized Koreanness transcended borders: supporting the Korean team enabled Korean-Americans living in Los Angeles to articulate their ethnic identity and their relationship with the Korean nation.

Korean female golfers are women who don’t sweat

The female golfers who dominate the tournaments of the Ladies Professional Golf Association provide another interesting case study. According to the LPGA, 43 of 123 international players were South Korean as of July 2011. This list did not include Korean-born players who were naturalized US citizens or ethnic Koreans living abroad, including Michelle Wie or Christina Kim from the United States and Lydia Ko from New Zealand. Again, Joo sees hegemony at work in the way these female athletes represent ideas of gender, nation, and ethnicity. The sexuality of Korean female athletes is presented in contradictory ways as daughters to be protected within the Korean family and as hypersexualized Asian women to be marketed in transnational commercial contexts. As national icons, successful female golfers demonstrate how Koreans should adjust to the neoliberal contexts of a globalizing Korea. The whole nation rejoiced at the remarkable success of the golfer Se Ri Pak, who won two of the four major tournaments on the LPGA tour in her rookie year of 1998, while the nation was reeling from the trauma of the Asian financial crisis. She came to symbolize how South Korea might pull itself out of the crisis through global competitiveness, individual drive, and private capital.

In South Korea, the dominant discussion of golfers assumes that their success is due to their talent, hard work, and the sacrifice of their families. Often families move from South Korea to the United States or Australia to raise their daughters in golf-centered environments, to send their children to golf academies, and to live in areas where golf can be played year-round. In media narrative, father and daughter must bond to fight competitors in a foreign land. The father comes to standing for the national interest as he protects the progeny of the ore an nation in foreign contexts and ensures its enduring success. Some commentators also assume that Korean women are naturally well suited to forms of sport that require extreme precision and concentration, such as archery, billiards, figure skating, and golf. Conversely, non-Korean media sometimes point out that Korean golfers display a robotic quality—the idea that they lack emotion, creativity, and individuality. These cultural stereotypes are nothing new. During the Cold War, athletes from socialist countries were often stereotyped as collectivistic, militaristic, and emotionless. In the globalization age, Korean athletes are valorized as national heroes for disciplining their bodies, garnering global media attention, and demonstrating economic results. The female golfer also strengthens the capitalist ideologies of segmented labor markets that treat female labor as unskilled and subordinate.

Taeguk Warriors

Much media attention in South Korea is directed at athletes who compete abroad. These nationals icons bring global visibility to the nation, helping Korean corporations to win brand name recognition and bringing national or ethnic pride . Athletes who play abroad represent the image of the newly globalized Korean subject who leaves the country to succeed yet continues to maintain a strong sense of Korean identity. Sport operates in the affective realms of mass media to intensify and embolden feelings of nationalism and competition. Sport events also create contexts for the production of powerful feelings of nationalism and ethnic identity by diasporic subjects. Male athletes are often presented as warriors for the nation within the context of international competition. During the 2012 London Olympics, following South Korea’s victory of Japan, soccer player Park Jong-woo displayed a sign proclaiming Korean possession over the contested Eastern Sea island known as Dokdo to Koreans. As a consequence he was banned from the medal ceremony and unlike his other 17 teammates he did not receive a bronze medal for his performance. In recent years, the competition between Kim Yuna and her Japanese rival Asada Mao was staged as a nationalist revenge of Korea against her former colonial ruler.

Joo also shows the role that Korean media sport plays in shaping ideas of Korea and Koreanness for Korean Americans. Spectators who watch Korean athletes playing within US-centered sporting leagues are exposed to ideologies of ethnicity and nationalism. In the American context, a shift towards transnationalism as distinct from multiculturalism has tended to maintain the national distinctiveness of players, so that South Korean and other Asian athletes are characterized primarily as foreign nationals. As athletes themselves may work to diminish the significance of their own ethnic or national differences, corporate interests in sport often exploit these difference to market players of color to a racially segmented consumer market. In line with the racial presentation of Asian Americans as a model minority, Asian/American athletes are praised for assimilating within the context of US sport by being “team” players, behaving as obedient students of their coaches and agents, and avoiding negative or excessive attention on their personal lives.

A model ethnic minority in the United States

Athletes who enter the United States often become symbols of the American dream of immigrants and those who remain in their homelands. For the sport industry, foreign athletes also function as a conduit through which entire national markets might develop. The idea that players from abroad come with an entire nation of viewers is enthusiastically mentioned by commentators and sports writers. The Korean and Korean American fan base in baseball or in golf has increased considerably with the entry of Korean nationals into Major League Baseball and the LPGA. Clearly, disparities exist between South Korean and Korean American audiences, and national locations make a considerable difference in the ways that athletes are understood. In Korea, Korean American athletes were considered to be overseas Koreans—Koreans in a foreign land. In America, events such as the 2002 World Cup contributed to activate a sense of Koreanness among Korean Americans. Many members of the Korean diaspora in the United States maintain active material, psychological, and emotional connections to Korea. With the emergence of Korean players in professional sport, Korean Americans began to feel a new sense of ethnic pride and transnational belonging.

In Los Angeles’ Koreatown, large crowds gathered to watch football games on large screens and cheered with thousands of others as fans did in Seoul. They engaged in simultaneous acts of media consumption across geographic and national boundaries. Although Latinos were also present in the Koreatown crowds, the uniformity of public support for the Korean team precluded the possibility of expressing a preference for another team or acting outside of the scripted behaviors of the event. On the day of the Germany-Korea semifinal, even Latino TV anchors wore the “Be the Reds” shirts in solidarity with the Korean fans. This stood in sharp contrast to the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, where shops run by ethnic Koreans were take as targets by African Americans and other ethnic groups. Korean media in both the United States and South Korea widely hailed this event as a major coming of age in the Korean American community. Of course, there is a certain irony that the mainstreaming of Korea America into American society constituted Korean Americans as a group of supporters of the Korean national team. They were fundamentally depicted as essentially Korean nationals on US soil.

Mass mobilizations and demonstrations in Korea

This irony is not lost on the author. True to her vocation as a party spoiler, she points out the ambiguities and ambivalence of media sport events. Her whole book is written against the enthusiasm of sport fandom and the collective emotions of the crowd. She continuously warns against the immediacy of adhering to collective events, which are always not far from mass hysteria and totalitarian regimentation. Behind the exhilarating feelings of joy and empowerment, she detects nationalistic hubris, sexual exploitation, and cultural hegemony. Her book is written against her own feelings and proclivities: she confesses that she, too, enjoyed the mass mobilization and national exhilaration. It is only after the facts, when she went back to graduate school and was exposed to a heavy dose of critical theory, that she took a negative view on what she had first experienced in blissful ignorance.

The only time when she detects a political potential in mass events is when they fit her ideological agenda. She therefore supports the mass protests that took place in 2002 in the wake of the “tank incident” in which two young schoolgirls were run over by a US Army vehicle, or in 2008 when the Lee Myung-bak administration decided to lift the ban on the import of US beef. These large-scale protests recalled the “affective memories” and participation rituals that were first experienced during the 2020 World Cup events. It doesn’t matter that these mass rallies had strong nationalistic undertones and a marked anti-American posture: for the author, this is a natural response to decades of what she calls US hegemony (not noticing the fact that her brand of cultural studies also participates in this hegemony). Visiting Seoul in 2008, she felt at home joining the demonstrations calling for the resignation of the newly-elected president and which gathered a motley crew of “gay and lesbian organizations, immigrant rights groups, Buddhist nuns and monks, Christian organizations, labor unions, well-established non-profit groups, and citizen consumer groups, among many others.” If this is her vision of where Korean society should be heading, then why didn’t she choose to chronicle political events, instead of devoting a book to a phenomenon towards which she feels deeply ambivalent?

Korean Cinema in Search of a New Master Narrative

A review of Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era, Kyung Hyun Kim, Duke University Press, 2011.

Virtual Hallyu.jpgKorean cinema occupies a peculiar place in relation to hallyu. In a way, Korean movies were the harbingers of the Korean wave. They were the first Korean cultural productions to attract foreign recognition in international film festivals; they carved a global niche that was distinct from Hollywood movies or other Asian productions; and they emphasized distinctive aspects such as violence, romance, or geopolitical tensions. Cinema was the cultural medium through which Korea sought to establish itself as a new global standard. And yet K-movies are not considered part of hallyu the way K-drama, K-pop and even K-cuisine have now become. Only a handful of movies (Shiri, JSA, My Sassy Girl…) came to be seen as representative of the Korean wave, while other movies and moviemakers were perceived through the more traditional categories of film critique—national cinema, auteurship, movie genres, visual aesthetics, and narrative analysis. Korean cinema in many ways set the condition for hallyu’s expansion by inducing a shift in foreign perceptions of Korea. The country came to be seen as the producer of a different brand of modernity, distinct from Japan’s or China’s globalized cultures. Its movies were not only cheap imitation movies known collectively as Copywood; they were original productions in their own right. In addition, Korea’s movie industry demonstrated that critical and commercial success were not always incompatible: commercially successful movies could get critical acclaim, and art movies lauded by critics could also get a significant presence at the box office.

This success was due in no small part to the existence of a corps of movie critics and a roster of movie publications that made commenting on recent movies a legitimate intellectual pursuit in Korea and beyond. Kyung Hyun Kim played an important role in this reevaluation of Korea cinema. The back cover blurb on Virtual Hallyu describes him as “not just the most important Anglophone critic of South Korean cinema but a key figure in film and cultural studies generally.” In his first book on The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (which I reviewed here), he established the label of “New Korean Cinema” by focusing on movies produced in the 1980s and 1990s. His thesis was that Korea at the time was a post-traumatic society: men had to overcome their masculinity crisis by resorting to masochism and to sadism and by denying women’s agency. In his latest book, he concentrates on movies produced during the next decade, end 1990s to end-2000s, which follow a different master plot. According to Kyung Hyun Kim, Korea has managed to untie itself from the narrative of post-crisis recovery and male failure that dominated Korean movies in the preceding period. Male hysteria no longer provides the dominant theme in more recent productions, and female characters are no longer reduced to the twin roles of the mother and the whore. The themes and characters have become more diverse and cannot be subsumed under a single heading. He nonetheless proposes the two categories of hallyu and of the virtual to define Korean cinema in this new age of commercial success and global expansion.

Riding the Korean wave

More than the commercial expansion of Korean productions abroad, hallyu refers here to a new sense of national consciousness that arose in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis and culminated with the stellar performance of the national soccer team in the 2002 World Cup tournament. It is synonymous with a nation reconciled with itself and basking in its newly acquired global status. Pride and affluence characterized the new Korea that had been able to overcome the masculinity crisis diagnosed in the previous period. This self-consciousness translated in box-office figures: Korea is one of those rare countries where domestic movies consistently outperform Hollywood productions. And yet the author diagnoses a disconnect between the success of Korean films at home and abroad. Films like April Snow, which was specifically designed for the Japanese market, flopped badly in Korea, whereas domestic blockbusters such as The Good, the Bad, the Weird failed to reach a global audience. In addition, Kyung Hyun Kim sees hallyu as a phenomenon limited in time: based on box office figures, he heralds its demise by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. After Korean film exports earned a record $75 million in 2005, there was an enormous decline, with only $24.5 million reported in 2006 and $12 million in 2007. For the author, this sudden decline in the popularity of the Korean wave since 2007 is just as inexplicable as its emergence. Of course, a plausible explanation is that there was simply a shortage of lucrative and attractive Korean blockbusters to please Asian tastes during that year and the next. The film industry is one of the most unpredictable in the world, and even critics cannot forecast future hits and flops.

Kyung Hyun Kim borrows the concept of the virtual from Gilles Deleuze and his twin books’ analysis of the movement-image and the time-image. Like Deleuze, he considers movies to be thought-experiments: in this sense, thinking about cinema is inseparable from making it. Through a century-long transformation, we have come to understand ourselves individually and socially through spatial and temporal articulations that were first advanced in movies. Nothing illustrates more the interdependence between philosophy and film-making than the category of the virtual. Virtuality refers here to a kind of being-in-the-world that increasingly eschews reality in favor of escapist pursuits and fictitious worlds. As the author notes, “the high-speed Internet boom that took place in Korea after the late 1990s ironically meant that Korea’s urban youth rarely needed to venture beyond their schools, homes, and offices. If they did choose to go outdoors, it was to the theater.” The virtual complicates the question of what is real and what is unreal. Despite our perception of film as the art form that most closely approximates reality, movies are pure fiction, akin to the simulacra that Baudrillard defines as images without models. Unlike the image, the virtual no longer dwells on the difference between the way things appear and the way they really are. In the virtual world, neither the opposition between true and false nor the one between reality and imagination can be resolved.

Virtual pasts and futures

Cinema itself is built on a technology of virtuality: the projection of twenty-four frames per second is perceived as continuous time and movement by our synapses. With the integration of computer graphics, the virtual has taken a whole new dimension, and the advent of virtual reality promises an era of unlimited possibilities. Everything that can be dreamed, imagined, or conceived, can be put on screen. Special effects and computer-generated graphics allowed Korean movie-makers to expand back in time, as with saguk or historical dramas, or forward to the future as with science-fiction movies. With the help of CG-generated images, directors were able to recreate images from the Chosun Dynasty period or to project their viewers into imaginary worlds. Deleuze’s use of the term “virtual” refers to something that is not only a thing of the past, but of a past that coexists with the present and also of a truth that coexists with the false. Similarly, the movie Lost Memories 2009 (2002) presents a virtual future in which Japanese occupation of Korea has continued into the twenty-first century, mixing memories of a colonial past and imaginaries of an uncertain present. The fascination with the colonial past was also rekindled by the rediscovery of old movies from the 1930s and 1940s that were thought to be lost but had been preserved in the film archives of Soviet Russia and Communist China.

The films covered in Virtual Hallyu more or less correspond to the period when the democratic party led by presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun was in power. During that decade, South Korea established itself as a full democracy as well as one of the most economically successful and technologically advanced countries in the world. Kyung Hyun Kim sees a correlation between the liberal policies pursued by these two presidents and the rise of hallyu. The state favored the expression of artistic sensibilities and adopted policies deemed favorable to the creative industries. Lee Chang-dong, an art-movie director, became the minister of culture, tourism, and sports in the Roh Moo-hyun cabinet. Most notably, the Sunshine Policy of peaceful coexistence and cooperation with North Korea, initiated by Kim Dae-jung and continued by his successor, allowed for a more nuanced view of the Communist neighbor country. If Kang Che-gyu’s Shiri (1999) was the last film to rely on a Cold War dichotomy to produce a ruthless North Korean villain and to attempt to reclaim South Korean male agency through the destruction of a North Korean femme fatale, Park Chan-wook’s JSA: Joint Security Area (2000) was the first film to defuse the stereotype of North Koreans as South Korea’s belligerent Other. Other films addressed the taboos of national history: Im Kwon-Taek’s The Taebaek Mountains (1993) depicts the period of guerrilla warfare and civil strife in the Jeolla Province before the start of the Korean war, whereas The President’s Last Bang (2005) and The President’s Barber (2004) concentrate on the controversial figure of President Park Chung-Hee, the first one as tragedy, the second as farce.

The recombination of traditional genres

Movies are shaped by market forces as much as by the political zeitgeist. In the late 1990s, the Korean industry started again to blossom, and showed an impressive success in the domestic market. Korean films enjoyed an average market share of 54 percent over the following decade, with record peaks of 60-65 percent. Last but not least, the Korean film production continued to earn many prestigious awards at top international film festivals, making Korean culture increasing attractive. This happened in the context of limited subsidies by the state and increased free-market access of US film-makers in Korean distribution. If anything, increased competition between US and Korean films induced the Korean cinema industry to create more attractive and lucrative movies than foreign films. Big industrial groups or chaebols, expecting high returns of investment, expanded their power by acquiring individual theaters and creating multiplexes and theater franchises. They invested in the production of genre movies previously considered as the preserve of the American movie industry: Westerns (The Good, the Bad, the Weird), science fiction (The Host), eco-disaster stories (Tidal Wave), urban disaster thrillers (The Tower), and heroic fantasy (Jeon Woo-chi: The Taoist Wizard). Film-makers challenged conventional boundaries and they mixed established genres to create a hybrid repertoire of multi-genre movies: comic-family-melodrama-monster (Bong Joon-ho’s The Host), erotic-horror-crime mystery (Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy), or comic-romantic-women’s tearjerker (Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine). It is this recombinatory power of Korean cinema that foreign audiences found most attractive.

For Kyung Hyun Kim, the role of the film critic is to unveil the latent meanings beneath the apparent surface of a movie. The message of a movie is made clear only when one confronts it to the other works of an auteur, or when one places it in a series that defines a genre, a historical sequence, or the broader tradition of a national cinema. His analysis is consistent with the discourse of political modernism, founded on the holy trinity of Saussure’s semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Althusserian Marxism. Words like postmodernism, postcolonialism, late capitalism, and neoliberalism pepper the text and give it a radical cachet. For the author, none of the films produced in the period were radical enough; they only tinkered with the system, and provided imaginary solutions to real problems. As he concludes, “not only is Korea still scarred and traumatized by its colonial era and the Cold War, but—given the continuing US military presence and occasional threats of war from North Korea—it has yet to claim a true postcolonial and post-Cold War identity.” Curiously, although his previous book was all about masculinity and gender roles, he does’t address the issue of gender in Virtual Hallyu. The resolution of Korea’s masculinity crisis didn’t lead to a more balanced repartition of roles between men and women, and none of the directors listed in the book are female. In this era marked by the end of history and the advent of postmodern identities, Korean cinema has yet to find its new master narrative.

The Master Narrative of the New Korean Cinema

A review of The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, Kyung Hyun Kim, Duke University Press, 2004.

RemasculinizationThe thesis of this book is quite simple. Korea in the 1980s and the 1990s was a post-traumatic society. The figure of the father had been shattered by its authoritarian leaders, who ended in a grotesque finale (see The President’s Last Bang, 2005, about the assassination of Park Chung-hee) or, in the case of Chun Doo-hwan, lacked hair (The President’s Barber, 2004). The double trauma of colonization by Japan and fratricide murder during the Korean War had deprived the Korean people of its identity. The sins of the fathers were visited upon the sons, and the Memories of Murder (2003) still lingered. The ritual murder of the father could not unite the community of brothers as they stood divided between North and South (Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War, 2004), between sons of patriots and sons of collaborationists (Thomas Ahn Jung-geun, 2004). The films quoted above, all produced in the 2000s, could resolve the tensions and dilemma of overcoming trauma by representing them on screen. By contrast, films produced in the 1980s and 1990s could only repress the representation of the primal scene, generating frustration and anger. In psychoanalytic terms, this is the difference between “working through”, the positive engagement with trauma that can lead to its ultimate resolution, and “acting out” or compulsively repeating the past.

Working through or acting out past trauma

Failure to come to terms with the representation of trauma transformed men into hysteric subjects. Simply put, men were deprived of their manhood. They were constantly alienated and emasculated by the political and economic forces of the day. In order to recover their potency, they resorted to violence: hence the brutality and violent acts ubiquitous in many Korean films. Here the author of The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema sees a sharp distinction between films produced in the 1980s and in the following decade. If the 1980s was a period of male masochism for Korean cinema, by the 1990s men freed themselves from anxiety and trauma by resorting to sadism. The two forms of violence must be clearly distinguished. Both the masochist and the sadist find pleasure in pain—pain of the self, pain of the other. Bu the sadist aims at subverting the law; the masochist wants to emphasize its extreme severity. The common thread that unites them is their misogynistic tendency towards women: very often, the victim of men’s effort to regain their manhood is the woman. The films from the period were solely centered on male characters. They were depicted as pathetic losers or as dumb brutes, and the movies acted out their masculinity crisis without any regard for the opposite sex. Women only functioned as passive objects oscillating between the twin images of the mother and the whore. What is absent in these movies from these two decades is a positive female character, let alone a feminist plot.

The thesis of remasculinization as a way to recover from trauma is not new. It has been advanced by American cultural critics in the context of the post-Vietnam war. The trauma of defeat, changing gender roles, and economic uncertainties generated a masculinity crisis that led to alienation, retrenchment, and gynophobia. In America, the renegotiation of masculinity took the form of the lone warrior culture, illustrated in blockbuster films of the 1980s such as Rambo, Die Hard, or Dirty Harry. What is specific about South Korea’s post trauma recovery is the political and economic context. It must be remembered that the end of authoritarian dictatorship and the inception of democracy in Korea occurred only in 1987. Before that date, films still had to deal with heavy censorship, and protest against the military government was disallowed. Unlike General Park Chung-hee however, General Chun Doo-hwan, his successor, recognized the importance of leisure and consumer spending as a way to assuage the masses and compensate the dispossession of their voting rights. He authorized the production of a wave of sleazy movies that found their way into theaters, while political expressions were strictly censored. The hope was that consumerism and pornography would make people forget about democracy and postpone their hope for a more representative government.

Korea bumped into modernity at full speed

But economic development wasn’t enough to ease the pain: in fact, it generated more ailments and frustrations. That Korea’s compressed economic development was traumatic is often overlooked. The “miracle of the Han river” left aside many victims and outcasts. Korea bumped into modernity at full speed, and without security belts or social safety nets. Urban alienation and economic marginalization is the theme from many Korean films from the 1980s and 1990s. In Chilsu and Mansu (1988), two billboard painters living on day jobs climb to a high-rise building in downtown Seoul to privately demonstrate their pent-up frustration. The public from the street below mistakes their aimless private rant for a public demonstration, and the police intervenes to arrest them. In Whale Hunting (1984), the disheartened protagonist, rejected by his college girlfriend, wanders the streets where he befriends a beggar and hangs out with a mute prostitute looking for a home. His sexual anxiety is displayed through farcical situations as in the opening scene where he dreams he is standing naked before a laughing public, or when he hugs the bare breasts of a naked statue in a museum gallery. In all the movies covered in the book, the wanderings of the male character invoke the traumatic losses of pastoral communities (urban dramas), homes (road movies), faithful wives and asexual mothers (sex scenes), and memory and sanity (social problem films).

Some artist moviemakers attempted to allude to the political by way of the sexual. One chapter is dedicated to Jang Sun-woo’s movies (The Age of Success, To You From Me, Bad Movie) which have generated far more controversy than works of any other director of the New Korea Cinema. Hang Sun-woo’s characters are self-loathing, pathetic men described as sexually frustrated, impotent, and castrated. Crude sex scenes are ubiquitous and are meant to disturb and to unsettle more than to titillate or sexually arouse. For Jang, these frail masculinities are reflective of the unresolved social crisis in South Korea that began with the elimination of the political dictatorship, when he longtime president was abruptly assassinated in 1979, and the ensuing period of political unrest. The sexual and the political are closely intertwined: in To You, From Me, Jang Sun-woo portrays an underground enterprise that releases pornographic books under the disguise of subversive North Korean communist manifestos—both are banned materials and therefore fetishized. But his anarchist, nihilistic streak is perhaps best exemplified by Bad Movie, described as “one of the most daring and experimental feature films produced in Korea,” shot without set direction, script, or production plan. The movie shows raw, crude images of sex and violence, loosely motivated by a chronicle of young runaway teenagers engaging in street motorcycle races, extortion, rape, and murder. As Kyung Hyun Kim comments, “it is as close to the real as it can get, disorienting and discomforting even the contemporary art-film viewers who are familiar with violence aestheticized in cinemas of Wong Kar-wai, Quentin Tarantino, and Kitano Takeshi.”

Men turn to violence and to sadism to reclaim their masculinity

Other directors were more overtly political. Films about the Korean War (Chang Kil-su’s Silver Stallion, Yi Kwang-mo’s Spring is My Hometown, and Im Kwon-Taek’s The Taebaek Mountains) present a different way of remembering the war, one that doesn’t rest on the diabolization of the North Korean enemy but rather insists on cracks within the South-Korean-American alliance: partisan guerrilla in the Cholla Province, yanggongju prostitutes serving US soldiers, internal conflicts within a community or a family, absent fathers and raped women. Here again attention focuses on men who have lost their virility and authority during the war, and who turn to violence and to sadism—especially against women—to reclaim their masculinity. Other episodes of Korea’s postwar political history are also revisited. A Single Spark concerns the life and death of labor union martyr Chon T’ae-il, while A Petal depicts the 1980 Kwangju uprising. These are sites that resist both remembrance and representation, components of a post-traumatic identity that can only act out what is still too painful to work through. It is also noticeable that these two movies targeted primarily foreign audiences at international film festivals. Their directors, Park Kwang-su and Jang Sun-woo, could take political and financial risks because they had already built international reputations. The years the two films were released, 1995 and 1996, also had democracy firmly entrenched since the transition of the end-1980s and the election of the first civilian president in 30 years in 1992.

The reception of Korean movies was also conditioned by their conditions of production and distribution. Most movies covered in The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema are low-budget films directed by authors who aimed at a limited audience and assembled production teams based on personal acquaintances and on-the-job training. But they are also films that have stimulated local commercial interest in a country that valued cinephile club screening and intellectual consumption of movies that would have been commercially unviable in the West. It should also be noted that the renaissance of Korean cinema in the 1980s and 1990s occurred not because of, but rather in spite of the role of the government. Import quota restrictions diminished during the 1980s, and Korean filmmakers had to aim for the creation of art cinema without the aid of state subsidy. Not only were public funds denied for Korean films, but also were bank loans, forcing filmmakers to seek alternative financial resources and credit. No Korean filmmaker could therefore neglect the box office. For some of them, the international circuit of international film festivals and arthouse movie theaters provided a source of legitimacy and revenue. Despite adverse conditions, Korea is the only nation during recent history that has regained its domestic audience after losing them to Hollywood products. Art movies from the 1980s and 1990s paved the way to the Korean blockbusters of the end-1990s and 2000s that attracted massive domestic audiences and conquered foreign markets. They also made it sure that a market space for independent movies continued to exist in Korea, as evidenced by the career of director Kim Ki-duk whose productions closely complement the movies reviewed in the book.

Korea has yet to produce a movie with a female plot, let alone a feminist one

Kyung Hyun Kim mobilizes the categories of national cinema as a genre and of the director as auteur to develop his film criticism. He focuses on a segment of Korea’s filmic production in the 1980s and 1990s that was sometimes touted as the New Korean Cinema by film critics. This is in accordance with the conventions of cinema studies, which treats national cinemas as discrete entities and delineates periods or currents characterized by a particular style or narrative. The master narrative of the New Korean Cinema is the masculine recovery from trauma, a movement that Kyung Hyun Kim sees as problematic because it is based on the exclusion of women. As he argues, Korean cinema has yet to produce a movie with a female plot, let alone a feminist one. The representation of woman is still caught between the mother and the whore. Another characteristic of the New Korean Cinema is that it had to strictly play within the commercial rules of an open marketplace, which meant competing with Hollywood films distributed freely across the nation, and could not completely abandon the conventions of popular filmmaking. The author sees this commercial exposure both as a factor in the success of the New Korean Cinema and the reason of its demise: once aligned with Hollywood standards, Korean cinema lost its shine and became just a niche cultivating subgenres in a global marketplace.

When the Korean Wave Hits the Screens

A review of Tourist Distractions: Traveling and Feeling in Transnational Hallyu Cinema, Youngmin Choe, Duke University Press, 2016.

tourist-distractionsKorean government officials nowadays distinguish three waves of hallyu. The first one occurred serendipitously with the unintended success of Korean TV dramas in Japan, China, and South-East Asia. The second wave was brought by the marketing strategies of entertainment companies that targeted growing markets and developed export products in the form of K-Pop bands, TV co-productions, computer games, advertising campaigns, and restaurant chains. According to these Korean officials, the third wave of hallyu will cover the whole spectrum of Korean culture, traditional and contemporary alike, and will be engineered by the state, which sees the export of cultural content as a linchpin of its creative economy strategy. Korean cinema sits rather awkwardly in this periodization. Korean movie directors didn’t wait for the first ripples of the Korean wave to gain recognition abroad: they featured early on in the Cannes film festival and other international venues where their talent and originality won critical acclaim. Cinema studies constituted Korean films as a topic for analysis before hallyu became a theme worthy of scholarly research and commentary. The first books that addressed Korean cinema as a genre, such as Kyung Hyun Kim’s seminal essay on The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, were written in the tradition of Asian cultural studies that sees each countries’ movie productions as a distinct whole, thereby overlooking the transnational dimension that is so prevalent in the reception of Korean hallyu.

Hallyu cinema as a subset of Korean film history

Youngmin Choe, who is the coeditor of a Korean Popular Culture Reader, bridges two strands of research: Korean cinema studies—that takes national boundaries as a given and addresses the aesthetic content of movies—and hallyu studies—which are by nature transnational and focus more on reception. She does so by limiting her study to the films produced between 1998 and 2006—the high mark of the Korean wave—and by addressing one particular theme: tourism, or the movement of people and emotions across national borders. The films examined in this book seem to anticipate the travels of their audience. They display traveling and tourism as a theme in their narrative, and present locales and sceneries in a way that is bound to induce travel plans and touristic yearnings. They are, in this way, self-referential: travel or boundary-crossing features both on-screen in the stories that are narrated and in the off-screen transnational movements that these films generate. This allows the author to construct hallyu as a category worthy of academic research and to propose the notion of hallyu cinema as subset of Korean film history. As she states at the outset, “the largest ambition of my study is to transform hallyu, which has become first and foremost a marketing strategy, into a bona fide critical term.”

It all started with Winter Sonata. The TV drama featuring Bae Yong-joon achieved a huge success in Japan and set the standard for the crossover and tourist potential of the Korean wave. Locales shown in the drama became the destination of fan tours and touristic pilgrimages. Middle-aged Japanese ladies craved after the sight of “Yon-sama” and developed a cult-like followership. This in turn set the stage for the ongoing Korean wave, which reached publics well beyond Japan and sparked an interest for all things Korean. Although she doesn’t address this particular drama—she only considers films—Youngmin Choe discusses several movies that were produced in Winter Sonata’s wake. April Snow, a film released in 2005 and featuring the same actor Bae Yong-joon, was produced with the Japanese public in mind. Filmed in locations on the eastern coast of Korea, the film contains a self-referential invitation to what the author calls affective tourism: affective images are projected onto affective sites so that the experience of the traveller reproduces the emotions felt by the viewer. Inspired to visit these locations because of the movie story, the tourist travels as if he or she were in the film. Unlike visitors to Universal Studio Hollywood theme park in the United States, tourists at the April Snow sites are invited not only to the places where the movie was shot, but as if into the diegetic and affective space of the movie itself. For instance, in the small city of Samchok, tourists interested in April Snow can sleep in the same room as the characters in the film, eat the same food, sip coffee at the same table, and walk the same streets, with signs and posters depicting images from the corresponding scenes in the movie.

Tourism, drama, and the emergence of an Asian identity

Tourism and drama are associated with modernity in Asia. Indeed, television series and touristic travel shape the imagined communities of East Asia. They are the modern equivalent of the newspaper printing press and the political exile, two agents that Benedict Anderson saw as central in the emergence of national communities in nineteenth century Europe. In Asia, the leisure class takes the form of the travel group. Mass tourism is the foremost expression of the newly gained access to leisure and mass consumption. The Asian tourist has often been identified with the group-centered, photo-taking, cliché-seeking participant of organized package tours. But there’s more to it than just group-think: Asian tourism creates a new form of commodified experience, which is less centered on exotism or escapism and more on emotions and affects. In this respect, the Asianization of Asian tourism is accompanied by a displacement or tourists’ interest. Less focus is placed on history and cultural heritage, more attention is devoted to bodily experiences such as eating, shopping, and scenery-viewing. The Asian tourist looks for the experience that will yield photo opportunities and conventional memories to be shared with others. Asianization, before being analyzed in economic or political terms, can be conceived as a shared affective experience shaped by regional tourism and media consumption. These networks of travel contacts and emotional yearnings among Asian populations are what made hallyu’s rise possible in the first place.

Lest we forget, the tourist imagination in East Asia began with pornography. Japanese tourism to Korea from the mid-1960 until the late 1970 was predominantly male and centered around sex tourism, often combined with business meetings. Known also as kisaeng tourism, this kind of sexual encounter harkened back to colonial practices in yojong establishments and epitomized the imperial consumption of the colony itself as an object of desire. Youngmin Choe opens her book by a close examination of Park Chul-soo’s Kazoku Cinema, the first film collaboration between Japan and South Korea following the lifting of the ban on the import of Japanese cultural products in 1998. Kazoku Cinema is a self-reflexing film about the making of a film, with strong sexual undertones. As the author writes it, “pornography becomes an allegorical mode of historical reconciliation that foregrounds everyday banality.” The desire for sexual intimacy and physical touch also shapes the story of Asako in Ruby Shoes, which cuts back and forth between Tokyo and Seoul as the two heroes engage in Internet porn, and of April Snow, which narrates an adulterous liaison. The whole production of the Korean wave can in a way be interpreted as soft porn, as the cravings of middle-aged Japanese ladies for “Yon-sama” or the provocative attire of K-pop idols suggest. In turn, these sexual desires and erotic feelings contribute to the transformation of once rival nations unto cooperative friends open to transborder flows. Sex, in Asia, is political.

The political is never far in Korea, a land divided between two states separated by the 38th parallel. Any visitor to the DMZ has experienced the strange feeling of being at the same time in a movie scene and in a tourist attraction. On the face of it, the reality of the place contradicts both impressions: the tension between the two Koreas is very real, and the DMZ is first and foremost a military zone. But visits to the DMZ are shaped as a tourist experience, not least because of the many films that used the zone as their locale. Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area (J.S.A.) begins with an aerial shot of the DMZ, as a group of foreigners on a guided tour of the southern side are surveying the Military Demarcation Line that runs through the middle of the demilitarized zone. It ends with picture shots taken by the tourists in this initial scene, which reveal the whole story that has been unfolding. The commodification and marketization of military zones is not limited to the DMZ. The Korean War film Taegukgi illustrates a process labelled as “post-memory”: the memory of a trauma that was never personally experienced, but whose lingering effect is felt by following generations. This Korean blockbuster, produced shortly after the liberalization of the movie industry imposed by the US as part of the FTA, thematizes the struggle against Hollywood hegemony, the nation’s simmering anti-American sentiments, the rise of an Asianization discourse, the realities of national division, and the hopes for reunification. As the film Silmido, set on an island off the coast of Incheon, it has given rise to a theme park and also was the focus of a temporary exhibition, thereby fueling the rise of film-induced tourism. The author opposes the Korean War Memorial, which illustrates how the Korean War should be remembered—as heroic, masculine, and patriotic—, and the “false memorials” created in the wake of war movies, giving way to alternative modes or remembrance that are more feminine, leisurely, and affective.

How do all the movies analyzed in Tourist Distractions relate to hallyu? As Youngmin Choe makes it clear, most of the films she addresses are not part of the Korean wave as defined by state authorities and media reports: only movies geared towards a Japanese audience like April Snow, or the blockbusters produced after the opening of the market to Hollywood competition, qualify as such. The hallyu discourse does not emerge in Korea until 2001. It has roots in twentieth-century visions of Asian integration and serves to support the corporate strategies and geopolitical ambitions of newly-developed Korea. The author links hallyu to neoliberalism, cultural nationalism, and postcolonialism, and she uses the words “neo-imperialist” and “sub-imperialist” to qualify Korea’s projection of cultural power. But her book does not discuss political integration and economic processes in detail. As she states, “I am more interested in the formation of a shared affective experience that transnational cooperation requires in order to build its networks for the exchange of products and capital.” In a reversal of Marxist thought, culture is not the reflect of underlying economic forces, but forms the infrastructure basis or enabling factor which makes economic and political developments possible. Her category of “hallyu cinema”, strictly delineated in time and in scope, is defined by the aesthetic criteria of self-reflexivity and affective content, not by the movies’ marketing strategies or their impact at the box office. Self-referentiality in hallyu movies refers both to the content of the movies—as the films examined in the book seem to anticipate the travel of their audiences—and to their production and circulation that foster transnational exchanges. Tourist films and film tourism are closely interconnected.

The affective turn in cultural studies

Beyond contributing to cinema studies and hallyu studies, Tourist Distractions points towards what has been described as an “affective turn” in cultural studies. The notion of affect—pre-individual bodily forces, linked to autonomic responses, which augment or diminish a body’s capacity to act or engage with others—has become a central tenet of cultural studies. Affect is a concept that places emphasis on bodily experience and that goes beyond the traditional focus on representations and discourse. The turn towards affects is therefore a turn, or a return, to the body. It is also a turn towards new kinds of imagined communities. Affects and emotions help us connect with some people while distancing us from others and in material form can be used for economic and political purposes, making it a form of capital. Emotions help form the boundaries and relationships between individuals and society; they determine the rhetoric of the nation. The hallyu nation, or global Korea, is built on networks of affective exchanges. Korean movies and dramas are valued for their emotional content, for their ability to move people in many ways, including geographically. Call it, if you will, the Greater East Asia Co-Sentimentality Sphere. The emergence of this new affective space that stems from the diffusion of tourism and of films, lies at the core of this groundbreaking study of hallyu cinema.