A Review of Hyangjin Lee's
Contemporary Korean Cinema: Identity, Culture, Politics

by Adam Hartzell

Contemporary Korean Cinema: Identity, Culture, Politics   For the non-Korean speaking Korean film fanatic, our primary text resources are slim. There is The History Of Korean Cinema by LEE Young-Il and CHOE Young-Chol (Jimoondang Publishing Company, 1988), which, unless you know how to order it, (you have to correspond with the Korean Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society), can be difficult to come by. Another book you have to know about is Seoul Stirring: 5 Korean Directors (Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1996) written by the infamous Asian Film critic Tony Rayns for a Korean Film Festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Although chock-full of many films we love, more books are needed. As for Lee Server's Asian Pop Cinema: Bombay to Tokyo (Chronicle Books, 1999) it appears he only made a change of planes in Seoul as evidenced by his almost pointless chapter on Korean Film.

In enters Hyangjin Lee's book Contemporary Korean Cinema: Identity, Culture, Politics (Manchester University Press, 2001). Lee, a Lecturer in the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield brings us 200 pages on not only South Korean film, but North Korean film too, with a nice filmography of major films at the end. Will this satisfy our fix for information and musings on our particular geographical variation of cinephilia?

As is the answer to most Yes or No questions, it depends. Lee's book is meant for the academic, thus it is full of the jargon and theoretical references expected of people pursuing tenure, that is, if tenure is a pursuit of British lecturers. That said, some of us might find the language dry and less entertaining than what one finds in Premiere magazine. Personally, I like dissertations and academic texts so I'm fine with the meanderings about race and gender and allusions to dead philosophers I have never heard of. And, when discussions of such amazing films as YU Hyonmok's A Stray Bullet are included, I can't help but be caught up in the magnificence of such films, regardless of the prose style.

For those of you who share my interest in the academic, Lee's book offers meaty discussions of important South Korean films and provides interesting comparisons with their North Korean counterparts. Lee's particular interests are the "ideological messages that the film conveys about present society through its images of the past. By examining the ways in which previous experiences are reinvented on the screen, we can discern the subtle and complex operations of contemporary ideologies in everyday life" (page 3). Lee does not see films about the past as windows to the past, but as rearview mirrors to the present. Taking a recent film as an example, Peppermint Candy by LEE Chang-dong (pictured below left), Hyangjin Lee is not interested as much in what the film conveys about Korea's past, but in how present-day Korea filtered this film's depiction of Korea's past. In other words, Lee continues to ask, "Why this Then now?"

Peppermint Candy The first chapter surveys the history of Korean cinema within the context of the history of the two Koreas. Of particular interest in this section is the debate around what was the "first" Korean film. "First" is debatable depending on what you consider "film" and "Korean." (For example, is a film funded by the Japanese but directed and acted by Koreans a "Korean" film?) Lee offers The Righteous Revenge (1919) by KIM Tosan, part film/part stage drama, as the film most Korean film scholars argue was the first, but she provides equal time for those who argue The Plighted Love Under the Moon (1923) by YUN Paengnam was first. Yun's film doesn't even make the cut for some purists who note that the Japanese colonial government produced this film. Lee also brings in recent arguments that KIM Tosan's The National Borders actually completed production, contrary to previous reports, and was shown prior to The Plighted Love...

The three principles of film-making required by North Korean film-makers are addressed in this chapter: "seed theory" (the "proper" revolutionary themes that should be presented), "modeling" (the "proper" portrayal of working class struggles to achieve class liberation), and "speed campaign" (the quick production of films to meet The Party's needs).

Major genres of Korean film are discussed as well. This chapter also explores the effect of the American movie industry on South Korean production. Lee labels the present South Korean film industry as being in a depressed state, although, from information gathered from Darcy Paquet's www.koreanfilm.org website regarding the box office hits Shiri (KANG Jae-Kyu, 1999), JSA (PARK Chan-Wook, 2000) and Chingu (KWAK Kyung-Taek, 2001), new information appears to contradict what Lee has argued here. Lee primarily stops collecting data at 1999, so we can't fault her for not seeing what we're seeing now. (And, in terms of social analytic procedure, does a three-year peak demonstrate a trend or merely a blip?)

Chapter 2 is all Chunhyang all the time. Lee looks at the portrayal of the Chunhyang myth in two North Korean films (YU Wonjun and YUN Ryonggyu's The Tale of Ch'unhyang (1980) and SHIN Sangok's musical Love, Love, My Love (1985)) and three South Korean films (SHIN Sangok's Song Ch'unhyang (1961), PAK Tae-Won's The Tale of Song Ch'unhyang (1976), and HAN Sanghun's Song Ch'unhyang (1987). (Sorry, no IM Kwon-Taek, since it wasn't released until 2000, again, after this book was in final production.)

Gender and class are the main focus of Lee's analysis. Lee argues that Shin's Song Ch'unhyang is "aligned with the male gaze, [because] the camera dwarfs Ch'unhyang's status, visually evoking her powerlessness and inferiority, which are equated with her femininity" (p. 75). The three South Korean films are said to

...constitute different facets of an ideal female constructed in a male fantasy: a virtuous and yet sexually attractive woman with childlike vulnerability. This composite Ch'unhyang figure is wife, lover, sister and many others at the same time, who appeals to the male's erotic desire as well as his ego as provider and protector. This figure can turn contradictory attributes into complementary and compatible ones and embrace them all. The character Ch'unhyang is thus, remarkably adaptable to the male-centred gender dynamics. In this sense, the three films do not place it in the larger context of gender issues. In fact, they all tend to appropriate feminist concerns for their immediate commercial profits. Moreover, they avoid the subject of social class all together (p. 83).

Lee finds that both South and North Korean Chunhyang films, in their portrayal of gender, are "rooted in traditional Confucian ethics, which succour differential treatments of men and women" (p. 90). Yes, we've entered a Women's Studies class here. Personally, I eat this stuff up. I really miss college.

As for class analysis, Lee sees the North Korean films as finding Chunhyang and Mongnyong's predicament dictated by class conflicts, whereas South Korean films show the problem residing in individual character traits. After reading this chapter, one is provided new lenses with which to view IM Kwon-Taek's take on this tale. Keeping within Lee's frame, we can ponder what Im is saying about Korea now in his portrayal about Korea then.

Missing from this chapter, however, is a comparative analysis of SHIN Sang-ok's separate South and North productions of the Chunhyang myth. This almost begs discussion, but Lee avoids explicitly noting the similarities and differences with the exception of one brief reference.

In Chapter 3, Lee discusses how the ideological perspectives of North and South Korea impact their films. In North Korea, anti-imperialism defines nationhood while the three principles of film-making allow for great control over what is produced. O Pyongch'o's CHOE Hakchin's Family (1966), CH'OE Ikkyu's The Sea of Blood (1969), and CHO Kyongsun's Wolmi Island (1982) are used to underscore this point.

The available freedoms in South Korea make it more difficult to pinpoint an overall ideological perspective. However, Lee uses anti-communism as a base for her analysis. IM Kwon-Taek's didactic The Banner Bearer Without a Flag (1979) best illustrates this perspective, whereas YU Hyonmok's classic A Stray Bullet (1960), and CHONG Chiyong's Southern Guerrilla Forces (1990) are utilized to show the subtler, more nuanced effects an anti-communism stance has had on South Korean film. Lee's analysis of A Stray Bullet continues to fuel my desire to one day see this film translated.

Although Lee sees common ground concerning gender and family issues, seeing North and South based on Confucian ideals of harmony, unity, and loyalty, as well as respect for the educated, North and South filmic portrayals are seen most in conflict regarding class. North Korean film attempts to defend their social structure through all those shiny, happy, comrades. O Pyongch'o's The Untrodden Path (1980), CH'AE P'unggi's The Brigade Commander's Former Superior (1983), and CHO Kyongsun's Bellflower (1987) are used by Lee to show how North Korea's films betray the "classless society" it claims to be through their portrayal of characters seeing the errors in their discontent with the system. If it were so great, why would they be discontent in the first place? And why do they need to be convinced of their role in North Korean society through the fables of these films?

Black Republic A number of South Korean films, on the other hand, challenge their social structure, its economic miracle, focusing on those left in the tugboats as the chaebol liners dock to shore. The South Korean films, YI Changho's A Nice Windy Day (1980), PAK Chongwon's Kuro Arirang (1989) and PAK Kwangsu's Black Republic (1990, pictured left), illuminate South Korea by showing "the suffering masses behind the bright slogans of the rapidly developing country" (p. 165). Yi's film portrays the experience of rural working class men dreaming to Seoul, whereas the two Paks represent the tradition of college students entering the ranks of the working class to test and prove their ideas on social reform. In the United States, condescending portrayals of privileged (read White) characters who enter ghetto slums to guide the poor (read Black or Latino) to the promised land (of Whiteness) has always been an emotional trope. Lee feels PAK Chongwon's Kuro Arirang is not a condescending depiction because "instead of portraying the poor, undereducated factory girls as innocent victims who need paternalistic protection and leadership, the film emphasizes their inner strength and self-respect" (p. 176).

Lee concludes her book by reiterating the differences in portrayal of class between the two Koreas and how the similarity in referencing Confucian values is a starting point for future relations. Although not the most accessible of books, Lee provides a valuable resource for those of us whose fingers ache following posts to Darcy's page analyzing every little taste of Peppermint Candy or flickering detail of Shiri.

However, I must admit, it's difficult for me to critique her points regarding these films since I have not had the privilege to see ANY of them. I want to see them, but the provincialism of the United States film industry and the Korean film industry's unwillingness to take more risks into the U.S. market, or insistence in holding out on selling U.S. marketing rights, results in their not being available presently.

All I'm left with is what I can apply from Lee's book regarding films I have been able to see. Taking Lee's lessons, two interesting items arise.

First, IM Kwon-Taek's portrayal of the Chunhyang myth is provided with a new layer. As David James and Kyung Hyun Kim's soon to be published book IM Kwon-Taak: The Making of a Korean National Cinema (Wayne State University Press, 2002) states in its title, Im has always been conscious of creating a national cinema for Korea since the chains of totalitarianism were loosened. Im's choice to direct yet ANOTHER Chunhyang film in 2001 was not only a nod to Korea's most well-known myth, but Im may also have been giving props to his peeps who came before him in Korea's film history.

See, with all that controversy regarding which film constitutes Korea's "first" film, one thing is clear: YI Myongu's The Tale of Ch'unhyang was the first sound film directed and produced by Koreans. In remaking Chunhyang, Im is, by default, alluding to Korea's first sound film. And Im's choice to have a pansori singer narrate the film for us, a clear reference to Korean culture and history on its own, and his choice to go back and forth from filming the pansori singer's performance to filming the Chunhyang myth, this all could be argued to represent an allusion to The Righteous Revenge, the film most film historians argue was the first Korean film. I argue this because The Righteous Revenge was part stage drama/part film. Im's filmic Chunhyang was part pansori performance/part film within a film. In their essay "The Simpsons and Allusions: Worst Essay Ever" (The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh of Homer, edited by William Irwin, Mark T. Conard, and Aeon J. Skoble, Open Court Publishing Co., 2001), William Irwin and J.R. Lombardo argue that unintended allusions should be referred to as "accidental associations" if they cannot definitively be credited to the auteur. I agree, however, I feel further delineations are needed, such as "default allusions" that reference remakes and "accidental allusions" rather than "associations" that refer to what Im has done here. Im may have not intended this allusion, but the allusion is so tight that it goes beyond a mere "accidental association." Oftentimes, great artists are so attune with their subjects, the allusions emerge without intent. Such is what I feel has happened in Im's Chunhyang. I will never know for sure until I have a chance to speak with Im myself. Until then, the evidence for this accidental allusion appears strong after reading Lee's history of Korean film.

Second, Lee provides evidence that the Shiri/JSA pairing was not an aberration in Korean film. What I mean by this is that Shiri was a film along the lines of U.S. blockbusters that relied on black-and-whiting the North/South Korean conflict. Immediately, JSA followed this film the next year providing a more complex view of the conflict with less reliance on caricatures and good-vs-evil clichés. Lee presents this back and forth-ing of Modern and PostModern portrayals, either/or-ing vs. and-ing, when talking about The Banner Bearer Without a Flag and Southern Guerrilla Forces, although these films are separated in their release by over ten years. Lee argues Southern Guerrilla Forces was really the first Korean film to challenge the need for definite good and evils regarding the conflict between the two Koreas. What Lee's analysis shows is that such is a recurring event within South Korean cinema. Shiri and JSA, separated by only one year, both breaking box office records, show that this ebb and flow has come to the point where films will immediately counter one another, a Modern portrayal followed by a PostModern followed by a Modern, ad infinitum.

Along with providing information about the history of Korean film, Hyangjin Lee's Contemporary Korean Cinema has fashioned my intellectual tools with which to fiddle my personal horizontal hold when watching Korean film. She has encouraged me to test my ideas above by watching The Banner Bearer... and Shiri together, as well as Southern Guerrilla Forces and JSA when the chance is afforded me. She has given me ideas surrounding how to relook at Im's Chunhyang when I finally purchase the DVD. She has further fueled my desire to see such films as A Stray Bullet and Black Republic. And she has reminded me that what I have to say about all these Korean films may tell you more about my America now than their Korea then.

Back to Korean Film Page

Koreanfilm.org, posted November 16, 2001.