Cultural Films and the National Imaginary in South Korea


A review of Uneven Screens, Contested Identities: USIS, Cultural Films, and the National Imaginary in South Korea, 1945-1972, by Han Sang Kim.

Han Sang Kim’s dissertation traces the history of “cultural films” (“munhwa yonghwa,” a genre category derived from the German “Kulturfilme” and imported through Japanese imperialism), educational and propagandistic films produced by the US Information Service (USIS) and through collaborations between Korean and American filmmakers, that were shown to South Koreans between 1945 and 1972, or from the end of the colonization period up to the end of the Third Republic. Kim’s study contributes greatly to the English-language scholarship on the role of film during Korea’s national reconstruction, joining a number of essays in Film Studies that have appeared in various anthologies as well as Traces of Korean Cinema from 1945 to 1959 (2003), published in a bi-lingual edition by the Korean Film Archive, and Steven Chung’s ground-breaking new monograph on Shin Sang-ok, Split Screen Korea (2014). Kim draws from a myriad of primary sources, both published and unpublished, to shed light on a set of film texts that have not yet been contextualized and interpreted.

Uneven Screens, Contested Identities shows how USIS-Korean cultural films were addressed to Korean viewers, depicting model citizens or idealized American life in order to teach spectators how to be cosmopolitan and adopt modern styles of living. They illuminate relations between the Korean Self and the non-Korean (usually US) Other, and thus shed insight into how Koreans were inculcated into nationalist ideology. Yet this dichotomy allows Kim to understand that when documentaries and newsreels showcasing the prosperous lifestyles of Americans were shown, Koreans probably did not identify with their cultural and historical Others. He carefully argues that, despite their being considered citizens of the “free world,” the ontological distinction between Self and Other often undercut the geopolitical binaries concomitant with the Cold War. Negotiating questions of film spectatorship with those of the nation, Kim’s study reveals that the Korean subject may be more accurately constituted through a web of different ethnographic gazes, constructed and played out through cinematic representation.

The study is divided into three parts, each of which consists of three or four chapters. The dissertation proceeds chronologically, and is periodized according to key moments in modern Korean history. Part One, “The Undifferentiated Self Facing a Bullet Screen,” traces the short period between liberation and the outbreak of war in 1950. As in other Cold War locations, the US quickly realized that film could be used to educate and provide information to a nation searching for a vision forward following thirty-five years of Japanese colonization. In March of 1946, the Department of Public Information (DPI) was organized to control the production, distribution, and exhibition of educational films. Some of these were imported and localized, such as WWII propaganda films, while others were produced by Koreans themselves, utilizing equipment and materials leftover from the Japanese Empire. In 1947, the Public Relations office of the US Armed Forces in Korea expanded to form the Office of Civil Information (OCI), only days before the South Korean interim government was declared on June 3rd. The OCI systematized cultural film activities over the following few years, with the clear intent of spreading ideas of Western-style democracy to the Korean public. Meanwhile, Korean filmmakers produced works such as The People Vote (1948) and Fellow Soldiers (1949), the latter being the first anti-Communist film, under the auspices of the US government and in congruence with its ideological stance. Kim performs quick, close readings of American information films such as Tuesday in November (1945), which depicts election day in a small California town in 1944, and Nation’s Capitol (1947). These films were shown to Korean audiences in advance of the first General Election in May 1948. For Kim, cultural films in this period could be said to have functioned like “bullets” aimed at (particularly rural) Korean spectators in that they remained inseparable from US military efforts to aggressively promote American values within this post-colonial, newly democratizing context.

Part Two of Uneven Screens, Contested Identities is called, “Gazing at the Rehabilitating Self,” and covers the period between 1950 and 1958, the beginning of war to the demise of the rebuilding program affiliated with the UN Korean Reconstruction Agency (UNKRA). During the war, the US stepped up its propaganda efforts, aware that actual military conflict could provide their film units with footage of the Cold War in action. Meanwhile, the USIS produced more films made by local directors, writers, actors, and crew, films that would educate audiences in need of rehabilitation and disseminate knowledge regarding modern hygiene and lifestyle. A basic tension set the tone of this transitional period: Koreans were compelled to rebuild their nation and become self-governing, yet this rebuilding could not take place without significant US intervention. While Part One of the dissertation proceeds through detailed erudition, Kim develops this tension in Part Two by reading a series of representative films. The USIS film unit and the UNKRA were instrumental in kickstarting film production in Korea by hiring and training local filmmakers and allocating resources, including studios and equipment, to the Korean film industry. One of the first films to come of this was Ward of Affection (1953), which deals with the recovery of a boy orphaned by the war. In My 4-H Club Diary (1958), which depicts how the 4-H Club was established in rural Korea, traditional means of farming are represented as outdated, overcome by modern agricultural techniques that are to be imitated by the viewer. This melodrama between generations is even more pronounced in Korean Educational System (1958), where the pedagogical differences between an authoritarian father, an old village teacher, are juxtaposed with the more democratic ideals of education espoused by his young daughter. Kim describes the US influence in these Korean productions as an “external party which is not external” (echoing the subtitle to a well-known cultural history of the Weimar Republic, “the outsider as insider”). In Part Two, Kim also describes how the propagandistic interests of the USIS ran into conflict with emerging auteurist impulses among Korean scriptwriters and filmmakers. Kim Ki-young, who would make some of the most deliriously surreal films in the sixties, started his career making cultural films. His I Am a Truck (1954) provides the viewer with information about the US Army military vehicle, but its first person narration (from the perspective of the truck) and its morbid description make the film seem more like a horror film than an informative documentary. For Kim, these tensions between traditional and modern, US military interests and those of the auteur, induce a slippage between the Self and the Other. Korean audiences in the midst of reconstruction were meant to identify with their “pre-modern” counterparts on the screen, yet in their desire to become modern, they were to shift their sympathies to the idealized, more free Others, both Korean and American, also depicted in these films.

Part Three, “The Translated Self,” discusses the years 1958 to 1972, when US influence on cultural film production waned and the image of the postwar Korean Self became more self-confident and cosmopolitan. This idealized image, Kim insists, should be seen as a translation of the American model – indeed, a Korean Self constituted through its recognizability by the American Other. Cultural films from this period reflect an awareness of the Korean Self in an increasingly globalizing world, and in connection with it, the threat of foreign influence. The USIS and their branch that regularly produced the newsreel Liberty News declined in connection with Rhee Syngman’s efforts to censor foreign and oppositional viewpoints. Much of the reporting produced by Liberty News and cultural films like The Ideal Citizen (1960) toe the US line while American Cultural Centers and the Community (1968) and Bridge for Peace (c. 1970-1972) demonstrate closer collaboration between Korea and its US Other while also showcasing their growing mutual expertise. The last of these films featured American Peace Corps participants such as Bruce Cumings and Carter J. Eckert, who would eventually become key figures in the legitimizing and development of Korean Studies. As it increasingly became a matter of policy to further cross-cultural interaction through the exchange of students, intellectuals, and other cultural ambassadors, film became crucial for enabling these interactions by bringing far away locations closer to the viewer. Meanwhile, as television became an increasingly important venue, Kim looks at Korea-America Today (1965) in this regard, for disseminating ethnographic looks at the Other. Part Three of the dissertation ends with a close look at Paldogangsan (1967), a feature sponsored by the ROK Ministry of Public Information and the National Film Production Center, and its three sequels. These four films constitute a kind of culmination of the cultural film, in that their representations of the idealized Self, its rootedness in local values combined with a desire to travel and see the world, are coordinated with contemporary politics, namely the beginning of Park Chung-hee Yushin regime. The incredible popularity of these films demonstrates how adept the cultural film became in entertaining as well as educating its spectators.

Kim’s history of the cultural film in Korea illuminates the quickly evolving geopolitical relations between the US and Korea between 1945 and 1972. His dissertation brings an impressive range and depth of primary research to bear on this history, revealing how cultural film production was the result, not of a power dynamic that is one-directional, but a constant negotiation between Korean, US, and auteurist impulses. By utilizing the ontological terms “Self” and “Other” throughout the dissertation, Kim shows how the discursive distinctions between them were complicated and problematized. The Korean Self cannot be separated from its increasingly hybrid construction constituted through multiples gazes, both global and local.

Steve Choe
Department of Cinematic Arts
University of Iowa

Primary Sources
Korean Film Archive
National Institute of Korean History
US National Archives and Records Administration

Dissertation Information
Seoul National University. 2013. 327 pp. Primary Advisor: Jung Keunsik.

Image: Sign at USIS office.

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