Korean Modernism in Literature and Film


A review of Korean Modernism at the Margin: Visualizing Affect, Body and Exteriority in Modern Literature and Film, by Hyun S. Park.

Inspired by Raymond Williams’ question, ‘When was modernism?’, Hyun Seon Park’s dissertation begins with a question on the historicity of Korean modernism as configured in literature and cinema. It formulates and problematizes the formational dimension of Korean modernism and attempts to historicize Korean modernism by closely analyzing literary and cinematic texts from the three periods: the colonial period of the 1930s and 40s, the postwar urban modernization era of the 1960s, and the contemporary times of global capitalism. Korean modernists texts are conceived here as “problematic sites of the conjunction of history, aesthetics and politics” (p. 1). Park points out how a discourse of modernism had been marginalized in 20th-century Korea as a result of a protracted predominance of the realist mode of representation and attempts to disrupt this critical tendency by advancing an exegesis on the problematic contour of subjectivity in modernist poems and films. In particular, Park’s treatise conceptualizes and articulates the marginal locations of modern subjectivity, which repeatedly leads to questions on the relations between the interior and exterior, as well as the aesthetic and the political.

Park casts a light on how Korean modernism grew in relation to the socio-political experience of modernity and modernization. The persistent theme of loss and wounds, for example, are deeply ingrained in the experiential logic of modernity that structures the 20th-century history of Korea. Park’s overarching argument and insight is that Korean modernism centers around the question of liminal space. The emphasis on the spatial logic of modernism calls attention to marginal places, urban architecture, and the female body, which hold keys to understanding the traumatic experience of modern development. Accordingly, modern subjectivity illustrates an important divergent characteristic: it internalizes outer space yet simultaneously externalizes the wounded psyche. The visual tropes and icons such as mirrors, screens, train stations, stairs, and doors entail “hinge-like” movements of volatility and ambivalence that exemplify this bifurcating complexity.

Chapter one starts out with an interpretation of mirrors in Yi Sang’s poems on the one hand, and trains and screens in the films from the colonial period on the other. These works unveil the thorny relationship between the interior psyche of the subject and the exterior landscape of politics. They also afford a chance to examine common features under the rubric of “material affectivity,” which Park argues is an origin of Korean modernism. They point towards materially-grounded affective registers, making Korean modernism “historically specific and culturally polyhedral” (p. 22). Borrowing Alain Badiou’s appraisal of the Hegelian subject, Park stresses that the principal conundrum of the colonial modernist works is not the presence of the colonizer. Rather it is the space of the other, i.e., the colonial world, for this space already presupposes the colonized subject deprived of autonomous sense of Korean cultural identity. The motif of the mirror is crucial in this context because it opens up a concrete material ground to interrogate the inverted position of the viewer, which marks an emergence of colonial subjectivity. Park explores the implications of the mirror as a “play thing” in the phantasmagorical stage of metamorphosis, made of material forte of “surfaces, frames and angles” (p. 33) in Yi Sang’s works. The mirror in this context is always and already impregnated with the inherent split, which marks the limit of representation.

Park shifts her focus onto the image of a train as cosmopolitan promise and colonial exploitation in colonial films. Drawing on Miriam Hansen’s concept of vernacular modernism, the author problematizes the ambivalent view towards technology, often fused with vernacular type of self-reflexivity. The intersection of local cultural inflection and global modernity manifests in the form of popular culture in the 1936 film “Sweet Dream.” Here, as in Yi’s poems, the mirror functions as a frame that renders visible the tension between the existing social mores and one’s desire for transgression. Similarly, the film “Spring of the Korean Peninsula” (1941) entails two registers of colonial affect, i.e., passion and melancholy, at the time of transition from vernacular modernism to fascism. The film’s reflexive mirror structure is evident throughout the film where passionate desire for modern development and progress is juxtaposed with melancholic and ambivalent colonial affect. The melancholic response of the Korean subject thus informs the tension between the interiority of the colonial subject and expanding exterior field of politics.

In chapter two, Park examines the film noir sensibility of the 1960s in relation to Korea’s rapid industrial development. In particular, Yi Man-hŭi’s two 1964 crime dramas “The Devil’s Stairway” and “Black Hair” are brought into the analysis. Park conceives film noir as a critical genre, as it offers “allegorical critique of the violent process of modernization” (p. 63). It shares with modernism a pointed reflection on the urban condition and modernity. Drawing on an insight of Walter Benjamin, Park reminds readers that the violence in Korean film noir is inherently related to the domain of legal reasoning and the legal system as well as sovereign governance. Often, an injured body is the most conspicuous motif in Yi’s films, thematizing a critical view towards the nature of violence that is derived from “the hyper-masculine, socio-economically determined structure of the post-colonial world” (p. 77).

The latter part of the chapter is concerned with the allegorical nexus between urban space, architecture, and the female body. The modernist sense of drift from the center is evident in the downfall of the female protagonist in “Black Hair,” whose experience of the city comes to view with ruinous environs and a maze-like space of back alleys. In the case of “The Devil’s Stairway,” the combination of the corporeal and the spectral structures and organizes the film’s noirish thematic preoccupation of anxiety. A subsequent analysis is devoted to the filmic instances of the architectural uncanny, which alludes to the illicit tension of the heterosexual relationship, contradictions of social mobility, and the limit of scientific rationality.

The third chapter begins with vignettes from two literary film adaptations of the mid-1960s: “Mist” (1967) and “The General’s Moustache” (1968). The larger theme here is how the symptoms of melancholy and mourning relate to the historical experience of war and compressed modernity. A subsequent interpretation elucidates these films’ “mnemonic technologies by which traumatized modern subjects express their melancholic effort to remember historical loss and clandestine memories” (p. 100). The Korean War and its aftermath have long generated a sustained ideological inculcation that has involved the mnemonic strategy of establishing dominant fiction and scenarios of nation. Park stresses, however, that Korean modernist films entail a clear divergence from the linear and teleological narrative and temporality of nation. Their approach to historical trauma centers around the aesthetic principle of negation, manifest in the form of melancholy and repetition. On the surface, recounting the past events seems to follow the main ideological scenario of the nation; however, they differ in their exposure of the irreducible cryptic void at the kernel of male subjectivity.

The historical loss associated with the Korean War found its channels of expression in the symptom of impossible mourning. In “Mist,” memories of war experience intrude upon the male protagonist’s psyche and occupy “the outer world of the self” (p. 111). The destination Mujin triggers several instances of reflection through intrusive flashbacks for the male protagonist, which lead him discover “the space of interiority” and ponder on the loss of the beloved object, sovereignty and “historicity of memory” (p. 124). Mujin becomes a “juncture of time and space,” where landscape triggers introspection and “mourning for the loss” and “critique of modernizing society” (p. 127)

In contrast, “The General’s Moustache” is preoccupied with “cryptic reservoir” that inspires reading of the death drive against the conformist scenario of nation. Jacques Derrida’s conceptualization of the crypt is crucial here, for the concept signals “parasitic inclusion” without giving rise to proper channels of manifestation. This psychoanalytic framework leads Park to formulate the following bold question: “What is the historical crypt in Korean modernism?” (p. 137). The film features claustrophobic spatial layouts and motifs that amount to the “cryptic topography” of the inside on the outside. On a meta-narrative level, the mystery surrounding the male protagonist’s death constructs “cryptomimesis,” which compels and frustrates facile appraisal while generating uncanny repercussions. The subsequent analysis elaborates on the meanings of “play of confession” between the male protagonist and his girlfriend. Park elucidates how the film’s formal properties and mise-en-scene bring persistent attention to fantasy components surrounding trauma, and how they relate ultimately to political modernism of the film.

The fourth chapter specifically focuses on the image of a pair of shoes in Park Chan-wook’s 2009 film “Thirst.” It wrestles with implications of the “residual modernist expressions” in the contemporary postmodern film, and traces the rendition of affect in changing coordinates of ethics and politics. It endeavors to examine how spatial tropes engender new ways of thinking about the boundaries of global capitalism and post-colonial geopolitics. “Thirst” is significant because it conveys the “liminal experience of the capitalist system and global environment” (p. 152) through juxtaposition of the affective and the sublime. Analysis indicates how a pair of shoes gradually occupies the place of subjects, and Park contends this imagery illustrates Park Chan-wook’s film aesthetics and philosophy resonant with the modernist tradition of Korea.

For articulation of locality, Park uses the term “negative hallucination of locality” to designate that which remains largely out of the visual frame (p. 173). The question here is the peculiar invisibility or lack of historical substance of colonial locality. The local spaces and architectures in the film have out-of-joint temporal characteristics, which then illustrate its allusion to Korea’s porous modernity. The film’s spatial transition as well as intrusive gestures and acts suggest the overall porous nature of the local domestic setting. The interpretation elucidates how the femme fatale protagonist’s predicament, resentment, and passion relate to colonial violence and sub-imperial desire. Park’s conceptual rigor reaches its apex at the end of the chapter as the affective limit of the sublime receives fuller elaboration. She brings attention to the film’s ending, which illustrates subject and object as the framing figures of legibility that entail the emergence of the “catastrophic sublime,” against the backdrop of neoliberal capitalism.

Park’s dissertation is a unique and ambitious treatise that tackles a hitherto under-examined subject in Korean Studies: modernist aesthetics in Korean cinema. It shifts the terms of debate on modernism by introducing new questions and concerns, and navigates disparate and neglected texts to discern thematic features and intellectual orientation. It expands a critical boundary of Korean film studies by illuminating the complex contours of affect, melancholia, crypt, and the sublime in key texts. Its elaboration on the catastrophic sublime in the fourth chapter is particularly formidable, as it promises an engaging intellectual endeavor to deal with the conundrum of the neoliberal affect economy. Park’s dissertation is highly recommended for anyone interested in the intersection of politics and aesthetics in 20th-century Korea.

Jinsoo An
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
University of California, Berkeley

Primary Sources

Yi Sang, “mirror” poems
Yang Chu-nam, “Sweet Dreams” (1936)
Yi Pyŏng-il, “Spring of the Korean Peninsula” (1941)
Yi Man-hŭi, “Black Hair” (1964) & “The Devil’s Stairway” (1964)
Kim Su-yong, “Mist” (1967)
Yi Sŏng-gu, “The General’s Moustache” (1968)
Park Chan-wook, “Thirst” (2009)

Dissertation Information

University of California, Irvine. 2012. 204 pp. Primary Advisor: Kyung Hyun Kim.

Image: Image of shoes in Thirst (dir. Park Chan-wook, 2009). Fair use.

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