South Korean Cinema, 1998-2008


A review of Screening the Past: Historiography of Contemporary South Korean Cinema, 1998-2008 by Young Eun Chae.

The dissertation focused on Korean cinema from 1998-2008 by framing it under three historically significant events in contemporary Korea – the Japanese occupation and colonization, the Korean War and the Gwangju Democratization Movement. All these events which unfolded on the Korean peninsula have been revisited cinematically by Korean filmmakers in an attempt to reinforce, re-tell and provide alternative readings of past upheavals through the medium of feature-length films. Young Eun Chae’s investigations focus on the so-called historical films and the “nexus between cinema, history, narrative, nation, and identity” (p. 4).

The 1998-2008 period was especially chosen because it is characterized by minimal government interference. The liberal leaderships of this period are in stark contrast to the authoritarian regimes of former leaders where there is a more pronounced censorship towards cinematic works that articulate Korea’s troubled past.

The relationship between history and cinema has been capably and impressively investigated to show how the country’s history is re-presented to the newer and younger audience of Korean filmgoers – most of whom were not born during the tumultuous periods depicted in the chosen films. In discussing the role of history in films, Chae said: “What matters is not the facts of the past, but rather what kinds of meanings are attached to those facts” (p. 16).

Drawing from the influential works of scholars from Hayden White, Marcia Landy and Marc Ferro, Chae acknowledges that historiographical writings often depict slippages, fissures and cracks from the hegemonic order of official storytelling. The liminal spaces occupied by the film as a cultural product as well as the filmmaking practice in re-telling a country’s history can be slippery. Chae argues: “[c]inema reveals truths about reality, yet its portrayals of both truth and reality are often incoherent” (p. 18). The films under investigation in this dissertation are emblematic of the need of Korea to reexamine itself as a nation (self and other) sometimes more than the specific histories the films are attempting to portray. This is especially true when the Other is Japan as portrayed in historical films. Films participate in the heightened binarism of good (Koreans) versus evil (Japanese) in films that narrate the “cultural imperialism” of Japan. However in the case of the Gwangju massacre in 1980 that led to deaths of innocent civilians, the demonization of the Other becomes less clearly defined especially since the Other is no longer Japanese, but Korean; and not just Korean but South Korean.

Chae discussed the problem that comes from using “national cinema” as an analytic tool to discuss non-Western cinema in general and Korean cinema in particular. As the nation shifts and morphs, so does the understanding of its cinema. Although not the primary focus of the dissertation, the discussion on “national cinema” or “cinema and the nationa” (following Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar) offers a perspective how the standardization of “national cinema” as a way to understand film outputs of a given country can be problematic and contentious.

A topic of particular interest dealt with the crisis of masculinity in Korean films. Following Kyung Hyun Kim, Chae links this crisis to the “sense of uneasiness [that] is symptomatic of a post-traumatic society‘s continuing struggle for modernity” (p. 35). Trauma figured prominently in the historical films that Chae chooses for close reading. Drawing on Korea’s troubled past, trauma has become normalized and embedded in the consciousness of Koreans who bore the brunt of the aftermath of these traumatic upheavals. The main protagonist in Peppermint Candy exemplifies this trauma as he embodies a scarred Korea that was torn apart and later re-emerges as a new entity.

The chapter devoted to the Japanese occupation of Korea as represented in two films – 2009 Lost Memories and Hanbando – locates the tendentious propensity to dichotomize Japan-Korea relations as adversarial. However, the current political climate has made Korea consider Japan a tactical ally in the arena of international politics and economy. The ever-shifting relationship between the two countries and the simplistic binarism the films employ have resulted in poor to moderate box-office performance. Chae cautions that while historical films are also cultural products that can and should provoke introspective reflections from the film audience, “historical films should strive for containing the uncertainties and complexities of their historical contexts instead of staying bound by filmmakers‘ didactic pretensions” (p. 87).

The chapter on the Korean War resulting from the civil war between North and South Korea offers several keen observations. The Korean War and the formal division of the two countries captured international imagination and attention. The two films reviewed for this chapter – Taegukgi Huenalimyu and Welcome to Dongmakgol – blur the good versus evil dichotomy. Films made after the treaty of armistice was signed in 1953 that formally ended the Korean War focused on the otherness of North Korea. More interestingly, the appropriation of Hollywood’s cinematic style and flourish were utilized effectively by Korean filmmakers in order to appeal to the target audience. Using Christina Klein’s arguments on Hollywood, Chae says: “[u]nderstanding Korean cinema‘s ― ambivalent attitude toward Hollywood, its love/hate relationship, is useful in order to grasp fully these Korean historical films and their reworking of Hollywood.” (p. 149)

The last chapter – and its strongest – devotes space on the Gwangju killings in 1980. Here, Chae not only deployed her gifts in illuminative textual readings of Peppermint Candy  and Splendid Vacation, she also uses her subject position as a Korean who watched the movies – especially Peppermint Candy – in a cinema house in Seoul to provide native informant insights. She compellingly narrates her “visceral” reaction to Peppermint Candy and its narrative structure and how certain scenes resonate more evocatively and meaningfully to someone who grew up during the period the film depicts. In this chapter, creating an Other becomes even more challenging for filmmakers because this involves the “Us” killing each other under the banner of national order and solidarity. Despite the Gwangju death counts, no one was charged with the killing of innocent civilians. Chae articulates this nicely: “[w]ithout justice, the Gwangju Massacre remains an open, incurable wound” (p. 161). Yet the depiction of Young-Ho – the main character in Peppermint Candy – does not make him a character easily identifiable to Korean audience because of his affiliation to the Gwangju forces that decimated 2,000 of his fellow South Koreans. Chae offers this insight: “The film‘s logic is that ―’we’ cannot hate or eve judge Young-Ho because ― ’we’ are also perpetrators who either killed in Gwangju or sat back and did nothing during the killings. If Young-Ho is guilty, then so are ―’we’” (p. 171).

The dissertation was able to recuperate the place of “official history” in the popular Korean narratives. In the cinematic reenactments and portrayals of the country’s troubled past and the uneasy tension towards otherness – be it Japan, North Korea or the unnamed killers in the Gwangju massacre – Chae provides a story of a Korean people who were traumatized by these events and who continually engage with these “historical” films as a form of national introspection. The ambiguity in creating an identifiable common enemy in the films finds a correlative to the country’s own assessment of itself in the light of post-Korean War global power, the muddled territoriality of its history, and the role of the dynamic Korean film industry in (story)telling the ever-shifting Korean national identity.

The value of this dissertation’s publication is particularly important because of its engagement with trauma in Korean cinema, as well as the illuminating investigation of the confluence of nation, cinema and history in the articulation of Korean narratives. By focusing on the three major events that traumatized the peninsula, this dissertation contributes significantly to the English-language scholarship devoted to Korean cinema.

Joseph Palis
International Studies Program & Film Studies Program
North Carolina State University

Primary Sources

2009 Lost Memories. Dir. Si-myung Lee (2002)
Hanbando. Dir. Woo-Suk Kang (2006)
Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo). Dir. Je-kyu Kang (2004)
Welcome to Dongmakgol (Welkkeom tu Dongmakgol). Dir. Kwang-Hyun Park (2005)
Peppermint Candy (Bakha Satang). Dir. Chang-dong Lee (1999)
Splendid Vacation (Hwaryeohan Huega ). Dir. Ji-hoon Kim (2007)

Dissertation Information

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2011. 238 pp. Primary Advisor: Joanne Hershfield.


Image: From the film poster of Peppermint Candy (Bakha Satang). Dir. Chang-dong Lee (1999).

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