PLANET HALLYUWOOD: IMAGING THE KOREAN WAR
- Author: HUGHES THEODORE
- Publish: Acta Koreana Volume 14, Issue1, p197~212, June 2011
This article examines the ways in which the display of violence and production of affect in two Hallyu films portraying the Korean War and its immediate aftermath—
T’aegŭkki(T’aegŭkki hwinallimyŏ; Kang Che-gyu, 2004) and Once Upon a Time in Seoul(Sonyŏn ŭn ulji annŭnda; Pae Hyŏng-jun, 2008)—represents a continuing negotiation with the trauma of division and the Cold War order. These contemporary Hallyu Korean War films reveal a certain anxiety regarding both the technics of film and the newly celebrated success of Korean cinema. These films are informed by two overlapping tensions: (1) between the technological and the emotive; (2) between the antiwar genre and a masculinist (and commercial) desire to display action and violence. T’aegŭkkiand Once Upon a Time in Seouloffer both memories of the war and the circulation of images and commodities in the 1950s, a period crucial to the formation of the new post-1945 South Korean culture and the South Korean-U.S. relation. Paying particular attention to the links between technology, affect, violence and commercialization, this article shows how these films confront the human-technology association and the incorporation of South Korea into the global market in ways central not only to the meaning of the Korean War and the history of division that surrounds it but also to the transnational flow of images and capital that marks Planet Hallyuwood itself.
Hallyu , Combat Film , Korean War , National Division
The notion of a Planet Hallyuwood as a fusing of Hallyu and Hollywood allows us to look at the ways in which the South Korean film industry is linked to global markets and transnational spectators, as well as to the cross-cultural circulation of images, genres, and narrative techniques. At the same time, the term Hallyuwood enables a consideration of the relations between South Korean and U.S. cultural production. These relations have a history that predates the rapid growth and commercial success of the South Korean film industry over the past ten years. The beginnings of what would become a Planet Hallyuwood in the late 1990s— the capture of domestic and overseas market share that led to a certain form of triumphalism through 2005 and the subsequent pressures faced by the South Korean film industry due to the halving of the Screen Quota System—occur as the latest shifts in a much longer transnational history of popular cultural forms.
Recent blockbuster Korean War films themselves refer in different ways to this longer history in their representations of the early 1950s, a time not only of war and postwar poverty but of the establishment of what has become a lasting, and contested, U.S. presence in South Korea. These filmic representations of the most traumatic event in post-1945 Korean history offer something more than the latest take on the war and its immediate aftermath. The return to this event—one which rigidified a North/South division while locating South Korea firmly in the U.S.-led “free world” order—is bound up with the contested terrain traversed by Planet Hallyuwood itself. How do portrayals of the war and its aftermath in films such as
T’aegŭkki( T’aegŭkkihwinallimyŏ; Kang Che-gyu, 2004) and Once Upon a Time in Seoul(Sonyŏn ŭn ulji annŭnda; Pae Hyŏng-jun, 2008) intersect with the recent creation of domestic market share that for the first time exceeds that of imported, U.S. filmic productions?
Planet Hallyuwood’s own representations of Korean history reveal the ways in which the past informs new configurations and tensions that make up the contemporary era of globalization. Paek Wŏn-dam has noted that while Hallyu can serve the interests of the state and an export-driven economy, a critical awareness that arises from Korea’s history of colonialism, division, and authoritarian regimes also finds its way into Hallyu cultural production. For Paek, such an awareness contributes to the possibility of new kinds of communality to emerge in Asia.1 While the extent and effects of such a contribution remain to be seen, Hallyu points not only to a changed domestic scene but also to a shift toward an intra-Asian cultural production and consumption that accompanies the breakdown of Cold War borders. Cultural products, for example, now flow much more easily across borders in what used to make up the Asian “free world” (Korea, Japan and Taiwan); these East Asian state formations are no longer related to each other via their separate negotiations with Hollywood and U.S. popular culture.
The success of contemporary South Korean cinema is in part related to increased domestic freedoms of the 1990s, particularly the lifting of a number of censorship restrictions, and the ability of South Korean capital to provide funds for large budget productions never before seen in the history of the South Korean film industry. The kind of editing, special effects, set/costume design, and commercialization that constitutes contemporary South Korean cinema does indeed point to a fusing of Hallyu and Hollywood. At the same time, the contemporary Korean War film displays a certain anxiety regarding both the technics of film and the newly celebrated success of Korean cinema. As we will see below, these films are informed by two overlapping tensions: (1) between the technological and the emotive; (2) between the antiwar genre and a masculinist (and commercial) desire to display action and violence. To be sure, Korean War films demonstrate a need to produce a techno-intimacy, a mass spectatorship. At the same time, they reveal a concern that technics will overtake affect and the image will become nothing more than commodity. It is, in fact, precisely this tension that has brought these films domestic box office success. These films rehearse a simultaneous desire for and rejection of action and violence, all the while casting an anxious glance at the commodification of the image upon which the success of Hallyu popular culture depends. Such a desire has informed over fifty years of literary and filmic texts dealing with the war.
Below I discuss the first blockbuster Korean War film,
The Marines Who Do Not Return(Toraoji annŭn haebyŏng; Yi Man-hŭi, 1963) in order to show how the display of violence and production of affect in recent Korean War films represents a continuing negotiation with the trauma of division and the Cold War order. I then look at the ways in which two recent films dealing with the Korean War— T’aegŭkkiand the more recent but less popular Once Upon a Time in Seoul—offer both memories of the war and the circulation of images and commodities in the 1950s, a period crucial to the formation of the new post-1945 South Korean culture and the South Korean-U.S. relation. The filmic portrayals of this formative period, in turn, indicate the tensions informing the contemporary fusing of Hallyu and Hollywood. Paying particular attention to the relations among technology, affect, violence and commercialization, we will see how these films confront the human-technology relation and the incorporation of South Korea into the global market in ways central not only to the meaning of the Korean War and the history of division that surrounds it but also to the trans-national flow of images and capital that marks Planet Hallyuwood itself.
1Paek Wŏn-dam, East Asia’s Cultural Choice: Hallyu (Tong Asia ŭi munhwa sŏnt’aek: Hallyu)(Seoul: P’ent’agŭraem, 2005), p. 39.
Generic conventions are established and broken down in different ways, often by the introduction of disparate genres within the same film. While we frequently find this practice in contemporary South Korean cinema, such a mixing certainly predates the advent of Hallyu. In his discussion of South Korean “Golden Age” cinema (1950s and 1960s), for example, David Diffrient points out that “Woman’s melodrama and combat action are the main ingredients in most South Korean war films.”2 Diffrient tells us that
Here, we should recall that the melodramatic gesture, which certainly does inform a number of South Korean war films, also works on the ethical and temporal register. Many South Korean war films center on the portrayal of an ethics of familial affect (often associated, in varying degrees, with the nation) threatened both by U.S. hegemony and leftist ideology. Melodramatic chance encounters between friends and family members, moreover, operate on a temporal circularity that enables a set of natural, fated relations and affective reconciliation. In these films, that is, the moral and temporal universe of melodrama stands opposed not only to the U.S. as a constitutive outside but also to what is imagined as the North Korean position—the formulaic, and therefore non-affective, adherence to a class-based revolutionary subject engaged in what he/she misrecognizes as the historical task of liberating the Korean peninsula.
The war film itself can be divided into separate genres: antiwar and propaganda. In his discussion of
All Quiet on the Western Front, Andrew Kelly lists the elem-ents comprising the former:
Jeanine Basinger offers an extensive list of generic requirements of the latter in her analysis of the U.S. World War II film, among them the following: a group of soldiers from different backgrounds; an objective; internal group conflicts; a faceless enemy; the absence of women after opening scenes; a discussion of why the war is legitimate; the appropriation of information and images familiar to the audience, including the use of other genres such as the horror film.5 These taxonomies allow us to see how many South Korean war films combine elements of the antiwar and propaganda film. This combination may very well reveal an ongoing battle of many filmmakers with the anticommunist censor. At the same time, this mixing underscores the importance of the fact that the Korean War has never ended (no peace treaty has been signed and the peninsula remains divided) and that it was at once a civil war and a war between global powers, carried out and largely controlled on the ground by foreign militaries (the U.S., other UN forces, and China). A desire to overcome the continuing trauma of the war, to put an end to it, manifests itself in conflicting ways: assertion of masculinist agency, linked to the ability to engage in legitimate, purposeful acts of violence (a register that contains many of the generic elements of the propaganda film); a critique of violence in general and the meaninglessness of war accompanied by a call for rapprochement and reunification (the antiwar film).
As a genre, moreover, the combat film stages death in a way that summons the spectator as survivor and witness: the film ends and the spectator remains, alive and possessing a memory of the images he/she has just viewed. Combat films thus involve a visual touching, one that often takes the form of memory and trauma, the repetition of the image. Combat films implicate spectators in this trauma even as they often work to seal violence up safely as elsewhere, away from the spectator. One is “touched” by violence insofar as one can re-imagine the image one has seen.
The Marines Who Do Not Return, the biggest budget combat film of its era, stages an early massacre scene that serves to frame the film and its representation of the Korean War. Casting communists as perpetrators, the film occurs as part of a history of trauma and the memories/counter-memories that link representations of post-1945 scenes of violence to the legitimizing/delegitimizing of the South Korean state and the ROK/U.S. relation. The display of the massacred bodies in the film locates the war on both a moral and familial register. The brother of one of the marine squad members has killed the sister of a fellow squad member, and the witness to this event is Yŏng-hŭi, the little girl the marines have saved from the enemy fire that kills her mother. It is here that a new family forms. The marines “adopt” Yŏng-hŭi as their mascot. The ethics surrounding acts of violence and the affective register of the orphan and the family serve as central, shifting sites for legitimizing the ROK and representing the Korean War not only in this film, but much more broadly in South Korea from the early 1950s up to the present, as we will see below in the discussion of T’aegŭkkiand Once Upon a Time in Seoul.6
In Marines, the camera moves through the room of the massacred as if documenting the bodies and bearing witness. But we know, having seen the title of the film, that the marines, or at least the majority of the squad, will not return, will die. The marines, therefore, look upon their own future deaths in this scene. The question becomes how to invest these deaths with meaning. The answer: as surrogate fathers who rescue and nurture Yŏng-hŭi. It is Yŏng-hŭi, moreover, who tells the “story” of the film via voiced-over narration, making her both witness and bearer of memory. Yŏng-hŭi thus prefigures later memories of the Korean War presented from a child’s point of view that we see in the 1970s. If we can assume that Yŏng-hŭi is alive in 1963, the film, moreover, becomes an act of mourning for the dead marines.
T’aegŭkki, as we will see shortly, the film elides U.S. participation in the war (except for a brief camptown bar scene). This elision is matched by the non-visibility of North Koreans, whose faces are never shown (an element of the propaganda film). The U.S. absent, South Korean marines become central agents of a morally justified counter-violence. The final, cataclysmic firefight, in fact, takes place between the marine squad and the Chinese. The dialogue among the marines in this scene is decidedly anti-war, demonstrating respect for all war dead, including the bodies of the Chinese enemy. It is at this moment that the homo-social relation, the marines as brothers in combat and fathers of Yŏng-hŭi, extends itself to the Chinese combatants, who as war dead or as beings-towarddeath, are no longer legitimately targeted as other. Marines, then, stages not so much a one-sided anticommunism as an ambivalence toward the state, violence, and the war that marks Cold War culture in South Korea from the 1950s through contemporary Hallyuwood production. Marinesmakes use of the present participle in its Korean title: the marines are “non-returning.” The marine squad is spectral throughout the film, precisely in being there and not there at the same time, as always in the process of not coming back. Rather than reduce this film, in the end, to an anti-war humanism, we should take into account its multiple registers, particularly its display of a temporality marked by a laying to rest that cannot lay to rest, that cannot inscribe the Korean War as past. Yi Man-hŭi’s film, that is, offers us at least three temporalities: the circularity of melodramatic encounters; the linearity of a newly constituted family organized around Yŏng-hŭi, one that will move forward in time and may need to be defended by recourse to legitimate acts of counter-violence; the time of trauma, the narrative that will not be laid to rest or done away with in favor of a future. This last is the narrative of the “non-returning” living dead.
2David Scott Diffrient, “Han’guk Heroism: Cinematic Spectacle and the Postwar Cultural Politics of Red Muffler,” in Kathleen McHugh and Nancy Abelmann eds, South Korean Golden Age Melodrama: Gender, Genre, and National Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), p. 163. 3Ibid., p. 154. 4Andrew Kelly, “The Greatness and Continuing Significance of All Quiet on the Western Front,” in Robert Eberwein ed., The War Film (New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 2006), p. 23. 5Jeanine Basinger, “The World War II Combat Film: Definition,” in Robert Eberwein ed, The War Film (New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 2006), pp. 38–39. 6As Christina Klein and others have pointed out, adoption is central to Cold War liberal free world culture, the constitution of a multiracial family intersecting with the calls for multiculturalism. See Christina Klein, “Family Ties and Political Obligation: The Discourse of Adoption and the Cold War Commitment to Asia,” in Christian G. Appy ed., Cold War Constructions: The Political Culture of United States Imperialism, 1945–1966 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), pp. 35-66. In U.S. films such as Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller, 1951) the birth of an international family shores up a Cold War masculinity. The relationship between the gruff, cynical Sgt. Zack and the orphaned Korean boy nicknamed “Short Round” (a bullet that fires too early and goes astray) points to the constitution of the inter-national Cold War family. In fact, Short Round is seeking a father, and, it seems, Zack is seeking a son. The quick bond they form allows Short Round to move from “gook” to “South Korean.” The figure of the orphan is also central in War Hunt (Denis Sanders, 1962) and The Young and the Brave (Francis Lyon, 1963).
The Korean War films that have been so important to Hallyu over the past decade play out a tension in genre already set in motion in “Golden Age” films portraying the war. They are at once intensely masculinist while melodramatic. They are also anti-war while allowing for a certain pleasure to be taken in the display of violence and action.
T’aegŭkkiwas a blockbuster in 2004, setting box office records with a viewership of over 11 million. The film still ranks as the number three box office hit of all time in the South Korean domestic market. What is the relation between the dramatic increase in domestic market share and the fusing of Hallyu and Hollywood on the intertexual level of filmic and narrative technique? T’aegŭkki, in fact, shares a narrative structure with Titanic(James Cameron, 1997), the number one film in South Korea in 1998, the year immediately preceding the emergence of South Korean films at the top of the blockbuster list.7 Both films are framed by recovery efforts replete with technological capabilities: the equipment used to find Titanic, the archeological science deployed to recover Korean War dead in T’aegŭkki. In both films, an older narrator appears with a grandchild and proceeds to recover both a story of feeling: romantic love ( Titanic); brotherly love ( T’aegŭkki).
The building of the ship
Titanicpoints to a technological modernity that obscures the human and the personal. In the film, the recovery effort goes about its task improperly, attempting to overcome an earlier crisis brought on by hubris and technology with more advanced techniques. Enter the filmic medium. The film privileges its own array of technics, its special effects, as enabling the recovery of an obscured humanity, affect, and narrative/story. Even as the represented grandeur of the Titanicand the film that accomplishes this reproduction is to be wondered at, the narrating gaze of Rose allows an affective history to trump the mindless, unfeeling technological prowess of the recovery effort that frames the film and the early nineteenth century building of the Titanicitself. The film celebrates its special effects but must at the same time subordinate them to a story of affect that precedes its own making. It is in this way that the film Titanicseeks to erase its own technologies, as a filmic medium that produces affect. The film confers a techno-intimacy upon its spectatorship, which moves beyond the story of the ship to the story of love. The recreation of the disaster story as a love story (a mixing of genres) is not simply a tale of human against machine. It is a recovery of a proper technics, one that will appear only to disappear. The technological becomes a prosthesis that will enable the securing of the human in the face of a traumatic, overwhelming modernity.
Modern warfare is informed by a similar tension between the human and the technological (here, the weapon).8 It should come as no surprise that
T’aegŭkkialso explores the relations among technology, memory, affect, and trauma. Both Titanicand T’aegŭkki, moreover, rehearse in their recovery efforts one of the central components of the motion picture itself, the desire to confer life upon the dead, to put stills into motion.9
Titanicand T’aegŭkkiprivilege the filmic medium over other technologies precisely in its bringing of images, and the past, to life. Titanicconcludes with Rose, seemingly asleep, surrounded by photographs of her past. The film has already put Rose’s affective history in motion, and the film’s spectatorship now shares her memory with her. The filmmaking function, the conferring of life upon the still is transferred to the spectatorship in the final scene. The spectators become image-narrators in their own minds, rehearsing the movement of the images they have just encountered as they gaze upon stillness. It is in this way that the mind of Rose, the image-narrator, moves to the spectator. The filmic medium and its technologies drop out of the picture; the Rose-spectatorship suture forgets the camera. T’aegŭkkialso presents us with memory images emanating from a psychological interiority, here the younger brother Chin-sŏk. The horrors of war and the violence inflicted by modern weaponry are placed on display throughout the film. At the same time, the film takes repeated, seemingly excessive pleasure in the martial prowess of Chin-sŏk’s hyper-masculine older brother, Chin-t’ae. Such a repetition reveals a particular kind of trauma, an attempt to come to terms with the ambivalence of a simultaneous rejection of and desire for action and violence.
Chin-sŏk, image-narrator of
T’aegŭkki, recovers the story of his brother, Chin-t’ae, from his bones. In T’aegŭkki, as in Titanic, the return is to images of death, bodies destroyed by different forms of technology (the ship, weaponry). Filmic medium is subordinated to a pre-existing subject and affective site. Both T’aegŭkkiand Titanicmust elide the ways in which affect is an effect of the film itself, its editing process, its non-diegetic music, and other filmic techniques. To be sure, these films from Hallyu and Hollywood meet in terms of a desire to display the technological prowess of the filmic medium via the wonders of special effects. More than that, they reveal a certain relation to techno-intimacy, the desire to make use of technology to enable intimacy while erasing the ways in which the production of affect is really one “special effect” among others. This desire structures the commercial success of film, which is why it is repeated cross-culturally, one element of a filmic, global modernity, of which Planet Hallyuwood is a part.
The combat film as a genre, in both its antiwar and propaganda inflections, has always been marked by the homosocial. It should come as no surprise that the relationship between Chin-t’ae and Chin-sŏk, the two brothers played by the stars Chang Tong-gŏn and Wŏn Pin in
T’aegŭkki, presents us with a sentimental masculinity. To figure the Korean War as fratricidal struggle, of course, is common in South Korea. We encounter this image, for example, in the massive statue of two brothers embracing outside the Republic of Korea War Museum in Seoul. Here, the older, and larger, brother (South Korea) holds his younger North Korean brother in his arms, forgiving him for his transgression. Rather than figuring each side as brother, however, both the anticommunist South Korean state and “leftist ideology” ( sasang) stand against the two brothers in T’aegŭkki. Chin-t’ae’s obsessional desire to earn the South Korean Medal of Honor solely to secure the discharge of Chin-sŏk disallows the allegorizing of the brothers as rival, competing states belonging to the same ethnonation (the structure of “fratricidal war”).
The opposition of naturalized familial relations to state/ideology is nothing new, as we see, for example, in Yun Hŭng-gil’s well-known literary text “Rainy Spell” (Changma, 1973) and on the screen in its later filmic adaptation (Yu Hyŏng-mok, 1979). In Yun’s work, the association of one of the brothers with the north is largely attributed to his rash personality. In
T’aegŭkki, Chin-t’ae’s move to the north occurs not because of any serious consideration of the revolutionary cause but because he feels betrayed by the hypocrisy and violence of the South Korean state. Chin-t’ae goes north because he thinks his brother has been killed by South Korean rightists, but he quickly turns on the North Korean troops to save his brother on the battlefield. T’aegŭkki, in fact, centers its critique on the South Korean state, providing scenes of rightist massacres, gangland-style conscription (neither of the brothers volunteers for the war), and forced public statements parroting an empty statist anticommunism. Such an explicit critique occurs as a result of the relaxing of censorship laws in 1988, the year of the Seoul Olympics. This critique of the South Korean state, moreover, owes something to the leftist-nationalism of the 1980s and early 1990s minjungmovement.10 The critical stance T’aegŭkkiand other Hallyuwood films take toward the South Korean state and the U.S. bears relation to this movement, even as they distance themselves from it. Unlike the minjungmovement, or films associated with it such as Southern Partisans(Nam-bugun; Chŏng Chi-yŏng, 1990), T’aegŭkkirejects any imagining of alternatives associated with the left or North Korea. Further, the very intensity of Chin-t’ae’s and Chinsŏk’s bond at the expense of all else makes it difficult to allegorize these brothers as ethnonation. T’aegŭkkiis masculinist, but it is not nationalist; fraternal/familial affect is divorced from nation as well as state. This film, like other Hallyuwood productions, is interested not only in a critique of the state but in circulating among spectatorships beyond South Korea’s national borders.
7It was the film Shiri (Swiri; Kang Je-gyu, 1999) that began what would be a string of South Korean films taking over the top spots at the domestic box office. The exception was The Two Towers which narrowly beat Marrying the Mafia (Kamun ŭi yŏnggwang; Chŏng Hŭng-sun) in 2002. 8See Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 2009). 9See Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion Books, 2006). 10See Namhee Lee’s The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).
Once Upon a Time in Seoulreturns not to the Korean War itself but to its immediate aftermath. The film offers a portrayal of the black market in U.S. goods flowing from the new U.S. military bases and the orphaned children mobilized as members of the street gangs who run, and fight over, this market. At stake is the relation between the profit to be made from U.S. commodities and the construction of communality amidst the poverty and destruction of the immediate postwar 1950s. The film’s return to this 1950s scene is a rare one for Planet Hallyuwood, but portrayals of the black market, orphans, and street communities of the 1950s have been a staple of South Korean camptown fiction and film since the 1950s itself.11 Once Upon a Time in Seouldiffers from these earlier texts and films, and follows many other Hallyu films, in its treatment of gangland masculinism, rivalries, and violence. The two young male protagonists, T’ae-ho and Chong-du, work together to siphon off black market profits from the gang they belong to in order to go into business selling a Korean product, rice. The conflict is between their world-views: T’ae-ho insists that their struggle is a matter of survival of the fittest and all must be subordinated to the reality of the market; Chong-du prioritizes the “family” ( sikku) of street urchins the two have formed to aid them in their rice business venture.
Although set in the 1950s, this film is highly aware of South Korea’s subsequent rise in global capitalism beginning in the late 1960s and the contemporary questioning of this history in the post-developmentalist 2000s. At stake, as it always has been for state-led “late developing” economies, is the relation between nation and capital. Unlike
T’aegŭkki, in which all is subordinated to the fraternal relation, Once Upon a Time in Seoulpresents us with a struggle between two unrelated youths and the formation of a self-supporting community of orphans seeking to succeed in their rice business. The plight is that of the ethnonation in Cold War capitalism. Will the commodity further communality? Or will desire for profit take precedence over all else and produce nothing but gangland-style violence and an instrumentalism in all human relations?
The argument between T’ae-ho and Chong-du works itself out in relation to two figures, the young orphan Ki-dong and the young woman Su-nam, one of the street urchins co-opted by the two protagonists. Ki-dong appears one day dragging the corpse of his mother down the dirt road leading to the abandoned home the group has made their own. The group performs a funeral for Ki-dong’s mother; he is then taken in by them and cared for by Su-nam. The latter, who has been dressing as a boy, now appears in women’s clothes for the first time, a “recovery” of her femininity and her motherly instincts. She is subsequently raped by members of a rival gang, and Ki-dong is abducted.
The transformation of the street urchins into a family and T’ae-ho/Chong-du into fathers, as well as rivals for Su-nam’s affections, takes place both in relation to gendered identities and the commodity. That is, the establishing of a proper relation to commodity and profit is linked to a recovery of “natural” gender relations. Both of these concerns inform contemporary Hallyuwood production itself. The market success of Hallyu films is celebrated as emblematic of South Korea’s rise in the world, its new-found agency both economically and culturally. At the same time, the figure of Su-nam, as well as the film’s original Korean title,
Boys Don’t Cry(Sonyŏn ŭn ulji annŭnda), signals the film’s explicit intertextual relation not only with the U.S. film of the same time title but with Hollywood and the screen quota system more generally. Once Upon a Time in Seoul’s portrayal of the effort to control, and move beyond, the 1950s market in U.S. goods is informed by a continuing struggle with Hollywood filmic products.
In this way,
Once Upon a Time in Seoulreturns us to a 1950s scene of markets, profits, and a violent struggle for survival that bears relation to the South Korean developmentalist trajectory in general and the anxieties that mark contemporary Hallyuwood cultural production in particular. Here we encounter the tension between the critique of war and pleasure-producing display of violence in a film like T’aegŭkkiworked out in the portrayal of the relation between the impoverishing effects of war and the market. The tension is between a call for communality and the constant threat to this communality posed from within by the internal conflicts arising from the profit motive and without by the U.S. Once Upon a Time in Seoulends with a rather abrupt cut to the bustle of everyday people in a street market. The reconstituted family of orphans working together to survive extends itself to the large crowd. If there is a nostalgia in the film it is here, in the street market where strangers come together and interact with independent sellers. The film thus displays a series of fights and confrontations meant to be consumed by a transnational spectatorship familiar with the gangster film only to conclude with a turn to a site where profit seems subordinated to mutually beneficial, non-violent exchange.
To be sure, the Hallyu phenomenon must be understood in the context of the emergence of neoliberalism in the 1990s and early 2000s. We should, however, also take into consideration the longer history of representations, filmic and literary, of which Hallyu is a part.
Taegukgiand other Hallyuwood Korean War films such as Joint Security Area(Kongdong Kyŏngbi kuyŏk; Pak Ch’an-uk, 2000), and Welcome to Tongmakkol(Welk’ŏm t’u Tongmakkol; Pak Kwang-hyŏn, 2005) do not herald a break from previous literary and filmic portrayals of the Korean War. They draw selectively from this history of representations. In many ways South Korean war films return to 1950s and 1960s “Golden Age” figurings of the war. A film such as Joint Security Area, for example, marks less of a break from earlier representations of the north/south confrontation than an intertexual relation with Yi Ho-ch’ŏl’s 1961 novella, Panmunjom(Panmunjŏm). Written immediately prior to Park Chung Hee’s (Pak Chŏng-hŭi) May 1961 military takeover, Yi’s text, as the title implies, takes place in the Joint Security Area. Yi’s work juxtaposes the recovery of an inner core of intimacy/authenticity to an outer narrative of inauthentic discourse associated with “ideology” and the academic/anthropological gaze (represented in the text by the insertion of a lengthy encyclopedia entry on Panmunjom). The recovery of this intimacy is closely associated with the relocation of a South Korean man and North Korean woman reporter away from the artificiality of truce talks and ideological arguments and to the natural surroundings of Panmunjom. For its part, Joint Security Areaseeks to overcome north/south ideological bifurcation via homosocial bonding and regression to childhood. We thus have a structure resembling T’aegŭkki: an authentic narrative (that of the two brothers in T’aegŭkki, the two soldiers in Joint Security Area) and an attempt from the outside associated with technology/objectivity that fails to understand this intimate core (the recovery effort of the state bureaucracy in T’aegŭkki, the anthropological, investigative gaze of the biracial returnee, Major Sophie Jean in Joint Security Area).12 Like Yi’s Panmunjom, both Joint Security Areaand T’aegŭkkimanufacture an intimacy that moves beyond the attempt to verbally or visually describe it. It is something to be felt.13
We have seen how Hallyu is transnational, part of a history of cross-cultural relations that constitutes an intertextuality that extends beyond South Korea’s borders. Planet Hallyuwood as a fusing of Hallyu and Hollywood represents a cross-cultural circulation of images and spectatorships that interrupts the possibility of a linear, unfolding history of national cinema. Instead, its inter-textual movement occurs as part of a negotiation of images distributed throughout the globe. To go to the multiplex in South Korea is to enter a site, every time, where both Hallyu and Hollywood appear simultaneously on different screens. Certainly Planet Hallyuwood is situated in relation to contemporary transnational capital, culture, and spectatorships. It is also historical on at least two levels. Planet Hallyuwood engages in different and changing ways with a history of images, texts, and techniques that have always circulated across borders. At the same time, both in terms of production and domestic box office popularity, Planet Hallyuwood’s articulations of the Korean War film demonstrate how the affective histories of the Cold War continue to inform the contemporary scene in divided Korea.
11As we see, for example, in Sin Sang-ok’s early A Flower in Hell (Chiokhwa, 1958) and Song Pyŏng-su’s short story “Shorty Kim” (Shori K’im, 1957). The figure of the orphan and street communities in the 1950s was also central to the works of prominent 1950s writers such as Son Ch’ang-sŏp. 12Adrien Gombeaud locates Major Sophie Jean at the center of the film. See his “Kongdong Kongbi Guyok/Joint Security Area,” in Justin Bower ed, The Cinema of Japan and Korea (London and New York: Wallflower, 2004), p. 240. As Kyung Hyun Kim points out, Joint Security Area can be seen as a “male melodrama.” See Kim’s The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004), p. 266. We thus encounter a generic mixing that extends from the early South Korean war films through Hallyu. 13In Panmunjom, Yi locates a unificatory site in a prelapsarian rural communality that opposes not only Cold War ideological bifurcation but the modern itself. Such a rejection of the modern and recovery of a tranhistorical utopia also stands at the center of Welcome to Tongmakkol. This film presents us with a village that never entered modernity, let alone an awareness of the Korean War raging around it. The film also rejects the commodity culture of the south and the technology of war that ends up targeting the village of Tongmakkol. Once they make their way to Tongmakkol, soldiers from the north, the south, and one from the U.S. must unlearn the modern and enter into the magical but real fantasy space of the villagers. This fantasy space stands outside the technics that makes it possible (the film itself) while also rejecting the targeting function of war and its scopic regime. The warring moderns are in a sense adopted by the community of this transhistorical space, which must be defended. Indeed, it is worthy of martyrdom, as we see in the deaths of the Korean soldiers protecting it from the U.S.-led attack at the close of the film.
[Figure 1.1] Chin-s？k and his granddaughter look at the remains of Chin-t’ae (Showbox Entertainment, Kang Je-kyu Film Company Ltd. et al., 2004)
[Figure 1.2] The closing street market scene in Once Upon a Time in Seoul (MK Pictures, 2008)