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Residual Selves: Trauma and Forgetting in Park Chan-wook's Oldboy


This article situates Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (2003) in the wake of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) crisis in South Korea and argues that the film's particular emphasis on forgetting signals a turn away both from traditional, Freudian theorizations of trauma and from the deployment of these models as a primary means of conceptualizing modern Korean history. The article reads the film's protagonist, O Dae-su, as an embodiment of the anxieties and vexations of the salary men working for the chaebôls at a time of economic collapse. The salary man is a pivotal figure not only because he figures financial hardship but also, and more importantly, because he indexes a profound ideological crisis in which the sustaining fictions of the chaebôl, often referred to as "Confucian capitalism," reveal themselves as always already unraveled. Because of the nationalist orientation of South Korean corporate enterprise, this unraveling has broader consequences for the national imaginary. The article thus draws a parallel between the film's residual selves and Derridean ghosts as discussed in the Specters of Marx (1994), which are less the expressions of a repressed past returning and more the disembodied embodiments of a failed inheritance and disjointed temporality. The discontinuity between traditional past and modernized present was once obscured by the fantasy of corporate paternalism; and when this discontinuity is exposed, a disconcerting vacuum opens up, leaving the present troubling and illegible.

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