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  • Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon-ho

This article explores how Korean director Bong Joon-ho appropriates and reworks Hollywood genre conventions in his films Memories of Murder and The Host, and uses them as tools to explore Korea’s experience of dictatorship and its vexed relationship with the United States.

A small-town detective squats beside a covered drainage ditch, angling for a better look at the corpse inside. Soon he will find more bodies and realize he is on the trail of a serial murderer. A monster leaps out of a river, rampages through a crowded park, and snatches up a schoolgirl before jumping back into the water. The government pursues the creature ineffectually and eventually a ragtag group of highly motivated individuals succeeds in bringing it down.

The actions and characters in these movie scenes and their polished visual style would be instantly familiar to any U.S. filmgoer, as would be the emotions they generate in the viewer. Yet the faces and the dialogue and the setting would not: all are Korean. How should we understand the simultaneous familiarity and foreignness of these movies? Why should an American studies scholar care about Korean cinema?

Andrew Higson, in an article published in 1989, challenged scholars to rethink the concept of national cinemas. Instead of prioritizing production, which values films as products of national industries, or textuality, which reads them as expressing distinctive national cultures, he urged scholars to focus on consumption. National cinemas, he argued, should be defined in relation to a country’s entire film culture, which includes the full range of films that are in circulation, both foreign and domestic, and the meanings that viewers make out of them. This shift in emphasis from production to consumption has far-ranging implications, since Hollywood movies are, as Higson notes, “an integral and naturalized part of the national culture, or the popular imagination, of most countries in which cinema is an established entertainment form.”1 In the study of Asian national cinemas, Hollywood is often ignored as irrelevant or treated simplistically as a hegemonic threat. Higson invites us to acknowledge the presence of Hollywood within virtually every national [End Page 871] cinema and to imagine a more complex relationship between imported and locally made films.

Higson offers American studies scholars a model for thinking about forms of culture that have traditionally existed beyond the legitimate boundaries of our field—that is, forms of culture that are produced outside the United States by non-Americans, that may never circulate within the United States, and that cannot be defined as American in any conventional way. A willingness to take up such “foreign” texts can significantly advance American studies’ transnational turn. American studies has often treated the world outside the United States as a material and representational field upon which American agents act. Yet to focus only on the production and export of U.S. culture, and to ignore how people outside the United States have engaged with it, is to ignore half the story. As Shelley Fisher Fishkin has suggested, the time has come for our field to treat non-American people as active agents who engage U.S. culture on their own terms and use it to pursue their own agendas. How have filmmakers in other industries made use of the Hollywood films that are an integral part of their nation’s film culture? What is the cultural work that these Hollywood-inflected films perform within their own social and political contexts?2

To answer these questions I will focus on two movies that exemplify the South Korean film industry’s critical engagement with the United States and its premier culture industry: Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006).3 I choose the South Korean film industry because it is, after Hollywood, perhaps the most important in the world today. Over the last decade it has engineered an unparalleled commercial resurgence, producing a steady stream of popular and critically acclaimed films that have overturned Hollywood’s decades-long domination of Korea’s screens. As a result, Korea has become a beacon for film industry executives from around the world who are eager to reduce Hollywood’s economic presence in their own markets. Bong Joon-ho’s films have played a vital role in the industry’s rebirth: Memories of Murder out-earned all Hollywood imports in 2003 except the final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, while The Host is the highest-grossing movie ever released in Korea, foreign or domestic, and was seen by more than a quarter of the country’s population.4

Bong’s films embody an ambivalent relationship to Hollywood, and they bear the marks of the equally ambivalent relationship between South Korea and the United States.5 Speaking of his generation of filmmakers who grew up watching Hollywood movies, Bong has said, “It’s like you want to be influenced, [End Page 872] but you don’t want to be overwhelmed.”6 I want to take this ambivalent relationship as my subject matter and explore how it finds expression in the form and content of Bong’s films. My focus is on Bong’s use of Hollywood genres. In his pair of blockbusters Bong stakes a claim to two genres strongly identified with America: the crime film and the monster movie. Some Korean film critics have condemned such borrowings on the grounds of cultural authenticity, deriding the local industry as “Copywood” and characterizing its blockbusters as “Hollywood movies featuring Korean faces and Korean food for the purpose of localization, barely a step above dubbing or inserting subtitles.”7 But Bong does not simply mimic Hollywood. Rather, he appropriates and reworks genre conventions, using them as a framework for exploring and critiquing South Korean social and political issues. Bong reconfigures Hollywood’s conventions so that they become tools for grappling with Korean questions. Bong thus occupies a middle ground in his relationship with Hollywood, neither blindly emulating its conventions for the sake of profit nor wholly rejecting them in favor of some notion of cultural authenticity or art. He engages Hollywood and uses it for his own aesthetic, critical, and commercial purposes. In doing so, Bong deploys one of the key strategies that have driven the commercial resurgence of the Korean film industry as a whole.8 He also reveals himself heir to the culturally and stylistically hybrid films of Korea’s Golden Age cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. In noticing the similarities between Bong’s films and these earlier masterpieces of Korean filmmaking, we can see how appropriating from Hollywood and other national cinemas has long been a feature of “authentic” commercial Korean cinema.9

By looking at Bong’s reworking of Hollywood genres, I want to shift the angle of vision from which American studies scholars typically view America’s role in globalization: to see Hollywood as an object rather than an agent of globalization, a reservoir of symbolic resources from which Korean filmmakers draw as they navigate their way through their own globalized cultural economy.

Part of the value of Bong’s films for American studies scholars is that they allow us to appreciate genre as a useful category of transnational analysis.10 Historically, genre films have driven global cinematic flows. Their formulaic nature makes them easy to export, requiring of viewers no deep familiarity with a foreign culture but only the more easily acquired mastery of a set of generic conventions. Once absorbed into a new film culture, these “Lego pieces” (as Jeanine Basinger calls the recurring bits of story, setting, and character that constitute any given genre) are combined by local filmmakers in new ways [End Page 873] to carry new meanings.11 Genres’ structural balance of repetition and variation, rigidity and flexibility, familiarity and innovation, thus make them ideal candidates for transnational circulation.

Genre serves as a specific cultural space in which we can see the transnational dynamics of circulation, appropriation, and indigenization at work. Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar suggest that we think about the power relations of global cinematic flows through the spatial metaphor of a “larger arena connecting differences,” in which filmmakers exert their agency not through simple resistance to Hollywood, but through varied and often “ambivalent” forms of “exchange,” “negotiation,” and “contested transaction” with Hollywood.12 I propose that we view genre as just such an arena. In Bong’s case, the transaction with Hollywood consists of assembling the “Lego pieces” of the crime film and the monster movie in new ways that both signify his films’ kinship with an established body of Hollywood films and accommodate the specific Korean realities that are their ultimate subject matter. He uses global Hollywood’s language of genre to tell uniquely Korean stories. In doing so, Bong’s films reveal the persistence of the national, and even its reinvigoration, not only amid the global but, more importantly, through the mechanisms of the global.

Ambivalent Relations

Ambivalent is an apt term to describe South Korea’s relationship with the United States. The two countries have been bound together for the past half-century through a network of political, economic, and military ties in a relationship that its supporters characterize as a close alliance and its critics as neocolonial. The United States has been vital to the creation and preservation of the Republic of Korea. The United States divided the Korean peninsula into a communist North and a capitalist South at the end of World War II (1945), occupied South Korea militarily (1945–1948), facilitated the return of Syngman Rhee and endorsed his election as the first president of the Republic of Korea (1948), and waged the Korean War on South Korea’s behalf (1950–1953). In the wake of the war (and continuing into the present) the United States stationed tens of thousands of soldiers on scores of bases throughout the country, as South Korea became a lynchpin in the cold war policy of containment. The United States also poured in hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid and politically supported a series of authoritarian military regimes that ruled the country from the 1960s through the early [End Page 874] 1990s. The U.S. military presence, by promising protection from North Korean attack and thus ensuring a safe climate for investment, proved vital to Korea’s extraordinary economic growth. From the 1960s through the 1990s, South Korea’s government pursued policies of extremely rapid, state-driven economic development that transformed the country, in the space of a few decades, from an impoverished and largely agricultural society into a wealthy industrial one. This experience of “compressed” modernization delivered a high standard of living to many Koreans, but also exacted tremendous social and psychological costs as changes that, in other countries, took place over a century were, in Korea, condensed into a single generation.13

Although official ties have remained remarkably secure, popular opinion toward the United States has fluctuated widely. While most Koreans felt gratitude for its military and economic support through the 1970s, anger toward the United States for supporting the authoritarian military regime of Chun Doo Hwan (1980–1988) became a key feature of the pro-democracy movement that emerged in the 1980s. Anti-American sentiment became more widespread in the 1990s during the transition to civilian democracy (1988–1997), as Washington pushed for neoliberal economic reforms that many Koreans saw as benefiting the United States more than Korea. Suddenly, ordinary Koreans, and not just radical students, began to question the terms of their relationship with the United States. Korean ambivalence can be seen today in the mixed responses to the U.S. plan to reduce its military presence in Korea and to the 2007 Free Trade Agreement, with divergent attitudes shaped by both political affiliation and economic class. In the end, the close relationship between the two countries has produced among Koreans both a pervasive orientation toward the United States in economic and cultural matters, and a deep resentment of the fundamentally unequal terms of that relationship.14

The modern South Korean film industry developed in the shadow of this larger relationship. From the end of World War II through the aftermath of the Korean War, Korean filmmakers struggled to develop a viable commercial industry, often borrowing equipment from the U.S. military government; some of the earliest features, such as Viva Freedom! (1946) and The Night Before Independence Day (1948), were sponsored by the U.S. military government.15 In the mid-1950s the industry found its feet and began turning out a steady supply of high quality, sophisticated films, a boom that lasted through the late 1960s and became known as the Golden Age. Restrictive film policies gradually hobbled the industry, however, and by the 1970s it had entered a steep [End Page 875] decline. The spread of television led to drastic drops in movie attendance rates, and strict censorship kept controversial ideas off the screen. In addition, trade barriers and screen quotas designed to protect the industry from Hollywood did not really work: the few Hollywood films that were imported attracted the lion’s share of viewers, while Korean producers churned out a steady supply of low-quality films to satisfy the screen quotas and earn a license to distribute the more lucrative imports. In 1987, Seoul, under intense pressure from Washington, lifted its ban on the direct distribution of Hollywood films. As Hollywood films flooded the Korean market, the market share of Korean films, already a slim 27 percent in 1987, plummeted to a mere 16 percent in 1993, and the industry neared collapse. At the same time, however, changes in the regulation of the film industry and the transition to democracy fostered the emergence of a New Wave movement. Embracing a realist and often anticommercial and anti-Hollywood aesthetic, directors from the late-1980s through mid-1990s began making films that grappled with contemporary social and political issues. While the market share for local films slowly edged up, few of these films challenged Hollywood’s domination.16

The Asian financial crisis of 1997 transformed the film industry again, ushering in changes that led to its recovery and the current boom. Sources of financing changed as more adventurous finance capitalists replaced corporate chaebol (large, family controlled business conglomerates), production and marketing budgets rose, a national distribution system took shape, and multiplexing expanded the total number of screens. The democratic political climate stimulated film production and the government encouraged the industry’s growth. In addition, a new generation of directors and screenwriters—who grew up watching Hollywood films and were often educated in the West—took over the reins of the industry and began trying out fresh ideas.17 In 1999 local films took four of the top ten box office slots and by 2006 the industry claimed a domestic market share of 60 percent, one of the highest such figures in the world. It turns out that domination by Hollywood was one stage in the film industry’s process of globalization, and not the end point.

Bong’s film education was shaped by this ambivalent relationship to both the United States and Hollywood. Born in 1969, Bong grew up in Seoul during the 1970s and 1980s as an enthusiastic consumer of Hollywood films and a fan of directors such as William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg, Sam Peckinpah, and Francis Ford Coppola, postclassical filmmakers who reinvented Hollywood genres to address the grim realities of 1970s America. Bong did not see these films in theaters but, in a classic example of the interdependence of [End Page 876] military and cultural globalization, on the Armed Forces Korea Network, the U.S. military’s TV channel.18 Bong attended Yonsei University during the late 1980s as the pro-democracy movement was peaking; he majored in sociology, a department reputedly full of student activists.19 While his colleagues were engaging in violent street protests against the military government and its supporters in Washington, Bong was discovering Asian cinema. Nurtured by the radical political environment, he developed a taste for the modernist aesthetics of Taiwanese directors Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, the social satires of Japanese director Shohei Imamura, and the psychologically inflected genre films of Korean director Kim Ki-young.20

After graduating from the Korean Academy of Film Arts, Bong entered the film industry just as it was beginning to take off. He made his directorial debut with Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), and entered into the first rank of Korean directors with the success of Memories of Murder and The Host. In a public manifestation of his ambivalent attitude toward Hollywood, Bong has used his status within the industry to contest Korea’s relationship with the United States, staging public protests against the 2007 Free Trade Agreement that forced Korea to halve its screen quota requiring theaters to show local films at least 146 days a year. Bong, like most Korean filmmakers, regarded the quota as a key factor in the industry’s revival and a powerful symbol of its right to defend itself against Hollywood; Washington and Hollywood, in turn, saw it as an unfair trade barrier and had been pressuring Seoul to abolish it for years.

Such David-versus-Goliath protests are themselves expressions of South Korea’s ambivalent relationship with the United States and the forces of modernization, capitalism, and globalization that it represents. As Jin-kyung Lee has noted, modern articulations of Korean nationalism often depend upon the United States as an antagonistic secondary term, with national identity constructed via the “continual shoring up of the sense of victimhood by Japanese colonialism and U.S. neocoloniality.” This aura of victimhood provides a sense of emotional continuity to a country that has experienced the traumatic ruptures of colonialism, civil war, foreign occupation, and national division. At the same time, however, it obscures what Lee calls South Korea’s “new position in the present global order” as a capitalist “subempire” in its own right, as manifested by its exploitation of cheap labor in Southeast Asia and Mexico and of immigrant workers at home.21 Bong’s nationalist protest against the trade pact with Washington thus embodies a relationship of conceptual dependence on the United States at least as profound as the material one it critiques. [End Page 877]

Memories of Murder

“I have a real love and hate feeling toward American genre movies,” says Bong.22 This feeling is apparent throughout Memories of Murder. The film is based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, an unsolved case in which ten women in the village of Hwaseong were raped and killed in the late 1980s, during the darkest years of Chun Doo Hwan’s military dictatorship. The movie follows the two main investigators, one a likeable but bumbling local detective named Park (played by Song Kang-ho) and the other a cooler, more professional investigator from Seoul named Seo (played by Kim Sangkyung).

Bong modeled his film on the template of the Hollywood crime film and the end result is in many ways, according to the director, an “American-style genre” film.23 Memories conforms to many of the narrative conventions of the police procedural subgenre, betraying a particular kinship with such antiheroic variants as William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) and the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996).24 As in countless postclassical Hollywood crime films, we follow the detectives as they physically abuse suspects, tail and lose their prime suspect, unsuccessfully stake out a potential crime scene, perform the good cop–bad cop routine, and eat cheap food, drink too much, and take out their frustrations on each other. The film follows postclassical Hollywood conventions in its form as well as its content. It has high production values (realistic acting style, tight script, polished visuals) and adheres to similar conventions of cinematography, editing, and pacing. Like many of the recent Korean blockbusters, Memories looks very much like a Hollywood film (figure 1).

The idea that Koreans should emulate things American makes an appearance within the narrative itself. The two detectives embody very different styles of police work. The local detective, Park, identifies himself with instinct, custom, and tradition, claiming that he can identify a criminal by looking in his eyes and consulting a shaman when they run out of leads. Detective Seo from Seoul, in contrast, presents himself as a modern and rational thinker, repeatedly asserting “documents never lie” and mining the existing evidence for fresh leads. This difference in detecting methods gradually takes on national shadings. Late one night in a bar, Park insists that his method of police work is the authentic Korean one, grounded as it is in “folk wisdom.” He identifies his method with the national landscape and his own body: because “our land’s the size of my dick,” he claims, “Korean” detectives like himself [End Page 878]

Figure 1. Memories of Murder (2003) follows many of the visual and narrative conventions of Hollywood’s postclassical police procedural.
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Figure 1.

Memories of Murder (2003) follows many of the visual and narrative conventions of Hollywood’s postclassical police procedural.

can investigate crime the old-fashioned way, “with their feet.” He taunts Seo for his more scientific method, accusing him of “analyzing things” like the “FBI” and sneering that “brainy geeks like you can go the hell to America.” Despite the nationalist appeal of the accusation, the film sides with Seo in this conflict, poking fun at Park’s “Korean” knowledge and validating Seo’s “American” skills as superior: Park, while likable, is incompetent and corrupt, and Seo alone makes progress toward solving the crime.

The end of the film calls this hierarchy into question, however, as Seo’s “American” methods ultimately prove no more successful than Park’s “Korean” ones in solving the case. When they discover some physical evidence on one of the victims, the detectives must send it to the United States for DNA testing, there being no lab in all of Korea that can perform such a sophisticated test—an episode that captures in microcosm the Korea-U.S. relationship of inequality and obligation and links it directly to the serial murder. During the wait for the results, much is made of the detectives’ conviction that science—and the United States—will solve their case for them. But when the test results come back—the ultimate “document” that Seo has such faith in—they prove inconclusive. The United States, it turns out, cannot help them solve their crime.

The detectives’ disappointment with the United States within the narrative is paralleled by Bong’s own “disappointment” with Hollywood genre [End Page 879] conventions. “I’ve watched a lot of American genre films, and enjoyed them greatly,” says Bong. “At the same time, I feel that the conventions have been repeated to the point where they get extremely tired.”25 So Bong periodically challenges those conventions: “I’ll follow the genre conventions for a while, then I want to break out and turn them upside-down. That’s where the very Korean elements come in.”26 Bong suggests here that there are limits to what he can say with Hollywood’s language and that he can’t rely on it exclusively to tell his Korean story. The film’s departures from genre conventions take a variety of forms, as Bong rearranges the Lego pieces of the police procedural to make space for “Korean reality.”27 Sometimes these departures appear as generic expectations denied, as when the killer remains unknown at the end, as he was in reality, or when rural people unfamiliar with the legal requirements of evidence accidentally corrupt crime scenes. At other times they involve the “collision,” as Bong calls it, of multiple genres.28 Slapstick erupts when a detective tumbles down an embankment into a crime scene, while a gentler (but more politically pointed) comedy appears when the detectives take a break from abusing a physically and mentally handicapped (and obviously innocent) suspect so that all three can eat dinner together and watch “Inspector Chief,” a popular police procedural TV show from the 1980s. Through scenes like this, Korean historical and cultural specificities slowly bleed into and suffuse the imported generic framework. “The clash between life and fantasy, elements of Korean reality versus traits of a genre movie,” says Bong, “these are the fundamental characters I pursue in my work.”29 This combination of conforming to and pushing against Hollywood conventions creates a sense of “schizophrenia” that Bong identifies as his stylistic signature—and which we can read as a cultural expression of Korea’s half-respectful, half-resentful attitude toward the United States.30

More subtly, Bong departs from the Hollywood model by adopting certain stylistic features of the European-derived art film. We can see this in the opening scene, which conforms to genre conventions at the level of narrative—it shows Park, in the presence of a child, discovering the first victim in a covered rural drainage ditch—but which does something different at the level of cinematic form. The pace is slow, the shots are leisurely, and the scene is composed around a gorgeous landscape that juxtaposes glowing yellow fields of ripe rice with a clear blue sky. Similar shots of fields—sometimes lushly green and oceanic as the breeze blows across, other times sere and brown—recur throughout the film, as do dramatic shots of sky, lake, and mountains. In these highly aestheticized shots, the colors are vibrant and the compositions [End Page 880] elegant, and they often last several beats longer than one expects in order to give the viewer time to appreciate their beauty. These shots have their kin not in Hollywood genre movies, but in the films of Im Kwon-taek, the so-called father of Korean national cinema, and a director who embraced the narrative and stylistic conventions of Italian neorealism and the European art film more generally.31 Im’s Sopyonje (1993) and Chihwaseon (2002) are cultural nationalist films that promote an organic sense of Korean identity via scenes that marry the Korean landscape to distinctly Korean forms of culture. In Sopyonje’s most famous scene, a family of itinerant pansori singers—doomed holdouts against the rising tide of Westernized popular music—sings the iconic folk song “Arirang” while walking alongside an arid field in an extended five-minute-long shot. In Chihwaseon, a stubbornly Korean painter who rejects Japanese colonial authority finds inspiration for his art in lakes, fields, and flocks of birds. The landscape shots in Memories of Murder similarly evoke the nation as the foundation on which this imported-genre film is being erected. And while these scenes don’t evoke han, the quintessentially Korean emotion of suppressed rage and sorrow so central to Im’s films, they do suggest a sense of what has been lost through compressed modernization. Memories of Murder famously set a record for the number of locations used during production because it proved so difficult, in highly industrialized Korea, to re-create the unspoiled landscapes that were still common in the 1980s.32 By embedding the first victim’s body within a field of rice—Korea’s most symbolic foodstuff—Bong suggests to the viewer that these crimes are metaphorically embedded in the Korean nation, that this will be a national story and not just a simple entertainment.

Bong’s ambivalence toward Hollywood is not a wholesale rejection, however, and stretching genre conventions is not the same as dispensing with them. In the end, the film grapples most fully with its Korean realities through a convention that is central to the American crime film: the narrative structured around a surface crime and a deep crime. Carlo Rotella, in his analysis of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (a film Bong probably watched on U.S. military TV), argues that the American crime story is organized around a logic of parallel crimes. A surface crime launches the story and motivates the action; it is a narrative device that allows the text to explore a set of characters and the social world they inhabit. The process of investigating the surface crime often reveals a deep crime, which, unlike the former, is a pervasive wrongdoing that lies beneath the surface of everyday life. Where the surface crime is a deviant act committed by an individual, the deep crime tends to [End Page 881] be structural and based on some entrenched imbalance of power, the exercise of which leads, according to Rotella, to an “order of violence more diffuse than murder or robbery.”33

In Memories of Murder the surface crime—the serial murders—gives way to a deep crime that is revealed through a series of unobtrusive scenes that only gradually accrue meaning: the local detective planting evidence and looking on as his underling beats a suspect, his boot carefully covered with a shower cap so as to minimize the visible damage; a violent street riot in which this same underling stomps on a civilian protestor; news media encamped outside the police station and demanding the release of a suspect whom they charge is being illegally held; and schoolgirls in white sweatsuits practicing their response to a simulated gas attack (figure 2). Slowly the viewer realizes that the true subject of the film is not the serial murders and the detectives’ investigation, but rather daily life in the late 1980s—that is, during the darkest years of Korea’s military dictatorship. The deep crimes revealed during the course of investigating the surface crime include the corruption and abuse of police power, the casual disregard of civil rights, and the government-stimulated fear of North Korea as a means to keep the civilian population in check. These distinctly Korean deep crimes often seep into otherwise conventional genre scenes, as when detective Seo uses a flashlight in his office one night because a civil defense blackout drill is under way. Here, the deep crime literally forms the background to the surface crime: as Seo pores over the case files in a series of generically familiar close-ups, the air-raid siren and a droning voice demanding all lights be extinguished can be heard in the background. This visual darkness demands a Korea-specific, rather than genre-based, interpretation: according to Bong, “the most important part of this movie is the ‘blackout’ motif,” because it captures the “artificial darkness” that the Chun regime cast over all of Korean life in this period.34 The revelations of deep crime and Korean specificity eventually take over the movie and transform it into something more than just a Hollywood movie with Korean faces. We can see how Bong’s particular realignments of the police procedural’s Lego pieces carry a load of local meaning: the comic mayhem that results when the police try to reenact a murder for the press serves not just to generate laughs but to capture something crucial about life under dictatorship. The detectives fail to solve the crime, according to Bong, not because “the murderer possess[ed] some genius charisma, in the way that many American genre movies portray serial killers.” Rather, they fail because “in Korea there was an incompetence and crudeness in the very ideals of the 1980s.”35 Bong’s bumbling policemen, [End Page 882] who seem to be always slipping on invisible banana peels, serve to signal that moral crudeness of dictatorship.

A scene about halfway through the film fully reveals the true nature of the deep crime. The detectives, having discovered a clue that suggests the next murder will take place that very night, call the local military garrison to send troops right away. But the garrison refuses: not one soldier is available, the police chief reports, because they all “went to suppress a demonstration” in a nearby town. At this instant the surface crime and the deep crime intersect. In trying to solve the murders, the detectives reveal that the government is so busy repressing the democratic aspirations of its own people that it can not protect them from a serial killer. Suddenly the serial murders evaporate in significance, like the MacGuffin in a Hitchcock film, and simultaneously become metaphors for the pervasive oppression of Koreans by their own government. This is the deep crime that, like the body in the drainage ditch in the opening scene, is embedded within the film’s national landscape.

The film’s epilogue, set in 2003, extends this logic of deep crime even further. The scene opens with Park, now retired from the police force, having breakfast with his wife and two adolescent children in a well-appointed Western-style home. Sitting at a handsome dining room table and surrounded by orange juice and milk bottles, a toaster, a refrigerator, and a matching leather living room set, Park harasses his son about playing computer games. The next shot shows him in the back of a van, surrounded by boxes of “Green Power Juice Extractors” (the lettering is in English) and talking on a cell phone as he makes the rounds for his new job selling consumer appliances. Suddenly he realizes he is near the site where he found the first body some twenty years before. In a modified reprise of the opening scene, Park walks down the lane, squats to peer inside the now empty drainage ditch, and chats with a child who happens to walk by. But where the boy in the opening scene spoke only nonsense, the little girl here reports that she has recently seen a man peering into the drainage ditch in the exact same manner; when she asked why, he told her that he “remembered doing something here long ago.” Park, stunned and ever the detective, asks what the man looked like. The girl pauses and then, in the film’s last line of dialogue, says that his face was “ordinary.” At this, the scene cuts to a close-up of Park’s haunted face as he turns and looks directly into the camera. The shot holds for a moment, then fades to black, and the movie ends.

What exactly is this scene telling us? Why do we need to see Park at home and at work before he gets to the crime scene? I suspect it is to show what happened [End Page 883]

Figure 2. Memories of Murder (2003) reveals the deep crime of military dictatorship via a scene of schoolgirls performing a civil defense drill.
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Figure 2.

Memories of Murder (2003) reveals the deep crime of military dictatorship via a scene of schoolgirls performing a civil defense drill.

in the wake of—and, crucially, as a result of—Korea’s decades of military dictatorship. In the late 1980s Park was a paunchy, grungy guy who lived in an apartment with little more than a TV and a futon on the floor and did the state’s dirty work. By 2003 he has become middle class, technologically sophisticated, and Westernized. He is a private citizen with a white-collar job and a materially comfortable life. Park’s transformation suggests that as much as the dictatorships of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s repressed the South Korean people, they also engineered tremendous economic growth that transformed South Korea into a modern, industrial society with a strong middle class and a high standard of living. So when in the final shots of the film Park peers into the drainage ditch in a way that suggests peering into the nation’s recent past, and the child implies that the killer was an “ordinary” man, Bong seems to be suggesting a further level of deep crime. All Koreans are in some sense responsible for what happened during the years of dictatorship. “Ordinary” people were complicit in the dictatorship, either because they, like Park, served the state in some way, or more diffusely, because they tolerated the dictatorship in order to reap the benefits of economic growth that the state made possible. These final shots and lines of dialogue suggest a kind of collective responsibility for what happened during Korea’s authoritarian years.

To return to my opening question, what cultural work is Memories of Murder doing with the Hollywood “Lego pieces” that it appropriates and indigenizes? I want to suggest that we see the film as part of the ongoing process of airing the [End Page 884] traumas of Korea’s twentieth-century history that began after the transition to civilian democracy in the early 1990s and that culminated in the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2005.36 It is a process that involves narrating the secret histories and deep crimes of violence, repression, and betrayal from the Korean War through the decades of military dictatorship. The hybridity that we see in Memories of Murder—the appropriation of visual and narrative conventions of both Hollywood and the art film in order to reveal and explore Korea’s secret histories—is common to many of the blockbuster films that have driven the Korean film industry’s resurgence. Although on the surface these films look very much like Hollywood genre films, their deeper thematic content is focused on uniquely Korean issues that Hollywood does not even know exist: the ongoing anxiety about North Koreans paired with an unprecedented acknowledgment of their humanity, in the spy thriller Shiri (1999); the intense desire for North-South reconciliation, in the political thriller Joint Security Area (2000); the secret history of South Korea’s brutal creation and later abandonment of a political assassination team, in the action film Silmido (2003); and the fratricidal dimensions of the Korean War, in the combat film Taegukgi (2004). In all these films, imported Hollywood genre conventions, narratives, and visual styles are put in the service of narrating Korean national histories.

The Host

Bong’s next film, The Host, tells the story of a large mutant creature that emerges from the Han River in downtown Seoul, rampages through a crowded park, and leaps back into the river with a schoolgirl clutched in its prehensile tail. Like Memories of Murder it is a genre film, and it similarly uses generic conventions to grapple with contemporary Korean social and political realities. The monster, a product of an environmental mishap at a U.S. military base, invites an easy reading as a figure for the United States, but as the film develops, a more complex picture emerges. The snatched girl, Hyun-seo, is the beloved child of the socially and economically marginal Park family, which has not benefited from the country’s vaunted economic miracle. The family consists of Gang-du, the girl’s slow-witted and utterly devoted father (played by Song Kang-ho, who also played Detective Park in Memories of Murder); her grandfather Hee-bong (played by Byun Hee-bong), who runs a riverside snack kiosk with Gang-du; her aunt Nam-joo (played by Bae Doona), a competitive archer with a bad habit of freezing at the crucial moment of release; and her uncle Nam-il (played by Park Hae-il), a former student [End Page 885] radical and now an unemployed drunk. The Korean state offers the family little help in their moment of crisis. After the monster’s attack, it quarantines them and everyone else who had contact with the creature, claiming that it is host to a deadly virus. But when Gang-du receives a cell phone call from his daughter, whom the monster has squirreled away, along with an even younger homeless boy, in the labyrinthine sewers that run alongside the Han River, the family breaks out of the hospital and begins its comic-heroic quest to recover Hyun-seo.

Although The Host tells a very different story from Memories of Murder, it follows the same structural template and embodies the same ambivalent relationship to Hollywood. Like its predecessor, The Host participates in a genre that Bong identifies primarily with Hollywood: “The monster genre, excluding the Godzilla series from Japan, is in itself quite American.”37 Bong here acknowledges and minimizes the role of Korea’s former colonial ruler in the development of the monster movie genre, so as to affiliate his film more closely with Hollywood. And indeed The Host follows many of the visual and narrative conventions of the postclassical monster film, beginning with the shockingly sudden appearances of the creature, proceeding through the innocents-in-danger scenario, and culminating in the requisite acts of unexpected bravery from a motley crew of characters brought together by the crisis. Like Memories of Murder, it locates this generic story within a nationally resonant landscape, in this case the Han River environs of the capital city. It shares the high production values of Bong’s earlier film, enhanced by Hollywood-level digital effects that were produced in cooperation with the Orphanage, a San Francisco-based company. The film’s distributor even gave it a Hollywood-style saturation release, opening it on about a third of the country’s screens.38 Bong again deploys his aesthetic of generic “collision,” with monster-movie conventions bumping up against those of slapstick (as when a government lackey in a bright yellow hazmat suit slips and falls, as if once again slipping on an unseen banana peel) and black comedy (as when the grandfather, having been assured by his dim-witted son that one bullet remains in his gun, is taken out by the monster as Gang-du counts on his fingers and realizes he has miscounted the number of bullets). Throughout the film Bong subverts genre conventions even as he invokes them, as when the monster is revealed in its physical entirety early in the film, or when Hyun-seo, pulled from the creature’s maw by her father at the film’s climax, fails to respond to her family’s desperate entreaties to wake up—a heart-breaking loss of a beloved child that would be unthinkable in a mainstream Hollywood film (as can be seen by [End Page 886] comparing this scene to the similar, but more gimmicky and happier ending of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs [2002]).

Bong continues his earlier strategy of arranging the genre’s “Lego pieces” in a way that opens up a space for Korean realities. The most resonant example of this occurs during the film’s climax, when the three adult siblings, along with a stray homeless man, launch their final assault on the monster amid a violent confrontation between street protestors and Korean riot police. In the film’s most politically powerful image, the homeless man pours gasoline down the beast’s gullet as Nam-il shrugs off his backpack, winds up to toss a flaming Molotov cocktail—and then looks down aghast as the bottle slips out of his hand and smashes impotently at his feet (figure 3). At this moment his sister Nam-joo appears with her bow and with perfect timing shoots a flaming arrow directly into the creature’s mouth, setting him on fire, after which Gang-du finishes him off with a metal pole.

This scene is powerful because it offers a perfect mix of global and local, of Hollywood conventions and Korean realities. The final, coordinated assault on the monster that goes down in a fireball is a standard convention of the monster movie: think of Jaws (1975) and the shark blown up by a single rifle shot to the oxygen tank lodged in its mouth. Yet the means of assault in this scene are distinctly Korean. The image of a young man with a backpack throwing Molotov cocktails is deeply resonant for Koreans. It gestures to the twenty-year history of violent street protests that young Koreans have engaged in, from the pro-democracy protests in the 1980s through the anti-globalization and anti-free-trade protests of the early 2000s. The image also contains an undercurrent of anti-Americanism, as many of these protests also took aim at the United States, either for supporting the repressive military regimes or for pushing a neoliberal economic agenda. The image of Nam-joo with her bow and arrow also has national overtones, insofar as archery is a traditional Korean sport in which many Korean women have won Olympic gold medals. Given the monster’s association with the United States, this scene can be read as an assertion of the Korean national against the global American other. Yet this is an alternative version of the national, in which Koreanness is expressed via figures of social and economic marginality and failure: a homeless man, an unemployed drunk and former radical protestor, and a second-tier athlete. The film endorses them, and not the agents of the Korean state, as the morally legitimate embodiment of Koreanness.

Despite being a monster movie rather than a police procedural, The Host also follows Memories of Murder’s internal structure of surface crime and deep crime. In this case, the surface crime of kidnapping is committed by [End Page 887]

Figure 3. Global and local merge in The Host (2006): the image of a young man throwing Molotov cocktails evokes a twenty-year history of protests against military dictatorship and globalization.
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Figure 3.

Global and local merge in The Host (2006): the image of a young man throwing Molotov cocktails evokes a twenty-year history of protests against military dictatorship and globalization.

a criminal who, says Bong, “just happens to be a creature.”39 Like the serial murders in Memories of Murder, the monster is the device that gives the narrative its structure, but it isn’t the film’s ultimate focus, and in fact it gradually fades into the background as the film progresses (in yet another departure from Hollywood monster-movie convention). Bong reports that while critics have often wanted to assign some concrete symbolism to the monster, identifying it with everything from the United States to global capitalism, he did not intend it to carry any specific symbolic weight. “It is what it is,” says Bong. What intrigued him instead was what the monster’s attack revealed: “I was more interested in how people reacted to the monster, especially this family. They have this tireless incredible fight because they’re alone and nobody is helping them. I’m asking, ‘Why aren’t people helping them?’ and that’s more where I wanted to put the meaning of this film.”40 The monster, in other words, is merely the surface crime.

The family’s search for Hyun-seo, hidden away beneath the surface of the modern metropolis, exposes the deep crime that suffuses contemporary Korean life. As the Park family gets tangled up in Seoul’s bureaucratic and capitalist [End Page 888] modernity—the end result of Korea’s compressed modernization—they discover that the authorities feel little but contempt for them. The government lies to them about the existence of the deadly virus, the police refuse to believe they have received a phone call from Hyun-seo, the hospital won’t release them from quarantine to hunt for her, and the fumigators disinfecting the riverside area are easily bribed with a bucketful of spare change. In one of the films’ most sharply critical episodes, Nam-il is betrayed by an old friend from his radical student days who traded in his political idealism for a high-paying job in a telecommunications firm. In his office atop a glass-and-steel skyscraper, a setting evocative of Korea’s vaunted economic success, the former activist helps locate Hyun-seo by tracing her cell phone call; he also calls in the police so that he can collect the reward for Nam-il’s capture, money that he needs to pay off the staggering credit card debt he accrued in his climb into the middle class. Through these and other episodes, Bong satirizes the very notion of Korea as the “miracle on the Han,” recasting that economic “miracle” as a mutant monster and revealing the high financial, social, and moral costs of modernization.

The deepest crime that The Host reveals, however, centers not simply on Korea’s modernity, but more profoundly on Korea’s relationship with the United States. The film opens with a prologue, based on a real-life incident, explaining how the mutant creature came into existence.41 The scene is set in the morgue at the Yongsan military base, which is the headquarters for U.S. forces in Korea and is located in the heart of Seoul. It depicts an American mortician ordering his Korean underling to get rid of some “dusty” bottles of formaldehyde by dumping them down the drain. After a weak protest that it will end up in the nearby Han River, the assistant meekly submits to the command and begins pouring hundreds of bottles of toxic chemicals into the sink. The scene is horrifying, with the mortician evoking the classic horror film’s mad scientist figure. But the subtler horror comes from Mr. Kim’s acquiescence to his American superior: why does he submit to the order to do something that would inevitably harm Koreans? Some of the film’s most emotionally disturbing scenes replicate this dynamic, as Koreans quietly defer to Americans commanding them to take some outrageous action. While the Americans are presented as maniacally villainous, it is the more realistically drawn Korean characters’ relationship to them that is ultimately more distressing. In one hospital scene, a walleyed U.S. official encased in a freakish hazmat suit that makes him look like a cross between a baby and a flower orders the doctors to drill into Gang-du’s brain, a sadistic and illogical act the Koreans dutifully perform. [End Page 889]

These scenes suggests that this monster is not produced by nature (as in Jaws), or science (as in Frankenstein), or even by U.S. military power (as in Godzilla), but rather by a political posture of subservience: it is the Korean assistant, not the American morgue boss, who creates the monster. While the Korean title of the film, Gwoemul, simply means “creature,” the English-language title of the film suggests the nature of this deepest crime, implying that Korea has let itself become a “host” to a parasitic United States.

The Host ends, however, with an epilogue that inverts this hierarchy of American dominance and Korean submission. In this visually dense scene we see Gang-du in the tiny snack kiosk, setting out dinner for the homeless little boy whom Hyun-seo had protected in the sewers and who emerged alive from the monster’s maw, wrapped in Hyun-seo’s arms. Gang-du loads up a low, Korean-style table with heaping bowls of Korean food, and together they eat. In the background, a TV broadcasts a news report, partially in English, about a U.S. congressional investigation into the mishandling of the Korean virus crisis that has revealed it was all a result of “misinformation.” In the middle of the report, the boy announces “There’s nothing good on. . . . Let’s turn it off. Concentrate on eating,” and Gang-du leans over and turns off the TV with his foot (figure 4). With this dismissive gesture, Gang-du and the boy assert the primacy of things Korean and claim the power to shut out things American. This is the film’s “happy” ending. By refusing to accept America’s authority to determine the meaning of the monster’s attack, Gang-du and the boy refuse the hierarchical relationship with the United States that the rest of the film has so painfully documented. Inverting the social relations of the prologue and the film’s most disturbing scenes, they refuse to assume a subservient position. In a reversal of former detective Park’s Westernized home that concludes Memories of Murder, Gang-du asserts the home as a Korean space, in which Korean food symbolically displaces American media and language and Korean people reclaim their power to assign meanings to Korean experiences. Gang-du also establishes the home as a socially inclusive space, in which the homeless boy—a figure even more marginal and despised than the members of the Park family—is accepted, loved, and nurtured. By incorporating the boy into this Korean national space, Gang-du does precisely what the Korean state has refused to do throughout the film, namely, grant full membership into the Korean national family to those on the lowest rungs of Korea’s social hierarchy. At the same time, however, this affirmation of Koreanness is dependent upon a U.S. presence against which Koreanness can be defined: the TV has to be on before Gang-du can make the nationalist gesture of turning it off. [End Page 890]

Figure 4. The Host’s (2006) happy ending: Gang-du asserts the primacy of things Korean and claims the power to shut out things American.
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Figure 4.

The Host’s (2006) happy ending: Gang-du asserts the primacy of things Korean and claims the power to shut out things American.

Bong and Golden Age Cinema

To be an American studies scholar exploring the embeddedness of Hollywood in another country’s cinema does not relieve one of the burden of knowing the internal history of that national cinema. In fact, such historical knowledge is essential if we are to fully understand the nature of Hollywood’s role in another country’s film culture. Korean cinema is a good example of this. Bong’s films have a complex genealogy: in addition to their connections to Hollywood genre filmmaking and, to a lesser degree, realist Korean art cinema, they also have substantive roots in the Korean Golden Age cinema of the1950s and 1960s. Many of the characteristics that distinguish Bong’s films can also be found in these earlier films. An awareness of these roots allows us to recognize a major continuity in Korean film history over the past half-century, and to understand the extent to which Korea’s film traditions—and not just Hollywood’s—are a source of today’s thriving industry.

Much like Bong’s films thirty years later, Golden Age movies embodied a complex relationship with Hollywood and the United States. The Golden Age began in the mid-1950s, partially midwifed into existence by the United States: emerging directors often honed their skills on USIS newsreels during the Korean War and foreign aid programs provided film technology and equipment [End Page 891] after the war.42 Annual production rates soared from twenty films per year to more than two hundred, most of which were unabashed commercial products that successfully attracted a mass Korean audience.43 This was the “era of the genre film,” when directors borrowed liberally from popular Hollywood conventions (especially melodrama, film noir, the horror film, and the women’s film) and commingled these elements with borrowings from other national film styles, primarily Italian neorealism.44 As Bong’s films would do forty years later, these stylistically hybrid films told overtly national stories and grappled with contemporary social issues: postwar poverty and unemployment, the prostitution of “decent” women to U.S. soldiers, the high moral costs of upward mobility, and the rampant smuggling of foreign goods. This combination of imported styles and local stories produced not only “generically promiscuous films,” but also films with a distinctly Korean sensibility.45 Kathleen McHugh has argued, in fact, that only such stylistically hybrid films could express Korea’s postwar identity as “an emergent and divided nation and one now dominated by a Western power.”46

We can see Bong’s debt to Golden Age cinema by looking briefly at two of the era’s most popular films. Madame Freedom (Han Hyung-mo, 1956), the most popular film of the 1950s, addressed head-on the question of U.S. influence.47 It told the story of a middle-class Korean housewife who takes a job in a shop selling Western luxury goods. Seduced by the individualistic ethos of consumer culture, she neglects her role as wife and mother and enters into an extramarital affair conducted in the ultramodern spaces of dance halls, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. While the film’s narrative critiques the social transformations wrought by Western influence (without, however, simplistically condemning that influence), its form betrays a studied imitation of Hollywood style. The film features a constantly moving camera and spectacular crane shots previously unseen in Korean film; meticulous continuity editing, complete with scene dissection and eyeline matches; emotionally expressive use of diegetic and nondiegetic sound; and a lush, Sirkian mise-en-scène replete with Western-style hairdos, dresses, purses, shoes, hats, office equipment, dishes, and home appliances (figure 5). Generically, the film merges the conventions of the women’s picture with those of film noir, with the twist that the lurking danger is refigured as Americanization. Even as the film’s narrative and visual style are tangled up with Hollywood, so was the film’s material production. The dolly that enabled the sweeping camera movements rested on four U.S. Army helicopter wheels, while the snow that floated down in several exterior scenes was really U.S. military dishwasher detergent.48 As in Bong’s films, the narrative critique of Korea’s relationship [End Page 892]

Figure 5. Madame Freedom (1956) explores Korea’s experience of modernity via the story of a housewife seduced by American material culture and individualistic values.
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Figure 5.

Madame Freedom (1956) explores Korea’s experience of modernity via the story of a housewife seduced by American material culture and individualistic values.

with the United States is expressed via an indigenization of Hollywood cinematic forms and technologies.

The Housemaid (1960), a similarly classic Golden Age film made by Kim Ki-young, a director Bong discovered in college, also examines Korea’s experience of modernization through a “borrowed” visual style.49 Yet another cautionary tale about Americanization, it tells the story of an upwardly mobile family whose newly built Western-style house becomes the site of illicit sexuality, abortion, murder, suicide, and family collapse. Echoing Han’s Madame Freedom, Kim’s stylistic “trademark” in this and other films, according to Chris Berry, is the “high visibility of Western material culture in modern settings.” His dramas are played out in houses “packed with Western-style furniture, including walls full of grandfather clocks and cuckoo clocks, stained glass partitions, and so forth. Mealtimes are particularly good opportunities for the display of Western consumption, both literally when butter and milk are served and in the display of coffee percolators, toasters, and enormous Kelvinators.” While The Housemaid’s mise-en-scène presents modernity as something fundamentally imported, the film also expresses what Berry calls an “ambivalent” response to [End Page 893] modernization as something both “threatening and desirable,” at once imposed on Korea from the outside and aspired to from within.50 Forty-three years later, in the epilogue to Memories of Murder, Bong would similarly foreground Western-style home décor and household appliances in a way that exceeded the demands of the narrative. I want to suggest that we read former detective Park’s “excessive” home and his job selling consumer appliances as Bong’s nod toward his Golden Age predecessors, with whom he shares a propensity to use a Hollywood-derived visual style to think through Korea’s experience of imported modernity.

What is to be gained from seeing Bong’s connection with Golden Age cinema? It allows us to see the layers of historical continuity in Korean cinema. Part of this continuity derives from an ongoing desire among filmmakers to grapple with the costs and consequences of Korea’s experience of modernization. Where Golden Age directors such as Han Hyung-mo and Kim Ki-young explored the early stages of this process, Bong explores how ordinary Koreans have been implicated in some of modernization’s more unsavory aspects and what modernity feels like when it fully arrives. A second dimension of continuity resides in the recurring strategic decision of directors to appropriate and indigenize elements of Hollywood style as a means of fending off Hollywood’s economic encroachments. Seeing the connection between Bong and his Golden Age precursors enables us to recognize how Hollywood has long been an integral part of Korea’s film culture and thus a legitimate part of the national cinematic imaginary that Korean filmmakers conjure with. This continuity between the films of the 2000s and the films of the 1950s and 1960s has not been uninterrupted, however. It was the Korean New Wave’s rejection of a Hollywood-influenced style in the 1980s—a rejection based in part on lack of familiarity with then-hard-to-see Golden Age films—that helps account for the failure of these films to attract Korean viewers away from imported Hollywood films. Ultimately, however, this continuity allows us to see that in appropriating and reworking Hollywood genre conventions, Bong is following in the footsteps of his commercially minded Korean forerunners, which is to say that, in engaging with Hollywood, Bong is doing something authentically Korean.

American Studies and Korean Cinema

I want to return now to the question raised in the title: why should American studies think about Korean cinema? One answer is that Korean cinema allows us to think about the global circulation of U.S. popular culture in a more [End Page 894] comprehensive way. In an era in which Hollywood films regularly earn more money abroad than at home and studios increasingly regard overseas viewers as their primary audience, we have an obligation to explore how non-U.S. filmmakers and film industries are engaging with “our” films. We need to recognize that people outside the United States, having grown up immersed in U.S. popular culture, often claim it as their own and use it in ways that make sense to them in their own unique contexts. Doing so means making international reception and individual acts of creative reworking central to our understanding of U.S. popular culture. It also complicates our notions of national cinemas, and national cultures more generally, by forcing us to recognize the transnational dimension inherent in both contemporary and older cinema. Bong’s films, given their thematic concerns, mode of production, and market performance, can rightfully be understood as works of Korean national cinema. But they are also inescapably works of transnational cinema, products of a complex textual engagement and negotiation with Hollywood.

American studies should also think about Korean cinema because it illustrates how important it is to think about culture materially as well as textually, and to pay attention to the relationships among texts, industries, and markets. In the case of Bong’s films, if we saw only their textual borrowings from Hollywood without understanding their role in reclaiming Korea’s domestic film market from Hollywood, we would be missing half their significance. Bong’s textual appropriation from Hollywood is inseparable from his material defeat of Hollywood at the Korean box office. By thinking about Bong’s films materially as well as textually, we can see how a single text can embody multiple, and sometimes contradictory, relationships with the United States.

Finally, Korean cinema shows us that genre is a particularly useful category of transnational analysis. Bong’s use of globally popular Hollywood genres is part of what makes his films so attractive to Korean audiences and thus enables him to engage a large percentage of Koreans in his explorations of Korea’s deep crimes of dictatorship and subservience to the United States. Genre also serves as an excellent place to trace the intimate relationship between the global and the local. In mapping the transnational contours of a given genre we also map a complex set of relationships between the United States and peoples abroad, as filmmakers stretch and bend and sometimes break Hollywood conventions to open up spaces for their own unique realities, histories, and concerns.

Cinema is and always has been a mongrel art form. If we can let go of conceptual models that assume some kind of purity—be it notions of discrete national cinemas or cultural authenticity or art untainted by commerce—we will see how filmmakers and film industries around the world have been [End Page 895] borrowing from each other all along, in different ways and in the contexts of diverse histories and relations of power.

Christina Klein

Christina Klein is an associate professor of English and American studies at Boston College and author of Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961 (2003). She is working on a book about transnational U.S.-Asian cinema. Articles from this project have been published in Cinema Journal, Comparative American Studies, The Journal of Chinese Cinemas, the Los Angeles Times, and the International Herald Tribune.


Early versions of this article were presented at Harvard University, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Minnesota, Sogang University, Yonsei University, Old Dominion University, and the American Studies Association annual meeting. I thank the many audience members at these presentations, Young-a Park, and the two anonymous American Quarterly readers for their thoughtful questions and comments.


1. Andrew Higson, “The Concept of National Cinema,” in Film and Nationalism, ed. Alan Williams (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 56.

2. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies,” American Quarterly 57.1 (March 2005): 17–57; and Mae M. Ngai, “Transnationalism and the Transformation of the ‘Other,’”American Quarterly 57.1 (March 2005): 59–65.

3. Memories of Murder, DVD, directed by Bong Joon-ho (2003; Seoul, Korea: CJ Entertainment, 2003); The Host, DVD, directed by Bong Joon-ho (2006; Seoul, Korea: Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2007).

4. All box office and market share statistics are from , an invaluable resource on Korean cinema created by Darcy Paquet.

5. Ambivalent is a preferred term among scholars of Korean film. See essays by Shin and Stringer, Desser, and Berry in Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema, ed. Frances Gateward (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007).

6. “‘The Host’—Bong Joon-ho Q & A,” Time Out Movie Blog, Time Out London, (accessed April 7, 2007).

7. Film critic Kim Jin quoted in Mi Hui Kim, “‘Copywood’ Pix Pay Unwanted Homage,”, July 13, 2003, (accessed July 13, 2003).

8. Chris Berry, “‘What’s Big About the Big Film?’ ‘De-Westernizing’ the Blockbuster in Korea and China,” in Movie Blockbusters, ed. Julian Stringer (New York: Routledge, 2003).

9. Kathleen McHugh and Nancy Abelmann, eds., South Korean Golden Age Melodrama: Gender, Genre, and National Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005).

10. For transnational analyses of film genres, see Meaghan Morris, Siu Leung Ki, and Stephan Chan Ching-kiu, eds., Hong Kong Connections: Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005); Gina Marchetti and Tan See Kam, eds., Hong Kong Film, Hollywood, and the New Global Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2007); David Desser, “Global Noir: Genre Film in the Age of Transnationalism,” Film Genre Reader III, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003); Wimal Dissanayake, ed., Melodrama and Asian Cinema (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Tassilo Schneider, “Finding a New Heimat in the Wild West: Karl May and the German Western of the 1960s,” in Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western, ed. Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson (London: BFI, 1998).

11. Jeanine Basinger, World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

12. Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, China on Screen: Cinema and Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 5, 205, 208.

13. I borrow the term compressed modernization from Kathleen McHugh and Nancy Abelmann, who cite as their source Chang Kyung-Sup, “Compressed Modernity and Its Discontents: South Korean Society in Transition,” Economy and Society 28.1 (1999): 30–55. McHugh and Abelmann, South Korean Golden Age Melodrama, 5. On South Korean history, see Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).

14. Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun; Lee Kang-ro, “Critical Analysis of Anti-Americanism in Korea,” Korea Focus 13 (March–April 2005): 74–98, online at (accessed June 20, 2005). [End Page 896]

15. Kim Mee hyun, ed. Korean Cinema: From Origins to Renaissance (Seoul: Communications Books for the Korean Film Council, 2006), 115.

16. Seung Hyun Park, “Korean Cinema After Liberation: Production, Industry, and Regulatory Trends,” in Gateward, Seoul Searching, 15–35.

17. Darcy Paquet, “The Korean Film Industry: 1992 to the Present,” in The New Korean Cinema, ed. Chi-yun Shin and Julian Stringer (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 32–50.

18. Youn-hui Lim, ed., “Finding the Path of Reality in a Jungle of Genres,” Bong Joon-ho: Mapping Reality within the Maze of Genre (Seoul: Korean Film Council in association with Cine 21, 2005), 19.

19. Mark Russell, “Unlike His Peers, the Director Bong Joon-Ho Likes Ideas and Metaphors,” New York Times, May 28, 2006, online at (accessed March 8, 2007).

20. “Finding the Path of Reality,” 19; “‘My Creative Impulse Is Based on Encounters with the Unknown’: Interview with Director Bong Joon-ho,” in Bong Joon-ho, 31; “Interview: Bong Joon-ho,” Twitch Film, (accessed April 17, 2007).

21. Jin-kyung Lee, “Migrant Labor Activism and Re-Configurations of South Korea as a Nation and Transnation” (paper presented at the Association of Asian Studies, San Diego, 2004); Kuan-hsing Chen, “The Imperialist Eye: The Cultural Imaginary of a Subempire and a Nation-State,” positions 8.1 (2000): 9–76.

22. “‘The Host’,” Time Out Movie Blog.

23. Peter Sanchez, “Joon-Ho Bong: He’s the Host,” The 213, online journal, http://the213net/php/re-view_print.php?id=255 (accessed April 7, 2007).

24. “‘My Creative Impulse,’” 37–39.

25. “The Great Capone Interviews the Extra-Great Joon-ho Bong! Director of the Super-Extra-Double Great THE HOST!!” Ain’t It Cool News, March 4, 2007, (accessed April 7, 2007).

26. “‘The Host,’” Time Out Movie Blog.

27. “Finding the Path of Reality,” 25.

28. “‘My Creative Impulse,’” 37–38.

29. “Finding the Path of Reality,” 25.

30. Ibid., 19.

31. Kyung Hyun Kim, “Korean Cinema and Im Kwon-Taek: An Overview,” in Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of Korean National Cinema, ed. David E. James ad Kyung Hyun Kim, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002), 34–36.

32. “Memories of Murder,”, (accessed April 20, 2007).

33. Carlo Rotella, Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 119.

34. “Finding the Path of Reality,” 23.

35. “‘My Creative Impulse,’” 35.

36. Donald Kirk, “Korea’s Bid for Truth and Reconciliation,” Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 2006, (accessed June 10, 2007).

37. “‘My Creative Impulse,’” 41.

38. Kim Soo-kyung, “What the Commercial Success of ‘The Host’ Has Given Us,” Korean Film Observatory 20 (2006): 11.

39. Kevin B. Lee, “The Han River Horror Show: An Interview with Bong Joon-ho,” Cineaste 32.2 (Spring 2007), online at (accessed March 8, 2007).

40. Andrew Kasch, “Joon-ho, Bong (The Host),” Dread, (accessed April 17, 2007).

41. “U.S. Army Keeping Close Tabs on Han River Monster,” Chosun Ilbo, August 11, 2006, online at (accessed August 24, 2006).

42. Darcy Paquet, “A Short History of Korean Cinema,”, (accessed April 1, 2007).

43. Kim, Korean Cinema, 134, 171.

44. Ibid., 171. [End Page 897]

45. David Scott Diffrient, “Han’guk Heroism: Cinematic Spectacle and the Postwar Cultural Politics of Red Muffler,” in South Korean Golden Age Melodrama, 171. The mixing of genres has become a staple feature of contemporary Korean cinema as well. See Darcy Paquet, “Genrebending in Contemporary Korean Cinema,” TAASA Review 9.1 (2000): 12–13.

46. Kathleen McHugh, “South Korean Film Melodrama: State, Nation, Woman, and the Transnational Familiar,” in South Korean Golden Age Melodrama, 18.

47. Madame Freedom, DVD, extras and accompanying booklet, directed by Han Hyung-mo (1956; Seoul, Korea: Korean Film Archives, 2005).

48. Ibid.

49. The Housemaid, DVD, directed by Kim Ki-young (1960; Seoul, Korea; recorded from Korean TV broadcast). Thanks to Yuni Cho at the Korea Society, New York, for sharing her personal copy with me.

50. Chris Berry, “Scream and Scream Again: Korean Modernity as a House of Horrors in the Films of Kim Ki-young,” in Seoul Searching, 109, 101. [End Page 898]

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