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Reviewed by:
  • Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema
  • Sang Yee Cheon (bio)
Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema, edited by Frances Gateward. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2007. 314 pp., index, illus. $89.50 cloth; $29.95 paper.

Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema explores dynamically changing cultural and societal aspects of Korea through essays about contemporary Korean films. The book contains fourteen articles written by experts in film-related fields and is divided into three main parts following an introduction by Frances Gateward: Industry Trends and Popular Genres (chapters 1–4), Directing New Korean Cinema (chapters 5–9), and Narratives of the National (chapters 10–14).

Following a chronological history of government policies in the Korean film industry (chapter 1), the chapters of the book cover most of the usual topics in postmodern Korea: melodrama as a popular film genre as [End Page 205] seen in Christmas in August (chapter 2); the concept of the Korean-style blockbuster and the Shiri Syndrome in Shiri (chapter 3); issues of social hierarchies such as age, class, sex, and education, which are pervasive in Korean youth films (chapter 4); the emergence of the middle class and changing gender roles in the modernizing middle class seen in the combination of two genres—melodrama and horror—in Housemaid (chapter 5); the life of an ordinary man distorted through the historical events of the Kwangju Uprising and the 1980s minjung movement in Peppermint Candy (chapter 6); changing Korean values in Farewell, My Darling (chapter 7); new cinematic spectacle in the action film Nowhere to Hide (chapter 8); the aesthetics of Zen Buddhism and Korean culture in Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East ? (chapter 9); colonial experience through the life of comfort women in the documentary trilogy The Murmuring, Habitual Sadness, and My Own Breathing (chapter 10); humanistic and ideological issues of divided Korea in the post–Cold War era in Spy Li Cheol-jin and Joint Security Area (chapter 11); miscegenation, mixed-race children, and identity in Address Unknown (chapter 12); feminism in Korean society through food and sex and changing gender roles in 301/302 (chapter 13); and the controversial issue of homosexuality in Bungee Jumping of Their Own (chapter 14).

Suk-Young Kim’s detailed discussion of Spy Lee Cheol-jin and Joint Security Area hightlights films that can be used by teachers to deal with issues such as the division of Korea, the easing of tension and unification, and the National Security Law or Anti-Communist Law. The seemingly unlikely incidents and secret friendships at the border portrayed in Joint Security Area really happened at the DMZ in 1998 (before the film was shot in 1999 and after the original novel, DMZ, was written by Sangyeon Park in 1996). The incident at the DMZ in 1998 was similar to that in the film in that a First Lieutenant Kim Hoon was killed (or committed suicide) with a gun in a bunker at the DMZ and a soldier at the same military base exposed the secret friendship and contact between North and South Korean soldiers for which Lieutenant Kim was under investigation before he died. The actual situation is said to have differed from the film and novel in that illicit contact between the two sides was wellknown among soldiers at the DMZ.

Also of particular interest is Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (2000), “a flashback film without flashbacks,” as Hye Seung Chung and David Scott Diffrient describe it in their fine analysis (chapter 6). The film reflects contemporary Korean history through the life over a period of twenty years of an ordinary middle-aged Korean man who has lived through the catastrophes of the 1980s and the 1990s economic crisis. This film illustrates Carole Gerster’s (2006) statement that, “visual media [End Page 206] have become arguably the chief carrier of historical messages in one’s culture.” Exposure to visually authentic Korean film provides readers with rich cultural and sociopolitical information about Korea as well as with opportunities to increase their understanding of Korean culture. Peppermint Candy covers Korean history in reverse-chronological order, and the director and novelist Lee thereby...


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