positions: east asia cultures critique 9.2 (2001) 449-466
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Claiming Sites of Independence:
Articulating Hysteria in Pak Ch'ol-su's 301/302
The first fifteen minutes of Pak Ch'ol-su's 301/302 (1995) is a veritable mélange of stylized poses, lush surroundings, and glances ranging from coy to sullen. Amid an endless sequence of aluminum countertops and twinkling halogen track lights, the resident of apartment 301 (Pang Un-jin) practices to make her cooking a fine art. Her stylish short hair, fashionable attire, and wary glances, calculated more to penetrate than to seduce, combine to generate an image that is more icon than individual, more unattainable than accessible. Although she is clearly alone, there is no sense that she is lonely. Mirroring this representation is the depiction of her neighbor, the resident of apartment 302 (Hwang Sin-hye), who appears in a succession of momentary close-ups. Against a set of blond wood furniture and harsh daylight reflecting off a profusion of shiny surfaces, she is, in contrast, all urban sophisticate, always attired in black. Like her neighbor, 302 is a singular being, not desolate or abandoned, but elusive and mysterious. [End Page 449]
This repeated emphasis in the film's exposition is a compelling indicator of the extent to which representations of the urban, young, and, above all, independent woman have gained increased visibility in contemporary Korean films. Single, successful women are treated as icons of Korean modernization, and this is certainly true in 301/302, in which there is little hesitation in reiterating the association between the characters and their sleek, ultramodern environment. But despite the visibility of these seemingly independent young women, it is troubling that the independence on display often amounts to no more than that—a display, or demonstration of the extent the Korean patriarchy refuses to accommodate or accept these women who desire to be more than a “reproductive body in the pay of the polis.”1 Recent cinematic examples of independent women never succeed in dislodging the woman from an ultimate dependency on men for validation. This failure is a fundamental one that circumvents the aspirations of many contemporary Korean films for being credible narratives of female independence.
In 301/302, are the women truly independent or merely iconic? Can we believe that they are truly free from the patriarchal continuum, defined here as that vicious cycle that generates and recycles means and forms of oppression? If we can, how do the characters manage to achieve that freedom? In this essay I argue that the independence exhibited by both women is more plausible and resilient because it depicts women who can dislodge themselves from their dependence on men. By developing a language of hysteria from symptoms ordinarily classified as hysterical, the female protagonists evade patriarchally defined scripts, and this allows them to negotiate a space that is separate from the patriarchy.
Based on a short poem by Chang Chung-il entitled Yorisa wa tanshikka [The cook and the one who fasts],2 301/302 traces the tension-filled, uneasy relationship between the epicure 301, who is obsessed with cooking and eating, and the anorexic, frigid 302, who vomits at the sight of food.3 Despite their antipodal relationships with food and sex, both exhibit obsessive behavior that is a result of past trauma. As the film opens, a detective (Kim Ch'u-ryon), investigating the disappearance of 302, questions 301. His subsequent search of 302's apartment triggers a series of flashbacks that show the sequence of events before 302's disappearance, the painful decline of 301's marriage, and the sexual abuse of 302 by her stepfather.4 The film [End Page 450] makes substantial use of crosscutting as the narrative shifts between past and present, and finally reaches its climax when 302 offers herself to 301 as an “ingredient” for one of 301's dishes.
Throughout the narrative, the women develop a language of hysteria from their obsessions. Although the clinical origins and history of hysteria derive...