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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.2 (2001) 369-399

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Male Crisis in New Korean Cinema:
Reading the Early Films of Park Kwang-su

Kyung Hyun Kim



Park Kwang-su's film Chilsu and Mansu [Ch'il-su wa Man-su] (1988) depicts the lives of two working-class billboard painters in Seoul. At the beginning of the film, Ch'il-su has a date with Chi-na, a college-educated woman he has been pursuing outside his economic class. The attempts to woo her have already cost Ch'il-su one job after he arrived late for work. Ch'il-su cajoles Chi-na into going to see Rocky IV. In the movie-within-a-movie, with James Brown singing “Living in America” before a boxing match, Rocky displays the supermasculine gestures of the last-minute Cold War showdown with a Soviet boxer while the counterculture African American icon from the 1960s blesses his triumph. This scene, evidently inserted in Rocky IV to flaunt U.S. patriotism and celebrate the Reagan-era facade of the multicultural alliance (between Italian American and African American), is deliberately appropriated by Park for two reasons. First, the scene, with its crass Las Vegas–type setting, produces a visual fantasy that enacts [End Page 369] Ch'il-su's desires. Second, through the activation of the spectatorial desire of a character in the movie, it also reminds Chilsu and Mansu's viewers of Ch'il-su's reality where his potency and masculinity have been constantly undermined. By specularizing Rocky, Ch'il-su's emasculation is exposed. He has been lying to Chi-na, who is looking for her prospective husband; he tells her that he attends a prestigious art school and his departure to the United States is imminent. Ch'il-su identifies with Rocky, but it is an identification that operates on masochistic impulses that both fetishize the white man's splendid body and punish his ego through guilt and shame as an unemployed working-class man who has camouflaged his identity even to his girlfriend. He tries to overcome his vulnerability and anxiety by overcompensating for his frail masculinity. He takes advantage of the dark movie theater and tries to get intimate with Chi-na. While James Brown sings in his glittery red-white-and-blue suit, Ch'il-su awkwardly reaches out to hold Chi-na's hand. His advance is thwarted when she pinches him. The denial of his desire further humiliates Ch'il-su. It reminds him of his miserable reality rather than making him forget his lies, his mask, and his real identity.

What is most intriguing is that this discursive web of discourses pinnacles inside a theater where Ch'il-su activates the scopophilic desire of the male spectator to achieve an “imagined unity” or “sutured coherence.” The suture is more than simply a standard viewing praxis in a conventional Hollywood film critiqued by feminist film scholarship to problematize the fetishistic identification of the female body as an object of the male gaze.1 It is, in Rey Chow's words, “the process of subjective activation and reactivation through complex transaction between symbolic and imaginary significations, transactions that give rise to an illusory sense of unity with the field of the other and the coherence in narrative meaning.”2 In this passage, Chow illustrates that the suturing of a look requires engagement with both of the Lacanian fields, a movement that shuffles between the identifications of both the imaginary and the symbolic. The image of powerful Rocky creates narcissistic fantasies for Ch'il-su as if the object on screen were his own reflection, but for this to be fetishized, Ch'il-su also must simultaneously recognize and disavow his identity, which is fraught with personal traumas. In other words, Rocky, standing in as the object of fetish, must be prompted by a desire that pivots on Ch'il-su's identity crisis. His mimicry of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky as well [End Page 370] as other...


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