- Death, Eroticism, and Virtual Nationalism in the Films of Hong Sangsoo*
I went down to the river bank and joined the crowd. Th e dead woman was facing the river, so I couldn't see her face but I could see her permed hair and plump white limbs. She was wearing a thin red sweater and a white skirt. It must have been rather cold early in the morning. Or maybe she had a liking for that outfi t. Her head was resting on rubber shoes with fl owery patterns and lying on the ground in the rain and a few feet away from her limp lifeless hand was a white handkerchief, which, as it did not blow about in the wind, seemed to be wrapped around something. To get a glimpse of her face, the children stood in the stream facing my way. Th eir blue school uniforms were refl ected upside down on the water and were like blue fl ags surrounding the corpse. Strangely, I felt rising within me a great surge of physical desire for the dead woman. I hurriedly left the scene.1
The passage above is from "A Journey to Mujin," [Mujin kihaeng] a story by Kim Sŭng'ok that established him as one of the most celebrated writers of the post-Korean War era in addition [End Page 135] to being one of the first generation of writers to be educated in the national language (Korean) after Korea's liberation from Japan.2 The story is written from the perspective of a young man, Yun, whose frustration at returning home is highlighted in this passage when he encounters a young woman's corpse. In Seoul, Yun has established a successful career as a young executive at a pharmaceutical company through a marriage with the daughter of the company's president. The encounter with the dead body takes place during an annual trip to his seaside home in order to pay a visit to his mother's gravesite. His old friends no longer amuse him, however, and a brief love affair with a local music teacher sours when she resists separation from her husband. Yun's sudden encounter with the body of an apparent prostitute who has committed suicide signals an almost existential shift in the story: it reveals not only the vast wasteland Korea's countryside has become, but also the death that exists in life.
"Death as the absolute point of view over life and opening on its truth," writes Michel Foucault, "is also that against which life, in daily practice, comes up against."3 What Foucault is suggesting here is that the perspective offered by death is essential to cracking open the truth of life, and also that death's meaning is so absolute and inescapable that it is not easily perceived in everyday life. Does the narrator become embarrassed about the philistinism of his own erotic response because the young woman's dead body signifies an absolute pure quality? Also, does his necrophilia have something to do with the debilitating relationship that exists between his life as a successful, urban, corporate executive and the dilapidated countryside in which he was born and raised? Fulfilling his desire is impossible, and Yun runs away, but the close affinity between death and sex in this scene unconsciously disengages sexual desire [End Page 136] from procreation, since necrophilia is ultimately a nonproductive discharge of semen.
Written over forty years ago when the draining of Korea's young labor force and the denuding of Korea's hills were at their respective peaks, this description of a young woman's body emerges as a shocking allegory of Korea's ravaged landscape. The corpse is a sign of the plundered countryside and tamed revolutionary spirit of the early 1960s that had aroused repressed political agency, as well as a depiction of an infertile land and barren women. The woman's body, which is already lifeless, immaterial, and insubstantial, is not unlike Korea's national body, which had displayed a momentary democratic cultural renaissance that would be killed off by a single blow, a military coup less than a year later. Eroticism and...