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  • Introduction
  • JungBong Choi

Identifying cinemas with particular ethnic groups or nation-states is a time-honored practice, which finds its root in the modern nation-state’s search for cultural distinctiveness. Although some decry the practice of nationalizing cinema as an institutional and cultural mannerism, its curious tenacity begs for a more delicate treatment than a normative dismissal. What, then, does the adjective “Korean” signify in Korean cinema? Does it refer to Koreans, the people with Korean nationality, or does it refer to Korea, the national polity in its entirety? In the case of the former, Korean cinema may mean a cinema made by, about, and for Koreans. If the latter is the case, Korean cinema would stand for a cinema produced in Korea with human, material, and aesthetic resources governed by the society that constitutes Korea.

Whereas the former underscores ethno-national attributes, the latter highlights institutional and social properties. When the two components combine, Korean cinema can be viewed as a realm defined by ethno-sociality, but not necessarily by the nation-state. One thing is clear here: the scope of national cinemas often surpasses the tripartite components of the nation-state (i.e., territory, people, and government). As such, Korean cinema occupies the space beyond the nation’s sovereign territory, attracts funding of foreign institutions, and attends to the lives of people with nationalities and ethnicities other than Korean. This dissymmetry between the scope of Korean national cinema and the perimeter of Korea as a nation-state can be accounted for with reference to the following factors.

First there is the discrepancy between geopolitical and cultural borders. There exist two Koreas (North Korea and South Korea) that are territorially divided yet ethno-culturally indivisible. Although South Korean national cinema does without North Korea in the areas of production and distribution, its content and [End Page 169] cultural purview barely exclude North Korea. Second, the temporal rupture exists and corresponds to the checkered modern history of the nation. Korean cinema takes on multiple, distinct semblances that have been shaped by and under different political regimes—stretching from late Chosŏn Dynasty through Japanese colonial rule and the U.S. occupation army to the military dictatorship of the 1960s–80s—to the extent of making the supposed genealogical continuity untenable. Third, there is the matter of institutional hybridity. As Korean cinema has transformed during the last decade into a multinational coproduction hub—connecting Hong Kong, Japan, China, and Taiwan—the distinction between national and transnational cinemas has become increasingly hazy. There are more factors to take stock of, but the above aspects alone would suffice to problematize the practice of cataloging cinema with the labels of nation-state, instead of ethnosociality, which is always in excess of the territorial confines of a country.

What confounds scholars in film studies most is that the ethno-social character of national cinema involves more and more transnational, denationalized elements, as is manifest in a recent array of Korean films. A good number of films address the lives of either foreign/repatriated diasporas in Korea—Filan (P’airan, 2001), Never-ending Peace and Love (Ch’andŭra ŭi kyŏngu, 2003), Jongno, Winter (Chongno kyŏul, 2005), My Father (Abŏji, 2007), Himalaya, Where the Wind Dwells (Himallaya, param i mŏmunŭn kot, 2008), Bandhobi (Pandubi, 2009), Where Is Ronny? (Roni rŭl ch’ajasŏ, 2009), Banga? Banga! (Bangga? Bangga!, 2010)—or Korean diasporas in foreign countries—Susan Brink’s Arirang (Sujan bŭringkŭ ŭi arirang, 1991), Kazoku Cinema (Kajok sinema, 1998), Iron Palm (Aiŏn p’am, 2002), Rikidozan (K. Yŏktosan, 2004), Fighter in the Wind (Param ŭi p’ait’ŏ, 2004), In Between Days (Panghwang ŭi naldŭl, 2006).

In this respect, it would be fair to say that contemporary Korean cinema acrobatically bestrides the re-nationalizing and the de-nationalizing drifts, exhibiting simultaneously ethno-socially centered and transnationally decentered propensities. By merging the nationalizing impetus with the transnational thrust, Korean cinema becomes a site at which an intense battle between ethnocentrism, provincialism, and state-capitalism on the one hand and multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and neoliberal marketism on the other, is waged over questions of historical experience, image construction, narrative structure...


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