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  • Crisis of Gender and the Nation in Korean Literature and Cinema: Modernity Arrives Again
  • Sang Yee Cheon (bio)
Crisis of Gender and the Nation in Korean Literature and Cinema: Modernity Arrives Again, by Kelly Y. Jeong. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2011. 156 pages. $55 cloth.

Crisis of Gender and the Nation in Korean Literature and Cinema: Modernity Arrives Again is a study of South Korea’s unprecedented experience of modernization, with a focus on the literature (and also in the films in the [End Page 157] 1960s) that portrayed the historical traumas of colonialism in the 1930s, decolonization in the 1940s, the Korean War in the 1950s, and uneven economic development in the 1960s. The book includes the introduction of modernity’s paradox, trauma, and multiplicity into Korean life; gender issues and nationalism or modernity depicted in the literature of the period from the 1920s to the 1960s; and nation rebuilding, masculinity, and decolonization depicted in the postwar South Korean cinema of the 1960s in films like The Coachman and The Stray Bullet.

The author starts with the umbrella topic of modernity, asking “What is modernity?” The author claims that the content and context of modernity in Korea changes depending on the different historical period in question. Also, modernity is like a double-edged sword in Korea, promising freedom, as well as gender or social equality, but creating destabilization and confusion of existing hierarchies and truths. Korea’s modernity started with colonization, arriving slowly and filtered through Japan even before Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. By the 1930s, the Korean experience of modernity via colonialism was filled with novelties, the greatest of which resulted from higher educational levels. For example, colonial modernity provided Korean young women with a modernized or Western-style education, but Korea’s ancient patriarchal Confucian worldview conflicted with the ideals that newly educated young women pursued—a contradiction illustrated perfectly in the life of the “New Woman” Na Hye-sŏk. The New Women were an anachronism in the colonial Korean context, where chastity was still widely considered a woman’s foremost virtue, and Korea was thus not ready for the new ideals that New Women signified (for example, marriage based on romantic love).

The primary role of intellectuals as leaders of the nation in the colonial era was to be exemplars of the “modern.” Many colonial intellectuals had to submit to the Japanese or showed an ambivalent attitude toward colonial power because they were not courageous enough to endure oppression; they later typically regretted their role as titular leaders of a colonized country. In the late 1940s, Korean modernity was characterized by decolonization and its aftermath, which resulted in confessional writings by intellectuals. By the 1950s, Korea’s modernity was synonymous with Americanization. Postwar Korean literature from 1955 to 1960 was influenced by the militaristic culture that pervaded the sociocultural atmosphere that followed the Korean War and the subsequent stationing of American forces in South Korea. This included ideals of masculinity and ideological conflict, and thus it manifested itself as a nihilistic, existentialist modernism. (For example, the word yanggongju, literally, “Yankee princess,” refers to [End Page 158] Korean women who engaged in prostitution around American military camps and was popularized via Korean literature of this period.)

Postcolonial South Korea was chaotic, with a government still unstable due to inadequate infrastructure. South Korea’s most influential and best-organized institution was the military, and the state ideology was the military ideology: anticommunism. However, during the Rhee regime, the nation simultaneously militarized and Americanized, and this led to social conflict. In the 1960s, exposure to Western culture—specifically, American culture via the presence of American troops and the system of Americanization that the Rhee regime followed—resulted in divergence from traditional hierarchical and gender roles and even challenged the patriarchal social order. However, although the American quasi-colonial presence in this period undermined tradition, it failed to introduce the redeeming qualities and ideals of American life such as openness and democracy; this is illustrated in the film The Stray Bullet.

The author asks which other forms of modernity have become established in South Korea since the 1960s and how new forms of modernity...


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pp. 157-159
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