- Virtually Alive or Questionably Dead? The Ambivalence of Modern Korean Identity in Literature and Cinema
The studies by Kyung Hyun Kim and Theodore Hughes discussed in this essay are rich with information and insights but are also challenging, almost subversive, to some prevalent views on Korean cinema and literature. While Kim looks into contemporary, post-1990s Korean films operating in the global market as an important (but perhaps since 2000 not the most influential) wing of the hallyu (“Korean Wave”) trend, Hughes deals primarily with early postwar literature and visual arts (including cinema) from 1945 to roughly the early 1970s. Both authors are concerned with the history and contemporaneity of Korean identity and with the manners in which this localized identity is constituted, specifically in relation to colonial modernity, global late capitalism, and ethnocentric nationalism. They also address the problematic status of cinema in the context of Korean culture and history, sometimes developing arguments in unexpected directions. [End Page 419]
Kyung Hyun Kim’s Virtual Hallyu, a long-anticipated follow-up to his seminal Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (2004), starts off with a fore-word by Martin Scorsese. Unlike some celebrity endorsements, Scorsese’s mini-essay is astute and thought provoking in its own right. The renowned director speaks of “unease” and “melancholy” in the best Korean films he has seen, regardless of their genre provenances or political orientations, and further questions whether these qualities are produced by certain kinds of friction between Korean cinema and the “culture it sits in” (ix–x). As Scorsese suggests, Virtual Hallyu is in many ways a quest to explain this sense of unease and melancholy. Instead of dismissing it as a symptom of maladjustment or lionizing it as a sign of pointed resistance against the neoliberal hegemony over the global cultural exchange, Kim, taking cues from Gilles Deleuze, characterizes it as reflecting the “virtual” qualities of Korean cinema, in the sense that in the latter, “history and social referents can return only in forms that are both truthful and fantastic” (21). These films supply images that cannot be reduced to simple representations of “actuality,” but allow the past/fantastic, and the present/real, to coexist in the same frame, so to speak.
Wielding the arsenal of literary (psycho-)analysis, Kim explicates the traits that enable these films to remain viable products and/or significant works of art in the Hollywood-dominated global market and to avoid being absorbed into the “late-capitalist cultural revolution that unseated Hong Kong in a rotating chair” and eventually being “gobbled up and spat out by Hollywood when [Korean cinema’s] replacement [was] found” (xv). In the context of hallyu, the key cinematic mode of expression has shifted from political allegory and affect to self-reflective irony; thus, the monster that crawls out of the Han River to devour hapless denizens of Seoul in The Host (2006) can no longer be construed simply as a symbol of Korea’s pathological modernization or the mess created by the neo-imperialist United States; a South Korean protagonist trying to apologize to a North Korean student studying abroad in Night and Day (2008) ends up slipping into silly antics more appropriate for a silent comedy, far removed from the elocution and “seriousness” expected from the agents of reunification; and so on.
Kim displays the full extent of his intellectual dexterity when he teases out an array of insights from specific cinematic texts, even those works some might think are unlikely to generate fresh interpretations. He proves them [End Page 420] wrong time and again. The most notable examples of his analytic acumen include: an analysis of Hong Sang-soo’s urban landscape as a site of modern alienation as well as of “massive interiorization” suffered by his characters (especially his male protagonists, who remain cringe-worthy—and, for me, vaguely myrmecological—realizations of those “impotent intellectuals” that infest South Korean elite...