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Reviewed by:
  • Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era by Kyung Hyun Kim
  • Sang Yee Cheon (bio)
Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era, by Kyung Hyun Kim. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011. 280 pages, illustrations, tables. $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Since the late 1990s, the Korean wave, or hallyu, has put various aspects of Korean culture—from TV dramas, films, and popular music to food, fashion, and language—on the world stage. Korean popular music, or “K-pop,” has spread throughout the world via social networking systems, creating a sensation and increasing in popularity. Korean cinema likewise [End Page 253] played an important part in hallyu in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Movies like Kang Je-gyu’s Shiri (1999) and Kwak Jae-yong’s My Sassy Girl (2001) were very popular in East Asia and made Korean audiences return to Korean films from Hollywood blockbusters and sense the potential of Korean movies in the world market. Korean dramas like Winter Sonata (2002) and Daejanggŭm (2003) also sparked the popularity of hallyu in East Asia and have become internationally well known.

Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era is a study of the Korean cinema of the past decade based on the Virtual-Actual distinction. Kyung Hyun Kim states that the Virtual refers to “the way things appear” and the Actual refers to “the way they really are.” The “virtual-actual” distinction of Gilles Deleuze is important in the field of film theory, and, as Kim states, “Deleuze’s contribution to the virtual must be understood within a creative field where any kind of being has to be located within a plane of becoming that is somewhere between virtual and actual.”

In the book, a number of movies are analyzed in relative detail. These include Im Kwon-taek’s Sopyonje (1993), Hong Sang-soo’s The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), and Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006) in chapter 1; Lee Byung-il’s Spring of Korean Peninsula (1941) and brothers Jung Sik and Jung Beom-sik’s Epitaph (2007) in chapter 2; Lim Chan-sang’s The President’s Barber (2004) and Lim Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang (2005) in chapter 3; Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis (2003) and Secret Sunshine (2007) in chapter 6; and Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) in chapter 7. It seems that Kim selected and organized these analyses based on the film directors’ styles—that is, realism (Im Kwon-taek, Lee Chang-dong, and Lim Sang-soo), modernism (Hong Sang-soo), and postmodernism (Bong Joon-ho). He argues, however, that “the distinction between realism, modernism, and postmodernism is meaningless” because they “cannot provide anything new in the critical methodologies of visual cultures given that the boundary between the way things are remembered and the way things really were has been crossed through the massive repository of images collected over the past decade.” Thus, Kim uses the concept of Deleuze’s virtual-actual distinction in order to explain the recent worldwide popularity of South Korean cultural products such as K-dramas, films, and so forth.

Kim’s analysis in chapter 6 of Lee Chang-dong’s movies Oasis and Secret Sunshine is fascinating. For Kim, psychological relationships in the director’s last two movies—boundaries between fantasy and reality, signifier and signified, images and words defines the protagonists’ traumas. In contrast, his earlier movies Green Fish (1997) and Peppermint Candy (2000) were political. However, it might be better or more comprehensive if Kim could have added Green Fish and Peppermint Candy to chapter 6 under [End Page 254] the theme of Virtual Trauma. Green Fish and Peppermint Candy differ from Oasis and Secret Sunshine in that the trauma in his earlier movies is a symptom of national crises such as the Kwangju uprising, showing how society and history influence an individual’s life while telling a story about human nature. In Peppermint Candy, for example, the traumatic or tragic contemporary history of Korea, from the 1980s historical catastrophes to the 1990s economic crisis, is experienced by an ordinary young Korean man (Yeong-ho) who had been in the...