Steven Chung, University of Minnesota Press: 2014. 304 pages. $25 paper.
After a decade or so of rising global prominence, Korean cinema has recently gained even further attention stateside thanks to excellent scholarship epitomized by Kyung Hyun Kim’s Virtual Hallyu: Korean [End Page 61] Cinema of the Global Era (2011) and Theodore Hughes’ Literature and Film in Cold War South Korea: Freedom’s Frontier (2012). While, as those books reflect, there has been no shortage of important historical and theoretical work in Korean film studies no book since Kim’s and David James’ 2001 tome on Im Kwon-Taek has partaken in the project, of highlighting key directors. For this and several other reasons, Steven Chung’s Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-ok and Postwar Cinema is a very welcome addition to the field.
Despite his non-auteur reputation today by comparison to the likes of Kim Ki-young, Shin Sang-ok is an ingenious subject for a book. Prominent enough to have already been the subject of an English-language monograph, he conducted such a multifaceted, quixotic, and, most importantly, radically apolitical career that his work is best analyzed, as Chung recognizes well, not as a coherent oeuvre but as a prickly locus around which to address theoretical questions of film, ideology, and nationhood on the Korean peninsula. That Shin has already been written about extensively—probably more so than any other Korean director—allows the book to assume a historiographical scope that makes it an original contribution to the recent wave of Korean film studies in English. If Split Screen Korea has an agenda, though, it is less about reevaluating Shin’s stature than using his career to challenge our assumptions about the relationship between politics, mass culture, and historical visuality on the Korean peninsula.
Before roughly tracing Shin’s iterant career, which led him from war-torn Seoul to Pyongyang, where he spent most of the 1980s making films for Kim Jong-il, and finally to Hollywood for a batch of sequels to 3 Ninjas (sic), the book starts with an excellent chapter that draws on early Korean film theory. Using as a template Linda Williams’ conception of melodrama as a “mode” rather than a genre, Steven Chung draws upon the 1920s conception of kyemong to posit an “enlightenment mode” of filmmaking. These Korean films, he argues, tend to exhibit three characteristics: a “vnarod or agrarian return narrative,” nationalistic overtones, and a certain didacticism. While this theoretical excavation is an excellent move and in keeping with film studies’ current return to classical film theory (exemplified in particular right now by scholars working on German and Chinese cinema), I would have liked a more thorough account of the roots of this concept. Chung laconically defines the mode as a trans-generic means of raising national consciousness, but what the target of that effort might be remains ambiguous.
The following three chapters, though, offer concrete insights into the relationship between postwar film production and the complexities of South Korea’s modernization. Chapter 2 places Shin Sang-ok’s female-centric melodramas of the late 1950s alongside other key films of the period, such as the famous Madame Freedom, and contemporaneous visual culture. Its main strength is its extensive archival work with fashion magazines and other visual ephemera that reflect the centrality of cinema in 1950s South Korean mass culture. Shifting focus, Chapter 3 provides a critical history of Shin Films, the studio that our subject ran from the 1950s to the mid-‘70s. Wisely eschewing a traditional auteurist approach to Shin’s work in this period, Chung elucidates the ways in which Shin navigated South Korea’s film market and its motion picture laws. He demonstrates how Shin’s economic and political interests largely dictated the type of films he made: youth and war films would sit well neither with the Park Chung-hee administration nor with the masses of middle-aged women that dominated audiences, and so he stuck by and large to family melodramas. This primarily economic history precedes the most concisely argued section of the book, Chapter 4, which offers a...