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  • Unexpected Alliances: Independent Filmmakers, the State, and the Film Industry in Postauthoritarian South Korea by Young-a Park
  • Jiyeon Kang (bio)
Unexpected Alliances: Independent Filmmakers, the State, and the Film Industry in Postauthoritarian South Korea, by Young-a Park. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. 224pages, notes, bibliography, filmography, index. $39.95 cloth.

Young-a Park’s Unexpected Alliances is a rich ethnographic study exploring how formerly radical film activists during South Korea’s authoritarian era turned into “independent filmmakers” after democratization—taken up as symbols of political legitimacy and cultural capital in a democratic, market-driven, globalizing Korea. The “unexpected alliances” that these filmmakers forged with new civilian governments, the growing cultural industry, and a middle-class audience illuminate the complex and intimate texture of the political and cultural transformation of radical activism in the post-authoritarian era. For film scholars, this work offers the sociohistorical formation of the Korean “independent film” (dongnip yongìhwa) in the 1990s and describes the fascinating connection between the radical movement tradition and the emergence of a Korean cinema of diverse content and style, which later constituted an important wing of the global hallyu (Korean wave). More broadly, scholars of contemporary Korea will find an insightful analysis of the reform era (Kim Dae-Jung, 1998–2003, and Roh Moo-hyun, 2003–8) and the lasting influence of democratic struggle in the postauthoritarian culture and politics of Korea.

Methodologically, Park follows a collective of activist filmmakers, KIFA, from 2000 to 2013, and in doing so she zooms in on a number of individuals, historical junctures, and spaces. The reader is invited to observe KIFA members who continue to pursue social justice goals, other members who turned into independent auteurs, and yet others who joined the collective later not for activism but for the resources and network necessary to enter the film industry. She studies the organizational dynamics and tensions between these individuals and the collective by examining important scenes of cultural politics, including the 1990s screen-quota movement, feminist filmmakers in the collective, and the fervor over international film festivals.

The introduction situates the project in the historical context of the reform era. Challenging the popular notion that the former activists of “Generation 386” were “co-opted” in postauthoritarian Korea, Park instead proposes a complex interplay with the civilian governments that sought legitimacy through expanding the boundaries of expression, with the corporate conglomerates that seized the new film industry, and with an expanding middle class searching for taste and culture.

The first two chapters focus on the transformation of activist film during the authoritarian era into “independent film” after democratization [End Page 111] in 1987. Chapter 1, “Film Activism,” analyzes the politics and aesthetics of film activism as a wing of the radical anti-authoritarian struggle—a homogeneous community of producers and viewers who shared the experience of state oppression.

Chapter 2, “Independent Film,” illuminates the sociopolitical changes that reconfigured these dissident film activists into a new type of cultural producer. The civilian state not only relaxed censorship but rallied filmmakers both as programmers of newly installed film festivals and as high-ranking officials in government institutions. At the same time, corporate conglomerates sponsored the booming film industry of the 1990s and invited filmmakers into new art centers that catered to viewers in the expanding middle class. These changing conditions explain the establishment of the uniquely Korean “independent film,” which cannot be described as simply a traditional art-house film. This chapter offers a social account of how Korean independent film came about, positioning filmmakers as power brokers in negotiations with the state, as new contributors of capital, and as purveyors of elite cultural venues.

Chapter 3, “Beating Titanic,” follows up on this by showing how independent filmmakers became a symbol of cultural nationalism against Hollywood. During late-1990s protests over American pressure to open up the Korean film market, KIFA mobilized its social movement network and style in concert with the old agenda of nationalism.

Chapter 4 offers a fascinating picture of the complex cultural power of the independent film collective. Here, Park follows two female filmmakers who joined KIFA to acquire the social capital to survive in the rigidly hierarchical and...