- Sensing Through Slowness:Korean Americans and the Un/making of the Home Film Archive
In the opening scene, two women appear before the camera. Adorned in a bright red dress, the younger of the two grabs the hand of the older woman as they shyly walk toward the filmmaker. Joined by two lanky young men and a young girl dressed in a simple black frock, everyone laughs as they enjoy popsicles. Within twenty seconds, the frame jumps to a different sequence of scenes. In the unfolding imagery, an older woman and adolescent girl pluck pink roses from a front lawn as they greet a young man in front of the house. Gesturing to the camera, the older woman teases the young man as she playfully pushes him off the porch.
Captured on 8-mm color film shot during the early 1950s, this silent footage was taken by Shungnak "Luke" Kim, an evangelical missionary and the reverend of the Korean Presbyterian Church, one of the most important institutions in Los Angeles's Korean community during the first half of the twentieth century.1 Portraying Reverend Kim's family and friends enjoying a warm evening together, this scene is a snippet from the reverend's collection of home films deposited into the University of Southern California (USC) Korean Heritage Library.2 An assemblage that includes color and black-and-white films shot over two decades (1948–67), the reverend's films register a tumultuous arc of time encompassing the afterlife of Japanese colonial rule, the Cold War division [End Page 5] of Korea, and the beginning of dictatorial rule in South Korea. As one of the only known home film collections to depict Koreans in the United States before 1965, a pivotal year marking key shifts in U.S. immigration policies and significant changes in home film technology, Reverend Kim's footage offers a compelling opportunity to contemplate the materialization of an early Korean presence in the United States. Located at the fault lines of Japanese occupation, U.S. racial violence, and competing Cold War ideologies, Koreans were subjected to Japanese colonial violence and racial exclusion in the United States, even as they became enmeshed in the consolidation of American imperial power in Asia.
In this article, I draw upon the reverend's home film archive to track these historical conditions and the conflicting memories associated with the multiple positions occupied by Korean Americans during this volatile moment. Specifically, through a methodological approach conceptualized as a differentiated analysis, Reverend Kim's films generate meaningful opportunities to sense and make sense of messy subjectivities that exceed oppositional binaries, such as the national versus transnational, colonized versus colonizer, and oppressor versus oppressed. This textured reading of Reverend Kim's film archive, I argue, pushes against the existing parameters of Asian American film and media studies by contending with the ways in which the home film is predominantly depicted as a cultural apparatus that reproduces dominant ideals and norms or as a cultural artifact that taps into the truthful or raw realities of subaltern subjects.
In fleshing out a differentiated approach to the home film, Edward Said's contrapuntal reading practice is an illuminating starting point. For Said, a contrapuntal framework recognizes the complexity of imperialism by attending to the entwined histories of metropolitan and subaltern life that constitute the cultural field. In essence, a contrapuntal practice feels for difference, incongruities, and absence, because imperialism produces historical conditions and subjectivities that are conflicting, contrarian, and at times, ugly. Such ugliness unhinges the dichotomies of colonizer versus colonized, evil versus good, and dominance versus resistance, particularly as everyday life transcends these hard-and-fast delineations. Hence, by identifying the political, historical, and racial conditions that anchor a cultural work, a differentiated reading labors through a condensation of irreconcilable gaps, submerged experiences, and silenced desires informing the "hybrid, heterogeneous … and unmonolithic" experiences of colonized subjects.3
Yet if a contrapuntal reading underscores the hybridity of cultural content produced at a particular moment, a differentiated reading accentuates this sense of multiplicity by attending to the specificity of the home film medium—and the technological practices, expectations, and yearnings that govern its aesthetic...