- Vicious Circuits: Korea's IMF Cinema and the End of the American Century by Joseph Jonghyun Jeon
"What happened?" Asked by the 2002 film Looking for Bruce Lee and echoing the sentiment of many in South Korea following the catastrophic 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the unprecedented $57 billion IMF bailout, it is the question that undergirds Joseph Jonghyun Jeon's Vicious Circuits: Korea's IMF Cinema and the End of the American Century. Providing a vital account of film produced in the country between 1998 and 2008, Vicious Circuits asks, "What happened: to Korean cinema, to Korea, to the global political economic system?" (p. 3). Designating this decade of film "Korea's IMF Cinema," Vicious Circuits covers a swath of modes and genres, from international film festival fare to CGI-laden blockbusters to independent documentaries, providing far-reaching insight across that range. What then is the defining feature of IMF Cinema? It is that it is both a material product of its historical context and a critical meditation on those conditions.
More specifically, IMF Cinema considers the aftermath of the bailout package and how the IMF's terms of massive economic restructuring had the United States in mind more than Korea. To this, the broader picture of Vicious Circuits is the decline of American hegemony, informed by Giovanni Arrighi's identification of the U.S.'s "signal crisis" in 1973 and "terminal crisis" in the early twenty-first century. Vicious Circuits thus argues that the restructuring efforts were a last-ditch attempt by the United States to maintain its global authority, turning Korea away from industry and towards financialization while further opening the country up to foreign markets. But in doing so, Korea would see even further instability in the form of massive layoffs, rising unemployment, and the explosion of [End Page 219] irregular labor. That the U.S.'s attempt to remodel Korea in its own image was going to almost inevitably lead to further crisis is the titular vicious circuit, which returns again and again in IMF Cinema.
Vicious Circuits charts this dynamic across an introduction, six chapters, and a coda. The introduction, "Revenge Circulates. Empires End," sets up the concerns of the book with an analysis of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2003) and its depiction of neoliberal Korea where revenge and debt are imbricated within one another. The first chapter then discusses how Memories of Murder (2003) eschews the epistemological function of detective fiction in order to explore cinema and journalism as modes of investigation. The investigation however, is less about the then-unresolved Hwaseong serial murders and more about coping with the vexed experience of Korean modernity. Oldboy (2003) and A Bittersweet Life (Kim Jee-woon, 2005) come to the fore in the second chapter, which traces how the salaryman—the de facto protagonist of the IMF Crisis—becomes embodied in the gangster. In turn, genre cinema provides an opportunity to contemplate Confucian hierarchy, the disposability of labor, and the continuum between crime and business. The third chapter turns its attention towards Looking for Bruce Lee, Waikiki Brothers (2001), and Oollala Sisters (2002), films that highlighted the disenfranchised youths neglected by post-IMF policy who then turned to the entertainment industry. Jeon forwards the compelling idea of "subsistence faming," where celebrity is merely another form of survival in neoliberalism. Young women, who were also left behind by public policy, are at the center of the next chapter. As the four protagonists of Take Care of My Cat (2001) are caught between the country's transition from industry to finance (emblemized in the film by the city of Incheon), technology is both the driving force of job obsolescence and a medium of intimacy. Hegemony becomes embodied in chapter 5, as the algorithms of finance capital birth the computer-generated monsters of The Host (2006) and D-War (2007). Along these lines, the algorithm in HERs (2007) similarly links militarism, finance, and aesthetics. The sixth and final chapter of Vicious Circuits takes...