Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era

Kyung Hyun Kim,
Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era
Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2011
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

Kyung Hyun Kim seems well placed to write an interesting study of contemporary Korean cinema. The UC Irvine professor has already written one book on the subject, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Duke University Press, 2004), produced a number of films (including Im Sang-soo’s recent high profile remake of The Housemaid[2010]), and is impressively connected within the Korean film industry. A glance through the notes at the end of the book finds him dining with Choi Dong-hun (director of Tazza: The High Rollers [2006]), lending his Jean Eustache videos to Hong Sang-soo, and explaining Korean cinema to Martin Scorsese, who has also written the foreword here. On the basis of this, one might think of Kim as someone intent on bridging the gulf between film academia and film practitioners.

As the subtitle of the book suggests, Kim takes a large-scale view of his subject. His historical approach is that of eras and epochs, and the links they entail between signifying systems writ large and forms of subjectivity as they can be read from artworks. Hence his project is to situate Korean cinema in relation to Big Theory historical ideas such as modernism and post-modernism and their connection to various phases of capitalism and the ways that they produce certain forms of subjectivity. A single sentence from his book, referring to the domestic success of Korean films, might give potential readers a good indication of his approach. It will also let them decide, better than any review of mine, whether this is a text from which they will profit:

“Perhaps it is not a coincidence that one of the greatest anomalies in film history from the past hundred years was projected within the confined space of South Korea, where the coevalness of emergent and late capitalism, global and local forces, and cultural oscillation between modernist affectation of the sublime and its postmodern invalidation produced a desire to magnify the cultural significance of authentic cultural uniqueness and realistic representation – while continuing to disqualify and debunk the austere qualities of modernist and realist aesthetic principles for the purpose of maximizing the entertainment values of various simulacra that originated from Hollywood and other pop industries of the West.” (27-8)

Having digested this sentence, several things should become clear. First, Kim’s frame of reference is large and ambitious, with capitalism, modernism, postmodernism, realism and the sublime rubbing shoulders as large context explanatory frames. The passing reference to the “greatest anomalies in film history from the past hundred years” is a throwaway generalisation that Kim never attempts to justify with much in the way of empirical evidence or argumentation. He is much more comfortable with top down history than with bottom up approaches. To speak of the coevalness of emergent and late capitalism is to forego the more detailed narratives of specific companies, forms of regulation, and social moments that can be found in other histories of Korean cinema. Finally, at a whopping 106 words and at least nine clauses, this weighs in as one of the most densely written sentences of the year – no, make that the late capitalist era. Anyone thinking of setting the book as a reference text would be well advised to restrict it to those already versed in the dark arts of this form of theoretical analysis.

In the Preface, Kim begins by staking out the specificity of the hallyu (Korean wave) period, in which various strands of pop culture intertwine to produce a moment of intense regional popularity. He usefully points out that the period peaks around 2006, opening the possibility that we might now need to move on from this period to describe a different set of historical, institutional, textual and intertextual conditions. That is another book, however, and Kim’s following chapters are not restricted to an analysis of hallyu films. In fact, the term recedes quickly in favour of chapters based around themes, auteurs and genres. Chapter One compares the diminishing uses to which landscape is put in three films ranging from 1993 to 2006. The next chapter leaps back to consider narratives from the 1920, 30s and 40s that revolve around the conjunction between colonialism and diseased bodies, before moving forward to consider contemporary versions of this generic structure. Other chapters take as their subjects: films about the dictator Park Chung-hee, the portrayal of North Koreans in South Korean films, the work of Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong and Park Chan-wook, before ending with a consideration of the sagŭk period film.

There are many useful things to be gleaned from these chapters: the identification of generic cycles, subtleties around the uses of different regional accents, the use of critical terms that draw on social context, as well as the thematic consistencies that recur, particularly in the films of Hong and Park. Kim’s emphasis, however, is not so much on the films, but rather on the way they figure in the large scale historical overviews that he derives from theorists such as Deleuze (who features a whopping 67 times in the index!), Guattari, Jameson, Lacan, Baudrillard and Žižek. The main form of argumentation here is the appeal to authority, with these authors functioning as the final points of wisdom to anchor the author’s interpretive work. In the style of Jameson, Kim’s primary approach is to read films as large scale allegories of the social epoch. Modernism corresponds to one moment of capitalism, post-modernism to late capitalism. The fact of their specific form of ‘coevalness’ in Korea produces the various forms of Korean cinema.

This national allegorical approach emerges most clearly in the chapter on films that involve the protection of weak, younger sisters in which diagrammatic triangles spell out the changing play of national allegory. The methodological problems of allegory – the circularity of privileging as evidence those elements that validate the conclusion you seek to reach—are never raised here. Kim is also open to the charge that he frequently redescribes the action of the films in order to bring it into line with the theoretical goal he is working his way towards. In his analysis of The Turning Gate (2002), the protagonist’s lie to avoid conflict is re-described as the fear of death (133) in order to fit in with the psychoanalytically inflected direction of the chapter.

While there are a range of interesting things to be gleaned from reading this book, I’m not sure that I had learned a great deal by the time I put it down. I’m wondering why this is the case. I was left with the feeling that this is not a book written to teach you anything you don’t already know. The invocation of authors such as Deleuze et al in fragmentary quotes that summarise large and sweeping arguments gives the sense that this is a game for insiders for whom a quote from Deleuze signifies a wider knowledge of Theory. No doubt if I was a Deleuzian, I would find greater insights in this book. The overall impression is that Korean films function as proof of theoretical propositions, but unless you already know the theoretical arguments, I doubt you will make sense of them here. When Kim writes that “This triumvirate that makes up modernist subjectivity – narcissistic interiority, the de-linking of the individual and the social, and an obsession with death and mourning” (124) it might give an interpretive insight into Hong Sang-soo’s films, but it is also a pretty reductive way of situating those films inside a historical context.

Perhaps because of this level of generality, it is difficult to follow a larger argument or a consistent analytical approach that builds throughout the book and provides a central thesis or guiding methodology. Kim’s starting point is that the Korean cinema contains within it lots of ‘coevalness’, or a wide degree of diversity. The final chapter on period films suggests an overarching argument on the ‘virtualness’ of the Korea they inscribe, that is, one where signification provides its own referent. However, there needs to be a stronger and more forthright logic to get you from chapter to chapter. I found it hard to predict where Kim was going with his analysis in each chapter, or what tools (beyond an appeal to the authority of Deleuze) he would bring to the task. Deleuzians will no doubt differ in their assessment of this book, although I suspect that Deleuzians will also need to find ways of articulating more clearly the ways in which their approaches amount to a coherent body of knowledge that addresses the most pressing theoretical and critical concerns of film studies at this time.

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →