Melodrama, Exorcism, Mimicry:
Melodrama, Exorcism, Mimicry:
Japan and the Colonial Past in the New Korean Cinema
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter first refers to a number of different films that have appeared in the last few years, ones that apply a variety of mainstream generic conventions to stories that touch on Korea's former colonial master, Japan. It then looks in some detail at a film that is perhaps more art house than multiplex in its ambitions: Im Sangsu's The President's Last Bang. The chapter suggests the usefulness of keeping a certain postcolonial critical consciousness alert when dealing with products of any “new cinema” emerging in a region, such as northeast Asia, once shaped by colonialism and empire—one that sometimes comes from Europe but, most significantly for the future of the region, sometimes from next door. For it is a striking feature of the contemporary popular culture of East Asia that optimism about the increasing flow and circulation of cultural goods keeps bumping up against political frictions and ghosts of the not-so-distant past.
In his recent reassessment of Italian neo-realist cinema, Mark Shiel has recalled that “one of the presumptions of the national cinema approach is that while films make an interesting object of study in themselves, their ultimate utility lies in the ways they produce a ‘collective narrative’ of a people and a national culture.” He goes on to note that “a balance must be struck between approaching … national cinema as a unitary phenomenon, the expression of a discrete and stable national culture, and recognising that on close analysis any national culture is bound to reveal itself to be ‘eclectic, fragmentary and contradictory’.”1 I do not think that any student of modern Korean history or of contemporary South Korean film would argue that Korean national culture has, throughout the twentieth century and now on into the twenty-first, been anything but eclectic, fragmentary, and contradictory.
This essay first refers to a number of different films that have appeared in the last handful of years, ones that apply a variety of mainstream generic conventions to stories that touch on Korea's former colonial master, Japan. It then looks in some detail at a film that is perhaps more art house than multiplex in its ambitions: Im Sangsu's The President's Last Bang (Kǔ ttae kǔ saram-dǔl) from 2005. Throughout, the things I have to say are geared towards the political and historical as well as the cultural. I hope to suggest the usefulness of keeping a certain postcolonial critical consciousness2 alert when dealing with products of any “new cinema” emerging in a region such as northeast Asia once shaped by colonialism and empire — one that sometimes come from Europe but, most significantly for the future of the region, (p.196) sometimes from next door. For it is a striking feature of the contemporary popular culture of East Asia that optimism about the increasing flow and circulation of cultural goods (TV drama, films, a huge variety of music and popular bands, fashion) keeps bumping up against political frictions and ghosts of the not so distant past.
Since the accelerated liberalization of South Korean society and culture from the early 1990s, and since the belated lifting of the ban on Japanese popular culture3 beginning in 1998 under the presidency of Kim Dae-jung,4 filmmakers in South Korea have been able for the first time in decades to address aspects of the country's past and present in films about Korea and Japan. Any real freedom of artistic interpretation concerning the colonial era (1910–45) had been put on hold by several factors: first, the political confusion and violence of the immediate postwar years, and then the devastation of the Korean War. Of course, in the decades after the civil war's inconclusive end, many films with Japanese characters were produced. Yet during years of rule by US-backed dictators, South Korean filmmakers could not openly explore the terrain of earlier twentieth-century Korea and the nation's collective implication in the Japanese Empire — not in a country whose military, bureaucratic, and business elite were far too compromised by involvement, often voluntary if not always enthusiastic, with the former colonial power.
In films produced recently, we might expect South Korea's changing relationship with Japan, former imperial master and contemporary regional partner-rival, and its own past to be explored with a freedom presumably only still circumscribed by artistic imagination and commercial pressures. Japan, Japanese figures, Koreans with Japan connections, etc., have in fact emerged as part of a cultural reengagement with the not so distant past. This newly imagined Japan has been expressed across a wide variety of film genres: nostalgic biopic (Rikidōzan 2004); martial arts film (Fighter in the Wind 2004); historical biopic/romance (Blue Swallow 2005). One could add quite a few more titles of films made since 2000: offbeat contemporary Korean-Japanese romance Asako in Ruby Shoes (2000), time-travel cop thriller 2009 Lost Memories (2002), or baseball-genre historical comedy YMCA Baseball Team (2002). All of these films, some with fairly large (by Korean standards) budgets, are reasonably well-made efforts at mainstream entertainment; all have scenes or sections that in sheer visual impact are as effective as anything produced on the world market. The technical limitations that plagued filmmakers well into the 1980s have been long overcome.
These films take their place in what has come to be considered the New Korean Cinema. There are many good accounts of the spectacular takeoff of (p.197) the South Korean film industry since the doldrums of the late 1980s and early 1990s.5 Recent statistics from the Korean Film Council show how, in the last dozen years, Korean film seems to have carved out a remarkable share of the domestic box office. So where, in 1995, barely 20 percent of actual attendances were for home productions, with foreign films overwhelmingly from the US at almost 80 percent, the market share figures for domestic versus foreign for 2005 were 56.1 percent versus 33.7 percent US (followed by Europe 2.5 percent, Japan 2.2 percent, and China 1.2 percent).6 Among major developed countries, only France has maintained anything like this sort of domestic market. The peculiarities of the South Korean industry mean that the domestic box office is crucial to the success of any film and to the industry overall; “unofficial” online downloading is a major factor in the dullness of the DVD market so far.7 Yet Korean film is also part of the regional success story within the East and Southeast Asian cultural marketplace. Film exports in 2002 accounted for less than US$15 million; the figure for 2003 was US$31 million, 2004 US$58 million, 2005 US$76 million. In 2004, almost seventynine percent and in 2005 eighty-seven percent of these exports were to other Asian partners in the cultural market.8 Of course US$76 million would not go very far in Hollywood, and Korean film lags well behind Korean TV drama in regional market profitability and general popularity.9 Still, coming from an almost extinct domestic market fifteen years ago and no exports to speak of, Korean film seems to be riding the crest of a fairly dependable wave.
Yet, as mentioned, it is hard to know how optimistic one can remain about the future of the regional market and the general ease and speed with which cultural products may continue to circulate between Korea, Japan, the PRC, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. What Chris Berry has recently observed to be true of filmmaking in Taiwan is at least as true in the case of South Korea: “instead of the fading away of the national, our current era seems to feature both rising economic globalization and rising political national tensions.”10 The political friction between Korea and Japan appears to be increasing at an even more rapid pace than exports of films or TV dramas from the former to the latter: conflict over the tiny Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, Japanese prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the perennial debates about Japan's revisionist history textbooks, the issue of Japanese apologies and compensation for the entire colonial era, or the lack of justice for the thousands of women, Korean and others, forced into sexual slavery during the war — all these issues shadow the positive image of regional flows and other forms of co-operation. Anyone following major news stories during 2007 will be aware of how then-Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō managed to reignite the “comfort women” issue in a dramatic fashion.11
(p.198) If we look back from the fractious present into the turbulent past, it can be taken as axiomatic that, “since Korea's encounter with modernity and its nearly simultaneous colonization by Japan at the turn of the twentieth century, the memory of the struggle for independence has provided a vast reservoir of narrative and discursive practices by which Koreans have come to articulate their modern self-identity. In the modern era” — well before, that is, the omnipresence of the other others thrown up by liberation, civil war and Cold War (the US ally-occupier, the Soviet Union, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the PRC) — “Japan became the ‘other’ of the Korean ‘self’.”12 This formulation of Japan as resolutely other to a presumed distinctly Korean self is the premise of much thinking and writing about the colonial past: “The issue of Korean participation in a colonial modernity is finessed in most nationalist histories by isolating the ‘true’ national form of modernity from any connection to ‘tainted’ Japanese modernity.”13 The fact is that there were mainly losers: those who actively resisted, the thousands scattered to Manchuria, the maritime USSR and Japan, those forced into Japanese industries or sexual slavery, and the majority of Koreans who still worked the land. There were as well relative winners during the colonial decades. “Long-term colonial rule requires the cooptation of ever larger numbers of the colonized population … South Korean officials, business people, and even intellectuals become part and parcel of colonial rule.”14 Most writers, artists, and filmmakers only existed as such to the extent they had been educated, enculturated however reluctantly, and incorporated however marginally into the institutional cultural life of the colony.
Kang Nae-hui has argued that South Korea's thwarted project of confronting the colonial past inhabits three strands of discourse about the nation. One concerns tactical forgetting: “letting people forget the ‘painful traumas’ of the past. The justification is that reconciliation and unity need to be forged for the well-being of the whole nation.”15 This generally conservative line of argument has, as Kang points out, elements in common with theoretical constructions of South Korea as a postcolonial nation.16
Then there is the more straightforwardly nationalistic position of “the strategy of exorcism: It is an attempt to expel the dregs … as alien substances or impurities that should not be allowed to mingle with the national culture.” The work of exorcism may be “to disprove the worth of Japan” as well as “to expel the evil spirit from the nation and to return to that ‘original state’ of the nation before the national spirit was injured and corrupted by colonialism.”17 The third discourse is Kang's own, the perhaps utopian attempt to endure the spectres of the colonial past. “To endure ghosts is not (p.199) to get rid of them but to bear up and resist the afflictions caused by them. … How could we deal with ghosts without enduring them?”18
In looking below at how the New Korean Cinema has represented the past of Korea and Japan, I adapt Kang Nae-hui's general categories, simplifying and distorting, no doubt, in the process. In examining a first group of films, I take tactical forgetting to be comparable to the melodramatic mode of filmmaking.
Nationalist exorcism is briefly considered with regard to the blockbuster Hanbando (The Korean Peninsula, 2006) and 2009 Lost Memories (2002). And while Kang's complex arguments consider a variety of forms of enduring — rather than forgetting or pretending to chase away — the spectres of the colonial past, it is his example of mimicry that seems most appropriate for the film The President's Last Bang, examined in some detail below.
Kang redirects the notion of colonial mimicry from the theoretical work of Homi Bhabha19 to a homely Korean example set in the pre-colonial rather than colonial past. In the madang guk folk theatre, it is the figure of Malttuk-i the fool who mimicked the actions and pretensions of the noble yangban. “Yangban struts with his long pipe in mouth; Malttuk-i follows him, and uncontrollable laughter immediately comes from the audience. … No doubt, there is a shared understanding of the stupidity of the swaggering Yangban, between the audience and Malttuk-i.”20 We will see below how Im Sangsu sends his actor-Malttuk-i through their paces in a cinematic version of colonial mimicry.
Rikidōzan was a moderately successful wrestler in Japan's world of postwar sumo wrestling.21 According to the trove of legends surrounding him, it was when his progress towards the pinnacle of the sumo ranks, yokozuna, was blocked on account of his Korean origins that he went off to the United States, learned the skills and stage-craft associated with pro wrestling, brought them back to Japan and worked to establish the new sport-spectacle as a significant popular entertainment and money-earner. In the new medium of TV, “puro-resu” found its perfect companion. The joint Korean-Japanese production Rikidōzan (often listed under the Korean pronunciation of the three characters making up the sumo name, Yǒkdosan) tells the rags-to-riches (to emotion-tugging demise) story of a colonial-era immigrant who went on to become not only rich but in a sense more Japanese than the Japanese. It was his success initially in the US, and then against American (or, in a pinch, (p.200) Canadian) wrestlers in Japan — whacking away with his patented “karate” chop — which generated an image of Japanese fighting spirit still able to defeat Japan's foes. The actor Sǒl Kyǒnggu had to train and bulk up for the lead role, and learn his lines almost entirely in Japanese. He had a following in Japan based on roles in a variety of films that were critical success in Japan, such as Lee Chang-dong's contemporary classic Peppermint Candy (Pakha satang 2000), and Japan was clearly a market aimed for.
Rikidōzan contains most of the classical elements of one of the most reliable forms of male melodrama: the boxing film. Shy-but-violent youth, gentle-all-suffering wife, manipulative and sleazy promoters, booze-and-women, too-noble-to-throw-the-big-match last-minute self-realization, sad lonely death, etc. These it transposes to 1950s Japan and the spectacular showbiz of the wrestling ring. The noir-ish male melodrama can, in the East Asian market, sound familiar echoes with a variety of more localized genres, such as rōnin, yakuza, or Chinese martial arts films. But even in the case of this rather formulaically structured wrestling melodrama, history got in the way. It was not a success in Korea, and there were problems with the Japanese release. The film had been due to appear in March 2005. “Unlike the previous version, which opened in Korea last December , the new version features many Japanese actors, according to the movie's production company. In fact, Sǒl has recently visited Japan to re-dub his lines in Japanese.”22 Given that nearly all the actor's lines are already in Japanese, albeit pronounced with an accent that the real Rikidōzan may have lost, this need for a re-Japanization of the film suggests that the spirit of cultural exchange can entail hard bargaining. In one of the few scenes in which Sǒl Kyǒnggu has lines in Korean, an old friend asks him if he is still Korean. Rikidōzan replies that Japanese or Korean, it doesn't matter: Rikidōzan belongs to the whole world. It is a sad irony that, whatever the dramatic weaknesses of this film may be, the fictional Rikidōzan should even temporarily be denied his re-entry visa to Japan.
Fighter in the Wind is based on the legend-biography of Ōyama Masutatsu, founder of one of the main schools of Japanese karate. A poor Korean immigrant, Chʼoe Paedal, makes his way to wartime Japan. He intends to volunteer for an air force that is preparing mainly for suicide missions, but is apprehended instead. As Japanese soldiers are about to shoot him and several other Koreans, US planes bomb the airbase, and in the confusion he escapes. He eventually sets out to become a martial arts expert just as the arrival of peace and the postwar era might make that seem an even more eccentric career move. After many trials, and challenges to every master of every martial art he can locate, Paedal fights his way to recognition as the toughest fighter in Japan. A turning point occurs early on, when a Korean mentor offers him (p.201) a guide to his future path in life: it is in the form of Miyamoto Musashi's The Five Rings. This seventeenth-century classic of Japanese Bushidō practice and philosophy seems a rather extreme guidebook to life in a now peaceful Japan. The film shows no sense of irony in sending its protagonist forth with such samurai-like inspiration.
Indeed, to the extent that Paedal is a success, the trajectory of the film seems more mythic than melodramatic: he suffers hardships, turns his back on a loving wife, but faces no temptations of flesh or spirit that can't be overcome through more training and heroic self-abnegation in the pursuit of being the toughest fighter in Japan, and eventually honoured founder of a “traditional” school of karate.
Action sequences are crucial to both of these films, and both display similar limitations (in addition to the problems faced by Rikidōzan in convincing the audience that pro wrestling = real fighting). The lead actors can learn enough moves to look good for the typical two–three/five–six-second rapid cuts typical of the action genre. But the rapid cutting itself, jumpy camera movement, heavy-handed soundtrack, etc., can sit uneasily with the slower moments which ought to invite audiences to slow down a minute and find reasons to identify with or to care about the men doing all this frantic action — moments that might allow for a bit of character development. Here, however clichéd the melodramatic style of Rikidōzan may be, it at least humanizes its central character in a way the masculinist fantasy of Fighter in the Wind does not even attempt. Neither film, indeed, presents its protagonists in anything but a sympathetic fashion; both use narrative form and cinematic technique to invite identification, not judgment. There seems no space within the narrative for an ironical distance, one from which the spectator might seem invited to question these two colonial boys made good as hyper-Japanese heroes. And if their unchallenged mastery of colonial mimicry seems ultimately to betray the rather formulaic narrative and limited intellectual and artistic ambitions of their respective films, that may simply confirm Homi Bhabha's contention that, “in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.”23
Blue Swallow is about Pak Kyŏngwŏn, a pioneering aviatrix whose fame spread in late twenties and early thirties Japan and Korea. A young Korean woman still in her teens goes to Japan determined to train as a pilot. First, an opening sequence shows Pak as an eleven-year-old, watching a column of Japanese troops march towards her village. In her mind's eye, the soldiers transform into a column of marching black-clad ninja warriors, and we follow her CG-assisted imagination as it conjures up images of flying ninja, and then of the girl herself flying. We understand that a dream has taken wing. Pak (p.202) Kyŏngwoŏn will experience romance along the way; she will challenge Japanese aviators and befriend several; she will only with great reluctance agree to serve the cause of empire as the only way she can undertake her greatest test, a solo flight from Japan, through her homeland and on to the new Manchukuo, all now under the Japanese flag. She will die in the attempt. In female melodrama, as Susan Hayward has summarized it, “there is not necessarily a resolution or reconciliation … the female point of view often projects a fantasy that is in patriarchal terms transgressive — and so cannot be fulfilled.”24
Despite this promising material, and the possibilities of giving historical romance a modern feminist updating, the melodrama managed even before its opening to trigger latent nationalism. The producers of Blue Swallow seem not to have reckoned with the very long if selective political memories of their compatriots, some of whom, mainly through the Internet, protested the lavish cinematic treatment of someone regarded as having allowed herself to be made a poster girl for the cause of the Japanese empire. (Press reporting also put into circulation an old rumour that Pak Kyŏngwŏn had been romantically involved with an important Japanese politician named Koizumi, grandfather of former Japanese PM Koizumi Junʼichirō). Blue Swallow ended up one of the costliest failures of 2005–06, selling only some 600,000 tickets for an investment of US$10 million.25
All three of the films sketched above make use of Korean and Japanese history chiefly as a colorful, sometimes painful or even violent, background against which the personal dramas, myths, or romances of the protagonists play themselves out. Yet metaphorically, and in some senses literally, once the camera dollies in from a loosely sketched social landscape to focus on medium shots of characters and then moves in closer to frame the emotional turmoil of individual faces in moments of crisis or joy, it never quite pulls back again to reintegrate the personal within the social field — families, classes, regions, nations, histories — from which that personal experience has been abstracted. All that seems halfway forgotten, or merely part of a generalized background setting off the narrative of individuals.
Korean film has a long and complex investment in melodrama, as recent studies of the “golden age” of the mid-1950s to early 1960s have demonstrated.26 Korean audiences have, until the emergence of the new film industry, been far more avid consumers of Hollywood cinema than of their own, and during the colonial era, not surprisingly, far more likely to see American than Japanese films, until war with the US finally brought imports to a definitive halt.27 Whatever impact Japanese Shinpa melodrama may have had on the makers of early Korean cinema, that of Hollywood prewar (p.203) melodrama was probably more important for ordinary spectators. But it was during the colonial era itself that cinematic melodrama became both a significant form of popular entertainment and, in the hands of some of Korea's first filmmakers, a focus for attempts to address, however obliquely, the collective fact of domination through the hardships of individuals. Only a handful of films from the period survive, so an assertion that, from its beginnings in 1923 until the draconian censorship policies of the late 1930s, some two-thirds of Korean films (or 84 out of a total 128) were melodramas has to be based on second- and third-hand accounts.28 Yet enough is known about missing classics such as Arirang (1926) or Ferryboat with No Ferryman (1932) to show how melodrama could highlight the way in which colonial violence or enforced modernization damaged individuals and families. “The symbolic expressions, such as the use of a madman, the rape of an innocent girl by a pro-Japanese person, and the killing of the rapist were praised [in the Korean press] as an ‘ingenious’ way to express a national spirit … Also symbolic expression was necessary to pass the censorship.”29
Melodramatic films produced by major players in the New Korean Cinema are no doubt unlikely vehicles for seeking a complex artistic engagement with the experience of the Korean imperial era. The fact that this industry is led by people often only in early middle-age and animated by writers and directors even younger working with actors usually under the age of, say, thirty-two, and producing films mainly for a young audience is no doubt an obvious reason for a lack of anxiety about the past. To take the past or intra-regional sensibilities for granted can, however, have negative consequences for success in the domestic market (Blue Swallow) or for a participation in the regional exchange of cultural goods (Rikidōzan).
In another sense, these limitations on filmmakers as regards dealing with social and political history seems systemic to cinema itself as mass entertainment, a by now all but ineluctable part of the tacit rules by which commercial films and their audiences negotiate meanings in a melodramatic mode.
The persistence of the melodrama might indicate the ways in which popular culture has not only taken note of social crises … but has also resolutely refused to understand social change in other than private contexts and emotional terms. … It has also meant ignorance of the properly social and political dimensions of these changes and their causality.30
As a result of the rapid growth of the Korean film industry, the stakes have become correspondingly high for the big-budget releases ordinarily geared for the autumn Chʼusǒk festival and summer. During the summer of 2006, posters and TV ads for Kang U'sǒk's blockbuster historical epic Hanbando (The Korean Peninsula) began appearing in late June. By August it was holding on to the number five spot among the top ten box-office successes, only to fade by September. It still ended up the year as the number eight box-office success — number five among all Korean productions — selling almost 4 million tickets countrywide.
The film is a pro-spective historical, patriotic thriller. Since I have written about Hanbando elsewhere,31 I will keep comments brief. The two Koreas are finally about to move concretely towards reunification via a project to connect the divided nation along the spine of a central railway system. But Japan, villainously claiming legal sovereignty over the former colonial rail system, thanks to its infamous political acquisition of the whole nation in 1910, attempts to wreck the long dream of reunified Korea. A suspense subplot involves a search for the last king of the Chosǒn Dynasty's official seal: if it can be proved that the Japanese diplomats and schemers of a century ago forged their titles to the railways and nation, then their machinations in the present can perhaps be thwarted.
Flashbacks allow for cross-cutting between the near future — in which twenty-first century would-be collaborators seek to rejoin Korea to Japan's economy, even as the Japanese navy sails towards confrontation with the Korean navy — and the past of 1895, when disloyal court officials collaborate in the notorious assassination of the last king's wife, Empress Myǒngsǒng, and the eventual handing-over of the nation to the new Japanese Empire. In this long implausible narrative, there are twists and turns but few surprises. The genuine seal is found in time, the Japanese diplomats are abashed, their documents revealed to be forgeries. One overarching theme concerns bitter differences between pro- and anti-Japan factions within the government. The apparently pro-Japanese prime minister rebukes the reunification-minded president, the prime minister at the very end, arguing bitterly against reunification, fearing economic disaster for the only real Korea, that of the here-and now Republic. Unfortunately, this potentially grown-up political debate (carried on moreover by two of the most respected actors in the industry, An Sǒnggi/President and Moon Sun-keun/PM) is not seriously embodied within the film. Rather, characters on the pro side seem two-dimensional if not truly evil; the Japanese figures past and present are uniformly (p.205) scowling villains. That they are played by Korean actors speaking only Korean (none of Rikidōzan's linguistic verisimilitude here) adds an extra touch of artificiality to already strained narrative premises.
For the most part, the critics hated Hanbando. The Korea Times's staff reporter Kim Tae-jong, writing on July 13, 2006, grudgingly gave it 1½ out of 5 stars: “Although the sensitive theme appeals to Korean audiences, who know the tragic history of Japan's rule, in the end it becomes a propaganda film full of radical nationalism. It lacks cinematic development, reality, and a balanced approach to historical events and the current situation.”32
Criticisms of the film began before general release. Director Kang U'sǒk(Silmido, Public Enemy I & II) had made an early effort to deflect those aimed at Hanbando's crude nationalism. The same reporter observed on July 19 that:
Staff reporter/film reviewer Kim noted that “such movies with nationalistic themes, however, didn't translate into automatic success at the box office. There are such commercial flops as ‘Phantom, the Submarine’ (1999), ‘General[s] of Heaven’ (2005), ‘Fighter in the Wind’ (2004) and ‘Rikidozan’ (2004) and others.” Indeed, Kim was able to lay out the numbers to show that of the top ten box-office hits of Korean film coming into summer 2006, five did feature nationalism and patriotism — but all focused on the North-South conflict, including Kang's own 2005 hit Silmido.34
The film's director Kang Woo-suk doesn't cringe because of such negative criticism. He also does not hide his purpose and openly says that his film aims to criticize Japan. “This is not a film that merely criticizes Japan without reason,” Kang told reporters earlier this month after the pre-screening of his film at Seoul Theater, downtown Seoul. “Considering its thoughtless behavior, I really wanted to attack Japan through my film.”33
Hanbando has generally been ignored in Japan. There has been no news concerning a possible Japanese theatrical release — though some brief reports about the film are available in online print media and weblogs — and the film has yet to be offered in Japanese-subtitled DVD. And while the film has appeared in English-subtitled Korean DVD and been picked up for Chinese subtitles by a Malaysian company, it is unlikely to circulate very far or very much within the regional economy. The choice seems to have been to put all efforts into a blockbuster film that might profitably exorcize the demons of the past, depicting all co-operation with Japan past or present as anything from murderous to venial, or at least grievously mistaken. Riding on contemporary frictions and mutual ill will concerning issues real and symbolic between the two countries, Hanbando, with its massive advertising campaign (p.206) and saturation theatrical bookings, seems financially to have just about won its wager. Many people who follow the New Korean Cinema take heart from the huge success — both theatrical and DVD — of rather different films from 2006, such as King and the Clown (Wang-ŭi namja) and Pong Chunho's The Host (Koemul), a genuinely international hit on top of 13 million admissions at home.
There is of course more than one way to exorcize a ghost. 2009 Lost Memories from 2002 is one other film which met a less than enthusiastic critical response upon release. It was, however, fairly successful at home and has sold well in various DVD (English, Japanese, Chinese, French) and VCD versions; at least some of its success outside Korea is due to the regional appeal of model-singer-actor Chang Tonggǔn in the lead role. 2009 Lost Memories takes an intriguing sort of homeopathic route to the expelling of the colonial past: make it worse in order to make it go away.
The opening scenes of 2009 Lost Memories begin on October 26, 1909, a century before the film's main action. As is well known to most Koreans, North and South, on this day Korean patriot An Chunggǔn assassinated Japanese statesman Itō Hirobumi on the platform of Harbin Station in Northeast China. Itō, revered in Japan as key founder of the modern nation, is regarded in Korea chiefly as one of the men most responsible for planning the takeover of Korea, finalized after his death in 1910.
And here, in a potentially clichéd bit of nationalist bravado, the narrative springs a surprise. Before An can take careful aim, he is shot by a Japanese soldier in the waiting retinue. Itō is only slightly wounded. There follows a March-of-Time montage sequence, the kind made famous by Orson Wells's Citizen Kane: news photos, newspaper headlines and titles tell the story of how history was changed by the thwarted assassination attempt. In this version of history, Itō did become the first governor general of the Korean colony, Japan became a US ally in World War II, the atomic bomb was dropped on Germany, the 1988 Olympics were held in Nagoya and, one final indignity, the 2002 World Cup seems to have been held entirely in a Japan which still incorporated a never-independent Korea. The sequence ends on the photo of a Red Devil striker in a shirt marked with a Japanese Hi no maru flag insignia, eloquently robbing a Korean audience of one of the most glorious moments from the year 2002. (The image is calculated to trigger bitter memories of athletes Son Kijǒng and Nam Sǔngyong. Running in Japanese colors and under Japanese names, they famously won the gold and bronze medals in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Son would carry the Olympic flag during the opening of the 1948 London Olympics.)35
(p.207) Only after the flashback and montage sequence does the action shift to 2009. The camera looks out, in extreme long shot, upon a city nightscape, roads crowded with Japanese vehicles and direction signs in Japanese and English. Neon signs seem all in Japanese, no Korean hanʼgŭl in sight. A pan to the left takes in what appears to be a famous central Seoul landmark, the statue of sixteenth-century naval hero Yi Sun-shin. The camera reveals that this is instead, in 2009, a statue of Yi's mortal enemy, the despoiler of mid-Chosǒn Dynasty Korea, Shōgun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The premise is fascinating if not original: what if? What if Japan had won the war, what if Korea had ceased to exist as an independent nations (or nations)?
As the establishing shots smoothly hand over to the central narrative, the action begins in an art museum, during a party celebrating an exhibition of Korean art. Posters announce that the art objects are about to be relocated to the modern empire's capital, Tokyo. (It is historical fact that during the colonial era, Japanese collectors — including Yanagi Sōetsu, one of Japan's most significant art critics — took a considerable amount of Korea's material culture home with them.) Into this smugly confident soiree bursts a band of Korean resistance fighters. They attempt to snatch a mysterious crescent-shaped stone from among the objects on display. Some interesting lines of narrative imagination start to get tangled up as the film moves into full John-Woo-like mode. One convincing set is soon shot to bits, when the forces of law and order duly arrive, guns blazing.
The JBI — Japanese Bureau of Investigation — joins the Seoul police at the scene. Introduced into the fray are the two leads, the JBI partners played by Chang Tonggǔn and Japanese character actor Nakamura Tōru. Naturally enough, until the JBI capture and question one of the resistance guerrillas, all dialogue is in Japanese. The film eventually explains that the mysterious stone was a key that could open a time-lock, an ancient doorway that allows time travel; the Japanese had discovered it first, gone back to 1909 and stopped An Chunggǔn from carrying out his destiny. After two hours, and many story lines, the climax takes us back into the sepia-toned past. The two JBI partners, one still a loyal Japanese but the other now a born-again Korean patriot, find themselves back in 1909, on the same platform with An Chunggǔn, Itō Hirobumi, and the Japanese soldier whose gun, according to the Japanese recasting of events, had changed history the first time around. The result of this four-way pistols-drawn face-off is not really difficult to work out.
Having endured the imaginary presence of a ghost perhaps worse than the old one, you return to its origins and scatter it into oblivion. Having looked into the face of a future that denied its very existence, Korea gets its history back.
Im Sangsu36 is probably not responsible for the rather strange English moniker his 2005 film has been saddled with: The President's Last Bang. Yet the dark humour enfolding his often hapless characters is no stranger to the rudeness it displays. The film tells the story of the assassination by the hand of Kim Chae-gyu, head of the notorious KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency), of his long-time ally Park Chung-hee, President of the Republic of Korea from 1961 to 1979. The events take place in the narrative as they did in reality, on October 26, 1979,37 exactly seventy years after An Chunggǔn shot Itō Hirobumi. Most of the action of the tightly scripted first half takes place during a boozy banquet at the KCIA mansion/safe-house within the presidential Blue House compound; two young women there to entertain Park and his inner circle, hence the crude double entendre of “bang” in the English title.
The Korean title is “Kŭ ttae kŭ saram-dŭl,” literally “That time, those men;” it involves a more subtle play with language and cultural memory. It quotes the title of a tune made popular in 1979 by singer Shim Subong, “Kŭ ttae kŭ saram,” “That time, that man.” The title is a Korean version of the many variations of the saying “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” Political legend maintains that this song was sung that very evening by Shim herself, one of the two young women actually present at the banquet. (It is still usually listed first on her greatest hits CDs.) The attention to detail, to things such as music and peculiarities of speech, are part of the production's aim to evoke the past as something more than generalized local historical color, as happens in films such as Rikidōzan or Blue Swallow. For example, Im has added a Japanese song to the Korean songs at the fatal dinner. “Kita no yado” (An Inn up North) was an enormous hit in Japan from around 1975, made famous in a recording by the 1960s–70s Japanese diva Miyako Harumi.38 It is just the kind of Japanese romantic ballad, enka, that patriotic Koreans were not supposed to be listening to during those years of the ban on Japanese music, film, and TV programs. Shim Subong is rumoured to have performed songs like “Kita no yado” for wealthy patrons in order to supplement her recording earnings, so the narrative fabrication hits a suitable nerve.
More significant, if still only a detail within the overall production, is the use of spoken Japanese at key points in the dialogue. It is here that colonial mimicry works most effectively to undermine the main characters' militantly nationalistic posture. If you don't know Korean or Japanese, this is signalled in the English subtitled version by the sudden appearance at screen bottom, underneath the English words, of Korean translations for Japanese phrases. The first occasion when this takes place is near the beginning, onboard a (p.209) military helicopter carrying Park Chung-hee and his right-hand men to the banquet. The Park character (Song Chaeho) remarks wryly in Japanese concerning the sexual antics of an absent crony, that a “real man” (Japanese otoko) doesn't concern himself about matters down there. In the first cut to Kim Chae-gyu, the KCIA director has just finished a physical examination. To his doctor's stern advice about his ailing health, Kim (Paek Yunshik) retorts that a samurai won't concern himself about petty worries. As he leaves the office, the doctor spits the word samurai back with contempt. Otoko and samurai: the two words speak volumes about the past of men such as Park and Kim who, as young men, had fought, or arrested, their fellow Koreans wearing the uniform of the Japanese army or kempeitai (military police). Given the predominance of a masculinist discourse of Korean nationalism fostered through the eighteen years of the Park regime,39 to suggest that the ideal of masculinity half-consciously embraced by Park and his right-hand men was derived from a Japanese model makes for cruelly effective black comedy and mimicry. Latter day Malttuk-i, the fictional Park and Kim strut in the linguistic traces left by masters departed a quarter-century ago.
Kim Chae-gyu finally resolves, later that same long night, to kill Park and as many of the cronies at the party as he can; his personal pride has been insulted by them, and he fears that plans afoot to assault anti-government protestors will backfire dangerously. He decides to act. He looks up from his desk, takes his pistol in hand and, spluttering with righteous fury, declares in Japanese, “Koroshite yaru”: “I'm going to [bloody] kill him/them.” Listening outside the office door is Kim's adjutant, Colonel Min. The next shot is of the latter repeating the phrase, and instantly understanding what his boss intends. As with the scene on the helicopter, the scandal is not just that of certain Japanese words in particular mouths but the ease with which they register among the whole class of the politico-military elite.40
When finally Kim prepares to deliver the coup de grâce to an already grievously wounded Park, he reviles him in Japanese as a piece of filth, and through clenched teeth calls Park by the Japanese name he had taken as acclimatized colonial subject, “Takagi Masao.” Strong stuff in a nation where many older Koreans revere the Park legacy, if not its crueller methods, and where the former president's daughter, and until recently possible future president Park Kǔnhye, remains a powerful figure. “Park's daughter now leads Korea's centre-right opposition party, ensuring that the historically themed Last Bang would be read as a comment on the present as well as the past.”41
Before its commercial release, the Park family took the film's production company MK Pictures to court, claiming defamation of character. Although the film survived largely intact, four minutes of 1979 newsreel footage were (p.210) suppressed: two minutes' worth which ran behind the opening titles and credits, showing violent protests in Pusan and Masan against the regime's treatment of opposition figure Kim Young-sam; two from the end which showed Park's funeral. The current version runs its opening and closing credits against a black screen. The initial court decision was overturned in 2006. The cut footage will be restored, but MK Pictures, as has been widely reported, has still had to pay some US$100,000 to the plaintiff, Park's son Park Chiman. Park Chung-hee continues to cast a formidable shadow across the political landscape of South Korea. Former President Roh Moo-hyun, his political allies and private research groups, have for several years been exploring the possibilities of reopening the historical books on the colonial era via a variety of truth commissions and committees. It is a difficult, politically slippery issue that may seem to have so far generated more heat than light.42
I would not like to leave the impression that The President's Last Bang is an intricate art house work of purely auteurist values. It is a good political thriller informed by a sharp-edged sense of political satire and impressive cinematography. The haunting musical score may sound different when the suppressed newsreel minutes are restored: the opening tango theme, for example, will accompany scenes of political protest that the soon-to-die president will spend his last lucid moments planning to crush. The production values are those you would expect of a good, medium-size feature; leading male star Han Sǒkkyu, as Kim Chae-gyu's number three, carries much of the action and narrative links. After the assassination, there is a brief transitional sequence before the second half of the film follows up the fate of the KCIA conspirators. The camera tracks Han Sǒkkyu from above as he moves from the gory banquet room, Park's body now removed, down a hallway to the bodies of Park's two chief bodyguards, now practically floating in pools of their own blood; then the camera travels on to the kitchen and shots of other bodyguards lying dead there.43 Unlike a less imaginative, more action-geared thriller, this one insists on the aftermath and consequences of the acts of violence which finally prised loose Park's grip on the nation. The long travelling shot noted above seems almost designed to illustrate a dictum often attributed to Godard: “le travelling est une affaire de morale.”
The film has none of the ponderousness of a Hollywood-scale assassination conspiracy such as Oliver Stone's JFK (1991). One film it might be better compared with is the Korean-Japanese joint production KT (2002). Directed by Sakamoto Junji, KT (abbreviation for “kill the target”) tells in a quasi-documentary fashion the story of the failed assassination attempt and subsequent abduction from Japan of Kim Dae-Jung, Park Chung-hee's most (p.211) stubborn opponent and ROK president from 1998 to 2003. The President's Last Bang uses mimicry against power in a way that allows for laughter at power's expense, without losing the film's overall ethical, critical force.
We know that at least for a time in the aftermath of liberation, Korean filmmakers, writers and actors seemed to have been ready to work around if not yet through the bitter legacies of colonization and war. This latitude, cultural, artistic, and political, would be lost to future filmmakers in the wake of a disastrous civil war and coming of Cold War rigidities and political dictatorships both sides of the 38th Parallel. That is, until the political and cultural sea-changes of 1990s South Korea made it possible for a new cinema to begin to take a fresh look at Korea's eclectic, fragmentary, and contradictory modern history and to make what it can of the intractable Korean colonial past. According to the Korean Film Council's recent annual report Korean Cinema 2006, among films currently in the planning stages are one about the doomed Empress Myǒngsǒng and one with the working title “Tokdo Defense Forces.” The spectres of old crimes and an awareness of current sources of friction between Korea and Japan will no doubt keep melodrama and exorcism busy in the New Korean Cinema for some time to come. (p.212)
(1.) Mark Shiel, Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City (London; New York: Wallflower, 2006), 6–7. (Citing Marcia Landy, Italian Film [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000], xiv.)
(2.) “The postcolonial does not privilege the colonial. It is concerned with colonial history only to the extent that that history has determined the configurations and power structures of the present, to the extent that much of the world lives in the violent disruptions of its wake.” Robert C. Young, Postcolonialism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 4. See note 16 for qualifications (p.271) about the situation of contemporary South Korea and conceptual notions concerning the postcolonial.
(3.) See, for instance, Darcy Paquet, “Japanese Films in Korea,” Koreanfilm.org (2004), http://koreanfilm.org/japanfilm.html; Chaibong Hahm and Kim Seog-gun, “Remembering Japan and North Korea: The Politics of Memory in South Korea,’ in Memory and History in East and Southeast Asia, ed. Gerrit W. Gong (Washington, DC: CSIS Press, 2001), XX; Kim Hyun-mee, “Kankoku ni okeru Nihon taishū bunka no jūyō to ‘Fuan ishiki no keisei” (The significance of Japanese popular culture in Korea and the formation of a consciousness of anxiety), in Nisshiki Hanryū: “Fuyu no sonata” to nikkan taishū bunka no genzai (Korean Wave Japanese Style: The TV-Drama “Winter Sonata” and the Present State of Japanese-Korean Popular Culture), ed. Mōri Yoshitaka (Tokyo: Serika Shobō, 2004).
(4.) Korean has one of the most efficient systems of writing on the planet, but it is transcribed by several different styles of romanization. In this chapter I generally transcribe Korean film titles, words, or names via the clumsy McCune-Reischauer system but leave alone titles or names in direct quotations, names of Korean authors writing in English, and well-known names such as Korean presidents and their families.
(5.) See, for example, Darcy Paquet, “The Korean Film Industry: 1992 to the Present,” in New Korean Cinema, eds. Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2005), 32–50.
(6.) Korean Film Council, “Statistics,” Korean Cinema 2006, 494–6. http://www.kofic.or.kr/english (accessed November 20, 2007).
(7.) As Darcy Paquet reported in 2005, “Korea's TV, cable and video/DVD markets remain miniscule. Online piracy and high prices have stunted the DVD sector, which is dominated by rentals rather than sell-through. Surveys indicate that only 29% of the two million households that own a DVD player have ever bought a DVD. Whereas US or European releases can double their revenues on DVD sales alone, Korea more resembles the US in the 1970s, when films had to earn two and a half times their budget in theaters just in order to break even.” “Essays from the Far East Film Festival: Korea Main Essay, 2005.” http://koreanfilm.org/feff.html#2005 (accessed November 20, 2007).
Without the use of subscription websites, it is not easy to locate reliable figures on DVD sales of Korean film within the East and Southeast Asian region. In general, Chinese subtitled VCDs and DVDs sell well throughoutthe region but are subject to all the usual hazards of piracy; English subtitling of VCDs and DVDs (with or without Chinese) is fairly common and usually bumps up the price; at the top of the price scale are Japanese subtitled DVDs. Regional flows of DVDs (direct sales or licensing) therefore flow rather uphill as regards the Japanese market, and rather outside the corporate channels for Chinese-subtitled VCDs and DVDs.
(8.) Korean Film Council, “Statistics,” Korean Cinema 2006, 494–500. The “Foreword” to this official publication does, however, note that, as regards the Japanese market, the “Korean Wave may be retreating to a more realistic level.”
(9.) Youna Kim, “The Rising East Asian ‘Wave’: Korean Media Go Global,” in Media on the Move: Global Flow and Contra-flow, ed. Dayan Kishan Thussu (London; New York: Routledge, 2007), 135–52.
(10.) Chris Berry, “From National Cinema to Cinema of the National: Chineselanguage Cinema and Hou Hsiao-hsien's ‘Taiwan Triology’,” in Theorising National Cinema, eds. Valentina Vitali and Paul Willemen (London: BFI Publishing, 2006), 148.
(11.) See, for just one of many recent rebuttals, Alexis Dudden and Kozo Mizoguchi, “Abe's Violent Denial: Japan's Prime Minister and the ‘Comfort Women’,” Japan Focus: An Asia-Pacific E-Journal (2007). http://japanfocus.org/products/details/2368 (accessed November 20, 2007).
(12.) Hahm Chaibong and Kim Seog-gun, “Remembering Japan and North Korea: The Politics of Memory in South Korea,” in Memory and History in East and Southeast Asia, ed. Gerrit W. Gong (Washington DC: CSIS Press, 2001), 101.
(13.) Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson, Colonial Modernity in Korea (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Asia Center, 1999), 12.
(14.) John Lie, Han Unbound: The Political Economy of South Korea (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 181.
(15.) Kang Nae-hui, “Mimicry and Difference: A Spectraology of the Neo-Colonial Intellectual,” in Specters of the West and the Politics of Translation: Traces 1, eds. Naoki Sakai and Yukiko Hanama, 123–58 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2000), 133.
(16.) Kang refers to an important article by Anne McClintock, in which she noted that “the term ‘post-colonialism’ is, in many cases, prematurely celebratory. Ireland may, at a pinch, be ‘post-colonial,’ but for the inhabitants of British-occupied Northern Ireland, not to mention the Palestinian inhabitants of the Israeli Occupied Territories and the West Bank may be nothing ‘post’ about colonialism at all”: see “The Angel of Progress: The Pitfalls of the Term ‘Postcolonialism’,” in Colonial discourse/postcolonial theory, eds. Francis Baker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen (Manchester; New York: University of Manchester Press, 1994), 256. In Kang's eyes, the continued division of the Korean peninsula and the massive presence of the US military in South Korea mean that any actually existing postcoloniality may still lie on some optimistic horizon.
(19.) “The discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference. The authority of that mode of colonial discourse that I have (p.273) called mimicry is therefore stricken by an indeterminacy: mimicry emerges as the representation of a difference that is itself a process of disavowal. Mimicry is thus the sign of a double articulation; a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which ‘appropriates’ the Other as it visualizes power:” Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” in The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 85.
(21.) See Yoshikuni Igarashi, Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945–1970 (Princeton, NJ; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000), 122–9; John Lie, Multiethnic Japan (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2001), 61–63.
(22.) KBS Global, “‘Rikidozan’ to Hit Japanese Theaters in March,” KBS Global website (August 22, 2005). http://english.kbs.co.kr/ (accessed August 24, 2005).
(24.) Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (3rd ed.) (London; New York: Routledge, 2006), 239.
(26.) Kathleen McHugh and Nancy Abelmann, South Korean Golden Age Melodrama: Gender, Genre, and National Cinema (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2005).
(27.) “The share of Hollywood films in the Korean market remained higher than in Japan proper, reaching heights of 40 percent of the length [footage] of film actually screened in Korea.” Brian Yecies, “Systematization of Film Censorship in Colonial Korea: Profiteering from Hollywood's First Golden Age,” Journal of Korean Studies 1, no. 10 (2005): 65. In his pioneering research, Yecies has been able to demonstrate that the censorship fees paid by Hollywood distributors provided a flow of income which substantially funded the Government General's film censorship apparatus.
(28.) Min Eungjun, Jinsook Joo, and Kwak Han Ju, Korean Film: History, Resistance, and Democratic Imagination (Westport, CT; London: Praeger, 2003), 33.
(29.) Min, Joo, and Han (2003), 35.
(30.) Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury,” in Film Genre Reader III, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 370–1.
(31.) For more about Hanbando, see my “The Political Economics of Patriotism: The Case of Hanbando,” in Korea Yearbook 2007: Politics, Economics, Society, eds. Ruediger Frank, James E. Hoare, Patrick Koellner and Susan Pares (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008), pp. 171–98. See also the comments and debate in websites such as koreanfilm.org; The Korea Times, http://times.hankooki.com/; and the website of the Korean Film Council, http://www.koreanfilm.or.kr/.
(32.) Tae-jong Kim, “Nationalistic ‘Hanbando’ Lacks Healthy Perspective,” Korea Times (July 13, 2006).
(33.) Tae-jong Kim, “Local Movies Thrive on Nationalism,” Korea Times (July 19, 2006).
(34.) Tae-jong Kim (2006).
(35.) For the official International Olympic Committee profile on Son, see International Olympic Committee, “Kitei Son.” http://www.olympic.org/uk/athletes/profiles/bio_uk.asp?par_i_id=88103 (accessed November 29, 2007).
(36.) For a brief sketch of Im and his films up to 2005, see Davide Cazzaro and Giovanni Spagnoletti, Il cinema sudcoreano comtemporaneo e l'opera di Jang Sunwoo (Contemporary South Korean Cinema and the Work of Jang Sun-Woo) (Venezia: Marsilio, 2005), 224–6.
(37.) For Time Magazine's November 5, 1979 account of the assassination, see “Assassination in Seoul,” Time (November 5, 1979). http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,912509,00.html (accessed November 20, 2007).
(38.) Miyako Harumi's Korean father had come to Kyoto in 1940 and provedsuccessful in that city's famous silk business. Harumi claimed to have been unaware of his foreign origins until her late twenties. See any of the many Japanese sites devoted to the singer, or the entry in the Japanese Wikipedia, Uikipedeia, “Miyako Harumi,” Uikepedeia (Wikipedia). http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%83%BD%E3%81%AF%E3%82%8B%E3%81%BF (accessed November 20, 2007).
(39.) Seungsook Moon, “Begetting the Nation: The Androcentrric Discourse of National History and Development in South Korea,” in Dangerous Women: Gender & Korean Nationalism, ed. Elaine H Kim and Chungmoo Choi (New York; London: Routledge, 1997).
(40.) Im Sangsu has been quite open about his tactical use of language. See Paolo Bertolin, “An Interview with Im Sang-soo,” Koreanfilm.org, 2005. http://koreanfilm.org/imss.html (accessed November 20, 2007).
(41.) Paquet Review (2005).
(42.) Sheila Miyoshi Jager, “Korean Collaborators: South Korea's Truth Committees and the Forging on a New Pan-Korean Nationalism,” Japan Focus: An Asia-Pacific E-Journal (2004). http://www.japanfocus.org/products/details/2170 (accessed November 20, 2007).
(43.) The shot also incorporates an oblique homage to a similar scene: Martin Scorsese's camera on its overhead path through the mayhem wrought by Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) near the end of Taxi Driver (1976).