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Lensing a Colonial Past – Parameters of Disavowal: Colonial Representation in South Korean Cinema by Jinsoo An

The Housemaid (1960)

The Housemaid (1960)

A Book Review by Madeline Hawk.

Using prolific Korean New Wave director Im Kwon-Taek to introduce Korean cinema’s preoccupation with its colonial past, Jinsoo An’s Parameters of Disavowal: Colonial Representations in South Korean Cinema (University of California Press, 2018) engages a close reading of an early scene in The Genealogy (1978), where a now demolished Japanese government building stands erect and very much resilient in the foreground of a shot. This moment demonstrates “a subtle form of disavowal carried out by strategies of reworking, recontextualizing, and erasing the ideas and symbols of past colonial power” (3).

An weaves the collective memories of colonization with the symbolic nature of Japanese signs to introduce his core argument: postcolonial Korean films display the colonial past to construct a narrative of nationalism in the making of its national identity. Confining his scope to films distributed from 1945 through the 1970s (touching on recent Korean films briefly), An aims to begin a discourse between Korea’s historical past in terms of colonization and its inception of nationhood on screen. The author asserts that the political alliance between Japan and Korea during the Cold War (not long after its annexation) provided a direct correlation with reactionary postcolonial films and how colonization was portrayed on screen. He traces these representations in five stages: 1) Early Korean cinema and anti-colonial pictures; 2) Japanese color pictures and the importation of Japanese films to Korea; 3) Korean-Manchurian action films; 4) kisaeng and gangster films; 5) revenge themes in horror films. He theorizes “how postcolonial cinema transcoded the dominant, that is, nationalist, view of history into accessible narrative and imagery”, basing these nationalist views off pivotal historical events in Korea and their implications in postcolonial representation (3).

An 02An approaches his argument with an immersion in Korean history (and broader world events) that preceded specific moments in Korean cinema and how they effected colonial representation. A detailed historical framework is provided, beginning not only with the birth of Korean cinema and its regulation under Japan, but Korean cinema that focuses thematically on colonial representations of the nation’s past. Interweaving this historicist approach with anthropological theory, An exemplifies how a nation constructs its identity through its understanding and recreating of history – something he posits Korean cinema did in its reworking of its colonial past. He provides a formalist framework, especially in analysis of the late 1960s Korean films, to exposit nationalist elements present in films not expressly thematizing colonialism. For example, a tracking-forward shot coupled with a sliding door “organizes the visual representation of…interethnic marriage” embedded in a dialogue of Japanese and Korean ethnic relations (121). An strengthens his positions of colonial representation extended into genre studies through specific frames, lenses, and shot types.

The first chapter lays the political framework for visualizing a Korean national identity through vigorous anti-colonialism. With the Japanese annexation of Korea and the United States replacing the former colonizer in a military role came a scramble for a construction of identity. The incursion of Western ideals confronting the freedom of a newly liberated nation resulted in an “ideological conflict […that was] an important backdrop to the cinematic construction of the collective memory of the past” (15). This re-dramatization of the historical past through cinema, An demonstrates, carried with it dominant themes that Korean cinema carried into later generations of filmmaking. An uses two examples, Hurrah! For Freedom (Chayu Manse, 1946) and Independence Association (Shin Sangok 1959), to support his contention that postcolonial cinema constructed a nationalist version of Korean history. The second chapter then positions colonial representation films in the 1960s against the advent of Japanese color films and the reactionary governmental policies that censored and banned Japanese culture from the screen. An ties this moment to a broader Cold War framework that positioned Japan and Korea in a partnership – a circumstance that brought to the fore their shared memory of colonial violence the latter faced. With this partnership came a difficult understanding of how to not only work with the former colonizer, but how to “enter…into a cultural dialogue” (35). This dialogue negotiated the integration of Japanese visual culture into the Korean mainstream, with a new understanding of how the former colonizer would be represented.

Sunset on the Sarbin River (1967)

Sunset on the Sarbin River (1967)

The following three chapters reflect on specific Korean genre films (the wildly popular Manchurian action films of the mid-60s and early 70s, kisaeng and gangster films, and horror movies) and their continuation of the themes of postcolonial nationalism. The Manchurian action movies changed the landscape of the Korean anticolonial struggle, projecting the conflict onto the quasi-frontier of Manchuria. An furthers the discourse on this genre by asserting the films also constitute Korean war films, following the “generic [anti-war] template” (68). The inclusion of Manchurian action films into the colonial discourse, An theorizes, revolves around its use of money. Observing how it is valued, used, and transported, money can be employed to distinguish the “good” from the “bad” Koreans, as well as aiding the nationalist cause. The shift from colonial representations of action in the face of Japanese oppression is here replaced by the business of war: the exchange of money amidst conflict.

Extending within this era in the late 60s and 70s, are kisaeng (female performers similar to Japanese geisha) and gangster films. These films develop the previously explicit colonial fight to the social structures of Korean society. An presents the kisaeng as an allegory for the colonized nation and the unaddressed issues of colonial Korean society based on his positive relationships with Korean men and negative relationships with Japanese men. He notes the importance of the visual spaces in these films (specifically in kisaeng houses) and the effects of Japanese-Korean commingling: violent tensions. The gangster films, as well as kisaeng films, deal with themes of upward mobility and the creation of a leader figure. One film An references, A True Story of Kim Tuhan (Kim Hyochan, 1974), presents a structure of ideal leadership, successful social mobility (unsuccessful in kisaeng films), and the creation of a new community – the gang – that can function and regenerate under colonial rule. An justifies these genres as an extension of representations of colonialism because of their “allegorical message[s] of anticolonial struggle and resistance in what is otherwise a fantasy of individual success and social mobility in a hostile, power-driven world” (76). As noted previously, the colonial memories of Korea are replaced, this time in allegories of struggle against class mobility and integration (kisaeng), and economic exchanges (gangster).

The last genre chapter explains horror and revenge films symbolizing a negotiation of the past and present. Both Yeraishang (Chung Chang Wha, 1966) and Epitaph (Chong Pomsik and Chong Dik, 2007), represent the repressed evils of colonization and their contemporary effects. Though produced in drastically different time periods, these films negotiate the malevolent deeds of the Japanese colonizers and how the effects of those deeds still permeate into the characters’ lives – though they are removed from the actual colonial action. In these films, colonialism is never explicitly addressed; it is the effect of characters embroiled – on the wrong side – of colonialism. An claims these national horror films allow a negotiation between the colonial past and present: “The postcolonial subject who suffers from spectral haunting or trauma elucidates how the temporal divide between the colonial and postcolonial is deeply problematic” (109). The ghosts in these films are somehow connected (directly or indirectly) to the colonized past, therefore bringing to the fore the unresolved attitudes towards colonization. An suggests these films present radical nationalism as a potential answer to colonial misdeeds when the necessary legal institutions fail. An closes the book by briefly extending his research to post 2000s films, mainly centering on sports cinema. These films enter the space of Japanese and Korean bilateral relations on the sports field and reaffirm the nationalism An has framed his book around.

An provides a compelling historical groundwork, continuing the popular discussion topic of colonial representations in Korean cinema. While most scholarly criticism of Korean colonial cinema concerns itself with early Korean film (1900-1930s), Parameters expands the discourse to include postcolonial films from the 50s-late 70s, even integrating contemporary films made in the early 2000s. An advances this discussion of colonial cinema onto new genres and film types (not limiting himself to expressly colonial cinema), tracing how colonialism and nationalism are addressed and the methods by which Korean national identity is created on screen. This work will continue to broaden the scope of understanding not only Korean cinema, but how it negotiates with Japanese culture and the two countries’ tumultuous past.

While An’s work is insightful, the scope is narrow when it wants to be. The basis of his historical framework is limited to the Cold War, with minimal mention of the effects of the Korean War outside of the genre of war films. An gives slight formalist structures as evidence for his arguments, but the base of them focuses on thematic consistencies, while formalistic evidence is relegated to a smaller reign. While his comments on gender binaries and the exploitation on screen of women to affirm the Korean man are interesting, they fail to engage deeply the context of colonial representation. In the end, An set out to write a narrative of how a country can rewrite history and create a national identity through negotiation of a tumultuous past. He does this with a compelling ease that made this book not only a delight to read, but an important work on the discourse of Korean cinema.

Madeline Hawk is a postgraduate in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. Her research interests include contemporary Korean cinema, Japanese anime, gender and queer media theory, and fan studies.

Read also:

The Housemaid (South Korea, 2010)

Finding South Korean Found-Footage Horror: Bum-shik Jung on Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum

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