Sun, Jul 03, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Rambo's back, in South Korean films

This book has some enlightening theories about masculinity and violence in South Korean cinema in the 1980s and 90s, but the footnotes are often more interesting

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

The Remasculinization of South Korean Cinema
By Kyung Hyun Kim
331 pages
Duke University Press

The Remasculinization of South Korean Cinema derives its title from a book published in 1989 by Susan Jeffords called The Remasculinization of American Culture. This argued that Hollywood used the Vietnam War as a springboard for putting back in place male ideals of aggression that had been extensively challenged during the 1960s. The hippies had put flowers in their hair, adopted a vegetarian diet, and opposed the Vietnam war with songs of peace and love. Hollywood, for which we can read "American capitalism," sought to turn the tide and return to business as usual -- the morally-approved slaughter of men and animals on an often massive scale.

Why capitalism likes machismo and a culture of death is something scholars and thinkers have been discussing for over a century. Weapons-sales and the ruthless exploitation of natural reserves are certainly very big business, whereas consideration for the inhabitants of the Third World, let alone animals, only spells the squandering of national assets accrued over the centuries on the numberless hordes of the speechless and the very poor. Similarly, women must be kept in a subordinate position lest their gentler natures begin to argue against war, the violent despoliation of nature, and the culture of death in general.

What this book argues is that South Korean cinema experienced a renaissance in the 1990s during which the dominant and often aggressive role of the male in South Korean society was challenged. Key male figures in these films were portrayed as anxious, uncertain of their direction, easily influenced by women, and in some cases actual masochists. Today, by contrast, the Rambo-style male is back in fashion. South Korean films, and especially South Korean TV series, may still be very popular in the rest of Asia, and notably so in Taiwan, but the innovative era this book aims to describe is over and done with.

The author chooses to focus on three South Korean film directors -- Jang Son-woo (first film 1986), Park Kwang-su (first film 1988) and the somewhat younger Hong Sangsoo (first film 1996). Representatives of the "remasculinized" style are the highly controversial -- some say unacceptably violent -- Kim Ki-dok and the more philosophical but also sometimes blood-soaked, Kang Che-gyu. Both of these started directing films in the mid-1990s.

South Korean films are not all easy to come by, but titles that receive considerable coverage in this book are Jang Son-woo's A Petal, Park Kwang-su's A Single Spark, Hong Sangsoo's The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (all of which were released in 1996), plus Kim Ki-dok's A Bad Guy (2002) and Kang Che-gyu's Shiri (1999).

Kyung Hyun Kim analyzes his chosen films with reference to academia's usual gurus, names such as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan. Hong's The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, for instance, tells the story of a businessman who makes a long bus journey, subject to many delays, then has to stay longer than he'd planned at his destination. To Kim this stands for the principal of the problem of time, what to do with life after the often violent confrontations of South Korean life ended in 1999 with the democratic election of a new president. This film, in other words, represents South Korea in its "postpolitical" phase.

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