Review: New Korean Cinema (Julian Stringer, Shin Chi-yun)

New Korean Cinema(Edinburgh UP, 2005)
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A good selection of articles covering a wide variety of topics. Highly recommended, despite the over-academic language in one or two of the articles.

This book’s lively cover, a bracing green colour with a still from Take Care of My Cat, makes it sit well on the bookshelf next to the equally appealing visuals which adorn the cover of Anthony Leong’s book, Korean Cinema: the New Hong Kong. The similarity in title might also lead you to suspect an element of duplication. But the intended audiences are different and a general reader with an interest in or enthusiasm for Korean film will find much to appreciate in both. While Leong’s book is aimed more at the enthusiast, offering a good introduction to the film industry and a helpful guide as to what films the reader might want to explore further, Shin and Stringer’s collection is aimed firmly at a more academic readership, and presupposes a certain amount of familiarity with some of the films it discusses. But the general reader, provided he or she is not intimidated or irritated by the unfamiliar academic language of some of the articles, will find the book readily accessible. Within every article, no matter how unfamiliar its subject matter or approach, there is likely to be an interesting factoid or observation which will have the reader reaching for a note book to make sure the insight is not forgotten.

The book is divided into three sections; the first containing articles on the historical, cultural, political and economic background to the Korean film industry. The remaining two sections loosely classify the articles between those which examine particular films from the perspective of a particular genre (“Generic Transformations”) and those which look at the way individual films explore particular aspects of South Korean society (“Social Change and Civil Society”). The classifications of articles into groups is in the end unimportant however, as all the pieces end up telling something about the society which produces them and also maybe something about us as viewers. Julian Stringer’s own paper on genre classification is particularly illuminating from the latter perspective.

Visitors to Koreanfilm.org may be familiar with some of the material in Darcy Paquet’s contribution to the book. But his article contains much more detail, and gives a very interesting overview of how film production has changed as governmental control and economic circumstances have also changed. Less familiar to some, and maybe more important from the perspective of understanding the some of the films themselves and the society which produced them, is the material contained in the first article, by Michael Robinson. This paper sets out some of the traumatic history of Korea in the 20th century, from the Japanese colonial period where Korean culture and language were actively suppressed, through the postcolonial period, where in the South successive dictatorships suppressed speech and discourse in the name of the anti-communist and economic growth agenda. Robinson suggests that that while the recent flowering of the South Korean film industry can be attributed to the final victory of the democracy movement – with the election of the first civilian president in 1992 – cultural life somehow seemed vacuous and purposeless to those whose life had been devoted to opposing the authoritarian regime. An analogous sentiment is expressed in Chi-Yun Shin’s article on Friend and Take Care of my Cat, where she suggests that Friend, set in the immediate context of the Asian 1997 economic crash, looks back with fondness on the certainties of the past.

But if the advent of democracy has encouraged diversity of production, government influence has also had an impact. Jeeyoung Shin’s article on globalisation and new Korean Cinema has an interesting anecdote that in 1994 President Kim Young-sam was told that the profits earned by Jurassic Park were equivalent to the export revenues of 1.5 million Hyundai cars. Within months, the Basic Motion Picture Promotion Law was passed, and more practical efforts to encourage production followed. Another quote, from the lips of President Kim, that “Globalisation must be underpinned by Koreanization”, casts an interesting light on the fact that the majority of Korean films which have gone down well abroad have been distinctively “Korean”, and not been slavish copies of Hollywood productions. What makes a film “Korean” is something that many of the articles in this book explore, from the perspective mainly of subject matter. As Darcy’s article points out, however, how a Korean film differs from the Hollywood model from the aesthetic perspective has been less well explored. This is an observation which makes one look forward to an upcoming collection of articles entitled Seoul Searching: Identity and Culture in New Korean Cinema (SUNY Press), where he promises to address this.

Of the articles which deal with individual films, each reader will have a favourite. My own is Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park’s examination of Peppermint Candy, where he argues that a country can never be at peace with itself until it comes to terms with its recent past; and it is in travelling back into the protagonist’s past, not least his involvement in the Kwangju massacre and subsequent job as police interrogator, that the inevitable suicide is explained. Kyu-hyun Kim, (Q from koreanfilm.org), provides an interesting perspective on Tell Me Something and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. While both are of course entertaining in their own right, he argues that their interest lies in their critiques of different aspects of South Korean society, the former attacking the “patriarchal ideology” and the latter the “breakdown in communication grounded in the conditions of modern subjectivity”. Chris Berry is the only contributor to examine a film from the North, Soul’s Protest, considering it alongside the South’s Phantom the Submarine. In both the vessel is seen as a metaphor for the state, and while in the former the occupants are united in their journey towards their promised land (alas never completed, just as Korea has never been able to enjoy its liberation from Japan as a united country) in the latter the officers are fatally divided.

I have failed to mention all of the contributions to this book, and failed to do justice to the richness of those that I have mentioned. The pleasure with this book will be in returning to it and in finding that the articles which may not have connected with you the first time round are now the most interesting. It is a book to which, because of its great diversity, one will return in the future to appreciate new aspects. And like Leong’s book, it is a book which makes one want to return to the films themselves.

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