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Fetishes, Phalluses and Mini-skirts – a review of The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema

The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema: Sol Kyung-gu's encounter with a Freudian metonymKyung Hyun Kim: The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema
Duke University Press, 2004

This book is for a restricted academic readership only. I can empathise with the feeling of inadequacy, crisis and male lack which, according to Kim, plagues the majority of protagonists in Korean film (though there is a difference between me and them, namely that I don’t want to have intimate relations with my mother): I am quite unequal to the task of appreciating this book to the full1.

I got the same feeling of inadequacy recently when I had to read a passage from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets at a family funeral. I didn’t understand how the words fitted together into syntactically correct sentences, and consequently how those sentences expressed coherent meaning. But I could see that if I invested time, looked at the text from different angles and lived with the work for a number of years, some of the underlying truths would be revealed. Through the fog of meaning I could catch glimpses that the underlying truths were somehow worth grasping and that the time spent grappling with the text might ultimately be richly rewarded.

With this book, I’m not so sure. The book seems to be built on the foundation that every act in every scene of each film under discussion is pregnant with Lacanian, Freudian and Marxist meaning. But to the viewer, and even to the director himself, is that the case?

Let me start with a quote from Kim’s discussion of Jang Sung-woo’s To you, from me. He’s talking about the relationship between a hooker called Paji who’s taken to writing poetry and an intellectual who’s trying to analyse this poetry with her. It kind of sums up how I feel about this book.

When he reaches a conclusion that her poetry discloses the contradictions of labor and social inequity … Paji responds very quickly that she … was simply trying to communicate her desire to wear miniskirts. (p184)

Paji’s poems have a very simple motivation, and cannot withstand the weight of intellectual analysis heaped on them by her suitor. But Kim fails to take the hint that really everything’s not that complicated and political, and instead piles Ossa on Pelion by launching into a discussion of how the miniskirt is a not only a post-Marxist fetish object displacing her identity as a worker: nay more,

The rejection of her desexualized, plain blue overalls must precede the expression of her sexuality as a woman with a voluptuous body. Just as the fetish, according to Freud, is “a subsititute for the woman’s (mother’s) phallus which the little boy once believed in and does not wish to forego,” the miniskirt subsititutes for the invisible phallus that Paji has imagined to have existed.

Give me a break. Can’t a girl want to show off her legs without it having a Marxist or Freudian significance? Similarly, an act of vandalism on a coffee machine is not just a bit of wanton aggression:

Carefully mediated by the narrative structure, Song-gun’s assault against the machine is an act that is diegetically legitimized. The act of violence serves a multiple metonymic function where it becomes both a retaliation against the system of social injustice symbolized by the greedy owner of a gas station, and an expression that seeks to compensate for his own ineffectual manhood.

And when a rape victim bites the rapist’s tongue, it’s really a symbolic castration.

The tongue’s metonymic signification as a sexual object allows Oesodaek’s attack on Sang-gu to be read as a gesture to castrate him.

Metonymy again2.

The question that troubles me when reading this book is that it seems to be designed only for that closed circle of academics (what is the subject they’re experts in?) who’ve read Rey Chow, Zizek, Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan, Freud and Marx. And who have invented their own private language which excludes others. Every page seems to contain a reference to one of these writers; the quotations are sometimes a passage where the academic is taking a perfectly ordinary word and redefining it in an extraordinary way: the result is another word added to the lexicon of whatever academic discipline this is. Another word for initiates in these arcane mysteries to play with and argue over. Another word which gives the discipline an aura of mystery and exclusivity. I’m sure if I read all these authors Kim’s book might mean more to me, but I’ve always resisted joining the masons.

To turn to the specifics of Kim’s book. The title suggests a unified theme to the book, examining how Korean film progresses from a position of having emasculated, psychologically tortured protagonists to a state where the male leads have achieved a condition of certainty and undisputed machismo; and maybe one would expect a discussion of how this parallels Korea’s transition from postcolonial dependency to national self-sufficiency. If that’s what a reader is reasonably expecting, those expectations are partially met in the initial chapters. That’s where Kim picks apart the films from a gender perspective. Where, if you take the discussion to its logical conclusion, the long repressed grievance of the people which contributes to Korea’s han is in fact caused by oedipal fantasies frustrated by impotence. A good dose of viagra and everyone would be happy. Oh, except that there are suppressed brother-sister incest fantasies as well3.

But the theme is not, particularly, continued throughout the book. Around half way through, the references to Zizek and his like become mercifully less frequent; the section on Hong Sang-soo can almost be read without reaching for a dictionary every five minutes; while the chapter comparing the Housemaid with Happy End is positively enjoyable. Apart from a brief reminder that trains entering tunnels are rather rude, and an unfulfilled threat to analyse the magimix from a gender perspective, the discussion of male / female roles in this chapter contains nothing to cause puzzlement at all, and in fact is rather illuminating.

The book, then, has a feeling of having been written over a period of time, spanning different stages in the author’s acedemic career. Kim lets the cat out of the bag in his chapter on Jang Sun-woo (Familism, Fetishism and Fascism), which he refers to as an “essay”. So this book is a collection of essays and articles bound together between an introduction and a rather startling coda which concludes the chapter on Shiri and JSA. It’s rather jarring. As if rushing to meet a publisher’s deadline we break off from an interesting discussion on these two landmark films of the Korean new wave, get a (very good) potted history of the post IMF crisis Korean film industry, and then are dumped unceremoniously in a two page wrap-up which tries to pull the whole book together.

But if we are looking for real men in Korean film, Kim can only cite Jeon Tae-il in A Single Spark and Agent Yu in Shiri. All the rest are tortured souls, and no trend of remasculinization is established.

If it influences your purchasing decision, it’s a very interesting and worthwhile collection of films Kim chooses to discuss:

Bae Chang-ho: Whale Hunting (1984)
Chang Kil-soo: Silver Stallion (1991)
Hong Sang-soo: Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (2000); The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996); Power of Kangwon Province (1998)
Im Kwon-taek: Sopyonje (1993); Taebaek Mountains (1994)
Jang Sun-woo: To you, from me (1994); A Petal (1996); Bad Movie (1997)
Jung Ji-woo: Happy End (1999)
Kang Je-gyu: Shiri (1999)
Kim Ki-young: Housemaid (1960)
Lee Chang-dong: Green Fish (1997); Peppermint Candy (2000)
Lee Chang-ho: A Fine, Windy Day (1980); The Man with Three Coffins (1988)
Lee Kwang-mo: Spring in my Home Town (1998)
Park Chan-wook: JSA (2000)
Park Kwang-su: Chilsu and Mansu (1988); Black Republic (1990); A Single Spark (1995)
Yeo Kyun-dong: Out to the World (1994)

As I have hinted above, some of the discussion genuinely enhances one’s appreciation of a film you might have seen; and increases the desire to see a film as yet unavailable on DVD. At other times though a humble soul like me wonders what on earth the book’s about. Let me conclude with a random but representative passage.

Not only does the figuration of the road as “home” de-center the hegemonic masculinity in Sopyonje; the narrative structure of the film that frames Yu-bong’s story as a remembrance of his grown-up son also derails the oedipal rivalry that promulgated his rebellion against the father.

If that to you is pure viagra, go buy this book. My question is: would the director recognise this as a valid reinterpretation of his work? Was it anywhere close to being in his mind? Or was he really just expressing a wish to wear a miniskirt?


  1. I think, but cannot be sure, that there is no element of sour grapes in this slightly negative review. Maybe I need to see a shrink to be sure []
  2. To satisfy my vague feeling of discomfort that this was not quite the right use of the word, I looked it up at My discomfort was not fully laid to rest. But maybe those pesky academics have redefined it and not told anyone in the real world. Serendipitously, I came across this particular sense of the word (from American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary):

    In schizophrenia, a language disturbance in which an inappropriate but related word is used in place of the correct one.


  3. In his analysis of Jang Sun-woo’s Petal, Kim seems to read significance into the fact that girls call their boyfriends “older brother” – oppa []

3 thoughts on “Fetishes, Phalluses and Mini-skirts – a review of The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema

  1. While this can be a difficult book, I must say that I think it is on point. I loved it, even though it took me a while to get through it, so much so in fact that I used it as my main resource when writing my thesis on Memories of Murder (Bong, 2003).

    I guess it really doesn’t have a significant audience but for those that love korean cinema for the way it represents the korean psych, it is a worthwhile resource!

  2. Maybe I was feeling ungenerous when I wrote the review: Deleuze, Lacan and Freud can always be counted on to make me feel hostile.

    Having recently watched a lot of Jang Sun-woo I can get some of the demasculinization angle. So maybe I should do a less hostile follow-up review ^_^

  3. Oh no worries, if I hadn’t been a big Peppermint Candy fan I probably never would have given this book a chance!

    There are some other less psychoanalytic books on Korean cinema out there though. I was going to recommend the collection of essays ‘New Korean Cineam’ but I see you liked it! There are also two new books out which I have yet to read: ‘The South Korean Film Renaissance’ and New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves’.

    I guess I often view Korean cinema in an academic perspective, perhaps sociological more than anything else. The whole bare, heart-on-the-sleeve aspect of many Korean films at the beginning of the millenium is what drew me to this national cinema. In fact I’ve just started a blog where I hope to slowly gather my thoughts on it:

    Would love to hear your thoughts!

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