West, Philip and Suh, Ji-moon: Remembering the “forgotten war”

Remembering the forgotten warThe Korean War through Literature and Art
(M.E. Sharpe, 2001)
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An interesting and approachable collection of papers addressing how the Korean war is represented in the arts of the different countries involved. Chapters address Korean film, visual arts, and poetry, and also how the war impacted the lives and work of six Korean novelists.

For the Korean visual arts, there is surprisingly little material to work with. The author, Roe Jae-ryung, speculates on the reasons for this: partly because artists lacked the visual vocabulary to give expression to the horrors they witnessed; more practical reasons may be that the canvasses simply haven’t survived (a similar problem in respect of all paintings from the immediate post-war period); and the fact that even official war artists didn’t seem to be all that interested in depicting battle scenes.

For Korean film, Suh Ji-moon discusses the depiction of war in The Taebaek Mountains, To the Starry Island and Spring in my Home Town. In both of the first two films it is the shaman, representing the older Korean way of life predating modern ideologies and concerns, who provides the resolution and healing needed in a divided society.

Suh Ji-moon also contributes the chapter on war poets, which discusses both established literary figures and amateurs caught up in the fighting, and finds a wealth of verse of which she had previously been unaware. It’s this chapter I’ll return to most frequently.

For a reader who is more familiar with the more conciliatory language of the 386 generation, Suh gives a more conservative viewpoint which in part is designed to defend the quality of the artists who produced work in support of the war effort.

Some radical critics from the generation born a decade and more after the war, for whom “patriotism” is a dirty word and for whom true courage is that channeled into opposing and trying to subvert one’s own government, brand these writers as “oyong”, writers in the government’s pay. This is not only a great injustice to these writers, but a calumny cast on the whole nation that resisted the communist aggression and survived it.

A surprisingly interesting chapter is the one by Lary May on the Korean War in Hollywood film. May chronicles how the US administration sought to persuade film-makers to produce appropriately “American” (anti-communist) material in a post-war age where anti-big-business sentiment was beginning to make an appearance. Stalwarts of the WW2 film industry were recycled and rebranded for the 1950s. Actors who had been typecast as Japanese and German villains were reborn as Chinese and Russian commies. The theatregoing public voted with their feet and stayed away.

Other chapters:

  • tell the story of one US war photographer
  • discuss some frankly pretty dire American war poetry
  • document the stories of some of the Chinese POWs
  • discuss how American historians have labelled the war (“police action”; “the first war we lost” etc) and
  • offer some counterfactual speculation about how things might have turned out if the Soviets and the Americans had not divided Korea in 1945.

Something for everyone then, but maybe most readers will find some chapters more interesting than others.

Links:

  • A grown-up review at the Korean Studies portal

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