The 2008 BAKS conference at Clare College Cambridge started and finished with talks with a distinctly global flavour. People came from the four corners of the globe, with presenters from New Zealand, Singapore, Hawaii, Germany and the US. And we were also fortunate to have the support of the ROK ambassador, Chun Young-woo, plus the immediate past UK ambassador to the ROK, Warwick Morris.
The conference opened with a bang, as the champagne corks popped in the Clare College JCR bar – generously funded by the ROK embassy – followed by some Jindo drumming from Nami Morris in the adjoining vaulted crypt underneath the Chapel. Lee Chul Jin then performed an atmospheric shamanistic dance – Salpuri – which had the audience’s rapt attention.
The opening gala dinner followed, and a keynote address from Meredith Jung-en Woo provided the perfect start to the conference, stimulating the appetite for intellectual engagement over the next two days with a thought-provoking (or even provocative, in the words of one questioner from the floor) discussion of the need for the KORUS FTA to be put in place, emphasising its geopolitical rather than its economic importance.
If the evening started with high culture it ended on a different note. As the whisky shots depth-charged into one or two pints of college lager in the JCR bar, the mighty sound of Yi Paksa’s disco ppongtchak rendition of YMCA sadly met with a mixed reception.
The first full day of the conference started with looking forwards, with a focus on the prospect for denuclearisation, with thoughtful input from ambassadors past and present. Particularly valuable were the insights of Ambassador Chun, who was the ROK’s chief negotiator in the six-party talks. Subsequent papers from Choi Jong-hyun, Tim Beal and Johannes Gerschewski looked at the two Koreas’ strategy and ideology, with interesting analyses of the concepts of legitimacy and totalitarianism.
The afternoon started with two entertaining talks on South Korean politics: Youngmi Kim opened her presentation with photographs of shoes and fists flying in the National Assembly, and went on to analyse what went wrong with four specific initiatives of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, while the ever-engaging Aidan Foster Carter asked the same question of the current administration. In between, a fascinating talk from John DiMoia questioned the received historiography of South Korea’s most famous scientist, Lee Tae-kyu.
When matters such as politics and security issues are rehearsed in the newspapers daily there is a danger that attendees might think they have little more to learn, but each speaker gave new insights from their past experience and novel approaches. No such danger with film studies, where there is still much to research, particularly in the area of early Korean film.
In general the sessions on film looked at early Korean film history, though there was a fascinating exception in Jeon Yeon-woog’s discussion of Our School – a documentary about a school for zainichi Koreans in Hokkaido. Neither North Korean nor South Korean, the zainichi Koreans can visit both halves of the peninsula but belong to neither.
Followers of Korean film have a lot to thank the Korean Film Archive for, and we were fortunate to have Oh Sung-ji from KOFA present to discuss Korean film in the late Colonial era. Mark Morris introduced a screening of Springtime on the Peninsula (1941) an interesting product of the Colonial period, where the actors switched easily between Korean and Japanese, where all Korean dialogue had to be subtitled in Japanese, and where of course all the credits were in Japanese. But even under the authoritarian Japanese rule, Morris highlighted elements in the film where the Koreans could register their protest (for example, at a banquet where a patriotic (pro-Japanese) speech was being delivered there were some stony faces, and one person present looking like he was falling asleep). The contrast with the opening title sequence of Hurrah for Freedom (1946) was huge, as Morris pointed out, with the credits inscribed in Hangeul in a monumental typeface, as some triumphal Copland played over the soundtrack.
But freedom from the Japanese did not mean freedom for the Korean film industry. Sueyoung Park-Primiano’s paper looked at the early post-liberation film industry. Within a couple of years, USAMGIK had imposed a film distribution regime more repressive than ever existed under Japanese colonial rule. Korea had to learn about the benefits of the American way of life, and film was a key tool for disseminating this. But rather insensitively, the first batch of 15 Hollywood films to be distributed in Korea (which included Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan) were subtitled in Japanese. Fortunately the ever-resourceful Koreans managed to bypass the rigid monopoly distribution system, and soon pirate copies of Hollywood films were in circulation.
Kim Chung-kang looked at some of the gender comedy films of the late 1960s, trashed by the critics but loved by the film-going public. A clip from Namja Kisaeng (Male hostess) had the conference attendees duly amused, while the presenter described how the comedy genre could slip in some criticism of the Park Chung-hee regime under the radar of the censors.
The last session of the conference looked at literature – the discourse of the Modern Woman in Yom Sang-seop’s Cheya (from Choi Minkoo), while Jo Elfving-Hwang gave a fascinating presentation on trauma literature, focusing on Hwang Seok-yong’s The Guest and Im Ch’ol-u’s My Father’s Land. We then returned to Korea in a globalised world, as Kim Jeehun introduced his work on the Korean migrant professionals in Singapore.
Thanks to John Swenson Wright and his helpers for a well-organised and stimulating couple of days, which gave the opportunity for new friendships to be made, old ones to be refreshed, and the latest researches to be shared. We look forward to the publication of some of the papers presented, and to the growth of Korean studies at Cambridge with the appointment of the new Korean Studies lecturer, Michael Shin, funded by the Korea Foundation.