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Kyung Hyun Kim’s Virtual Hallyu: more approachable than Remasculinization, but still tough going

Virtual Hallyu coverKyung Hyun Kim: Virtual Hallyu — Korean Cinema of the Global Era
Duke University Press Books, 2011. 280pp

On Planet Deleuze, a world in a parallel universe inhabited by hyper-intelligent philosophers, psychoanalysts and cultural studies scholars, Kyung Hyun Kim’s second book on Korean film will be voraciously devoured, as no doubt his previous book was. Back on Planet Earth, what does it have to say to mere mortals?

I have to say it’s a mixed bag, the ability to communicate its message being dependent on which learned theoreticians are drawn upon to assist in the analysis. Thus chapter 1, which quotes extensively from Deleuze and Guattari, is impenetrable. This is a shame, as it discusses landscape in Korean film, with particular reference to three very different films: Seopyeonje, The Host, and The Power of Kangwon Province. Maybe it says some interesting things but they are lost in the linguistic fog that seems to be a necessary part of any discussion which references these thinkers. Occasionally the author manages to poke his head out of this fog and say something straightforward – disarmingly prefaced by the phrase “what I am arguing is” – but it’s difficult to piece together a thought process from these isolated and surprising lapses into clarity, and the chapter is best left on one side.

By contrast, the second chapter, which deals with colonial and post-colonial films, manages to avoid any theory (though some unnecessary triangle diagrams suggest there’s a theory lurking in the background which hasn’t been explicitly referenced) and consequently ends up being engaging, informative and interesting.

Most of the chapters are somewhere in between these two extremes. Edward Said is referenced in the reasonably approachable chapter about the portrayal of the otherness of North Korean women, which explores how certain films seem to be inspired by a post-colonial guilt among South Koreans in their attitude to the North, even though of course Northerners cannot be construed as “Other” given the famous homogeneity of the Korean peninsula and nor has the South ever colonised the North.

Similarly, in the chapter on Park Chan-wook, Nietzsche is referenced as a potential model to consider morality in the Vengeance trilogy, only to be rejected as not being a good fit.

Analysing Korean films using a framework of tools and ideas generated by Western philosophers and thinkers is of course a valid exercise in trying to put Korean film in context with films from other countries. But, since the results seem to be like hammering a square peg into a round hole, what this reader would find much more interesting is to find an analysis of Korean film using a framework of ideas generated by philosophers and thinkers from the East. Such an analysis would promote so much more understanding of the films themselves and the intellectual and cultural environment in which they were made. I’m guessing that there must be books out there that attempt to do this, but I suspect they are all written in Korean.

On balance, this is a book that is more a duty than a pleasure to read, and which, like its predecessor, reads more like a collection of essays rather than a holistically planned book. And whether some of those essays pass muster on Planet Deleuze I am unqualified to say. The sections of this book that are readable have plenty of useful insights and make you want to explore the films discussed. It’s just a shame that there are not more of them.

The main films discussed as as follows:

Chapter Main films discussed
1: Virtual Landscapes Im Kwon Taek: Seopyeonje (1993)
Hong Sang-soo: The Power of Kangwon Province (1998)
Bong Joon-ho: The Host (2006)
2: Viral Colony Lee Byung-iI: Spring in the Korean Peninsula (1941)
Jung Sik and Jung Beom-sik: Epitaph (2007)
3: Virtual Dictatorship Im Chan-sang: The President’s Barber (2004)
Im Sang-soo: The President’s Last Bang (2005)
4: Mea Culpa Kwak Kyung-taek: Typhoon (2005)
Hwang Pyong-guk: Wedding Campaign (2005)
Pak Yong-hun: Innocent Steps (2005)
5: Hong Sang-soo’s Death, Eroticism and Virtual Nationalism Hong Sang-soo: Turning Gate (2002), Woman is the Future of Man (2004), Tale of Cinema (2005)
6: Virtual Trauma Lee Chang-dong: Oasis (2002), Secret Sunshine (2007)
7: Park Chan-wook’s “Unknowable” Oldboy Park Chan-wook: Oldboy (2003)
8: The End of History, the Historical Films’ Beginning Various period films


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