Can cinema do what politicians cannot?
A 2003 article in the New York Times observed that movies in South Korea are contributing toward anti-American feelings among young people.((James Brooke, “When American Villains Thwart Lovesick Koreans,” The New York Times, October 12, 2003.)) The article was referring to such popular movies as Whistling Princess (2002), JSA (2001), Shiri (1999), and “Double Agent (2003), which exhibit largely favorable attitudes toward North Korea and a more ambivalent one toward the United States. What is noteworthy about these movies is that they are also responsible for the phenomenal success of Korean cinema in the last few years. They were instrumental in Korean movies claiming the domestic market share of close to 50 percent, which is almost unheard of in this age of concentrated globalization and American cultural domination. This success story has broad implications beyond the movie industry in Korea as it touches on the future possibilities of different national cinemas. I argue in this article that there is a definite connection between the new attitude in Korean movies toward North Korea and the United States and the success of the South Korean movies. But I think this connection is a complicated one, which can only be explained by giving an account of the history of division in Korea in general and the subsequent history of cinema in South Korea in particular.1 My intention in this article is to briefly reflect on three recent movies, Shiri, JSA, and Double Agent, in terms of how they mirror the struggles with identity out of the history and psychology of division in Korea, how they contribute to the formation of a unique movie genre, and what it may suggest about the possibility of a national cinema today.
This impact on the movie industry can be summarized in terms of a history of censorship, based on the absolute principle of anti-communism. As a result, movies in general shied away from social or political themes, opting instead for historical genres and melodramas. War movies were encouraged, but they had to have unambiguous endings, with the democratic, capitalist South always triumphing both morally and militarily. Movies had to deny not only the validity of the North Korean regime but also the humanistic concerns of communism itself. That the communist can provide a helping hand to a South Korean in the movie was an offensive idea; the portrayal of a North Korean soldier who seemed well-fed was an anathema; even the idea that he would wear well-polished shoes was an offense to the idea that the enemy had to be represented as poor and miserable. The denial of the humanity of North Koreans was a main objective of movie censorship in the South, which is precisely what is affirmed in recent movies. This history of censorship in the South has helped to create a rather unique genre of movies called the “anti-communist movies.” Promoted and supported by the government, and based on a rigid sense of good and evil, they portrayed the North Korean communists as heartless creatures who inevitably meet their just demise in the end.3
Just as any positive representation of North Korea was prohibited, any negative portrayal of the United States was seen as being sympathetic to North Korea. The correlation is obvious as South Korea stood during the Cold War era at the frontline of the U.S. global campaign against the Soviet Union. So any kind of rethinking of the relationship with the North in turn meant a reevaluation of what the U.S. has done on the Korean peninsula.
By reunification movies, I mean those movies that consciously acknowledge the reality of division and the human suffering it has caused and envision an overcoming of the division by being critical of the ideological presuppositions underlying the division and seeking reconciliation between North and South. Not all movies of this kind neatly fit this description, but when we consider the motivations and intentions a good argument can be made for its validity. Other than the movies considered here, we have to include some of Kim Ki-Duk’s work, such as Address Unknown (2001) and The Coast Guard (2002), as exemplary of this genre. Although they do not directly deal with North Korea, these two films almost obsessively pursue the tragic consequences of life in a divided land. Address Unknown deals with life in a U.S. military town. It is about a woman who keeps writing to the American black soldier who fathered her son, but year after year the letter comes back marked “Address Unknown.” The Coast Guard deals with the ills of military culture and a soldier obsessed with catching a North Korean infiltrator.
There are other movies. Southern Man and Northern Woman (2003) is a comedic story of a young man and a woman falling in love and overcoming obstacles to it. In this case, the man’s father heads the intelligence agency in South, while the woman’s father is a general in the North Korean army. The Spy Lee Chul Jin (1999) is about a less-than-competent but humane North Korean spy who is sent to South. Most recently, there are such movies as The Road Taken (2003), based on a real-life prisoner of conscience who spent 44 years in jail for refusing to renounce his socialist views, and Silmido (2003), about the rebellion of a commando who was training to infiltrate North Korea.4
The Searches for Identity
Toward the end of the movie, she is caught between a North Korean agent questioning her motivation, claiming that her assumed external identity is taking over her inner identity, and a South Korean agent suspecting her identity. There is no secure identity she can turn to for safety. At the same time, she can’t let go of either of her identities. She does participate in the last assassination plot but leaves a message telling her fiancé about the plot. She gets killed in the end, but this is her choice, an act acknowledging the impossibility of securing the real “I.” The movie speaks about the hopelessness of selfhood or about having to live someone else’s life as symptomatic of life in a divided land, where no easy negotiation of personal identity is allowed. That Hyun and Rye loved each other is secondary to what they had to become, enemies sworn to kill the other. While the central discovery in the movie is that of lovers turning out to be enemies, the reverse may also reveal the paradoxical truth, that the enemies are really the lovers.
The movie is about discovering one’s identity as a brother, in this case, a brother to one’s enemy. The ideological training they had received to hate and to kill the enemy loses its legitimacy in the face of reality the kind of reality that gets created when people meet and talk to one another. Sgt. Lee (Lee Byung-Hyun) kills himself after he found out that the bullet that killed his North Korean friend came from his gun. This can be understood as the impossibility of assuming a new, brotherly identity, given the current political situations. But it also is a perfect form of assuming an identity, because to be a brother is to be his keeper and killing of one’s brother is a form of suicide. While the bleak ending, perhaps even the whole movie, may serve as a reminder that reconciliation and establishment of peace are still far away, the movie made a sound case that the Cold War identity can be overcome through encounters, when genuine conversations take place, and that the soldiers are no more interested in ideological confrontations than the ordinary people.
Double Agent, directed by Kim Hyun-Jeong, is set in the late 1970s. The main character, Lim (Han Suk-Gyu), a North Korean diplomat stationed in East Germany, defects to South Korea with the hidden intention of operating within the South as a spy. He is subsequently subjected to repeated torture by the suspecting South Korean agents, but he does not relent and eventually gains a limited acceptance. Soon he proves his worth and is assigned to work for the intelligence agency in counter-intelligence. Once back in contact with North Korea, he provides secret information. But it only takes a communication misstep before North Korea accuses him of disloyalty and threatens the safety of his family members back home. Also in the South, perhaps sensing that his usefulness is now exhausted, the agency plots to link him to a spy ring, concocted by the agency to quell the rising democratic mood in the nation. Sensing that both sides are abandoning him and that his arrest is imminent, he escapes to a third country by selling classified information. In the last scene, he is gunned down by a local, without knowing who is responsible for the assassination.
All three movies have tragic endings, as the search for a new identity, a new way of being human in the divided land, beyond the Cold War politics, ends in failure. This is precisely an indication of where things stand in the history of changing relations between North and South Korea. That is, despite overtures of reconciliation, the politics of division and the sense of distrust accumulated over the years are hard to overcome. The pursuit of an alternative identity, which I argue is central to the movies of this genre, also fails as a result. However, I think the struggle over the question of identity between the collective and the individual, communism and capitalism, and being a Korean and not being one will continue to be a source of cinematic reflection. While the movies discussed earlier have made no real achievement in establishing a third identity, their success has to be understood in terms of the progress they made in representing North Korea. Certainly they have established both that governments are ideological entities, often ill suited to honor the hopes and aspirations of the people, and that North Korea, in terms of both its realities and ideals, has to be somehow included in what it means to be Korea. I believe the latter suggestion, present particularly in JSA, represents a concrete cinematic contribution to the vision of a common future in Korea.
Victory of Capitalism
Produced under the auspices of South Korean capitalism, the movies of this genre leave little ambiguity as to the success, if not the triumph, of capitalism over socialism. In Shiri, the specter of dying children in the North is a reason for the faction within the North Korean military wanting to start a war. In JSA, Sgt. Chung (Song Gang-Ho) longs for the day when North can produce chocolate pies as good as the ones from the South. In Double Agent, Ryu gives hunger as a reason for his defection. In these movies, exposing the differences between the North and the South is a crucial step in coming to terms with the similarities and even the identities. On the one hand, the examples above merely transpose the site of differences between the two from that of ideology and dogmatic debates to how everyday life is actually lived. But also, if the terms of comparison in how everyday life is lived are dictated by the standards of consumer culture, it becomes obvious that capitalism, often synonymous with consumerism in its contemporary manifestations, would have the advantage. Whistling Princess, however, goes to the extreme in having consumerism serve not only as the indicator of reality in South but also as a seeming verdict against the failed collectivism of North. By wanting to move the focus away from the ideological conflicts, which are responsible for the continuing division in Korea and toward issues of being human, the movies in this genre can sometimes forget about the ideological constitution of capitalism and the possible necessity of critiquing it on the way toward the formation of the new identity.
The Times article also talked about these movies fueling anti-American sentiments. But it should be noted that the growing anti-Americanism is not at all unique to the younger generation of people in Korea. Given the nature of the movie business, it is hard for large-scale production movies, such as the ones I have considered, to be on the leading edge of ideological debates. While recognizing the contributions they have made in provoking questions for the general viewers and creating a unique cinematic genre, it has to be acknowledged that they represent what is acceptable to the viewers. If anti-Americanism is still the issue, the most recent James Bond movie, Die Another Day (2002), has done more to fuel that sentiment than any of the Korean movies. The possibility that this movie can be controversial does not seem to have entered the minds of the producers, nor have the major newspaper reviewers treated it as anything other than a 007 movie. The tragic confrontation between the two Koreas, which caused so much pain and suffering over the years, is presented in the movie merely as an opportunity for games and manipulations. Released at a time when President Bush’s designation of North Korea as an “axis of evil,” which most South Koreans found offensive and harmful to the reconciliation efforts, was still fresh in people’s mind, the movie added another layer to the growing perception that the U.S. is the real threat to peace and an obstacle to reunification efforts.5 In any case, it was another example of Hollywood’s insensitivity toward other people’s history. That such notions as nation, history, and solidarity go out the window when viewers take their seats in the darkened theatre, leaving only the individuals with their hidden desires, is continuing wishful thinking by the Hollywood establishment.
Implications for National Cinemas
This constraint not only limits national cinemas from reaching their potential but also explains the passive receptivity to the sanitized, individualized desires promoted by Hollywood movies. What Korean movies have shown is that in the relative absence of such a constraint, tapping into the national ethos and aspirations can result in very popular and significant movies. It is also interesting to note that what made them so popular and interesting at home relevance to historical context is also what detracts from their success overseas.7 If this is the trade-off, it is not a bad one.
- For a general background in Korean cinema, see Hyanjin Lee, Contemporary Cinema: Identity, Culture, and Politics (New York: Manchester University Press, 2001). [↩]
- This article will only deal with movies made in South Korea. [↩]
- Such anti-communist movies were made well into the 1970s. [↩]
At the time of my writing this article, Silmido (2003, right) was making new records at the box office in Korea. [↩]
- The whole episode created a folk hero out of the Korean actor who refused to play the part of the North Korean villain. [↩]
- It should be noted that South Korean cinema exploded after 1996, when the existing form of censorship was declared unconstitutional. [↩]
- The only movie of this genre that has done reasonably well outside Korea is Shiri. [↩]