Bright Lights Film Journal

Reunifying Identities: North and South in Contemporary South Korean Cinema

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.

As the last country still divided along the ideological lines formed by the Cold War, the sense and experience of division are inescapable aspects of the Korean consciousness. The division has had a dominant effect on the history of both North and South Korea since 1945. The consequent psychological and physical damage has been enormous, from the pain experienced by the separated families and the great human suffering caused by the Korean War (1950-53) to the costs of dictatorships in both the North and the South that justified their totalitarian rules on national security threats from each other. Ordinary, daily life in Korea itself has been a reminder of the division, and this tragic sense of division became a factor in forming not only the national identities but also the personal identities of people in both Korea. These identities, however, were formed in opposition to one another, almost in hatred and in denial of the other’s existence and identity. Obviously this division has had a decisive impact on the movie industries in both Koreas.2

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.

This rethinking process began in earnest in the early 1990s when a civilian government was formed through an election, replacing the military dictatorship that had ruled the country for many decades. Since then South Korea has undergone a gradual process of reformulating the ideological agenda that dictated the national identity. This process resulted in a gradual removal of ideological control mechanisms and a reexamination of the hostile North and South relationship, so that the issue of reunification of North and South became no longer a government monopoly but a truly national agenda. While this provided a stimulus for people who had worked for the democratic movement and for those who have liberal leanings in general, it also intensified the feelings of alienation on the part of the more conservative, older generations who have felt that the country is leaning too much toward the left. This ideological tension within the South was reinforced under President Kim Dae Jung’s (above) so-called Sunshine Policy, which called for conciliatory gestures toward the North. While the divide can be located along generational differences, Koreans as a whole feel this tension, as they are the witnesses to the painful history behind it. The recent nuclear standoffs between the United States and North Korea and the threat of the U.S. attack of nuclear sites in North Korea and its retaliation in turn against the South threw the whole region into crisis mode and generated heated debates regarding which side, the U.S. or North Korea, is more of a threat to the peninsula.

This brief background at least in part explains the success of such movies as Shiri, JSA, and Double Agent (right), the kind of films that fall into a genre I would call “reunification,” but it also accounts for the popular acceptance of gangster movies such as Friend (2001), My Wife Is a Gangster (2001), and many others that have organized crime figures as central characters. These two genres are largely responsible for the success of Korean movies in recent years. While they seem to point in opposite directions as far as cinematic impulses are concerned, I see them as related in catering to two separate sensibilities in contemporary consciousness among Koreans. The organized crime movies reinforce the nostalgia for honor, order and hierarchy, which seems to be disappearing in society as it is undergoing radical changes, while the reunification movies reinforce the need for such changes by suggesting that the North be accepted as the other half of Korea. Together they constitute a statement concerning the unique ambiguity of being a Korean today: life that is still lived under the general conditions of the Cold War era, nostalgic as much for a time when order was thought to be based on honor and shame as for a time when laws and systems would govern that order. A life filled with such ambiguities entails an equally ambiguous self-identity. I would argue that the “reunification” movies, particularly the ones discussed below, amount to a search for an alternative national identity, beyond the one defined by the logic of the Cold War. That is to say, what accounts at least in part for their popularity and cinematic success are not just their attempts to break new paths in representations of the North-South relationship, but also their thinking about what it means to be a Korean, living in a divided land.

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

The movie that started the historic upsurge of the Korean cinema is Shiri, directed by Kang Je-Gyu. Behind impressive explosions and fast-moving camerawork worthy of a Hollywood thriller, there lies an attempt to search for a stable identity beyond the Cold War politics. A well-trained North Korean female assassin, Hee, takes on the identity of another person through cosmetic surgeries. Having become Hyun (Kim Yun-Jin), she assimilates into the South Korean life and, more importantly, infiltrates South Korea’s intelligence community by befriending a special agent, Ryu (Han Suk-Gyu). But she falls in love with him and starts to struggle with her true identity. She is torn between being a lover and a duty-bound assassin, but both identities are based on artificial personas, one on someone else’s face and name and the other on ideological indoctrination. They are mutually exclusive, and her identity before she took on the artificial personas was forsaken when she left for South, signified by the act of burning the old family photo.

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.

JSA (Joint Security Area), directed by Park Chan Wook, is set in the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea, surrounded by two of the most heavily fortified armies in the world. The movie pursues the possibility of being a brother to one’s enemy in such a tense setting, where one minor incident can trigger a major international war. Through a chance encounter, two guards from the opposing camps become friends, and the guard from South visits his friend’s barrack across the bridge that marks the border. Through simple games the soldiers from the two sides form a bond and begin to refer to each other as brothers. The secret visits became regular until they were caught by a North Korean officer. The result is deadly, leaving two people dead and border tensions escalated. The ensuing investigation does not reveal the truth of what happened, because the truth — that they sat and talked together at night and were on brotherly terms — would amount to a betrayal of the official truth, that the two sides are sworn enemies, and endanger the future of the North Korean soldier.

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.

Neither his true identity, a communist devoted to the revolutionary causes of the party, nor his assumed identity, a South Korean intelligence officer working to subvert the communist North, can keep him safe in the life of intrigue he is leading. He does not do anything to compromise his double identity, but the politics of division requires more than explicit loyalty and transparent identity. There one’s identity is always a political identity, and this identity, along with the one who possesses it, can be disposed of for political purposes. Lim opts for an alternate, third identity, choosing a life away from the land of division. The politics of division, anger, and hate does not allow him to assume this third identity, to live the anonymous life of an expatriate.

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.

Anti-American Sentiments

As stated earlier, because the doctrinaire perception of North Korea is fundamentally a result of Cold War international politics, the changed perception of North Korea in cinema requires a reevaluation of the role played by the United States in the second half of the 20th century in Korea. In recent movies, such as those mentioned in this article, the traditional view of the U.S. as the liberator and the champion of freedom and liberty, and thus off limits to cinematic criticism, gives way to one that sees the U.S. as an obstacle to efforts for reconciliation and reunification. It is this recent tendency that the New York Times article was picking up on. In Whistling Princess, the CIA is trying to prevent the peace process and even instigate a war in Korea. In JSA (above), the references to war occur only in the context of tension created by the U.S., which is consistent with the general view about how a war can start in Korea: the U.S. bombing of North Korea will incite her to attack the South, resulting in a full-blown war. The reunification movies in general assume that the confrontation between North and South Korea only serves the hegemonic interests of the global powers and the extreme factions within that cater to such interests.

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

Given the state of national cinemas and the dominance of American movies in recent years, what the move industry in Korea has done — routinely outdoing major Hollywood feature films at the box office — is quite remarkable. But this achievement goes beyond the share of the market in numbers, as it has meant the creation of a unique cinematic genre, growing at least in part out of serious historical reflections and the desire to speak to the hopes and visions of the people. One question that is raised is how to read this success story in relationship to the perennial dominance of American movies in the world. That is, does Korean cinema’s success present a strategy for non-Western national cinemas as to how to overcome the cultural dominance of Hollywood movies? The same question has been asked repeatedly in many parts of the world by wide-ranging people, from filmmakers to cultural critics to politicians. It is a difficult question not only because there seem to be more theories than actual data on which to base the analysis, but also because there is a prior question that needs to be answered: Why are American movies so popular? Of course, there have been a great many responses to the latter question, often competing against one another. From the Western context, the response often has to do with American values, such as freedom and individualism, and how they are exercised as forms of rights and represented in popular culture. From the non-Western context, however, the response is often tinged with a reflection on the legacy of colonialism and imperialism, which has made traditional cultures irrelevant and created a lasting perception of what is normal based on Western ideals.

Instead of a grand strategy, the lesson one can draw out of the recent Korean experiment is the importance of making movies that are relevant to the history and aspirations of the people, in addition to sharing their sense of reality. It is true that there have been many such attempts, notably in Latin America and Africa, but my sense of the difference between them and the Korean efforts is that the latter are dwelling on an issue that is most concrete and immediate to people’s lives and not on some generalized critique of colonialism or dictatorship. Often in the absence of history and vision, false and empty ideals of pure spectatorship take their place. However, creative interpretation of history and people’s aspirations in cinema requires the kind of creative freedom that is often lacking in non-Western countries.6
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.

  1. For a general background in Korean cinema, see Hyanjin Lee, Contemporary Cinema: Identity, Culture, and Politics (New York: Manchester University Press, 2001). []
  2. This article will only deal with movies made in South Korea. []
  3. Such anti-communist movies were made well into the 1970s. []
  4. At the time of my writing this article, Silmido (2003, right) was making new records at the box office in Korea. []
  5. The whole episode created a folk hero out of the Korean actor who refused to play the part of the North Korean villain. []
  6. It should be noted that South Korean cinema exploded after 1996, when the existing form of censorship was declared unconstitutional. []
  7. The only movie of this genre that has done reasonably well outside Korea is Shiri. []