Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Richard James Havis

Virtual Hallyu delves into the work of contemporary South Korean filmmakers including Park Chan-wook, director of Oldboy

Virtual Hallyu delves into the work of contemporary South Korean filmmakers including Park Chan-wook, director of Oldboy

Written by Kyung Hyun Kim. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. 304 pp., illus. Hardcover: $89.95 and Paperback: $24.95.

Kyung Hyun Kim’s Virtual Hallyu seeks to redress what the author sees as an imbalance in recent English-language surveys of Korean cinema. As Kim, an Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Literature at the University of California, Irvine, points out, the few works available in English—such as Jinhee Choi’s recent The South Korean Film Renaissance—generally assess the Korean film industry and other external aspects of Korea’s film boom of the mid-1990s and early-2000s. That is, they explore the how and why of the rapid expansion of Korean films in the domestic marketplace and the rise in stature of the filmmakers and the industry abroad.

Kim makes an effort to switch critical gears by emphasizing textual readings of the films. He also wants to locate cinema within important strands of Korea’s cultural heritage, and thereby discover the uniquely Korean characteristics of the nation’s cinema. Kim wades deeply into texts by directors from the 386 generation like Hong Sang-soo, and Park Chan-wook, as well as analyzing work by Korea’s master filmmaker Im Kwon Taek. The results are varied. There are some genuinely helpful insights. But there is also a fair amount of pretension and obfuscation.

As Kim himself admits, the title of his work is a loose fit. The term “Hallyu” is used to describe the wave of Korean pop culture that swept over parts of Asia in the early 2000s, a period when places like Hong Kong became enthralled with South Korean pop-culture icons and consumer products. This wave generally consisted of Korean pop music (K-pop), television dramas like Jewel in the Palace, and consumer items like mobile phones. Although Korea’s movie stars, themselves a product of a new homegrown star system, did play a part, Korean films generally operate on a different plane to the Hallyu products, reaching smaller, slightly different, audiences abroad. The author says that he chose the term because he wanted to locate his ideas about film in the varying conditions that brought Hallyu into existence. “The book is an attempt to think about how recent cinema in South Korea has produced subjects that extend far beyond standard modes of semiotics and/or Cold War political allegories,” he writes.

The term “Virtual” is also open to misunderstanding. Kim is not using it in its popular usage to define a virtual existence online, or to evoke concepts borrowed from science fiction. He is instead referring to a virtual realm as defined by the philosopher, film theorist, and academic superstar Gilles Deleuze.

Kim explains his Deleuzian starting point in the Introduction: “Virtual-Actual is the concept through which Deleuze sought to move visual theory, especially film theory, beyond the representational…. What Deleuze does is to unhook the virtual from its classical configuration of an ontological entity split between truth and falsehood, remapping it instead within a terrain somewhere between a creative process and something already created.”

We cannot understand the present without the past, and the past (says Kim on Deleuze) cannot completely sever itself from the present. Deleuze argues that the relationship between past and present becomes contained in a virtual space. Our standpoint in the present leads us to remember the same thing happening in different ways—we reinterpret the past depending on our position in the present. So the past is not a fixed occurrence but an index of possible pasts, all of which are contained in this virtual space. It is “an origami cosmos, always folding, unfolding and refolding.” When we remember something, we leap into this virtual space and come back with a memory that best fits the situation in the present.

Cinema, says Deleuze, can never represent objective truth. Like our memory, film is simply one of many ways of organizing the events, which took place in the past. (Deleuze calls this fluctuating expression of the past “time/image,” which contrasts with a fixed reading of the past he called “movement/image.” “The difference between the way things are remembered and the way they really were is…jettisoned for the creative purpose of virtually transforming elements from history to pave a third path and produce an actual image—in this case, cinema.”

From this foundation, Kim tries to analyze themes in Korean cinema, such as the meaning of landscapes in “Virtual Landscapes” (Chapter One), as well as the works of individual directors like Park Chan-wook and Hong Sang-soo. He makes passing references to issues such as Korean films' relationship with Hollywood cinema and their relation to Korea’s late-capitalist economy. There is much of interest in the book, but it could have used a stronger editor to sharpen and hone Kim’s arguments. The dense prose and numerous digressions often mean that the essential points of Kim’s analysis become submerged in a fog of jargon. Plowing through the book is often frustrating: one wishes that Kim would find a speedier, more efficient route to the point he is trying to make.

Some chapters are more successful than others. Chapter 1, “Virtual Landscapes,” evaluates the virtual (geographical) landscapes of Korean cinema where “realism, modernism and post-modernism merge in the midst of…rapid democratization and globalization….” With a reading of Im Kwon Taek’s 1993 Sopyonje—an art-house film that unexpectedly became a box-office hit—Kim draws out an interesting relationship between the protagonist’s inner life and the film’s detailed depiction of the Korean landscape. The story ofSopyonje details the pain that a pansori (Korean folk) singer feels as his art is becoming eclipsed by modernity. Nature renews itself with the advent of spring, even though individuals cannot renew what has been lost to time. The film is set against a geographical landscape that is part real, part idealized. This virtual landscape is overlaid by the nostalgia of the viewers, who have their own feelings for rural landscapes that are being changed or obliterated by industrialization. It makes for intriguing reading.

The most plastic representation of Kim’s application of Deleuze’s work to Korean cinema is probably Chapter 3, “Virtual Dictatorship.” This chapter focuses on two films, The President’s Barber (Im Chang-sang, 2004) and The President’s Last Bang (Im Sang-soo, 2005). These are both historical films that deal with a dark era from the late twentieth century— the period from 1961 to 1979 when South Korea was ruled by the right-wing dictator Park Chung-hee. “These two films are not motivated by a desire to faithfully reproduce historical landscapes and figures, but rather by a desire to deliberately release cinema from them through the tension posed between the audience’s memory and the cinematic image….” writes Kim. This tension, he posits, creates a virtual historical landscape. In The President’s Last Bang, which depicts the assassination of Park, Im Sang-soo goes to great lengths to distance the film from historical verisimilitude. The cast doesn’t look anything like the actual historical figures and some well-known events have been changed. Since there is no Zapruder-like footage of Park’s assassination, the accepted version of what actually happened can be challenged. According to Kim, the accepted version is “interrogated” by these films.

Kim’s analysis of the works of individual Korean filmmakers like Hong Sang-soo and Lee Chang-dong is often interesting but a bit erratic. (Kim Ki-duk, strangely, is mentioned only in passing). While discussing the films of Park Chan-wook, he brings the subject of what makes an art-house film to the fore. Art-house films, he suggests, have usually fused with a humanism that is absent from, say, Park’s Oldboy. But that is not a necessary feature of an art-house work, he argues. In Park’s work, “…one can trace the emergence of a post-modern attitude, holding not only that the grand ideologies…are faltering or already collapsed, but also that the image is just an image.” The first part of the statement seems correct. But the latter part, which foreshadows Kim’s examination of Park’s sense of the “unknowable,” is confusing. Is Kim saying that Park’s work heralds the death of semiotics?

Kim’s flights of fancy sometimes lead him into pretentious terrain. It’s a stretch, for example, to claim that Im Kwon Taek’s Sopyonje has a plot that’s similar to a horror film. Similarly, it’s also a stretch to argue that, just because Jong-du in Oasis finds himself in a police station towards the start of the film and the end of it, this is “perhaps extending the theme of eternal recurrence.”

In terms of the Hallyu reference in the title, films like Lee’s Secret Sunshine and Hong Sang-soo’s Turning Gate would seem to have very little to do with Hallyu. But the Hallyu of the title soon seems to become something of a MacGuffin—Kim is more interested in the “virtual” part.

The Korean cinema boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s is a phenomenon that certainly merits critical investigation. While perhaps not wholly unique—it shares some characteristics with Hong Kong commercial cinema—Korean cinema possesses certain distinctively postmodern traits. The films of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho are especially notable for blurring distinctions between auteur-driven work and commercial fare. Korean filmmakers have been unafraid to mix genres. Many Korean directors also successfully use the tight three-act structures beloved by Hollywood filmmakers to make commercially appealing films with Korean stories and themes that appeal to an international market—a kind of crossover that Hong Kong filmmakers have attempted with only limited success.

Kim’s book makes a spirited attempt to address these issues and more. Readers who are prepared to endure the often-rambling text with its intellectual detours will usually find the answers they are looking for in the end. But tighter editing would have made this a more efficient process.

Richard James Havis writes about film for The South China Morning Post.

To purchase Virtual Hallyu, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.