Net Documentaries and Blockbusters in
South Korea

Kim So-young


As South Korean-style blockbusters hit the domestic and Asian box offices, a certain desire is brewing and boiling at the heart of a Korean film industry bombarded by venture capital. Re-claiming their position as something in/between Hollywood, Asian, and Korean cinema, South Korean blockbusters desperately seek for ways in which incommensurability rests at peace with the audience’s optical/aural unconscious. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that their existence depends largely on the mobilization of digital effects, marketing and promotion and saturation booking. But it also goes without saying that these alone cannot sustain the overall blockbuster culture-oriented movie industry. The industry’s aspirations toward Asia and the global market with an excessive portion of guarded nationalism propel successive production and successful reception.

Obviously, South Korean blockbusters are a compromise between foreign form, local materials and local form on a grand scale. They both voluntarily mimic and resist the Hollywood blockbusters that set the logic of identity and difference at play in the global culture industry. Backed up by the nation-state and national culture, the South Korean-style blockbuster presents itself as difference in face of the homogenizing identity of Hollywood. But it is an opposition between “the Identity of identity and nonidentity.”1 Thus, South Korean-style blockbusters are a contradiction.

In a recent book entitled Blockbusters in Korean Mode: America or Atlantis (“Hankukhyong blockbuster: Atlantis hokun America”), South Korean film critics and scholars noted the huge impact of popular cinema on society. 2 Popular cinema re-defines the roles of cultural nationalism and globalization, and configures morality, desire and everydayness. Korean film weekly Cine-21 sums up the phenomenal success of local blockbusters as follows:

“As Good as It Gets: This succinctly describes the phenomenal success of recent Korean movies. Chingu (Friends) captured 38.3% of the domestic market by drawing 8 million viewers. During the summer season, local films like Kick the Moon (“Shillaui dalbam,” dir. Kang Woo-seok, 2001) and Sassy Girl (“Yopkichoin Kuyon,” dir. Kwak Jae-young, 2001) will be competing at the box office. There was once speculation that local movies would come to dominate 40% of the domestic market. It is not a slogan anymore, but reality.”3

The emphatic point that local blockbusters bring to a fore is not so much the actual amount of real profits as the national cultural values invested in them. As well, the government has consistently emphasized the movie industry as an exemplary smog-free, post-industrial form since the 1990s. This sits well with popular imagination.

Notwithstanding outrageous marketing fees and ticket sales, the film industry as a whole in the year of 2001 garnered profits only equivalent to a medium-size corporation. What the film industry in its blockbuster mode displays and in fact informs is the workings of finance capital and mass investment culture at the popular level. “Netizen Funds” set up on the internet by film companies finds enthusiastic investors, and is so quick that people complain about accessibility. With blockbuster movies and the concomitant dissemination of blockbuster culture, South Korea seems to have entered the investment culture scene:

“The emergence of a widespread ‘investment culture’ which, in turn, has played a critical role in strengthening the hegemonic dominance of finance capital-linking the perceived interests of tens of millions of workers to its own by embedding ‘investor practices’ in their everyday lives and offering them the appearance of a stake in the neo-liberal order. In this sense, the mutual-fund industry can be said to represent the mass marketing of the structures and processes of global finance itself.”4

With blockbusters and multiplexes on the rise, the film festivals proliferate. Without even mentioning international film festivals such as Pusan, Puchon and Jeonju, other alternative festivals focusing on women, queer issues, labor, and human rights manage to find their audience. The cinephiliac culture of the 1990s continued even after the post-IMF (international monetary fund) crisis in 1997. Issues centered around the opposition of global and local, gender and class in articulation with cinematic specificity manifest themselves in unduly and unruly fashion in the public sphere known as a film festival, and make for cinematic society and societal cinema, indeed. And so cinema provides a privileged site to read Korean society and vice-versa.

As activists and intellectuals are increasingly interested in the construction of Internet sites as an alternative public sphere, some filmmakers have turned to digital video, which is easily transferable to streaming technology on the net. Access to DSL service is fairly easy and cheap at 15 USD a month per household at home, and less than 1 USD per hour at PC lounges. Public access has brought two especially notable things home: the popularization of cyber trading and stock investment, and steps toward the formation of a public sphere hastily claimed as a cyber democracy (http://soback.kornet.nm.kr/~wipaik/). Mass investment culture and cyber democracy become mise-en-abymes of the era of globalization, itself also called the network society.

Glimpsing the possibility of constructing a critical space, most militant independent film and video groups connected to and diversified from the 1980s labor and people’s movements have created websites on which demo- or full length documentaries are freely available. Recently, a female workers’ network (http://www.kwwnet.org/) has begun showing a documentary on the issue of irregular employment expedited after the IMF crisis. The documentary claims that seven out of ten female workers are now employed as irregular and flexible labor without any benefits.

Documentary website Patriotic Games (www.redsnowman.com) comes as a forceful attack on nationalism, something which has been taboo area even among progressive intellectuals since the 1980s not only because of the National Security Law but also as a reflection of the post-colonial and neo-imperial impacts of Japan and America on Korea. The makers of Patriotic Games declare that the net is a distinctive space for counter-cinema. They refuse to sell their work on video, and have very limited public screenings outside the net.


Taking a cue from the proliferation of digital cinema, I would like to propose a notion of trans-cinema which would be attentive to the transformations wrought on modes of production, distribution and reception exemplified in independent digital filmmaking and its availability on the net. As well, trans-cinema proposes LCD screens in subways, taxis and buses and gigantic electrified billboards for advertisements,news and movie trailers on the streets as public cinemas. In terms of collective spectatorship, the new public screens are more similar to movies than they are to television. The gigantic screens in downtown Kwanghwamun in Seoul exist as phantasmatic screens which permeate and build everydayness of Seoul. When the collapse of Songsu Bridge, an emblem of South Korean modernity, was projected and viewed by thousands of passengers and pedestrians in downtown Kwanghwamun, the event certainly overwhelmed the spectacle of any blockbuster. Similarly, the Media Seoul festival’s use of thousand of billboards to project short films and video works as a part of a public art project meant certain change for the Seoul mediascape. The mass media and censorship board became enraged when they found out that one short film included a scene in which a teenage girl gave a birth to a baby and flushed it down the toilet. The film was removed from the public art project, and the incident showed how fractured modernity and the uncontrollable female body disrupt the public screen.

Rather than being the premature and sensational celebration of “the death of cinema” applauded by hi-tech corporations, trans-cinema is an endeavor to locate and theorize emergent spectatorship and modes of production. Trans-cinema is a form that should unsettle dominant interpellation of cinemas either as national or transnational. It is:

“... a critique to transnational cinema and a transformative, reflexive practice, in which production of films and critical discourses are firmly intertwined. It produces a multiplicity of cinematic practices and critical framework, which are not reducible either to the false universality of Hollywood as a new transnational standard or to its mirror image, the particularity of identity embraced by multiculturalism and transnational capitalism.”5

The construction of trans-cinema as a critical constellation is an effort to stimulate comparative work in film studies. And since, quite ironically, “the universalism at which enables ‘comparison’ to be made is the universal encounter with capitalism, a process that has massively accelerated since the 1950s,” Korean blockbusters as a response to Hollywood and a translation of universality into spectral universality provide an instance through which the problems of the universal and the particular, global dominance and local resistance and gender politics can be examined in the age of global/finance capitalism. 6 Just as the theoretical construction of an alternative public sphere in early cinema is suggested in relation to and against the industrial capitalist mode, there seems to be a need to conceive of and imagine the (cinematic) alternative public sphere in the era of transnational capitalist mode. This should be an ongoing effort, as “even if there were no empirical traces of autonomous public formations, they could be inferred from the force of negation, from hegemonic efforts to suppress or assimilate any conditions that might allow for an alternative (self-regulated, locally, and socially specific) organizations of experience.”7

Thus trans-cinema is yet a curious entity and an unstable mixture. It cuts across film and digital media, and challenges the normative process of spectatorship that followed the institutionalization of cinema. As a critique of and successor to the pairing of world cinema and national cinema, it suggests an urgent need to re-think the constellations of local cinemas in transnational capitalism. As such, trans-cinema, unlike transnational cinema, is also the recognition of and response to the increasing rate of inter-sub-global cultural traffics like those in Asia that include local blockbuster movies (Hong Kong, China, India and South Korea) and art-house cinema (Taiwan, Iran, etc.). Inter-Asia blockbusters in particular provide an opportunity to re-visit the Hollywood informed global culture industry formation and to re-think the way in which the local /sub-global(regional) is simultaneously de- and re-articulated.

The genealogy of the cinematic apparatus as we know it is embedded in the culture of industrial capitalism. This requires us to re-cast the apparatus in relation to the shifting political economy and its transformation into a global space. In order to articulate the cinematic apparatus in relation to a public sphere undergoing radical changes in socioeconomic, political and cultural conditions, it is clear that we should note points of emergence and persistence of diverse constituencies in a cinematically aided “public sphere.”

As well, the structure and function of the liberal model of the bourgeois public sphere envisioned by Jurgen Habermas is historically and sociologically specific to late seventeenth-century Great Britain and eighteenth century France, as stated in the preface of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. 8 In a neo-liberal era, when the classical model of the public sphere in developing market economies is no longer feasible and the nation-state can no longer provide unity and boundedness as conceived by Habermas, what would one gain by bringing up the notion of the public sphere?

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1. Jameson, Fredric, “Notes on Globalization as a Philosophical Issue”, The Cultures of Globalization, ed. Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1998): 75-76.

2. Kim So-young et al., Hankukhyong blockbuster: Atlantis hokun America (Blockbuster in Korean Mode: America or Atlantis) (Seoul: Hyonshilmunhwayongu, 2001).

3. Cine-21 (August 17, 2001)

4. Harmes, Adam, ‘Mass Investment Culture’, NLR (II) no. 9, May-June 2001: 103.

5. Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro “National/International/Transnational; The Concept of Trans-Asian Cinema and Cultural Politics of Film Criticism,” paper delivered at the On Trans-Asian cinema panel at the Jeonju International Film Festival, 2000.

6. Paul Willeman, “Korean Detour” forthcoming in InterAsia Cultural Studies, vol.3 no.2, August 2002.

7. Hansen, Miriam, Babel and Babylon (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991): 91.

8. Habermas, Jurgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).