Net Documentaries and Blockbusters in South Korea (2/2)


The ideal of transparency haunts the liberal model of the bourgeois public sphere in which “the state’s role was stated as no more than that of a ‘nightwatchman’ but its role always served the interest of the bourgeoisie.”9 Critiquing this notion, Seyla Benhabib evokes Rahel Varnhagen’s (1771-1833) famous Berlin salon in which the play of identities in the form of self-revelation and self-concealment disrupts the public sphere’s ideal of transparency. 10

Transparency’s particular suggestions regarding the regime of looking make it again an intriguing term when put in the global socio-economic. In the neo-liberal era, the trope of transparency stalks post-IMF South Korea The IMF and World Bank used the trope of transparency (tumyongson) repeatedly when they tried to restructure the South Korean political economy during the monetary crisis. Now they thinly disguise themselves as night watchmen. They are all-seeing and disciplinary neo-liberal men, and suggest that South Korea should expose itself as a transparent or hollow being under the neo-liberal global gaze. In contrast with the prevalence of transparency, Immanuel Wallerstein warns of the opacity of the world system under finance capital.

While the “seeing man” with imperial eyes was accompanied by a narrative of anti-conquest, the administrator of global capital employs the trope of transparency. As transparency discourse prevails and creeps into the political and optical popular unconscious, the workings of global capital becomes more opaque and impenetrable to local eyes. Along with this, restructuring also brought job insecurity, low real wages, extended working hours and increasing inequality.

Critiques of the failed role of local public intellectuals in the global era deluged the mass media. These critiques argued that local intellectuals didn’t foresee the advent of the IMF crisis. The critical discourse of public intellectuals was once contested in the territorial framework of the nation-state but once the boundary is re-drawn, public intellectuals are blamed for being blind to the opacity of global capital. As public intellectuals’ intervention is confined to the point that the present government has installed a group of young venture capitalist and blockbuster movie producers as New Intellectuals (shin jishikin). The Brain Korea project, aiming at churning out instrumental functionaries for the post-industrial mode of production, has been rapidly changing the mode of knowledge production at universities.

The optics of transparency involves a regime of looking: for the powerful, it is designed to be transparent, but to the powerless it is impenetrable. Of course, the rhetoric usually signifies the other way around. As social anxiety prevails under economic restructuring, the (mainly male-centered) alleged collective identity largely grounded upon and sustained by the nation and chaebol disintegrates. Nostalgic dot.com businesses like online alumni associations are gaining enormous popularity due to their allusions to bonding based upon the past.

As South Korea is exposed to the gaze of powerful global forces, and in turn mimics the gaze to be an actor in Asia in particular, the dynamics of anxiety and desire exploding upon blockbusters in Korean mode takes an unexpected form. As the “South Korean wave” (hanryu) of local popular culture (mostly TV dramas, songs and fashion) hits other parts of Asia, blockbusters have turned to a strategy of multi-nationalizing women characters. Shiri (dir. Kang Je-gyu, 1999) has a North Korean woman spy, code-named Hydra. JSA (Joint Security Area) (dir. Park Kan-wook, 2000) employs a Swiss-South Korean woman as an inspector to resolve a murder mystery in the JSA. Failan (dir. Song Hae-sung, 2001) casts Hong Kong actress as a Chinese migrant worker in Korea. Zhang Ziyi, the heroine of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (dir. Ang Lee, 2000) plays a Ming princess in Musa (“Warrior,” dir. Kim Sung-su, 2001). The heroine of Pichonmu (“Flying Heaven Martial Arts,” dir. Kim Young-jun, 2001) is set as a Mongolian.

This is quite unprecedented. From the mid-1950s, South Korean film sustained itself largely through representing women as tropes of modernity and post-colonial condition in films like Madame Freedom (“Chayubuin,” dir. Han Hyong-mo, 1956), Bitter But Once Again (“Miwodo tashihanbon,” dir. Chong So-yong, 1968), A Petal (dir. Jang Sun-woo, 1996), Sopyonjae (dir. Im Kwon-taek, 1993) and Chunhyanjeon (dir. Lee Myung-woo, 1935). When blockbusters endow main roles on South Korean women, it is usually those associated with gangsters and monsters. Most recent examples are My Wife is a Gangster (“Chopok Manura,” dir. Jo Jin-gyu, 2001), Kick the Moon and The Soul Guardians (“Toimarok,” dir. Park Kwang-chun, 1998).

The disappearance and displacement of South Korean women are quite problematic especially in a conjuncture when collective identity is being re-constituted around the notion of global citizenship. At the representational level, it appears that the alleged global citizenship excludes South Korean women. The above films betray the presence of newly forming nationalism in conjunction with globalization. To have a global facade, the films seem to suggest that one needs to make local women invisible. Predictably, the vanishing of South Korean women characters is offset by the consolidation of homosocial bonding among men. Blockbusters mobilize male dominant groups like the army, the Korean Central Information Agency and organized gangsters to foreground homosocial relations. The relationship recognizable to male members in the group simply becomes opaque to the female characters. The Swiss-South Korean heroine of JSA (Sophie Chang) is dispatched by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission as an investigator to unravel the mystery around the murders of South and North Korean soldiers at the North Korean camp located in the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The situation becomes extremely impenetrable to Sophie; her investigating look is constantly denied presumably because the murders and their concealment are provoked, sustained and empowered by brotherhood-based nationalism despite the different ideologies along the line of the Cold War. In a desperate attempt to solve the crime, Sophie tries to make a connection through her deceased father who served in the Korean war but defected to Switzerland after being detained in a POW camp. Her father’s photograph alludes to the complexities of modern history ravaged by the Cold War, division and migration, but it doesn’t enable her to look at the veiling of the murders among North and South Korean soldiers. Nor do her expertise in international law as a Zurich law school graduate, or her “half-ethnicity” as South Korean.

What the impenetrability and opacity of male bonding suggests is quite evident. But brotherhood-based nationalism is destined to find no secure space of its own under a global gaze demanding transparency. This sense of the impossibility of reconstructing nationalistic male space must be both an effect and a cause of the endless remaking of blockbusters, among many other things. And the disappearance of local women constitutes the structuring absence and symptom in global/national discourse. As the orchestration of transparency and impenetrability bitterly forming and resounding in global and the national discourse increasingly stages an orchestra with no women musicians, the result is a retreat of gender politics, indeed, and this retreat by no means stops at the level of representation. Along with the official declaration of the collapse of public intellectuals and their replacement with twenty- or thirtysomething young venture capitalists as “new intellectuals,” feminist intervention in the public sphere attuned to the global and the national is doubly denied.

The feminist journal [yo/song iron] declares that the present government of South Korea is a zombie that incorporates the remnants of a military regime which took pride in presenting itself as an authoritarian father. As the dominant media and blockbusters register the absence of local women and the mobilization of other Asian women for nostalgic and economic reasons, there arises a dire need to cope with this situation in feminist cultural politics. Neither international feminism nor local feminism are ready to provide sufficient analysis for a conjuncture in which a transnational and the national which are in structure both competitive and complicit debilitate liminal subject positions whose everydayness cannot share an abstract promise of triumphal globalization. Emerging feminist articulation must avoid adopting a state feminist or liberal stance, and must be attentive to locally specific but globally resistant issues.


Toward the late 1990s, facing the need for a new direction for social movements which no longer appeared totally grounded in a proletarian class perspective (that of the 1980s’ massive labor movement in alliance with student protest groups), groups composed of feminists, gay/lesbian activists, some members of youth sub-cultures and civil activists began to initiate film festivals as a public platform from which to address their rights and concerns. The desire to be represented or recognized in public prevails in the various festivals, and it seems the diverse festivals have become not only a space of negotiation among different forces, but also a cultural practice which links the audience to the specific agendas raised by new identitites, subject positions and newly proliferating NGOs.

Generally speaking, the film festivals can be classified into three categories. First there are those derived from a coalition of state and local governments, corporations and specialists equipped with film expertise, for example the Pusan International Film Festival, Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival and Jeonju International Film Festival. Second are the corporate-sponsored festivals such as the Q-channel Documentary Film and Video Festival and the Nices Short Film Festival (which ended in 1999). Third, there are festivals organized by new and old activist groups. The third kind of festival is relatively autonomous from the state and the corporate sector. Therefore, it provides an interesting example of how the new social movements of the nineties are taking tentative steps away from the preceding social movements of the 1980s that centered around the labor movement.

In this third category, the discourses of the eighties and nineties operate simultaneously. The similarities and continuities, differences and ruptures between the two periods become visible when the different film festivals are examined closely. The politics of these festivals also allow the notion of identity politics and the possible formation of alternative public spheres to be tested against the civil society proclaimed by the Kim Yongsam and Kim Daejung governments and the mainstream media. So far, the third category has included the Women’s Film Festival in Seoul, the Seoul Queer Film Festival, the Human Rights Watch Festival (organized by a former political prisoner jailed for violation of the National Security Law), and the Independent Film Festival (held by young filmmakers), as well as various other small scale and perennial festivals that take place in venue like college campuses and cinema- or videotheques.

The way the three categories of film festival operate may be viewed as an index to the new contours of cultural specificity in the nineties. The notion of the public sphere and the alternative public spheres in which each film festival is located (or dislocated) has to be taken into consideration in regards to the inauguration of the civil government, the retreat of the labor movement as the privileged force of social change and the concomitant endeavor to find new agents for social change. Around the same period, discourse on nationalism has been re-mobilized with and against the official discourse of Saegaehwa (Korean globalization in the late 90s). The international film festivals in particular thrive on the manifold manifestations of the global and the local, and of the national and the local. The film festival provides a condensed space in which different interests and ideologies all come into play at the contested intersection of residual authoritarian and emergent democratic modes. Negotiations and compromises between the state, corporations, intellectuals and the audience betray how different societies are contesting with one another in this historical conjuncture.

Film festivals are public spaces worked through with complex structures of articulation. They tend to operate in a strategic way so as to render the festival occasion a cultural and political site of ongoing recognition, negotiation and contest. The banning of festivals like the Seoul Queer Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival explicitly indicates pressure points in the hegemonic order. The whole organizing, exhibiting, and banning process of film festivals reveals blockage and points of compromises, as well as a possible direction towards alternative or oppositional platforms.

Now that the official bans against the above festivals were withdrawn in 1998, the festivals seem to continue to address the same issues they raised initially, but one incident concerning self-censorship and local female labor in the global era remains deeply problematic. The documentary Pab, Ggot, Yang (“Food, Flower and Scapegoat,” dir. Im In-ae, 2000) dealt with a protest by female workers at the Hyundai car factory in the city of Ulsan after the IMF crisis provoked restructuring. The workers were composed mostly of cooks and kitchen helpers at the canteen, and were the first group laid off after a strike. Male workers had called their female colleagues “flowers” during the strike since they provided food, but the labor union didn’t give substantive support when the female workers lost their jobs. They became scapegoats. This is a story rarely told even by the progressive media.

The documentary was made by a woman filmmaker, Im Inae, with her group Labor Reporters’ Network. While releasing the film, the group ran into problems; Ulsan is a heavy industry city, and home to Hyundai. In the 1980s, the labor struggle at Hyundai was often depicted as a fight between David and Goliath. After IMF, as was the case with most chaebols, there was a demand on Hyundai to restructure its system, and the multi-national corporatation heavily backed up by the state saw its disintegration under global capital. The documentary was made in the immediate post-IMF period.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival made an impact in Seoul in 1998, and soon began to tour the country. Ulsan also had a Human Rights Watch Film Festival, but this refused to include Pab, Ggot, Yang in the program saying that it would provoke antagonism among city residents. This incident led immediately to protests on the Net. Jinbo Net, a progressive network, and others took this censorship not only as a violation of freedom of expression but also as obvious repression on the female labor issue.

The incident also catalyzed the overdue bursting open of gender/class related problems in the allegedly progressive movement sector, and shows quite clearly that the control of female labor is at stake. Both the labor union and the festival committee composed of local activists and intellectuals in Ulsan refused to take the female labor issue as their crucial agenda—one labor activist in Ulsan even noted that the public screening of this kind of documentary would put the upcoming labor-capital negotiation in jeopardy. The emergent underclass group heavily marked by gender—a gendered underclass—not dissimilar to the problematic vanishing of South Korean women in some blockbusters, upset the festival and the net communities.

Quite intriguingly, Pab, Ggot, Yang’s director tells her audiences that it is not a film. She obviously denies the ways in which film is made and viewed and served. But then what is it?


Since the late 1990s, there have been increasing numbers of feminist publications and activities centered around the net. If you enter “feminism” in a Korean search engine, there are many inviting sites, ranging from lesbian sites to female labor association sites. Feminist publications like Ttohanui Munhwa (“Alternative Culture”), Yoyon (“Women’s Studies”), Asian Womens Studies, Feminism Studies and webzines like Onninae (“Sisters”) and Dalnara Ttalsepo (“Moon Daughter Cell”) promote feminist cultural politics. It is likely that a relatively autonomous and radical (virtual) space is being formed which (in)voluntarily places itself at a distance from the state and the economy. And isn’t it a truism now even to critique the notion of public sphere as so deeply entrenched in the idealization of the rationalization of bourgeois? As one might put it, in principle, all human beings belong to this sphere; in practice, only some property owners ever did.

Nevertheless we should also be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Not dissimilar to ideas like those of modernity and the universal, the public sphere is a contentious term especially if it shifts its locale to the non-west or the rest of the world. As Chinese intellectual historian and social critic Wang Hui has pointed out, once the notion is “applied” to a non-west context, it invites almost immediate controversies and noises. 11

Just like a forked tongue used in the post-colonial context, one needs to be quite strategically dexterous with the use and promise of public sphere. Historically, it has made a constant gesture towards the inclusion of certain sectors of the excluded. Because of its hopeless and ever unattainable ideal, it accidentally opens up a space for the excluded although there is always a limit. Always wary of contingent openings in the true sense of Offentlichkeit but certainly not being dependent upon it, one needs to make an “event” out of the contingent and accidental opening of an episodic public sphere. Film festivals like Women’s Film Festival in Seoul, Queer Film Festival, the Labor Film Festival and the Human Rights Film Festival are instances of this.

The women’s funerals (yosonjang) organized by women’s groups are similar instances of this tactic. Recently, a women’s organization held a funeral of 14 sex workers on the streets, and called it yosongjang. This practice dates back to the YH incident in 1979, in which fellow workers held a funeral for female labor activist Kim Kyong-suk. Quite coincidentally, in Korean, “yosongjang” can also refer to women’s public sphere (one Korean translation for the public sphere in general is “kongkaejang”). These two yosongjang related to death, friendship (in Seyla Benhabib’s sense) and resistance betray the accidental emergence of the female public sphere.

And so, in response to the statement by the director of Pab, Ggot, Yang, I am very tempted to say that the film is trans-cinema. Trans-cinema is a cinema in translation and in transition. The fact that the work is able to have an after-life even after it was rejected from entering progressive public space has much to do with its dissemination on the net and the support garnered from this move into new space. That said, the critical constellation of trans-cinema is yet to come.



9. Cook, Deborah The Culture Industry Revisited: Theodor W. Adorno on Mass Culture (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996).

10. Dean, Jodi, “Cybersalons and Civil Society: Rethinking the Public Sphere in Transnational Technoculture”, Public Culture 13, no.2, (Spring 2001): 245.

11. Wang Hui and Poil Seung-uk, “Paradox of Modernity: China, Modernity and Globalization” in http://jbreview.jinbo.net/journal/0012/0012interview.html


Kim So-young

Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the South Korean National University of Arts. Her film Koryu: Southern Women, South Korea, directed under the name soha, screened in the New Asian Currents program at YIDFF ’01.