Screening Korea
The Perception of Nationalism in Korean Film
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Patrick Kennaly

The Perception of Nationalism in Korean Film

Ever since the foundation of South Korea after the Korean War, a distinct and impressive catalog of films have been created that are unique to the South Korean experience.  In only a approximately 60 year period, a flourishing national cinema has expanded at a blistering pace, with films offering deep insight and themes that cannot be captured in any other nation’s film collection.  One such theme is that of nationalism.  Throughout South Korea’s existence, this notion, along with other feelings such as patriotism, have defined generations and their sentiments to their own nation, as well as others.

What is even more surprising, is that the definition of nationalism, more specifically, what it means to be South Korean, has undergone a number of drastic changes, despite the short history of the nation.  In the post-Korean war era, being South Korean meant stopping communism.  This entire concept has changed, as in recent years, a nationalistic tone has changed to not only pertain to one specific definition, such as being anti-American.   By looking at the South Korean national cinema, a clear change in what nationalism means to South Koreans is present, particularly the shift from anti-communism in the 1950s, to a more varied definition that includes anti-Americanism.

Despite having a unified ‘Korean cinema’ during the Japanese Colonial period, South Korea immediately distinguished and separated itself from its Northern counterpart even before the Korean War ended.  As ideologies and governmental structures polarized, as the South became influenced by the US and the North influenced by the Soviet Union, the two seemingly different nations became truly separate after the Korean War.  This separation included and can be exemplified in the analysis of South Korean cinema.  As film was one of the most prominent forms of media in the 1950s, its messages had an incredibly important role in portraying broader messages, chief among them being nationalism.   In the immediate post-war space, South Korea was unremittingly against Communism.  Powered by the US’ support for capitalism and democracy, a dichotomy was formed in South Korea, making the North and their harboring of Communist ideologies, in addition to other extremes such as Juche seemingly demonic.  This representation of a brutal enemy can be readily seen in the film Piagol.  Within this film, a small band of North Korean fighters, stuck in the Jiri Mountain region attempt to cause as much damage as possible before their inevitable demise, as they are too far away from North Korea for escape or rescue.  Throughout the film, the director, Lee Kang- cheon portrays these communist fighters in the most brutal of positions, consistently to the point of savagery.

One such scene is the execution of a village leader by his own neighbors as shown in figure 1 (Lee 48:00).  As the band sweeps across the mountainous region, they come across a number of civilians.  In this instance, the group, originally intending on executing the village elder themselves, decides on forcing his own countrymen to kill him themselves, or else the North Koreans will shoot them, in addition to their leader. This scene carries the profound message of the brutality of the communist North Koreans.  The sheer brutality of the soldiers’ actions, emphasized by the usage of spheres symbolizes the absolute atrocious nature of these people who have been tainted by Communism.  This is especially important, as Lee frames the anti-communist notions of his film to emphasize South Korean nationalism. This is done by having the viewer empathize with the South Koreans who are continually being subjected to the communists savagery.  This then, in turn, promotes the notion of the superior economic and political forms of capitalism and democracy that South Korea and its citizens promote.

The main theme of anti-communism was a highlight of Korean film within the 1950s, as exemplified by Piagol.  This tone is explored in Allison Persie and Daniel Martin’s larger work, Korean Horror Cinema.  As a part of their overall analysis of the Korean film industry and its contribution to the horror genre, in addition to how horror developed over the course of South Korea’s existence, Marc Morris, the author of the chapter War Horror and Anti-communism consider the Korean War’s representation and by extension, the horrors of war.

Morris extends his analysis to not only emphasizes the anti-communist message, but that the film humanizes the North Koreans, as the horrors of war affected all parties involved.  In the scene previous to the one where the village elder is murdered , Lee portrays a pondering “hard-nosed commander”, who Morris describes as being “frightened them moved to silen teas- of grief? of anger?, until he looks at his “worn commission papers for reassurance” (Morris 53, Lee 34:58).  This humanizing element, while proves Morris’s claim of the film portraying the horrors of war, also has another motive; to show that these humans are not wholly committed to Communism, thus they can be changed.

This ultimately leads to the ultimate transformation of the main character, Ae-ran, from one that embodies the values of the brutal communists, to one of a true Korean; one that values capitalism and democracy. After watching all her comrades fall one-by-one, Ae-Ran finally sees the error of her ways and casts off the shackles of communism. In moving image 3. Lee embodies the nationalistic tone of the new Korea she calls home, moving towards the flag. The rejection of communism makes the viewer encouraged that South Korea, tied to democracy and capitalism is shown as the better of the two options, thus resulting in the emphasis of Lee’s anti-communist, and by extension, nationalism.

The prevailing notion of nationalism meaning anti-communism starkly contrasts that of films in the 21st century.  Within the new century, the definition of nationalism cannot be contained into one perception.  Even the plots of nationalistic movies are now varied as well.  One such movie is The Admiral: Roaring Currents.  The movie follows the life of Admiral Yi Sun-sin as he attempts to defend the Korean peninsula from the invading Japanese during the 1590s. This film, employs much different nationalistic notions that are emphasized by portraying highpoints of Korean history, particularly that of the life of Yi Sun-sin, one of the most well respected admirals in Korean history.  Kim Han-min, the director, while creating a more tropey war film that utilizes by-the-numbers honor and sacrifice motifs, is effective at establishing a nationalistic tone that viewers, particularly those of Korean descent will indentify with in their shared history.

The nationalistic tone of the film is conveyed in a number of ways, primarily in the deistic portrayal of Yi.  Yi, who is one of the most treasured national figures in Korean history is portrayed as a stoic figure, who also shows vulnerability.  This vulnerability is portrayed in figure 4, where Yi realizes that his only hope of victory, in the famous turtle ship, over the Japanese, who outnumbered the Korean ships 10 to 1, was destroyed (Kim 39:01).  Despite the stoicism that Kim established Yi in having, he effectively gets the audience to sympathize with their national hero in showing vulnerability, and by extension fostering the nationalistic notion of the underdog story.

In addition to identifying with the national hero protagonist, nationalism is promoted through the vilification of the antagonists, the Japanese.  Through this display of barbaric actions, Kim establishes a hatred for the “demonic other”, similarly to that in Piagol about the North Koreans. Within figure 4, Koreans who were hanged by the Japanese lifelessly dangle in the bright sun of the coastal Korean jungle (Kim 41:17).  This horrific image is burned into the mind of the viewer, promoting their hatred of the Japanese, instilling a nationalistic fervor.

In a similar vein, other antagonists that have, in history, exploited the South Koreans are shown in a negative light to promote a sense of nationalistic pride of self-sufficiency.  Like the Japanese in The Admiral: Roaring Currents, the United States had increasingly been shown to be antagonists or at least on the wrong side of the narrative.  This stems from the occupation turned heavy military presence of the United States military immediately following the Second World War.  This incessant answering to a superior, which was only a continuation of Japanese colonialism, some Koreans believed, is criticized by modern filmmakers in the 21st century.  This is highlighted in the film The Host.  Released in 2006, Bong Joon-ho portrays a mutated fish that terrorizes residents along the Han River that is destroyed only after a family of South Koreans band together to defeat the monster, even after the government’s attempts.  The monster, created by the dumping of formaldehyde at the demands of an American coroner, uses this framework to establish a criticism of the United State’s control over the South Koreans, which ultimately damages their nation through the monster.  One such example of this criticism of the overall perceived American attitude is seen a number of times at the beginning of the film.  In addition to the coroner’s wrong-doing, an American is present during the first large attach from the Han river, the character is portrayed as being far too overzealous and overly confident in his ability to defeat the monster, ultimately leads to his failure.  This is seen in figure 5 (Bong 13:58).

This nationalistic tone, while being much more subtle than in films such at The Admiral, is explored in Nikki Lee’s article Localized Globalization and a Monster National: The Host and the South Korean Film Industry.  In her larger analysis of the expanding orientation of an international audience, while still promoting Korean nationalism, uses The Host as one of the main films of her framework.  While claiming the film fosters a nationalistic tone, the “Korean film industry’s nationalistic stance was mobilized for the purpose of mediating the integration of the domestic film industry” into a larger, international one (Lee 43).  This unique blending of globalization and specific national pride, while seeming goes against the anti-American tone of the film, is actually distinguished between this message of the film and the promotion of a larger audience.  This, in turn, actually promotes the patriotism the film is attempting to portray, as it expands its view of righteousness to not only a Korean audience, but to other nations as well.

This expression of South Korean strength, which is intended for a larger audience, in addition to the Korean one is best exemplified at the end of the film when the citizens defeat the monster together.  With Park, the main character and his family each contributing to the fight as well as the homeless man’s Molotov cocktails, their standing together highlights South Korean pride in sports with Nam-joo the archer, and their history of protests in the homeless man.  This promotion of South Korean history and patriotism further emphasizes the importance of nationalism in the 21st century, especially when combined with an anti-American narrative.

Despite the emphasis on anti-Americanism as a substitution in the early 2000s, a different framing of nationalism can be seen even more recently.  Despite the still present tensions of Koreans and the American military, some films have called into question the negative attitude of anti-American sentiments, as they forego the aspects of positivity, most notably during the Korean War.  This shift is exemplified in the 2016 film Operation Chromite.  Directed by John Lee, the film follows a group of South Korean soldiers that infiltrate the front line and attack the North Korean and Chinese armies from within.  This is combined with the unique framing of General Macarthur as the main architect of the real-life operation that the film portrays.

While closely following the traditional nationalistic war drama tropes that The Admiral invokes, it contrasts the nationalistic ideals of anti-Americanism that The Host utilizes.  Lee exemplifies this more pro-American tone in his movie by portraying MacArthur as a man who demands deep respect.  Jasper Sharp examines the role of MacArthur in his review of the larger film.  He claims that Macarthur is stereotyped to an incredible degree that is “one-dimensional”.  However, despite this, MacArthur, who “pokes around at military maps in the UN command HQ in Tokyo between long lugs on his trademark corncob pipe, seem curiously detached from the main drama”, is still deified and humanized through his fictitious personal relationship with the undercover unit’s leader Captain Jang Hak-soo” (Sharp 88). This framing of MacArthur’s character, which is strikingly similar to that of Yi Sun-sin, is further emphasized by Lee’s framing of Macarthur, seen in Figure 6.  The grizzled and almost smug face that MacArthur possesses conveys a strong sense of power and command that starkly contrasts the over-confident Americans in The Host.  By portraying MacArthur in this light, the notion of nationalism, while very present in the film, Lee shows that anti-Americanism does not have to always be associated to feelings of patriotism, as the Untied States certainly aided in the creation of the Korea that people know today, including its very existence.

While every nation relies on a sense of nationalism to promote its sense of self and everything unique that is associated with the state, what relates to it can change over time.  South Korea and its portrayal of nationalism in its films is no exception.  Starting with the formulation of its own national cinema, separate from North Korea, nationalism was irrevocably linked to anti-communism, where the only true way for Koreans to live was under Capitalism and Communism.  When looking later at the 21st century, this anti-Communist tone was absent.  This was replaced with the harkening back to national heroes and events in films such as The Admiral: Roaring Currents.  In addition, a wave of anti-Americanism has been seen to be associated with Nationalism as seen in films like The Host.  However, recently, this intertwining of ideals has been questioned by films like Operation Chromite, who advocate for a reconsideration of criticizing the US, as they were vital in aiding South Korea and developing the nation to where they are today.

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Works Cited:

The Admiral: Roaring Currents. Dir. Han-Min Kim. Perf. Min-Sik Choi, Seung-ryong Ryu. CJ Entertainment, 2014. DVD.

The Host. Dir. Joon-Ho Bong. Perf. Kang-ho Song, Ah-Sung Go. Showbox, 2006. DVD.

Lee, Nikki J.Y. “Localized Globalization and a Monster National: The Host and the South Korean Film Industry.” Cinema Journal, vol. 50, no. 3, 01 Mar. 2011, pp. 45-61.

Morris, Mark. “Chapter 3: War Horrors and Anti-Communism: From Piagol to Rainy Days.” Korean Horror Cinema Peirse, Alison; Martin, Daniel. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press. (April 2013): 48-59.

Operation Chromite. Dir. John Lee. Perf. Liam Neeson, Jung-Jae Lee. Taewon Entertainment, 2016. Amazon Video. Web.

Piagol. Dir. Gang-Cheon Lee. Perf. Jin-kyu Kim, Lee Ye-chun Lee. Piagol (1955). Koreanfilm, 30 Apr. 2012. Web.

Sharp, Jasper. “Operation Chromite.” Sight & Sound, vol. 27, no. 1, Jan. 2017, p. 88.

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