Cinema, nationalism, and nostalgia

I have just finished reading a new book on Korean cinema (New Korean Cinema, New York: NYU Press, 2005, edited by Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Springer). It was a satisfactory read, most of the essays in it are good, some excellent. It has left me with some questions, though, and I am curious how other academics working on Korea think about these questions. Reading this book (and others as well), I have come across repeated statements on nationalism with which I find it hard to agree. The first one is the generally shared assumption that South Korea is an intensely nationalist country and that art (cinema) has to overcome nationalism (and nationalism alone) to become ‘real’ art. While superficially this may seem to be the case (especially from the outside), I have often found that, with the exception of the radical nationalists, nationalism is often a matter of rhetorics, not entirely perhaps, but to a significant extent at the least. Cultural studies in particular seem to take the all-pervasive influence of nationalism as a given, without problematizing what kind of nationalism is being discussed, in what context and from whom it emerges and for whom it is intended. The rhetorics of nationalism, as those of any influential ideology, must perhaps not be taken at face value, but be seen as a distinctive and for its users familiar way of communication.

Related to this is the also popular notion (present in several essays in this book) that due to the disappearance of the oppressively propagated nationalism of the 70’s and ’80s South Korea now is more fragmented, more anxiety-ridden and more diverse than it was during the 70’s and 80’s. While it is hard to deny that following the economic miracle, diversity in all shapes and forms flourished in South Korea, I would find it equally hard to argue that the Korea of the 70’s and 80’s was more of a united nation and less anxiety-ridden (although also less free) than it is now. The literature of the period may serve to prove this point; if anything, it is diverse, contradictory and far from unified. This notion of a more united, unfree Korea seems to me to be quite nostalgic, perhaps not entirely unrelated to all those nostalgic movies set in the 70’s that have come out the last five years, although these movies seem to cater to a different audience (해적 디스코왕 되다, 품행제로, 쇼쇼쇼, parts of 친구). What, then, to think of the appearance (and acceptance) of the notion of nationalist nostalgia in leftish academic writings, professedly anti-nationalist and highly critical of the political and social circumstances of the 70’s and ’80’s? Is this related to the idea that Korea became postmodern in 1988 (yet another idea present in some of the essays in this book I find hard to accept even if I knew what it meant exactly), with its exposure to the world at the occasion of the Olympics? The juxtaposition between free/chaotic and unfree/united is then cast in terms of postmodern vs. modern? Apart from the difficulties one would have in finding convincing evidence to support this argument, from an purely ideological point of view it seems to me that this is a rather Eurocentric argument, both excessively privileging theory and akin to the application of Marxist theory on Korean or East Asian history. Perhaps as a historian (and a historian of pre-modern Korea at that) I am biased with regard to these fact-finding missions trying to secure evidence for a developmental trajectory in Korea that is similar to the one(s) European and US societies followed (or are perceived as having followed).

Does the strict application of American social theory on Korean case studies transform or even distort the perception of Korean history? If post-Olympic South Korea is accepted as postmodern, does this necessarily entail the description of pre-Olympic South Korea as more unified, less fragmented and less free? Are these dichotomies good ways of understanding South Korean society and history? And, perhaps most importantly, isn’t the strict application of theory from the outside (as different from the flexible use of outside theory as a body of reference) a means to dominate the research object, rather than a viable way of understanding it? I am looking forward to your thoughts.


  1. You raise some interesting tensions out of which there is no easy way areound and which I am sure many of us deal with in our work. It seems to me that there are a lot of Korean intellecuals who try to approach western concepts as an act of ‘translation,’ if you will, the result of which is often to enrich and expand, ie even change the constitution of, the understandings of particular conceptual terms. I seem to recall reading and interview with Paik Nak-jung and Fredric Jameson a few years back on some of the stuff you mention above, I tried looking for it online and its in that Cultures of Globalization anthology, I also found this link here to a lot of other paik nak-jung stuff, including the critical journal he edits which may be of use. best of luck, Jamie Doucette

  2. I must say that I am very ignorant about Korean cinema, but I’m intrigued by your thoughts on the way the concept of nationalism is now used in Korean cultural/social theory. What you are describing sounds like a very schematic application of concepts such as postmodernism, nationalism etc. It also brings to mind the very common popular dichotomy between the ‘radical, leftist, communitarian’ ethos of the 80s and the ‘individualist, liberal, consumerist’ ethos of the 90s. While this idea may have embedded itself in the popular consciousness of Korea and been written up in numerous newspaper articles, does it reflect reality? (This question was actually part of the research topic of a PhD student at Birmingham University in the UK).

    Personally, just as I don’t think that Marxist theory is necessarily Eurocentric (Edward Said has something to answer for here), social theory formed in America is not necessarily America-centric. The problem, it seems to me, is in the overly schematic and inflexible application of insights that have been developed elsewhere to the history and society of Korea (or anywhere else for that matter). Basically though, I agree with you, these easy dichotomies (postmodern/modern, nationalism/overcoming nationalism, social cohesion/fragmentation) don’t necessarily get us any closer to understanding [Korean] society.

  3. You are right, Owen. Marxist theory isn’t necessarily Eurocentric and American social theory isn’t necessarily America-centric. What I meant is that their applications sometimes are. I agree with you that a flexible application of “insights that have been developed elsewhere ” is important; I do not doubt the contribution of Marxist theory or of American social theory to the study of history and society in general.
    As for the question whether the juxtaposition of the ‘radical, leftist, communitarian’ ethos of the 80s and the ‘individualist, liberal, consumerist’ ethos of the 90s’ reflects reality, to me it seems as if more than a descriptive statement of the reality of the 80s and the 90s, it rather is a simplified description of popular anxieties now. I would be interested to hear more about it.

  4. I consider myself an enthusiast of Korean cinema — definitely not educated enough to be a scholar, just someone who enjoys it and follows it — and the thing I gleaned most from my first exposures to Korean movies from the 90s and onward was not that they were explicitly nationalistic, but that they were more like attempts to dress old wounds. I definitely think a lot of the cultural anxieties that persisted for decades in Korea are finally not only just now getting proper cinematic expression but getting it in a way that can be seen and comprehended by the rest of the world as both cultural artifacts and entertainment.

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