BAKS 2008

     I just returned to SG this past weekend from BAKS (British Association Korean Studies) 2008, and wanted to post as the film panel in particular intersects nicely with something posted earlier this summer.  For those interested in a brief summary of the conference as a whole, please see Philip Gowman’s take at:

     To return to the issue of film, the Tuesday afternoon panel (9 / 9) offered a number of interesting film clips, one of which featured two scenes from “Homeless Angels” /  집없는 천사.   To be fair, I would have to see the entire film to say more; but for now, I agree with a basic reading of the film which reads the placement of these Korean orphans in terms of a paternalistic Japanese state and ithe attempted formation of new imperial subjects through tutelage.  The scene I’m referring to specifically in making this claim comes near the close of the film, and features one of the characters saluting / reciting while the Japanese flag is being raised: in effect, the perfomative force of the scene is roughly equivalent to a recruitment pitch.

     The speaker / presenter also raised an interesting point in conjunction with this film–and I want to be careful, as I’m operating here on jet lag, and may be conflating points made across the entire panel–pointing to the recurring popularity of the trope of the displaced orphan, with (1) “Boys Town” featured as one of the earliest films approved and shown by USAMGIK, and with the subsequent appearance of (2) Douglas Sirk’s (1957) “Battle Hymn.” 

     While I’m not comfortable with making sweeping juxtapositions from the standpoint of history–would want to know much more about the circumstances underlying each of the three films before making any links–the loose observation in the previous paragraph does lend itself to some interesting comparative questions.  Namely, what were the economic / social / political / communitarian ideals informing the practice of dealing with refugees (particular orphans) during and in the aftermath of the Korean War?  I’m familiar with an overall take that places New Deal reformers, broadly construed, in Japan and Korea for the respective occupations, but does this suggest potentially that 1930’s American-style social welfare practices were simply mapped onto the issue of dealing with refugees and orphans?  Can we complicate this further with the recognition (see Dan Rodgers and Atlantic Crossings)  that much of the New Deal was informed by an eclectic set of borrowed practices from earlier European practices related to social welfare?

     What I’m fumbling at here, in a none too articulate fashion, are ways of comparing the social welfare practices adopted under USAMGIK (and during the subsequent Korean War), and the comparable practices mobilized under Japanese Imperial authority only a decade or two earlier.  In what ways were Americans attempting to form new subjects of Korean orphans (perhaps new “South Korean” subjects?)–if we put this to the same litmus test as the Japanese Imperium–and how were  American practices distinct / different?  My recollection of images of orphans from the Holt folks (see the historical introduction at the Holt International website, which links the 1955 founding of the organization to Holt’s viewing of a film about Korea) is that they were generally designated as “Korean,” but is this an innocent designation or does it assume a case where half of the peninsula subsumes the whole? 

I’m trying to do this kind of work for medicine now (looking at material and pedagogical changes in medical education pre and post war), and wondering what this might look like in a similar  context.  I also recognize that the question of distingiushing between categories and attributing sources of authority becomes almost hopelessly muddled, as what’s “Japanese” and “American” is rarely clear, and there’s a signficant difference between the offical rhetoric and on the ground practice.


  1. Thanks for posting on this John. No disrespect to anyone else who presented, but the film panels definitely seemed to be the stars of the conference.

    Personally I was struck by another aspect of the late colonial films – particularly the one that we got see in full, ‘Spring on the Peninsula’ (반도의 봄 – 1942). This was its depiction of the bilingual world of the late colonial (Korean) intellectuals/middle classes, who are seen in the film constantly switching back and forth between Korean and Japanese. Obviously this may have been partly a result of pressures from the colonial government which in the early 1940s was moving towards an outright ban on the use of Korean in films, but I got the impression that it also reflected the lived reality of a layer of the Korean population in the late colonial period. It felt like a window onto a world that even as a historian of Korea you never really get to hear much about, perhaps because the early 40s seems to be generally neglected in Korean history and perhaps because of the connotations of collaboration, assimilation and shame that bilingualism might carry.

  2. Hi. You really should watch the whole 집없는 천사, and see if you get a similar sense with the Korean Film Archive’s impression that the last scene is a sudden insert just to pass the censorship. The Japanese government itself was confused with the nature of the movie, apparently.

    The issue of orphans is interesting and I would love to know if you find out anything on the question you ask here. It is also important to bear in mind that there were many half-American orphans (born between Japanese/Korean women and American soldiers) whom the state officials often had no idea of how to legally deal with.

  3. Hi,

    I wanted to add to both comments above:

    Owen, I couldn’t agree with you more, the film panel / s were great, especially on the question of the occupation years,
    about which apparently still more materials exist, as the work of recovery in archives continues. According to the presenter
    from NYU, there are even a few USAMGIK instructional films out there for public health (aimed at nurses),
    something that I would love to see. Health is such a weird mix because the “bilingual world” gets even more confused,
    as you have a small number of elite Korean and Taiwanese physicians who speak Japanese and read and write German,
    the lingua franca of science and biomedicine before 1945.

    And Sayaka, yes, I agree, and what I saw was framed that way primarily because of time concerns, so I’m sure a viewing of
    the entire film would help. I’ll have to load up on DVD’s when I’m in Seoul in December, assuming that I can find some of
    these earlier titles in commercial form. Also, As you may know, folks at Columbia are putting together–or
    they were as of several years ago–an archive of film material from Ted Conant. I think he was with the UN, and Dr.
    Amstrong showed us some of the raw footage from the 1960 demonstrations that Conant shot.

  4. My impression of Korea is that Koreans are loath to adopt anyone who is not a relative, and thus anyone whose blood lines are not known. That leaves the state as the only possible “pater familias”. This in contrast to Taiwan, for example, where adoptions between blood relatives are generally not approved. Tough place to be an orphan, which may be why so many Korean orphans ended up overseas.

  5. I know that is a late post, but I just wanted to comment on lirelou statements, …”Koreans are loath to adopt anyone who is not a relative”. This has actually changed over the recent past. Korean Government and NGO have documented over 87,000 Domestic adoptions from 1939-2008. This does not include over 20,000 Private Adoptions that are Not covered in Gov. Stats. Confucian thinking on blood is still very strong but cannot overcome the infertility problems that leads to adoption outside of the extended Korean family. Society has changed but not completely, 90% of these Domestic adoptees do not know that they were adopted, with secrecy motivated by the shame of not being able to have ‘real’ children. Several Movie/TV talents have Openly adopted just three years ago two daughters (it is less threatening to adopt a girl- she won’t be listed in the family registry after she gets married a woman is listed in the husband’s family registry). Perhaps 10-15% are able in various degrees of Openness but Korea still has a long way to go in accepting domestic adoption openly, as it should.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.