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It’s Not Just the Lateness of Industrialization: How and Why Korean SF Doesn’t Quite Work

This entry is part 3 of 70 in the series SF in South Korea

I should be grading in-class essays, but my guilt at not yet having done so has been assuaged by the fact that another professor in the department, someone above me, confessed to not having graded her midterms either, and not feeling the slightest bit badly about it!

So among all the other insanity of the last week, I also spent some time working up a couple of abstracts for a conference that I think I have no realistic shot at, mostly because I’m not an “official” Korea studies scholar, but at least one of my abstracts was for an essay in my own field, and in one I may be perhaps best equipped of anyone to write. It’d be neat to present a paper in Fukuoka to a bunch of specialists, so why the hell not? If they take me, it’s an experience. If they don’t, I lose nothing. So I’m glad that James inspired me to give it a shot.

And as I say, I don’t believe there are many people who could fill in this area as I could. Well, there was this Korean guy I met least year who had done a Ph.D. in the US years ago in the field of SF literature, but the last I heard he was too busy trying to extort money out of childrens’ textbook publishers to actually do anything like real academic research.

In any case, I did up a couple of abstracts, and tried to upload them. The one I’d like for them to have taken is not the one they took, but ah well, publishing a paper on SF in Korea’s not so bad, is it?

The question, dear readers, is why Korea lacks a really vibrant SF-genre literature for adults, either in translation or in some native form. When you ask Koreans about this, they often answer with the same sophistication as your average bookseller in North America: that is, they conflate SF and fantasy and even, to some degree, horror. There is at least one major fantasy author worth noting, whom I’m told popularized the concept of the “zombie” here. (Lime’s a fan: she recently almost ordered second-hand copies of his whole series,퇴마록 (Toemarok), and bemoaned the fact that the film version was so horrible, since she thinks I would enjoy it if only I could.

No, Korea has a vibrant and rather entertaining — if somewhat derivative — literary and cinematic fantasy life. Fantasy tropes (including cutesy swords-and-idealized-history stuff) are common in video games, in daydream sequences in otherwise mainstream films (My Sassy Girl is a famous example among others), and in fantastical films ranging from Arahan (where chop-socky kung-fu mysticism meets modern-day Seoul) to the stupid but funny Sisily 2km (where gangsters and rural-types mix it up with ghosts). Fantasy and horror work adapt quite well to the Korean aesthetic, and to Korean narrative-styles, and to the politics and culture here. Horror, especially, seems to be a good fit: films like the Yeogo Gwedam (“High School Girl’s Ghost Story”) series evoke the horrors of the school system and of teenaged girls’ lives; the oldie-but-goodie 301/302 that explores the alienation inherent in apartment-block life, especially by women; Gidam (“Epitaph”) exploits the remaining (or renewed) Korean anxities about Japan and its colonial past in Korea to horrific effect; R-Point combines military drama/action with horror; Eolgul Eobneun Minyeo (“Faceless [Beauty]”) pushes the kind of “subjectless body” notion that James at Grand Narrative has been exploring to its extremes by exploring the eros/thanatos horror of a beautiful woman with Borderline Personality Disorder. The list could go on and on, but it’s unnecessary. Everyone who’s interested knows that Korean horror, even when it’s not brilliant — cinematic horror so rarely is — works like horror, functions, does what it needs to in order to get the job done. Likewise, fantasy works well enough to be recognizably functioning as fantasy does in other incarnations of fantasy abroad, whether it’s a film that is all-in-all fantasy, like Arahan or The Ginkgo Tree Bed, or just brief asides like the swordfight daydream scene in My Sassy Girl. Likewise, there is a native tradition of ghost-stories and fantastical mythology in Korea that, like fantasy anywhere, can be plugged into the plot-coupon structure so popular in fantasy, or the inevitable-doom plotline so universal in horror films, that even when they aren’t great, these kinds of genres can be viably handled in a Korean context. Even in historical or mainstream dramatic films, fantasy can be woven seamlessly into the action as it was in downright magical-realist scenes in Oasis and The Barber of Hyoja-dong.

I’ve come to the opinion that the same is not quite true of cinematic SF in Korea. All of the “SF” films I’m thinking of have come out since the turn of the century, and all of them are flawed in ways that go beyond the quality of the plot or storyline. Watching films like 2009: Lost Memories and Yesterday and Natural City, you get a sense that the kinds of things the filmmakers are trying to say are not actually SFnal, or indeed, that the stories themselves are on some level anti-SFnal in ways that cannot simply be attributed to the derivative nature of a lot of Korean cinematic SF.

(Hollywood SF, too, is often profoundly anti-SFnal, at least, for someone literate in the genre. SF in the media is often doing things that nobody could get away with doing in books anymore, because the territory Hollywood likes to hang around in was, in literary circles, all strip-mined barren fifty years ago.)

Yet SF itself — the SF pervasive in the Anglophone world, and in Western Europe — has permeated into Korean society. Some of the things in the news — from Dr. Hwang’s crazed promises to cure all illnesses, to the government’s unfortunately unrealistic, but openly-declared plan to put robots out on the DMZ as automated/autonomous guardians, and in homes as nannies and English tutors — are so unrealistic, so unreflective of real science, that one would expect them to be explicitly cribbed from Hollywood SF or Golden Age paperbacks.

But it likely isn’t from Golden Age paperbacks, at least. SF novels and short stories have been translated in Korea, but never in as great numbers as one might hope, and never so successfully that the genre has actually taken root here. For all the films made over the last ten years since Korean films “became good,” there hasn’t been one film that has embraced the underlying tenets of SF so completely as to succeed on the terms upon which SF internationally is judged. (Likewise, most SF films, with the exception of Bong Joon-ho’s recent blockbuster The Host, have performed weakly or even dismally at the box office, so it’s not as if these failings are necessarily lost on filmgoers here.)

Of course, Korea is not unique in lacking a deep-rooted SF tradition, as well as a functional literary SF scene. Literary critics interested in SF have long noted that outside of Britain and Britain’s onetime colonies, outside of Western Europe and Japan, SF just isn’t that popular, and not many people are writing SF. It is, perhaps, not surprising that SF is undergoing a boom in China these days, with literally millions of regular magazine subscribers and readers into the genre. China’s SF scene is vibrant in terms of consumption, at least — whether Chinese authors are making a living writing the stuff, I don’t know, but the history of SF in China has been one of booms and busts, not just neglect. Ironically, from what I’ve read, the place with the most analogous situation to Korea is Hong Kong — amateurism, lack of interest, a sense that it’s kid-stuff and not worth the effort.

SF has been enjoying booms in other places, too, from what I’ve read — India, some claim — yet in Korea, it’s still kind of stuck. I think the older explanation, based on the observation that industralization and modernization arrived too recently to have provided fertile ground for the genre, is outmoded. I think there are specific cultural, historical, and other reasons for this phenomenon, and that’s what I plan to explore this week in a few posts that will become the basis of my paper, should it be accepted for presentation.

(But even if it’s not, this is worth thinking about.)

Series Navigation<< My Thoughts on SF in Korea (How and Why They’ve Changed)Why SF Has Failed to Put Down Roots in Korea, Part I: To Start With, Questions… >>
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