Korea Society Talk on Robo Taekwon V

Plenty of SF readers who come through here aren’t necessarily interested in Korean history and culture in general, so it’s unlikely they’d be listeners to the Korea Society Podcast. However, for those who have an interest in global SF and pop culture, there’s a podcast you might want to check out over there.

It’s a recording of a talk given way back in February 2008 by Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park, a prof at Notre Dame. The talk is titled “Our Toys, Our Selves: Robot Taekwon V and South Korean Identity.” (That’s a direct link to the MP3, so if you want, you can right-click and save it, instead of listening to it stream online.)

The talk discusses the role of taekwondo in the building of national identity, the military, and nationalist propaganda, speculates the role of anti-communist government directives in the rhetoric of the film, and discusses the relationship between industrialization initiatives contemporaneous to the film and some of the science-fictional technologies depicted.

(I happen to have a copy of two versions of the film, which were “subtitled in English for children to develop their English abilities.” I haven’t watched either version all the way through, but I’ll have to do so eventually.)

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6 thoughts on “Korea Society Talk on Robo Taekwon V

  1. I listened to it shortly after it came out, so my memory of the details may be a little unclear, but I do recall that while the subject of the presentation was interesting, Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park was quite unable to answer many of the audience’s (logical and natural) questions to their satisfaction. He simply lacked the knowledge.

    It may sound harsh, but the increasingly poor quality of some of the Korea Society’s presentations – even by respected professors and/or authors of rather good books – has put me off listening to them for something like 6 months or so (true, they’re becoming fewer and farther between too). In particular, if Ha-Joon Chang’s in May last year had been delivered by a freshman at my old university, in all seriousness it wouldn’t even received a passing grade! Which was a pity (and a big surprise), because his book – Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism – is extremely good, and his arguments in it deserve to be far better known…he didn’t do himself justice.

    1. James,

      Yeah, there were some questions I was surprised he couldn’t answer. I assume it was a preliminary talk — something he took on partway through his research on the subject, not at the end of the process with a full paper ready, though. But it would have been good if he’d had some of that information — none of the questions struck me as unusual given the talk.

      I also suspect speakers like the one I linked are in a precarious position. I suspect one cannot be too critical of anything Korean at such an event. For example, the very astute question about the differences between the Japanese and Korean metaphorical uses of the robot figure — with the somewhat incongruous primacy of taekwondo in the latter being the deciding factor for victory — seems to me much more as if the Japanese metaphorical use plays off a long history of anxious/celebratory examinations of the mechanization of the human in Japanese proto-SF and SF, while the Korean film is treating it much more as an imported pop-culture product. “The kids like giant robots! Cool, let’s give ’em giant robots… but, like, giant robots that do taekwondo!” One sees this with other tropes from time to time in Korean SF films, and cannot help but think that it’s a lack of a long literary SF tradition that makes the tropes that get imported for use in films get used in such a superficial way.

      I haven’t listened to Chang’s talk, though I did get so far as to download it and even put it on my podcast. But I’m glad you recommend the book, and I’ve been curious to check it out.

  2. Well with the live action version of RTKV coming out in 2000, updating the limited Taekwon V universe to the present day, hopefully the “mythology” will enrich in a more satisfactory way for scifi geeks.

    (the director Won shin-yeon had previous pet project criticizing the propensity for violence & militarist culture’s legacy in A Bloody Aria, so would be interesting to see how he treats this Lightning rod — or nostalgic relic — of a robot.)

    Chang talk was interesting enough for those unfamiliar with Korea’s past. All I remember was RTKV used as a convenient symbol to push a healthy, masculine virility (typical for most groups erasing feelings of “emasculation” as colonial subjects/subalterns etc.) via Taekwondo culture under militarism. So its “richness” is part of the entire sociopolitical experience, not some complex lore on its own. but of course he could go further, and sample actual imaginations the robot spawn in media rhetoric, childhood memories, etc. a lot of its is generalized themes of “ourselves”, “collective memories” without more on what these actually entail.

  3. Meh,

    I’m very curious about how the live action film will look, considering (a) media SF in Korea seems to often try to be (turgid) military or police action so as to appeal to male audiences, and (b) what you mention about the director’s predilections. Personally, I think the last thing Korea needs is a direly militaristic and nationalistic (minjok-driven) SF film, while more of the minjung-driven stuff we saw in films like The Host and Save the Green Planet would be a welcome change.

    Unfortunately, minjok and ‘splosions is where the money is.

    You’re right that the talk would be interesting to people who know nothing, but my impression was a certain proportion of the audience was Korean — at least from the accents of the voices asking the questions. Anyway, you’re right that social context is what provides whatever “richness” the film offers, but I agree that he could have gone farther… hell, he could have gone so far as to link it to contemporary research in robotics.

    (It seems to me that mainstream — ie. non-SF writers — Korean thinking about robotics is highly gendered, with bots either imagined as sex objects that are inherently feminized, or as warrior machines that are are inherently masculinized.

    (Natural City is full of the former, as is Korean and Japanese popular robotics, but the government is far more interested in the latter.)

    Which, hell, is probably a research paper in itself. Hmmmmm.

  4. hi gord, just some rambling notes to your ideas.

    i too am very curious about the live action version. since a hollywood producer (who once did jumanzi, polar express) got onboard, an english translation of the script is already done – but i suspect it’s top secret but the translator is canada based.
    there seems to be a real conflict of priorities here: the big budget makes them stay kid-friendly. the producer/director want something to erase/compete with japanese influence (hello kitty, keroro are “sadly” their korean kids’ faves), to break even they gotta sell it overseas — so taekwon is not just defending korea, but “the earth” now.

    honestly i’m not expecting a heady treatise, because like you said people just want to see Things Blow Up, hehe. should mention that A Bloody Aria actually bombed, and the director got Taekwon gig because he finally knew how to interweave stylish violence and commercial filmmaking “thrills” in Seven Days (starring Lost’s Kim yoojin.)

    some clips of Taekwon’s beta-version on youtube, by Mofac, looks very masculine indeed. he’s no pansy but i heard the cast they chose may not be the most macho reps of korean actors.
    y’know there have been some dubious examples of minjung i thought: May 18, Silmido. the innocent, righteous mass have no political agenda, merely pawns without any messy interconnections through daily life, extended families, work relations etc. to the people commanding minjok. i don’t know enough about korean history but a lot of the minjung seems rosy underdogs who are victimized martyrs through and through. no exceptions…erm.

    the gendering of robots you describe, sounds like a worldview of warriors and whores. i don’t know much about japan sci-fi either (gosh too many holes in knowledge LOL), but it seems a superficial or simple dichotomy when thinking about robots, reflects the many areas not yet ready to be opened for discussion. tsukamoto’s robo-metal fusion with human body (or body becoming robot/metal-like), usually involved a guy in middle-life crisis, but it’s also about how his flesh responds to urban pollution, aging, the body’s memory (typically guilt, resentment) of parents’ death (his body came from bodies that no longer exist on earth.)

    then there’s also that robot land they’re trying to build, with a 40-story tall Taekwon. good lord…

  5. Meh,

    I’d be curious to see the English script. I’d also be very curious to see how they plan to retool what was originally such a nationalistic (to the point of groan-worthy, in spots) narrative to the world. I mean, sure, when the USA does it, we find it familiar, but when it’s not the USA, it has a weird feel of wannabe-hegemony or something.

    (I suspect that the marketing of big-budget Korean SF films faces some of the same problems tourism marketing faces here: what will rock the world in general is the sort of thing that will not push the right buttons to succeed at home, and vice versa.)

    (And is it too much to worry that such an unlikely crossover may have a detrimental effect on the Korean/Hollywood connection if it flops?)

    As for the youtube clips you mentioned, I couldn’t find them, though I did fine this odd robot used for Taekwondo practice/training/whatever:

    Could you post links for these Mofac videos?

    I’m pretty behind on Korean film in general, though Seven Days sounds interesting enough for me to bother looking for it. Hey, I like ‘splosions too. :)

    I can’t disagree about the cruddier uses of minjung feeling in films, and I agree it’s worst when its hagiographic and the “commoners” are painted as sinless victims. But particularly in SF, minjok seems to be the first choice and it tends to produce much less interesting SF, because everything minjok repudiates change, challenge to the status quo, and so on in a way that minjung, at least in SF films so far, seems less prone to repudiating change, rejecting the possibility of a future or reality radically unlike ours, and so on.

    You sure seem to know more about Japanese SF robo-stuff than me! As for the robo-park and the 40-story robot, well… it I were certain it would undergo proper maintenance until it were dismantled, I’d wish they would make it (semi-)functional, but realistically? Um, there are better uses for the money, I imagine, but who’s going to break that to the park developer? *Shrug* I suppose it if gets the person on the street to to take the robotics industry seriously, maybe it’ll do some good.

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