Forthcoming Papers on Korean SF, “Good Night,” and a Summary of “Another Undiscovered Country”

This entry is part 43 of 72 in the series SF in South Korea

Well, I have submitted the final corrected version of my paper on Korean SF films in the 21st century to Acta Koreana: it’s been approved for publication, pending those edits, so I figure that’s one more paper in the can, to bring my current total of pending academic publications to two:

  1. “Politics, Ecology on the Korean Left: Anti-Americanism and Environmental Dystopia in The Host” supposedly forthcoming in the Arena Journal.
  2. “Another Undiscovered Country: Culture and the Reception and Adoption of the Science Fiction Genre in 21st-Century South Korean Cinema,” which if all goes well should be appearing in Acta Koreana sometime this year.

Along the way, I was introduced (by Miss Jiwaku) to a site that hosts a bunch of Korean short films, including SF films, and to one film in particular on that site, by Che Mingi, and titled 좋은 밤 되세요 (Good Night, 2008). Unfortunately, there are no subtitles available for this film, or for many others — at least, for the ones I clicked on — but it’s still pretty impressive even if you’re struggling with understanding the dialog. The plot, essentially, is something like Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain meets, well, the Korean educational system: imagine a treatment that mothers could give to their children, which would allow the kids to go without sleep so they can study harder for their University Entrance Exams, and get more done thereafter too. There are touches of great humor, such as in the (familiar) faces that turn up in the list of people who’ve received this treatment in the past. You can see the film here (click on the little color TV beneath the film poster on the left), and if you want to see other short Korean SF movies, here’s where to look.

I figured I’d write up a summary of the latter paper, while it’s fresh in my mind, for anyone interested. It goes a little something like this:

Summary of “Another Undiscovered Country: Culture and the Reception and Adoption of the Science Fiction Genre in 21st-Century South Korean Cinema”:

Judging by films, the creation of a native form of SF in Korea is a task that is lagging severely behind the nativization of other fantastical genres like horror and fantasy. This does not seem to be the case in neighboring societies like Japan and China, nor does it seem to be related to the degree of technological development in a given society, as a number of people have suggested in the past. (India, for example, has had an SFnal literary tradition for a long time, long before its current, if uneven, boom in development. In Korea, SF remains marginal.) Why?

Part of it seems to be that SF is, both in terms of its tropes and its cultural implications, SF is unlike horror and fantasy, in displaying fewer universal tropes — less of the stuff that is universal in mythic or ghost-story narratives, and more of the particularly culturally specific philosophical and sociocultural preoccupations — historical experiences such as the colonization by Anglophones of much of the planet, the philosophical preoccupations of Western Europeans, and so on. It seems SF must be “acquired” like a foreign language, and foreign culture, and metabolized in order to be successfully nativized. In Korea, there seem to be interesting problems with the acquisition and internalization of SF:

  • Trope Salad Syndrome: SF is considered “kid stuff” and not taken seriously, possibly in part because SF translations in Korea have historically been associated with didactic purposes, especially for interesting kids in science. This dismissal of SF as “kid stuff” allows many to gloss over, or miss, the deeper philosophical, scientific, or canonical themes within SF. This is evident in the failure to grasp the basic themes and tropes of cinematic SF which is related directly to the narrative failings in many Korean SF films. What we get instead of a coherent handling of SFnal tropes is a “trope salad.”
    • In the case of Nam Gi-Woong, this is almost forgivable because his works (Killing Machine, 2000, and Never Belongs to Me, 2005) are nearly unique in contemporary Korean cinema: they are SF “B-movies” and the tossing of the salad they constitute is, at least, exuberant and, if not cognitive, then at least deeply estranging (in the terms of Darko Suvin).
    • There’s a bigger trope salad to consider: Whatever you think of The Matrix,  it’s difficult to argue it doesn’t take its own philosophical conceits seriously, or that it isn’t exuberantly referential to literature, to philosophical issues, and to the SF canon. But the Korean film that responds most directly to The Matrix — The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (2002)represents a response merely to the surface content of The Matrix, without demonstrating even the remotest awareness of the tropes and themes in the other film, or in SF generally: it’s just a jumble of tropes that the director seems to expect will be fine as it is, since disarray doesn’t matter in crap as lowbrow as an SF movie.
    • A lesser example is the Korean film Yesterday (2002):  here, a bunch of SFnal ideas about cloning, genetics, memory erasure, and government-run eugenics programs are jumbled together incoherently. It’s a shame since, among other things, it’s one of the only Korean SF films to imagine a multiethnic future something like what we’re starting to get now, but it comes out a muddle. Notable is the title — like many SF films in Korea, the focus is on memories, on the past, and on the traumas of history, not on the future or alternate presents, as in much Western SF. That could be interesting, but the thing with memories is dressing on a bland trope salad, made worse by stiff acting and a turgid plot.
  • Anxieties of History, Postcoloniality, and Identity: Basically, when you’re so preoccupied with solidifying a specific historiography, a specific (and somewhat rigid, monolithic) identity, and with specific claims on postcolonial status, it’s difficult to cognitively focus on alternities, on imagined realities radically different from ours (and shaped by forces such as the rules of SFnal tropes). This may be why many societies that underwent colonial domination into the 20th century (India excepted) have not developed strong SF traditions. It may even be the strongest reason.
    • 2009: Lost Memories (2002) is a pretty good example of this. Its exploration of an alternate reality where Japan continued to rule Korea as a colony until 2009 starts out seemingly like a refreshing exploration of a strikingly different, but perhaps possible, alternate reality. However, it soon becomes clear that this “alternate reality” is the result of meddling time-travelers from Japan, a sort of SFnal strawman alternity setup only so it could be vanquished, and the “proper” reality of contemporary Korea (plus reunification) reinstated at the end of the film. The film’s handling of time-travel is stunningly lacking in fluency regarding conventional tropes in the SF time-travel narrative (to the point that it makes Back to the Future look like a brilliant exploration of the subgenre, despite all its anachronisms and concessions to audiences). In 2009: Lost Memories speculation and fabulation play second fiddle to the film’s minjok-focused politics; Henry H. Em argued that “minjok, by itself, can no longer serve as a democratic imaginary” and this is doubly true for Korea’s SFnal imaginary.
    • Heaven’s Soldiers (2005) flops as an SF narrative for many of the same reasons.
  • Influence and Other Anxieties: SF is foreign in Korea, just as it is foreign in plenty of societies. Many authors, including Élisabeth Vonarburg, have discussed the problematics of working in a genre that is culturally, linguistically, and fundamentally foreign to them and their readership. In the case of Korea, there is a history of anxiousness regarding foreign influences, and more interestingly, for Koreans SF is perceived as both very American (in fiction and film) and Japanese (in comics and animations) — the two societies toward which Korea has the most profound postcolonial, political, and historiographic anxieties. This may pose special problems for the nativization of SF within Korean culture.
    • The film Natural City (2003) is, in essence, a Korean remake of Blade Runner. What is interesting is what gets discarded from the Korean version: the anxieties of multiethnic LA are replaced by a monoracial Korean space colony (despite the nascent emergence of multiculturality in Korea even in 2003); the anxieties of identity and human self-comprehension (the pseudo-Cartesian question of how characters can know whether they are humans or “replicants” comes into play not at all — the lines between human and machine are much clearer; the romance between the cop and android is resolved by the android’s inevitable death and the reinstatement of normative, human-centric reality. The philosophical problems central to Blade Runner aren’t interrogated in any way at all — contrarian or otherwise — but are simply skipped over as if those involved in the films cross-cultural adaptation missed the point of Blade Runner completely.  The only trace of foreign influence in the film is the use of manga-styled technobabble in one scene; but in general, the film repudiates radical alternity in a way that seems contrary to the very spirit of SF.
    • Tangentially, there is, in Korean SF, a discomfiting tendency for men to fall into erotic love with robotic or mechanical females who, unfailingly, are not human-like in demeanour (as with, say, Rachael in Blade Runner) but rather are very overtly mechanical, robotic, or inhuman in their demeanour, with a pronounced absence of personality and character. Kwak Jae-young’s one SF film, Cyborg She (2008) is probably the least disturbing, since it plays this up for comic effect and makes clear how discomfiting human/machine “love” would actually be.   (The film does other good things too, like acknowledging Japanese influence — it’s shot in Japanese — and not repudiating technology, alternity, or the future; it also gives a major role to a female character, albeit a nonhuman one, and engages with canonical SF cinema, particularly in its inversions of (and invocations of) elements of the Terminator franchise, as well as its successful application of SFnal tropes and themes to what amounts to a kind of romantic-comedy narrative. Yes, I am saying good things about a Kwak Jae-young film, but there’s an argument to be made that, nonetheless, it doesn’t qualify as a nativized Korean SF film, since it’s in Japanese and so thoroughly manga-influenced.
  • When SF “Goes Native” in Korea: Not every Korean SF film has been a travesty against SF, of course. Films like Nabi (2001), Save the Green Planet (2003), The Host (2008), and The Uninvited (2010) seem to suggest some interesting patterns as far as successful nativization of SF in Korea.
    • The Host and Save the Green Planet share several traits: a mixture of genres (especially indebtedness to the thriller and horror genres); a politics focused on the minjung-ideology rather than the minjok; a focus on family narratives; a focus on more recent history, and especially on the brutal memories of the dictatorship era, especially of the 1980s (an issue I discuss far more deeply in my forthcoming paper on The Host). This does not guarantee the success of a narrative: Chongneung Ryeokja (Psychic, 2010) was dreadful despite its overt minjungism.
    • Nabi, while less overtly political, explores the theme of losing memories and historical trauma in a more personal way, while also bearing hallmarks of a minjung film. Notably, it is by an independent filmmaker. The Uninvited (Bulcheonggaek, 2010) is, similarly, independent and even amateur, and unlike the other films is not so overtly minjungist, but instead seems to be very mainstream in its debt to the minjok conception, working hard to make the narrative work in terms of its ideology. The special effects are nothing to write home about, but the imagination and the film’s exuberant dedication to the metaphorical power of SF to explore themes of concern to its audience (as well as its endearing homages to Carl Sagan) somehow make the film likeable, in a way that the forthcoming Sector 7 (2011) might not be, if the focus is only on the special effects and 3D monster.
  • In all, Korean SF can work if creators are willing and able to:
    • set aside prejudices about the genre and take it seriously enough to familiarize themselves with its workings, history, and so on;
    • open their imaginations (and trust the imaginations of their audiences) to explore radical alternities thoughtfully and experimentally for the sake of the pleasure of such exploration (without emphatically reasserting the necessary primacy of the “real world”);
    • playfully engage as diverse a palette of influences as they please—perhaps drawing on other national traditions of SF (Chinese, Indian, French, and otherwise)—and work to creatively to find ways to authentically Koreanize SF; and
    • move beyond the stifling “minjok historiography” towards other models, such as the “minjung” model that seems have underpinned Korea’s most successful SF films to date, and beyond to a range of thematic preoccupations (and treatments  of these thematic preoccupations) that actually matter to their audiences, instead of those which more doctrinaire filmmakers would have Koreans believe ought to matter to them.

That, as they say, is it in a nutshell. When the paper is published, I’ll try make sure those who want to will be able to find a way to get at it.

Series Navigation<< More About Korean SF, and Some Dougal Dixon LinksVampires, Confucianism, Christianity’s Latent Monarchism, and the Translation of Sociohorror >>

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