Monday, 7 February 2011

An open letter to Gord Sellar about South Korean sci fi

Hi again Gord,

Thought I'd drop you a quick line on something I've just across expanding on what I wrote in the comments thread. I haven't got to your series of posts yet, but I can see great potential in the following pieces.

I'm impressed by the way that Kim Soyoung reworks the concept of the public sphere in terms of South Korean independent filmmakers attempting to distribute their works outside the blockbuster circuit, as well as differentiating their form and content. This is because they in part define themselves against the way that local blockbusters reconfigure cultural nationalism and globalization in terms of the government's neoliberal policy agenda:

"The key issue that local blockbusters bring to the fore lies not so much in the actual amounts of real profit they generate as the investments they show of national cultural value. These investments go alongside a consistent emphasis on the virtues of the movie industry itself as something of an exemplary smog-free, post-industrial sector by the government since the 1990s which sits well with its new purpose in the popular imagination. Notwithstanding the often outrageous marketing fees and ticket sales, the film industry as a whole in the year of 2001 made profits that were only equivalent to those of a medium-size corporation. Nevertheless, what the film industry in its blockbuster mode displays and informs are the popular imagining of the working of finance capital and mass investment culture. The ‘Netizen Fund’ set up on the internet by film companies finds enthusiastic investors, often with such volume of usage that people complain about accessibility. Both the blockbuster movies and the related dissemination of blockbuster culture appear to announce a cultural era of investment that clearly plays a critical role in strengthening the hegemonic dominance of finance capital. This cultural intervention links the perceived interests of tens of millions of workers to its own by embedding ‘ investor practices’ into their everyday lives and by offering them the appearance of a stake within a neo-liberal order." (Harmes May-June 2001) 

Might this not also be construed, along with Shin, in terms of a limitation placed on civil society/public sphere by these dominant discourses? Afterall, "trans cinema" is marginalized. Furthermore, I think it's pretty obvious that if you're forced to work within the "trans cinema", the special effects budget usually demanded by sci fi cinema is going to be out of reach. Although much could be read into Kim Soyoung's piece about the fracturing of genre, which may contribute to the relative absence of indigenous sci fi per se, I also think it is not easy to pass up on  Moon Jae-cheol's critical observation that "recent Korean films are characterized by a desire for newness, and then reads in contemporary cinema the tendency to distance themselves from grand narratives, such as progress and ideology, to prioritize image over narrative and theme, and liberate themselves from responsibility to the societal role of films". As I alluded to in the comments thread, it is difficult to envisage sci fi without such grand narratives (there I mentioned "utopia" specifically). This too, might be classified as an inherent limitation.

I've focused on South Korea's film industry, but remember, Thomas Whiteside warned us in The Blockbuster Complex: Conglomerates, Show Business, and Book Publishing that the book publishing industry can be beholden to the film industry. So there might be something there that could account for the dearth of published South Korean sci fi as well, at least in recent years. To me, this suggests any answer is dependent on how much historical contextualization you want to use to frame how the genre has developed in South Korea. 

I'll let you know if I come up with anything else once I've read your series of posts.


Anselmo Quemot said...

My latest reply is in the comments thread of the Placing the Future in South Korea post.

gordsellar said...


Funnily enough, that link seems to be dead... not just on your site, but at the actual site; it doesn't seem to be available (free) anywhere online. Have you a copy of the PDF?

As for the issue of SF in Korean film, well, it's complex, and I'm actually working on revising a paper right now specifically about the general failure of Korean SF, which argues that there are a number of specific reasons for its failure: a poor grasp (among filmmakers and audiences alike) of what SF is and does, and how SF narratives work; a sense (among both filmmakers and audiences alike) that SF is kiddie fare or silly crap; a very weak local tradition of SF cinema and literature; and a lack of interest in the philosophical/speculative implications of scientific and technological change.

A friend of mine is adapting one of my (published) stories into a webtoon for a competition in Korea, and he told me they'd have to add romance to it (to make it more manga-like) and more emotional stuff to it (to make Korean audiences interested).

Also, the two SF films in Korea that I don't regard as trash (The Host and a Save the Green Planet) both were very unabashedly leftist in their politics, whether the filmmakers choose to admit it. (Bong Joon-ho pretends otherwise, but the film is unmistakably both nostalgic and utopian about the potential of the Korean people if they could only get their minjung on once again.) The funny thing is, The Host is very anti- many things: the current political status quo, the mainstream version of history, the neoliberal agenda... and it was a huge hit. I think it's actually got a very radical message in it, something about resurrecting the popular anti-dictatorship movements of the 80s today. Not many people grasp that, but it's in there. Yet the film was "permitted." The fact that most SF is nationalistic, right-wing dreck is simply a result of the fact that most film is nationalist (and to a Canadian, anyway, very right-wing) dreck.

I'll save my spiel for the paper, though, and let you see that at some point. But I have to say, at least in SF, the relationship between film and books is the reverse of what you suggest: SF film is wholly dependent on books, and lags decades behind. Korean SF draws mainly on Hollywood SF (and to some extent Japanese), but I don't think this explains why so few Koreans are writing the stuff. They're not writing it for different cultural reasons altogether, as far as I can tell.

Anyway, that's about three or four different discussions there, so I'll stop now.

Anselmo Quemot said...


Hope to read your paper. I will try to find the piece that has "gone dead" inexplicably, as I still think something can be made on the public sphere angle she develops (which surely need not be wholly incompatible with what you suggest).Granted, it may speak more to cinema than published works, but that remains to be seen, I guess.

Anselmo Quemot said...

I just successfully opened this link to her paper:

Anselmo Quemot said...

Incidentally, I think Seungsook Moon's work looks fascinating, partly because she picks up on the importance of social movements as evidence of the spaces that open up (civil society, public spheres) outside of institutionalized settings such as parliaments. The references to feminism in this context (her critique of a masculine "militarized modernity") would, I expect, make for interesting reading alongside the piece I've linked to in this post.

To me, it's interesting how there is little appeal to myths etc in such instances, but I'd also comment on an important institutional setting that is quintessentially modern and would have influenced many of these developments: the university. This is the university as a critical cosmopolitan project. It's interesting how prominent student activism was in forging coalitions with the labor movement etc, and she suggests a lasting legacy of the turbulence that took place is that Park Chung Hee's legacy remains contested to this day. Like Shin, she's not suggesting that South Korea is necessarily a vibrant democracy, and nor am I, given the strength of the state, but rather that there were forms of resistance which did draw on a modern norm of emancipation.

Perhaps on a more mundane level, and here you might agree, sci fi everywhere faces a bit of a legitimacy problem (albeit to varying degrees!). I think Gary Westfahl even wrote a book on how it suffers in regard to the more respected (ahem) "canon". I bet there are gatekeepers in literature departments in South Korea who are promoting this attitude, along with the usual ranks of cultural journalists. Added to the factors which you mention, poor old sci fi is really up against it. So I applaud you for trying to turn round this attitude!

Ok, here are a couple of links I found interesting that can help flesh out what I mean by modernity (including in the comments thread of Placing the Future in South Korea?):

This pathbreaking study presents a feminist analysis of the politics of membership in the South Korean nation over the past four decades. Seungsook Moon examines the ambitious effort by which South Korea transformed itself into a modern industrial and militarized nation. She demonstrates that the pursuit of modernity in South Korea involved the construction of the anticommunist national identity and a massive effort to mold the populace into useful, docile members of the state. This process, which she terms “militarized modernity,” treated men and women differently. Men were mobilized for mandatory military service and then, as conscripts, utilized as workers and researchers in the industrializing economy. Women were consigned to lesser factory jobs, and their roles as members of the modern nation were defined largely in terms of biological reproduction and household management.
Moon situates militarized modernity in the historical context of colonialism and nationalism in the twentieth century. She follows the course of militarized modernity in South Korea from its development in the early 1960s through its peak in the 1970s and its decline after rule by military dictatorship ceased in 1987. She highlights the crucial role of the Cold War in South Korea’s militarization and the continuities in the disciplinary tactics used by the Japanese colonial rulers and the postcolonial military regimes. Moon reveals how, in the years since 1987, various social movements—particularly the women’s and labor movements—began the still-ongoing process of revitalizing South Korean civil society and forging citizenship as a new form of membership in the democratizing nation.

The Cultural Politics of Remembering Park Chung Hee