Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema

or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon-ho
Christina Klein
American Quarterly, Volume 60, Number 4, December 2008, pp. 871-898
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/aq.0.0041
For additional information about this article
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©2008 The American Studies Association
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Christina Klein
small-town detective squats beside a covered drainage ditch, angling
for a better look at the corpse inside. Soon he will find more bodies
and realize he is on the trail of a serial murderer. A monster leaps out
of a river, rampages through a crowded park, and snatches up a schoolgirl
before jumping back into the water. The government pursues the creature
ineffectually and eventually a ragtag group of highly motivated individuals
succeeds in bringing it down.
The actions and characters in these movie scenes and their polished visual
style would be instantly familiar to any U.S. filmgoer, as would be the emo-
tions they generate in the viewer. Yet the faces and the dialogue and the set-
ting would not: all are Korean. How should we understand the simultaneous
familiarity and foreignness of these movies? Why should an American studies
scholar care about Korean cinema?
Andrew Higson, in an article published in 1989, challenged scholars to
rethink the concept of national cinemas. Instead of prioritizing production,
which values films as products of national industries, or textuality, which reads
them as expressing distinctive national cultures, he urged scholars to focus
on consumption. National cinemas, he argued, should be defined in relation
to a country’s entire film culture, which includes the full range of films that
are in circulation, both foreign and domestic, and the meanings that viewers
make out of them. This shift in emphasis from production to consumption
has far-ranging implications, since Hollywood movies are, as Higson notes,
“an integral and naturalized part of the national culture, or the popular imagi-
nation, of most countries in which cinema is an established entertainment
In the study of Asian national cinemas, Hollywood is often ignored
as irrelevant or treated simplistically as a hegemonic threat. Higson invites
us to acknowledge the presence of Hollywood within virtually every national
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cinema and to imagine a more complex relationship between imported and
locally made films.
Higson offers American studies scholars a model for thinking about forms
of culture that have traditionally existed beyond the legitimate boundaries of
our field—that is, forms of culture that are produced outside the United States
by non-Americans, that may never circulate within the United States, and
that cannot be defined as American in any conventional way. A willingness
to take up such “foreign” texts can significantly advance American studies’
transnational turn. American studies has often treated the world outside the
United States as a material and representational field upon which American
agents act. Yet to focus only on the production and export of U.S. culture,
and to ignore how people outside the United States have engaged with it, is
to ignore half the story. As Shelley Fisher Fishkin has suggested, the time has
come for our field to treat non-American people as active agents who engage
U.S. culture on their own terms and use it to pursue their own agendas. How
have filmmakers in other industries made use of the Hollywood films that
are an integral part of their nation’s film culture? What is the cultural work
that these Hollywood-inflected films perform within their own social and
political contexts?
To answer these questions I will focus on two movies that exemplify the
South Korean film industry’s critical engagement with the United States and
its premier culture industry: Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) and
The Host (2006).
I choose the South Korean film industry because it is, after
Hollywood, perhaps the most important in the world today. Over the last
decade it has engineered an unparalleled commercial resurgence, producing
a steady stream of popular and critically acclaimed films that have overturned
Hollywood’s decades-long domination of Korea’s screens. As a result, Korea has
become a beacon for film industry executives from around the world who are
eager to reduce Hollywood’s economic presence in their own markets. Bong
Joon-ho’s films have played a vital role in the industry’s rebirth: Memories of
Murder out-earned all Hollywood imports in 2003 except the final install-
ment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, while The Host is the highest-grossing
movie ever released in Korea, foreign or domestic, and was seen by more than
a quarter of the country’s population.
Bong’s films embody an ambivalent relationship to Hollywood, and they
bear the marks of the equally ambivalent relationship between South Korea
and the United States.
Speaking of his generation of filmmakers who grew
up watching Hollywood movies, Bong has said, “It’s like you want to be influ-
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enced, but you don’t want to be overwhelmed.”
I want to take this ambivalent
relationship as my subject matter and explore how it finds expression in the
form and content of Bong’s films. My focus is on Bong’s use of Hollywood
genres. In his pair of blockbusters Bong stakes a claim to two genres strongly
identified with America: the crime film and the monster movie. Some Korean
film critics have condemned such borrowings on the grounds of cultural
authenticity, deriding the local industry as “Copywood” and characterizing
its blockbusters as “Hollywood movies featuring Korean faces and Korean
food for the purpose of localization, barely a step above dubbing or inserting
But Bong does not simply mimic Hollywood. Rather, he appropri-
ates and reworks genre conventions, using them as a framework for exploring
and critiquing South Korean social and political issues. Bong reconfigures
Hollywood’s conventions so that they become tools for grappling with Ko-
rean questions. Bong thus occupies a middle ground in his relationship with
Hollywood, neither blindly emulating its conventions for the sake of profit
nor wholly rejecting them in favor of some notion of cultural authenticity
or art. He engages Hollywood and uses it for his own aesthetic, critical, and
commercial purposes. In doing so, Bong deploys one of the key strategies that
have driven the commercial resurgence of the Korean film industry as a whole.

He also reveals himself heir to the culturally and stylistically hybrid films of
Korea’s Golden Age cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. In noticing the similarities
between Bong’s films and these earlier masterpieces of Korean filmmaking, we
can see how appropriating from Hollywood and other national cinemas has
long been a feature of “authentic” commercial Korean cinema.

By looking at Bong’s reworking of Hollywood genres, I want to shift the
angle of vision from which American studies scholars typically view America’s
role in globalization: to see Hollywood as an object rather than an agent of
globalization, a reservoir of symbolic resources from which Korean filmmak-
ers draw as they navigate their way through their own globalized cultural
Part of the value of Bong’s films for American studies scholars is that they
allow us to appreciate genre as a useful category of transnational analysis.

Historically, genre films have driven global cinematic flows. Their formulaic
nature makes them easy to export, requiring of viewers no deep familiarity with
a foreign culture but only the more easily acquired mastery of a set of generic
conventions. Once absorbed into a new film culture, these “Lego pieces” (as
Jeanine Basinger calls the recurring bits of story, setting, and character that
constitute any given genre) are combined by local filmmakers in new ways
Like Edgar
Wright, but
with more
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to carry new meanings.
Genres’ structural balance of repetition and varia-
tion, rigidity and flexibility, familiarity and innovation, thus make them ideal
candidates for transnational circulation.
Genre serves as a specific cultural space in which we can see the transna-
tional dynamics of circulation, appropriation, and indigenization at work.
Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar suggest that we think about the power rela-
tions of global cinematic flows through the spatial metaphor of a “larger arena
connecting differences,” in which filmmakers exert their agency not through
simple resistance to Hollywood, but through varied and often “ambivalent”
forms of “exchange,” “negotiation,” and “contested transaction” with Hol-
I propose that we view genre as just such an arena. In Bong’s case,
the transaction with Hollywood consists of assembling the “Lego pieces” of
the crime film and the monster movie in new ways that both signify his films’
kinship with an established body of Hollywood films and accommodate the
specific Korean realities that are their ultimate subject matter. He uses global
Hollywood’s language of genre to tell uniquely Korean stories. In doing so,
Bong’s films reveal the persistence of the national, and even its reinvigoration,
not only amid the global but, more importantly, through the mechanisms
of the global.
Amb|va|ent ke|at|ens
Ambivalent is an apt term to describe South Korea’s relationship with the
United States. The two countries have been bound together for the past
half-century through a network of political, economic, and military ties
in a relationship that its supporters characterize as a close alliance and its
critics as neocolonial. The United States has been vital to the creation and
preservation of the Republic of Korea. The United States divided the Korean
peninsula into a communist North and a capitalist South at the end of World
War II (1945), occupied South Korea militarily (1945–1948), facilitated the
return of Syngman Rhee and endorsed his election as the first president of
the Republic of Korea (1948), and waged the Korean War on South Korea’s
behalf (1950–1953). In the wake of the war (and continuing into the present)
the United States stationed tens of thousands of soldiers on scores of bases
throughout the country, as South Korea became a lynchpin in the cold war
policy of containment. The United States also poured in hundreds of millions
of dollars in economic aid and politically supported a series of authoritarian
military regimes that ruled the country from the 1960s through the early
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1990s. The U.S. military presence, by promising protection from North
Korean attack and thus ensuring a safe climate for investment, proved vital to
Korea’s extraordinary economic growth. From the 1960s through the 1990s,
South Korea’s government pursued policies of extremely rapid, state-driven
economic development that transformed the country, in the space of a few
decades, from an impoverished and largely agricultural society into a wealthy
industrial one. This experience of “compressed” modernization delivered a
high standard of living to many Koreans, but also exacted tremendous social
and psychological costs as changes that, in other countries, took place over a
century were, in Korea, condensed into a single generation.

Although official ties have remained remarkably secure, popular opinion
toward the United States has fluctuated widely. While most Koreans felt
gratitude for its military and economic support through the 1970s, anger
toward the United States for supporting the authoritarian military regime of
Chun Doo Hwan (1980–1988) became a key feature of the pro-democracy
movement that emerged in the 1980s. Anti-American sentiment became
more widespread in the 1990s during the transition to civilian democracy
(1988–1997), as Washington pushed for neoliberal economic reforms that
many Koreans saw as benefiting the United States more than Korea. Suddenly,
ordinary Koreans, and not just radical students, began to question the terms
of their relationship with the United States. Korean ambivalence can be seen
today in the mixed responses to the U.S. plan to reduce its military presence
in Korea and to the 2007 Free Trade Agreement, with divergent attitudes
shaped by both political affiliation and economic class. In the end, the close
relationship between the two countries has produced among Koreans both
a pervasive orientation toward the United States in economic and cultural
matters, and a deep resentment of the fundamentally unequal terms of that

The modern South Korean film industry developed in the shadow of this
larger relationship. From the end of World War II through the aftermath of
the Korean War, Korean filmmakers struggled to develop a viable commercial
industry, often borrowing equipment from the U.S. military government; some
of the earliest features, such as Viva Freedom! (1946) and The Night Before
Independence Day (1948), were sponsored by the U.S. military government.

In the mid-1950s the industry found its feet and began turning out a steady
supply of high quality, sophisticated films, a boom that lasted through the late
1960s and became known as the Golden Age. Restrictive film policies gradu-
ally hobbled the industry, however, and by the 1970s it had entered a steep
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decline. The spread of television led to drastic drops in movie attendance rates,
and strict censorship kept controversial ideas off the screen. In addition, trade
barriers and screen quotas designed to protect the industry from Hollywood
did not really work: the few Hollywood films that were imported attracted the
lion’s share of viewers, while Korean producers churned out a steady supply
of low-quality films to satisfy the screen quotas and earn a license to distrib-
ute the more lucrative imports. In 1987, Seoul, under intense pressure from
Washington, lifted its ban on the direct distribution of Hollywood films. As
Hollywood films flooded the Korean market, the market share of Korean films,
already a slim 27 percent in 1987, plummeted to a mere 16 percent in 1993,
and the industry neared collapse. At the same time, however, changes in the
regulation of the film industry and the transition to democracy fostered the
emergence of a New Wave movement. Embracing a realist and often anticom-
mercial and anti-Hollywood aesthetic, directors from the late-1980s through
mid-1990s began making films that grappled with contemporary social and
political issues. While the market share for local films slowly edged up, few
of these films challenged Hollywood’s domination.
The Asian financial crisis of 1997 transformed the film industry again,
ushering in changes that led to its recovery and the current boom. Sources of
financing changed as more adventurous finance capitalists replaced corporate
chaebol (large, family controlled business conglomerates), production and
marketing budgets rose, a national distribution system took shape, and multi-
plexing expanded the total number of screens. The democratic political climate
stimulated film production and the government encouraged the industry’s
growth. In addition, a new generation of directors and screenwriters—who
grew up watching Hollywood films and were often educated in the West—
took over the reins of the industry and began trying out fresh ideas.
In 1999
local films took four of the top ten box office slots and by 2006 the industry
claimed a domestic market share of 60 percent, one of the highest such figures
in the world. It turns out that domination by Hollywood was one stage in the
film industry’s process of globalization, and not the end point.

Bong’s film education was shaped by this ambivalent relationship to both the
United States and Hollywood. Born in 1969, Bong grew up in Seoul during
the 1970s and 1980s as an enthusiastic consumer of Hollywood films and a
fan of directors such as William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg, Sam Peckinpah,
and Francis Ford Coppola, postclassical filmmakers who reinvented Hol-
lywood genres to address the grim realities of 1970s America. Bong did not
see these films in theaters but, in a classic example of the interdependence of
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military and cultural globalization, on the Armed Forces Korea Network, the
U.S. military’s TV channel.
Bong attended Yonsei University during the late
1980s as the pro-democracy movement was peaking; he majored in sociol-
ogy, a department reputedly full of student activists.
While his colleagues
were engaging in violent street protests against the military government and
its supporters in Washington, Bong was discovering Asian cinema. Nurtured
by the radical political environment, he developed a taste for the modernist
aesthetics of Taiwanese directors Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, the
social satires of Japanese director Shohei Imamura, and the psychologically
inflected genre films of Korean director Kim Ki-young.
After graduating from the Korean Academy of Film Arts, Bong entered
the film industry just as it was beginning to take off. He made his directorial
debut with Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), and entered into the first rank
of Korean directors with the success of Memories of Murder and The Host. In
a public manifestation of his ambivalent attitude toward Hollywood, Bong
has used his status within the industry to contest Korea’s relationship with the
United States, staging public protests against the 2007 Free Trade Agreement
that forced Korea to halve its screen quota requiring theaters to show local
films at least 146 days a year. Bong, like most Korean filmmakers, regarded
the quota as a key factor in the industry’s revival and a powerful symbol of
its right to defend itself against Hollywood; Washington and Hollywood, in
turn, saw it as an unfair trade barrier and had been pressuring Seoul to abol-
ish it for years.
Such David-versus-Goliath protests are themselves expressions of South
Korea’s ambivalent relationship with the United States and the forces of
modernization, capitalism, and globalization that it represents. As Jin-kyung
Lee has noted, modern articulations of Korean nationalism often depend
upon the United States as an antagonistic secondary term, with national
identity constructed via the “continual shoring up of the sense of victimhood
by Japanese colonialism and U.S. neocoloniality.” This aura of victimhood
provides a sense of emotional continuity to a country that has experienced
the traumatic ruptures of colonialism, civil war, foreign occupation, and na-
tional division. At the same time, however, it obscures what Lee calls South
Korea’s “new position in the present global order” as a capitalist “subempire”
in its own right, as manifested by its exploitation of cheap labor in Southeast
Asia and Mexico and of immigrant workers at home.
Bong’s nationalist
protest against the trade pact with Washington thus embodies a relationship
of conceptual dependence on the United States at least as profound as the
material one it critiques.
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“I have a real love and hate feeling toward American genre movies,” says
This feeling is apparent throughout Memories of Murder. The film
is based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, an unsolved case in
which ten women in the village of Hwaseong were raped and killed in the late
1980s, during the darkest years of Chun Doo Hwan’s military dictatorship.
The movie follows the two main investigators, one a likeable but bumbling
local detective named Park (played by Song Kang-ho) and the other a cooler,
more professional investigator from Seoul named Seo (played by Kim Sang-
Bong modeled his film on the template of the Hollywood crime film and
the end result is in many ways, according to the director, an “American-style
genre” film.
Memories conforms to many of the narrative conventions of
the police procedural subgenre, betraying a particular kinship with such
antiheroic variants as William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) and
the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996).
As in countless postclassical Hollywood
crime films, we follow the detectives as they physically abuse suspects, tail
and lose their prime suspect, unsuccessfully stake out a potential crime scene,
perform the good cop–bad cop routine, and eat cheap food, drink too much,
and take out their frustrations on each other. The film follows postclassical
Hollywood conventions in its form as well as its content. It has high produc-
tion values (realistic acting style, tight script, polished visuals) and adheres
to similar conventions of cinematography, editing, and pacing. Like many of
the recent Korean blockbusters, Memories looks very much like a Hollywood
film (figure 1).
The idea that Koreans should emulate things American makes an appear-
ance within the narrative itself. The two detectives embody very different
styles of police work. The local detective, Park, identifies himself with instinct,
custom, and tradition, claiming that he can identify a criminal by looking in
his eyes and consulting a shaman when they run out of leads. Detective Seo
from Seoul, in contrast, presents himself as a modern and rational thinker,
repeatedly asserting “documents never lie” and mining the existing evidence
for fresh leads. This difference in detecting methods gradually takes on na-
tional shadings. Late one night in a bar, Park insists that his method of police
work is the authentic Korean one, grounded as it is in “folk wisdom.” He
identifies his method with the national landscape and his own body: because
“our land’s the size of my dick,” he claims, “Korean” detectives like himself
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can investigate crime the old-fashioned way,
“with their feet.” He taunts Seo for his more
scientific method, accusing him of “analyz-
ing things” like the “FBI” and sneering that
“brainy geeks like you can go the hell to
America.” Despite the nationalist appeal of the accusation, the film sides with
Seo in this conflict, poking fun at Park’s “Korean” knowledge and validating
Seo’s “American” skills as superior: Park, while likable, is incompetent and
corrupt, and Seo alone makes progress toward solving the crime.
The end of the film calls this hierarchy into question, however, as Seo’s
“American” methods ultimately prove no more successful than Park’s “Korean”
ones in solving the case. When they discover some physical evidence on one
of the victims, the detectives must send it to the United States for DNA test-
ing, there being no lab in all of Korea that can perform such a sophisticated
test—an episode that captures in microcosm the Korea-U.S. relationship of
inequality and obligation and links it directly to the serial murder. During
the wait for the results, much is made of the detectives’ conviction that sci-
ence—and the United States—will solve their case for them. But when the
test results come back—the ultimate “document” that Seo has such faith
in—they prove inconclusive. The United States, it turns out, cannot help
them solve their crime.
The detectives’ disappointment with the United States within the nar-
rative is paralleled by Bong’s own “disappointment” with Hollywood genre
f|gure 1.
Memories of Murder (2003) follows many
of the visual and narrative conventions
of Hollywood’s postclassical police
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conventions. “I’ve watched a lot of American genre films, and enjoyed them
greatly,” says Bong. “At the same time, I feel that the conventions have been
repeated to the point where they get extremely tired.”
So Bong periodically
challenges those conventions: “I’ll follow the genre conventions for a while,
then I want to break out and turn them upside-down. That’s where the very
Korean elements come in.”
Bong suggests here that there are limits to what
he can say with Hollywood’s language and that he can’t rely on it exclusively
to tell his Korean story. The film’s departures from genre conventions take a
variety of forms, as Bong rearranges the Lego pieces of the police procedural
to make space for “Korean reality.”
Sometimes these departures appear as
generic expectations denied, as when the killer remains unknown at the end, as
he was in reality, or when rural people unfamiliar with the legal requirements
of evidence accidentally corrupt crime scenes. At other times they involve
the “collision,” as Bong calls it, of multiple genres.
Slapstick erupts when a
detective tumbles down an embankment into a crime scene, while a gentler
(but more politically pointed) comedy appears when the detectives take a
break from abusing a physically and mentally handicapped (and obviously
innocent) suspect so that all three can eat dinner together and watch “Inspec-
tor Chief,” a popular police procedural TV show from the 1980s. Through
scenes like this, Korean historical and cultural specificities slowly bleed into and
suffuse the imported generic framework. “The clash between life and fantasy,
elements of Korean reality versus traits of a genre movie,” says Bong, “these
are the fundamental characters I pursue in my work.”
This combination of
conforming to and pushing against Hollywood conventions creates a sense
of “schizophrenia” that Bong identifies as his stylistic signature—and which
we can read as a cultural expression of Korea’s half-respectful, half-resentful
attitude toward the United States.

More subtly, Bong departs from the Hollywood model by adopting cer-
tain stylistic features of the European-derived art film. We can see this in the
opening scene, which conforms to genre conventions at the level of narra-
tive—it shows Park, in the presence of a child, discovering the first victim in a
covered rural drainage ditch—but which does something different at the level
of cinematic form. The pace is slow, the shots are leisurely, and the scene is
composed around a gorgeous landscape that juxtaposes glowing yellow fields of
ripe rice with a clear blue sky. Similar shots of fields—sometimes lushly green
and oceanic as the breeze blows across, other times sere and brown—recur
throughout the film, as do dramatic shots of sky, lake, and mountains. In
these highly aestheticized shots, the colors are vibrant and the compositions
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elegant, and they often last several beats longer than one expects in order to
give the viewer time to appreciate their beauty. These shots have their kin not
in Hollywood genre movies, but in the films of Im Kwon-taek, the so-called
father of Korean national cinema, and a director who embraced the narra-
tive and stylistic conventions of Italian neorealism and the European art film
more generally.
Im’s Sopyonje (1993) and Chihwaseon (2002) are cultural
nationalist films that promote an organic sense of Korean identity via scenes
that marry the Korean landscape to distinctly Korean forms of culture. In
Sopyonje’s most famous scene, a family of itinerant pansori singers—doomed
holdouts against the rising tide of Westernized popular music—sings the
iconic folk song “Arirang” while walking alongside an arid field in an ex-
tended five-minute-long shot. In Chihwaseon, a stubbornly Korean painter
who rejects Japanese colonial authority finds inspiration for his art in lakes,
fields, and flocks of birds. The landscape shots in Memories of Murder simi-
larly evoke the nation as the foundation on which this imported-genre film
is being erected. And while these scenes don’t evoke han, the quintessentially
Korean emotion of suppressed rage and sorrow so central to Im’s films, they
do suggest a sense of what has been lost through compressed modernization.
Memories of Murder famously set a record for the number of locations used
during production because it proved so difficult, in highly industrialized
Korea, to re-create the unspoiled landscapes that were still common in the
By embedding the first victim’s body within a field of rice—Korea’s
most symbolic foodstuff—Bong suggests to the viewer that these crimes are
metaphorically embedded in the Korean nation, that this will be a national
story and not just a simple entertainment.
Bong’s ambivalence toward Hollywood is not a wholesale rejection, however,
and stretching genre conventions is not the same as dispensing with them.
In the end, the film grapples most fully with its Korean realities through a
convention that is central to the American crime film: the narrative structured
around a surface crime and a deep crime. Carlo Rotella, in his analysis of
William Friedkin’s The French Connection (a film Bong probably watched on
U.S. military TV), argues that the American crime story is organized around
a logic of parallel crimes. A surface crime launches the story and motivates the
action; it is a narrative device that allows the text to explore a set of characters
and the social world they inhabit. The process of investigating the surface
crime often reveals a deep crime, which, unlike the former, is a pervasive
wrongdoing that lies beneath the surface of everyday life. Where the surface
crime is a deviant act committed by an individual, the deep crime tends to
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be structural and based on some entrenched imbalance of power, the exercise
of which leads, according to Rotella, to an “order of violence more diffuse
than murder or robbery.”
In Memories of Murder the surface crime—the serial murders—gives way to
a deep crime that is revealed through a series of unobtrusive scenes that only
gradually accrue meaning: the local detective planting evidence and looking
on as his underling beats a suspect, his boot carefully covered with a shower
cap so as to minimize the visible damage; a violent street riot in which this
same underling stomps on a civilian protestor; news media encamped outside
the police station and demanding the release of a suspect whom they charge
is being illegally held; and schoolgirls in white sweatsuits practicing their re-
sponse to a simulated gas attack (figure 2). Slowly the viewer realizes that the
true subject of the film is not the serial murders and the detectives’ investiga-
tion, but rather daily life in the late 1980s—that is, during the darkest years
of Korea’s military dictatorship. The deep crimes revealed during the course
of investigating the surface crime include the corruption and abuse of police
power, the casual disregard of civil rights, and the government-stimulated fear
of North Korea as a means to keep the civilian population in check. These
distinctly Korean deep crimes often seep into otherwise conventional genre
scenes, as when detective Seo uses a flashlight in his office one night because
a civil defense blackout drill is under way. Here, the deep crime literally
forms the background to the surface crime: as Seo pores over the case files
in a series of generically familiar close-ups, the air-raid siren and a droning
voice demanding all lights be extinguished can be heard in the background.
This visual darkness demands a Korea-specific, rather than genre-based, in-
terpretation: according to Bong, “the most important part of this movie is the
‘blackout’ motif,” because it captures the “artificial darkness” that the Chun
regime cast over all of Korean life in this period.
The revelations of deep
crime and Korean specificity eventually take over the movie and transform it
into something more than just a Hollywood movie with Korean faces. We can
see how Bong’s particular realignments of the police procedural’s Lego pieces
carry a load of local meaning: the comic mayhem that results when the police
try to reenact a murder for the press serves not just to generate laughs but to
capture something crucial about life under dictatorship. The detectives fail
to solve the crime, according to Bong, not because “the murderer possess[ed]
some genius charisma, in the way that many American genre movies portray
serial killers.” Rather, they fail because “in Korea there was an incompetence
and crudeness in the very ideals of the 1980s.”
Bong’s bumbling policemen,
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who seem to be always slipping on invisible banana peels, serve to signal that
moral crudeness of dictatorship.
A scene about halfway through the film fully reveals the true nature of the
deep crime. The detectives, having discovered a clue that suggests the next
murder will take place that very night, call the local military garrison to send
troops right away. But the garrison refuses: not one soldier is available, the
police chief reports, because they all “went to suppress a demonstration” in a
nearby town. At this instant the surface crime and the deep crime intersect.
In trying to solve the murders, the detectives reveal that the government is
so busy repressing the democratic aspirations of its own people that it can
not protect them from a serial killer. Suddenly the serial murders evaporate
in significance, like the MacGuffin in a Hitchcock film, and simultaneously
become metaphors for the pervasive oppression of Koreans by their own
government. This is the deep crime that, like the body in the drainage ditch
in the opening scene, is embedded within the film’s national landscape.
The film’s epilogue, set in 2003, extends this logic of deep crime even
further. The scene opens with Park, now retired from the police force, having
breakfast with his wife and two adolescent children in a well-appointed West-
ern-style home. Sitting at a handsome dining room table and surrounded by
orange juice and milk bottles, a toaster, a refrigerator, and a matching leather
living room set, Park harasses his son about playing computer games. The next
shot shows him in the back of a van, surrounded by boxes of “Green Power
Juice Extractors” (the lettering is in English) and talking on a cell phone as
he makes the rounds for his new job selling consumer appliances. Suddenly
he realizes he is near the site where he found the first body some twenty years
before. In a modified reprise of the opening scene, Park walks down the lane,
squats to peer inside the now empty drainage ditch, and chats with a child
who happens to walk by. But where the boy in the opening scene spoke only
nonsense, the little girl here reports that she has recently seen a man peering
into the drainage ditch in the exact same manner; when she asked why, he
told her that he “remembered doing something here long ago.” Park, stunned
and ever the detective, asks what the man looked like. The girl pauses and
then, in the film’s last line of dialogue, says that his face was “ordinary.” At
this, the scene cuts to a close-up of Park’s haunted face as he turns and looks
directly into the camera. The shot holds for a moment, then fades to black,
and the movie ends.
What exactly is this scene telling us? Why do we need to see Park at home
and at work before he gets to the crime scene? I suspect it is to show what hap-
| 88µ Amer|can Çuarter|y
pened in the wake of—and, crucially, as a result
of—Korea’s decades of military dictatorship.
In the late 1980s Park was a paunchy, grungy
guy who lived in an apartment with little more
than a TV and a futon on the floor and did
the state’s dirty work. By 2003 he has become middle class, technologically
sophisticated, and Westernized. He is a private citizen with a white-collar job
and a materially comfortable life. Park’s transformation suggests that as much
as the dictatorships of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s repressed the South Korean
people, they also engineered tremendous economic growth that transformed
South Korea into a modern, industrial society with a strong middle class and
a high standard of living. So when in the final shots of the film Park peers
into the drainage ditch in a way that suggests peering into the nation’s recent
past, and the child implies that the killer was an “ordinary” man, Bong seems
to be suggesting a further level of deep crime. All Koreans are in some sense
responsible for what happened during the years of dictatorship. “Ordinary”
people were complicit in the dictatorship, either because they, like Park, served
the state in some way, or more diffusely, because they tolerated the dictatorship
in order to reap the benefits of economic growth that the state made possible.
These final shots and lines of dialogue suggest a kind of collective responsibil-
ity for what happened during Korea’s authoritarian years.
To return to my opening question, what cultural work is Memories of Murder
doing with the Hollywood “Lego pieces” that it appropriates and indigenizes? I
want to suggest that we see the film as part of the ongoing process of airing the
f|gure z.
Memories of Murder (2003) reveals the
deep crime of military dictatorship via
a scene of schoolgirls performing a civil
defense drill.
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traumas of Korea’s twentieth-century history that began after the transition to
civilian democracy in the early 1990s and that culminated in the creation of a
Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2005.
It is a process that involves
narrating the secret histories and deep crimes of violence, repression, and be-
trayal from the Korean War through the decades of military dictatorship. The
hybridity that we see in Memories of Murder—the appropriation of visual and
narrative conventions of both Hollywood and the art film in order to reveal
and explore Korea’s secret histories—is common to many of the blockbuster
films that have driven the Korean film industry’s resurgence. Although on the
surface these films look very much like Hollywood genre films, their deeper
thematic content is focused on uniquely Korean issues that Hollywood does
not even know exist: the ongoing anxiety about North Koreans paired with
an unprecedented acknowledgment of their humanity, in the spy thriller Shiri
(1999); the intense desire for North-South reconciliation, in the political
thriller Joint Security Area (2000); the secret history of South Korea’s brutal
creation and later abandonment of a political assassination team, in the action
film Silmido (2003); and the fratricidal dimensions of the Korean War, in the
combat film Taegukgi (2004). In all these films, imported Hollywood genre
conventions, narratives, and visual styles are put in the service of narrating
Korean national histories.
Bong’s next film, The Host, tells the story of a large mutant creature that
emerges from the Han River in downtown Seoul, rampages through a crowded
park, and leaps back into the river with a schoolgirl clutched in its prehensile
tail. Like Memories of Murder it is a genre film, and it similarly uses generic
conventions to grapple with contemporary Korean social and political reali-
ties. The monster, a product of an environmental mishap at a U.S. military
base, invites an easy reading as a figure for the United States, but as the film
develops, a more complex picture emerges. The snatched girl, Hyun-seo,
is the beloved child of the socially and economically marginal Park family,
which has not benefited from the country’s vaunted economic miracle. The
family consists of Gang-du, the girl’s slow-witted and utterly devoted father
(played by Song Kang-ho, who also played Detective Park in Memories of
Murder); her grandfather Hee-bong (played by Byun Hee-bong), who runs a
riverside snack kiosk with Gang-du; her aunt Nam-joo (played by Bae Doo-
na), a competitive archer with a bad habit of freezing at the crucial moment
of release; and her uncle Nam-il (played by Park Hae-il), a former student
| 886 Amer|can Çuarter|y
radical and now an unemployed drunk. The Korean state offers the family
little help in their moment of crisis. After the monster’s attack, it quarantines
them and everyone else who had contact with the creature, claiming that it
is host to a deadly virus. But when Gang-du receives a cell phone call from
his daughter, whom the monster has squirreled away, along with an even
younger homeless boy, in the labyrinthine sewers that run alongside the Han
River, the family breaks out of the hospital and begins its comic-heroic quest
to recover Hyun-seo.
Although The Host tells a very different story from Memories of Murder,
it follows the same structural template and embodies the same ambivalent
relationship to Hollywood. Like its predecessor, The Host participates in a
genre that Bong identifies primarily with Hollywood: “The monster genre,
excluding the Godzilla series from Japan, is in itself quite American.”
here acknowledges and minimizes the role of Korea’s former colonial ruler in
the development of the monster movie genre, so as to affiliate his film more
closely with Hollywood. And indeed The Host follows many of the visual and
narrative conventions of the postclassical monster film, beginning with the
shockingly sudden appearances of the creature, proceeding through the inno-
cents-in-danger scenario, and culminating in the requisite acts of unexpected
bravery from a motley crew of characters brought together by the crisis. Like
Memories of Murder, it locates this generic story within a nationally resonant
landscape, in this case the Han River environs of the capital city. It shares the
high production values of Bong’s earlier film, enhanced by Hollywood-level
digital effects that were produced in cooperation with the Orphanage, a San
Francisco-based company. The film’s distributor even gave it a Hollywood-
style saturation release, opening it on about a third of the country’s screens.

Bong again deploys his aesthetic of generic “collision,” with monster-movie
conventions bumping up against those of slapstick (as when a government
lackey in a bright yellow hazmat suit slips and falls, as if once again slipping
on an unseen banana peel) and black comedy (as when the grandfather, hav-
ing been assured by his dim-witted son that one bullet remains in his gun,
is taken out by the monster as Gang-du counts on his fingers and realizes he
has miscounted the number of bullets). Throughout the film Bong subverts
genre conventions even as he invokes them, as when the monster is revealed
in its physical entirety early in the film, or when Hyun-seo, pulled from the
creature’s maw by her father at the film’s climax, fails to respond to her family’s
desperate entreaties to wake up—a heart-breaking loss of a beloved child that
would be unthinkable in a mainstream Hollywood film (as can be seen by
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comparing this scene to the similar, but more gimmicky and happier ending
of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs [2002]).
Bong continues his earlier strategy of arranging the genre’s “Lego pieces” in
a way that opens up a space for Korean realities. The most resonant example
of this occurs during the film’s climax, when the three adult siblings, along
with a stray homeless man, launch their final assault on the monster amid
a violent confrontation between street protestors and Korean riot police. In
the film’s most politically powerful image, the homeless man pours gasoline
down the beast’s gullet as Nam-il shrugs off his backpack, winds up to toss a
flaming Molotov cocktail—and then looks down aghast as the bottle slips out
of his hand and smashes impotently at his feet (figure 3). At this moment his
sister Nam-joo appears with her bow and with perfect timing shoots a flam-
ing arrow directly into the creature’s mouth, setting him on fire, after which
Gang-du finishes him off with a metal pole.
This scene is powerful because it offers a perfect mix of global and local,
of Hollywood conventions and Korean realities. The final, coordinated as-
sault on the monster that goes down in a fireball is a standard convention of
the monster movie: think of Jaws (1975) and the shark blown up by a single
rifle shot to the oxygen tank lodged in its mouth. Yet the means of assault in
this scene are distinctly Korean. The image of a young man with a backpack
throwing Molotov cocktails is deeply resonant for Koreans. It gestures to the
twenty-year history of violent street protests that young Koreans have engaged
in, from the pro-democracy protests in the 1980s through the anti-globaliza-
tion and anti-free-trade protests of the early 2000s. The image also contains
an undercurrent of anti-Americanism, as many of these protests also took aim
at the United States, either for supporting the repressive military regimes or
for pushing a neoliberal economic agenda. The image of Nam-joo with her
bow and arrow also has national overtones, insofar as archery is a traditional
Korean sport in which many Korean women have won Olympic gold medals.
Given the monster’s association with the United States, this scene can be read
as an assertion of the Korean national against the global American other. Yet
this is an alternative version of the national, in which Koreanness is expressed
via figures of social and economic marginality and failure: a homeless man,
an unemployed drunk and former radical protestor, and a second-tier athlete.
The film endorses them, and not the agents of the Korean state, as the morally
legitimate embodiment of Koreanness.
Despite being a monster movie rather than a police procedural, The Host
also follows Memories of Murder’s internal structure of surface crime and
deep crime. In this case, the surface crime of kidnapping is committed by
| 888 Amer|can Çuarter|y
a criminal who, says Bong, “just happens
to be a creature.”
Like the serial murders
in Memories of Murder, the monster is the
device that gives the narrative its structure,
but it isn’t the film’s ultimate focus, and in
fact it gradually fades into the background as
the film progresses (in yet another departure from Hollywood monster-movie
convention). Bong reports that while critics have often wanted to assign some
concrete symbolism to the monster, identifying it with everything from the
United States to global capitalism, he did not intend it to carry any specific
symbolic weight. “It is what it is,” says Bong. What intrigued him instead
was what the monster’s attack revealed: “I was more interested in how people
reacted to the monster, especially this family. They have this tireless incredible
fight because they’re alone and nobody is helping them. I’m asking, ‘Why aren’t
people helping them?’ and that’s more where I wanted to put the meaning of
this film.”
The monster, in other words, is merely the surface crime.
The family’s search for Hyun-seo, hidden away beneath the surface of the
modern metropolis, exposes the deep crime that suffuses contemporary Korean
life. As the Park family gets tangled up in Seoul’s bureaucratic and capital-
f|gure j.
Global and local merge in The Host (2006):
the image of a young man throwing Molo-
tov cocktails evokes a twenty-year history
of protests against military dictatorship and
| 88ç Amer|can 5tud|es Needs te 1h|nk abeut kerean C|nema
ist modernity—the end result of Korea’s compressed modernization—they
discover that the authorities feel little but contempt for them. The govern-
ment lies to them about the existence of the deadly virus, the police refuse
to believe they have received a phone call from Hyun-seo, the hospital won’t
release them from quarantine to hunt for her, and the fumigators disinfecting
the riverside area are easily bribed with a bucketful of spare change. In one of
the films’ most sharply critical episodes, Nam-il is betrayed by an old friend
from his radical student days who traded in his political idealism for a high-
paying job in a telecommunications firm. In his office atop a glass-and-steel
skyscraper, a setting evocative of Korea’s vaunted economic success, the former
activist helps locate Hyun-seo by tracing her cell phone call; he also calls in
the police so that he can collect the reward for Nam-il’s capture, money that
he needs to pay off the staggering credit card debt he accrued in his climb
into the middle class. Through these and other episodes, Bong satirizes the
very notion of Korea as the “miracle on the Han,” recasting that economic
“miracle” as a mutant monster and revealing the high financial, social, and
moral costs of modernization.
The deepest crime that The Host reveals, however, centers not simply on
Korea’s modernity, but more profoundly on Korea’s relationship with the
United States. The film opens with a prologue, based on a real-life incident,
explaining how the mutant creature came into existence.
The scene is set in
the morgue at the Yongsan military base, which is the headquarters for U.S.
forces in Korea and is located in the heart of Seoul. It depicts an American
mortician ordering his Korean underling to get rid of some “dusty” bottles of
formaldehyde by dumping them down the drain. After a weak protest that
it will end up in the nearby Han River, the assistant meekly submits to the
command and begins pouring hundreds of bottles of toxic chemicals into
the sink. The scene is horrifying, with the mortician evoking the classic hor-
ror film’s mad scientist figure. But the subtler horror comes from Mr. Kim’s
acquiescence to his American superior: why does he submit to the order to
do something that would inevitably harm Koreans? Some of the film’s most
emotionally disturbing scenes replicate this dynamic, as Koreans quietly defer
to Americans commanding them to take some outrageous action. While the
Americans are presented as maniacally villainous, it is the more realistically
drawn Korean characters’ relationship to them that is ultimately more dis-
tressing. In one hospital scene, a walleyed U.S. official encased in a freakish
hazmat suit that makes him look like a cross between a baby and a flower
orders the doctors to drill into Gang-du’s brain, a sadistic and illogical act the
Koreans dutifully perform.
| 8çe Amer|can Çuarter|y
These scenes suggests that this monster is not produced by nature (as in
Jaws), or science (as in Frankenstein), or even by U.S. military power (as in
Godzilla), but rather by a political posture of subservience: it is the Korean
assistant, not the American morgue boss, who creates the monster. While
the Korean title of the film, Gwoemul, simply means “creature,” the English-
language title of the film suggests the nature of this deepest crime, implying
that Korea has let itself become a “host” to a parasitic United States.
The Host ends, however, with an epilogue that inverts this hierarchy of
American dominance and Korean submission. In this visually dense scene we
see Gang-du in the tiny snack kiosk, setting out dinner for the homeless little
boy whom Hyun-seo had protected in the sewers and who emerged alive from
the monster’s maw, wrapped in Hyun-seo’s arms. Gang-du loads up a low,
Korean-style table with heaping bowls of Korean food, and together they eat.
In the background, a TV broadcasts a news report, partially in English, about
a U.S. congressional investigation into the mishandling of the Korean virus
crisis that has revealed it was all a result of “misinformation.” In the middle
of the report, the boy announces “There’s nothing good on. . . . Let’s turn it
off. Concentrate on eating,” and Gang-du leans over and turns off the TV
with his foot (figure 4). With this dismissive gesture, Gang-du and the boy
assert the primacy of things Korean and claim the power to shut out things
American. This is the film’s “happy” ending. By refusing to accept America’s
authority to determine the meaning of the monster’s attack, Gang-du and
the boy refuse the hierarchical relationship with the United States that the
rest of the film has so painfully documented. Inverting the social relations
of the prologue and the film’s most disturbing scenes, they refuse to assume
a subservient position. In a reversal of former detective Park’s Westernized
home that concludes Memories of Murder, Gang-du asserts the home as a
Korean space, in which Korean food symbolically displaces American media
and language and Korean people reclaim their power to assign meanings to
Korean experiences. Gang-du also establishes the home as a socially inclusive
space, in which the homeless boy—a figure even more marginal and despised
than the members of the Park family—is accepted, loved, and nurtured. By
incorporating the boy into this Korean national space, Gang-du does pre-
cisely what the Korean state has refused to do throughout the film, namely,
grant full membership into the Korean national family to those on the lowest
rungs of Korea’s social hierarchy. At the same time, however, this affirmation
of Koreanness is dependent upon a U.S. presence against which Koreanness
can be defined: the TV has to be on before Gang-du can make the nationalist
gesture of turning it off.
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ßeng and 6e|den Age C|nema
To be an American studies scholar exploring the embeddedness of Hollywood
in another country’s cinema does not relieve one of the burden of knowing the
internal history of that national cinema. In fact, such historical knowledge is
essential if we are to fully understand the nature of Hollywood’s role in another
country’s film culture. Korean cinema is a good example of this. Bong’s films
have a complex genealogy: in addition to their connections to Hollywood genre
filmmaking and, to a lesser degree, realist Korean art cinema, they also have
substantive roots in the Korean Golden Age cinema of the1950s and 1960s.
Many of the characteristics that distinguish Bong’s films can also be found in
these earlier films. An awareness of these roots allows us to recognize a major
continuity in Korean film history over the past half-century, and to understand
the extent to which Korea’s film traditions—and not just Hollywood’s—are
a source of today’s thriving industry.
Much like Bong’s films thirty years later, Golden Age movies embodied
a complex relationship with Hollywood and the United States. The Golden
Age began in the mid-1950s, partially midwifed into existence by the United
States: emerging directors often honed their skills on USIS newsreels during
the Korean War and foreign aid programs provided film technology and equip-
f|gure µ.
The Host’s (2006) happy ending: Gang-
du asserts the primacy of things Korean
and claims the power to shut out things
| 8çz Amer|can Çuarter|y
ment after the war.
Annual production rates soared from twenty films per
year to more than two hundred, most of which were unabashed commercial
products that successfully attracted a mass Korean audience.
This was the
“era of the genre film,” when directors borrowed liberally from popular Hol-
lywood conventions (especially melodrama, film noir, the horror film, and the
women’s film) and commingled these elements with borrowings from other
national film styles, primarily Italian neorealism.
As Bong’s films would do
forty years later, these stylistically hybrid films told overtly national stories and
grappled with contemporary social issues: postwar poverty and unemploy-
ment, the prostitution of “decent” women to U.S. soldiers, the high moral
costs of upward mobility, and the rampant smuggling of foreign goods. This
combination of imported styles and local stories produced not only “generi-
cally promiscuous films,” but also films with a distinctly Korean sensibility.

Kathleen McHugh has argued, in fact, that only such stylistically hybrid films
could express Korea’s postwar identity as “an emergent and divided nation
and one now dominated by a Western power.”
We can see Bong’s debt to Golden Age cinema by looking briefly at two
of the era’s most popular films. Madame Freedom (Han Hyung-mo, 1956),
the most popular film of the 1950s, addressed head-on the question of U.S.
It told the story of a middle-class Korean housewife who takes
a job in a shop selling Western luxury goods. Seduced by the individualistic
ethos of consumer culture, she neglects her role as wife and mother and
enters into an extramarital affair conducted in the ultramodern spaces of
dance halls, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. While the film’s narrative
critiques the social transformations wrought by Western influence (without,
however, simplistically condemning that influence), its form betrays a studied
imitation of Hollywood style. The film features a constantly moving camera
and spectacular crane shots previously unseen in Korean film; meticulous
continuity editing, complete with scene dissection and eyeline matches; emo-
tionally expressive use of diegetic and nondiegetic sound; and a lush, Sirkian
mise-en-scène replete with Western-style hairdos, dresses, purses, shoes, hats,
office equipment, dishes, and home appliances (figure 5). Generically, the
film merges the conventions of the women’s picture with those of film noir,
with the twist that the lurking danger is refigured as Americanization. Even
as the film’s narrative and visual style are tangled up with Hollywood, so was
the film’s material production. The dolly that enabled the sweeping camera
movements rested on four U.S. Army helicopter wheels, while the snow that
floated down in several exterior scenes was really U.S. military dishwasher
As in Bong’s films, the narrative critique of Korea’s relationship
| 8çj Amer|can 5tud|es Needs te 1h|nk abeut kerean C|nema
with the United States is expressed via an
indigenization of Hollywood cinematic
forms and technologies.
The Housemaid (1960), a similarly classic
Golden Age film made by Kim Ki-young,
a director Bong discovered in college, also examines Korea’s experience of
modernization through a “borrowed” visual style.
Yet another cautionary tale
about Americanization, it tells the story of an upwardly mobile family whose
newly built Western-style house becomes the site of illicit sexuality, abortion,
murder, suicide, and family collapse. Echoing Han’s Madame Freedom, Kim’s
stylistic “trademark” in this and other films, according to Chris Berry, is the
“high visibility of Western material culture in modern settings.” His dramas
are played out in houses “packed with Western-style furniture, including walls
full of grandfather clocks and cuckoo clocks, stained glass partitions, and so
forth. Mealtimes are particularly good opportunities for the display of West-
ern consumption, both literally when butter and milk are served and in the
display of coffee percolators, toasters, and enormous Kelvinators.” While The
Housemaid’s mise-en-scène presents modernity as something fundamentally
imported, the film also expresses what Berry calls an “ambivalent” response to
f|gure ¸.
Madame Freedom (1956) explores Korea’s
experience of modernity via the story of a
housewife seduced by American material
culture and individualistic values.
| 8çµ Amer|can Çuarter|y
modernization as something both “threatening and desirable,” at once imposed
on Korea from the outside and aspired to from within.
Forty-three years
later, in the epilogue to Memories of Murder, Bong would similarly foreground
Western-style home décor and household appliances in a way that exceeded
the demands of the narrative. I want to suggest that we read former detective
Park’s “excessive” home and his job selling consumer appliances as Bong’s
nod toward his Golden Age predecessors, with whom he shares a propensity
to use a Hollywood-derived visual style to think through Korea’s experience
of imported modernity.

What is to be gained from seeing Bong’s connection with Golden Age cin-
ema? It allows us to see the layers of historical continuity in Korean cinema.
Part of this continuity derives from an ongoing desire among filmmakers to
grapple with the costs and consequences of Korea’s experience of moderniza-
tion. Where Golden Age directors such as Han Hyung-mo and Kim Ki-young
explored the early stages of this process, Bong explores how ordinary Koreans
have been implicated in some of modernization’s more unsavory aspects
and what modernity feels like when it fully arrives. A second dimension of
continuity resides in the recurring strategic decision of directors to appropri-
ate and indigenize elements of Hollywood style as a means of fending off
Hollywood’s economic encroachments. Seeing the connection between Bong
and his Golden Age precursors enables us to recognize how Hollywood has
long been an integral part of Korea’s film culture and thus a legitimate part
of the national cinematic imaginary that Korean filmmakers conjure with.
This continuity between the films of the 2000s and the films of the 1950s and
1960s has not been uninterrupted, however. It was the Korean New Wave’s
rejection of a Hollywood-influenced style in the 1980s—a rejection based
in part on lack of familiarity with then-hard-to-see Golden Age films—that
helps account for the failure of these films to attract Korean viewers away from
imported Hollywood films. Ultimately, however, this continuity allows us to
see that in appropriating and reworking Hollywood genre conventions, Bong
is following in the footsteps of his commercially minded Korean forerunners,
which is to say that, in engaging with Hollywood, Bong is doing something
authentically Korean.
Amer|can 5tud|es and kerean C|nema
I want to return now to the question raised in the title: why should American
studies think about Korean cinema? One answer is that Korean cinema allows
us to think about the global circulation of U.S. popular culture in a more
| 8ç¸ Amer|can 5tud|es Needs te 1h|nk abeut kerean C|nema
comprehensive way. In an era in which Hollywood films regularly earn more
money abroad than at home and studios increasingly regard overseas viewers
as their primary audience, we have an obligation to explore how non-U.S.
filmmakers and film industries are engaging with “our” films. We need to
recognize that people outside the United States, having grown up immersed
in U.S. popular culture, often claim it as their own and use it in ways that
make sense to them in their own unique contexts. Doing so means making
international reception and individual acts of creative reworking central to
our understanding of U.S. popular culture. It also complicates our notions of
national cinemas, and national cultures more generally, by forcing us to rec-
ognize the transnational dimension inherent in both contemporary and older
cinema. Bong’s films, given their thematic concerns, mode of production, and
market performance, can rightfully be understood as works of Korean national
cinema. But they are also inescapably works of transnational cinema, products
of a complex textual engagement and negotiation with Hollywood.
American studies should also think about Korean cinema because it illus-
trates how important it is to think about culture materially as well as textually,
and to pay attention to the relationships among texts, industries, and markets.
In the case of Bong’s films, if we saw only their textual borrowings from Hol-
lywood without understanding their role in reclaiming Korea’s domestic film
market from Hollywood, we would be missing half their significance. Bong’s
textual appropriation from Hollywood is inseparable from his material defeat
of Hollywood at the Korean box office. By thinking about Bong’s films mate-
rially as well as textually, we can see how a single text can embody multiple,
and sometimes contradictory, relationships with the United States.
Finally, Korean cinema shows us that genre is a particularly useful category
of transnational analysis. Bong’s use of globally popular Hollywood genres is
part of what makes his films so attractive to Korean audiences and thus enables
him to engage a large percentage of Koreans in his explorations of Korea’s deep
crimes of dictatorship and subservience to the United States. Genre also serves
as an excellent place to trace the intimate relationship between the global and
the local. In mapping the transnational contours of a given genre we also map
a complex set of relationships between the United States and peoples abroad,
as filmmakers stretch and bend and sometimes break Hollywood conventions
to open up spaces for their own unique realities, histories, and concerns.
Cinema is and always has been a mongrel art form. If we can let go of
conceptual models that assume some kind of purity—be it notions of discrete
national cinemas or cultural authenticity or art untainted by commerce—we
will see how filmmakers and film industries around the world have been
| 8ç6 Amer|can Çuarter|y
borrowing from each other all along, in different ways and in the contexts of
diverse histories and relations of power.
Early versions of this article were presented at Harvard University, Carnegie Mellon University,
University of Minnesota, Sogang University, Yonsei University, Old Dominion University, and the
American Studies Association annual meeting. I thank the many audience members at these pre-
sentations, Young-a Park, and the two anonymous American Quarterly readers for their thoughtful
questions and comments.
1. Andrew Higson, “The Concept of National Cinema,” in Film and Nationalism, ed. Alan Williams
(New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 56.
2. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies,”
American Quarterly 57.1 (March 2005): 17–57; and Mae M. Ngai, “Transnationalism and the
Transformation of the ‘Other,’”American Quarterly 57.1 (March 2005): 59–65.
3. Memories of Murder, DVD, directed by Bong Joon-ho (2003; Seoul, Korea: CJ Entertainment, 2003);
The Host, DVD, directed by Bong Joon-ho (2006; Seoul, Korea: Magnolia Home Entertainment,
4. All box office and market share statistics are from http://www.KoreanFilm.org, an invaluable resource
on Korean cinema created by Darcy Paquet.
5. Ambivalent is a preferred term among scholars of Korean film. See essays by Shin and Stringer, Desser,
and Berry in Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema, ed. Frances
Gateward (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007).
6. “‘The Host’—Bong Joon-ho Q & A,” Time Out Movie Blog, Time Out London, http://www.timeout.
com/film/news/1514.html (accessed April 7, 2007).
7. Film critic Kim Jin quoted in Mi Hui Kim, “‘Copywood’ Pix Pay Unwanted Homage,” Variety.com,
July 13, 2003, http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117889185.html (accessed July 13, 2003).
8. Chris Berry, “‘What’s Big About the Big Film?’ ‘De-Westernizing’ the Blockbuster in Korea and
China,” in Movie Blockbusters, ed. Julian Stringer (New York: Routledge, 2003).
9. Kathleen McHugh and Nancy Abelmann, eds., South Korean Golden Age Melodrama: Gender, Genre,
and National Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005).
10. For transnational analyses of film genres, see Meaghan Morris, Siu Leung Ki, and Stephan Chan Ch-
ing-kiu, eds., Hong Kong Connections: Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema (Durham, N.C.:
Duke University Press, 2005); Gina Marchetti and Tan See Kam, eds., Hong Kong Film, Hollywood,
and the New Global Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2007); David Desser, “Global Noir: Genre Film
in the Age of Transnationalism,” Film Genre Reader III, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of
Texas Press, 2003); Wimal Dissanayake, ed., Melodrama and Asian Cinema (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1993); Tassilo Schneider, “Finding a New Heimat in the Wild West: Karl May and
the German Western of the 1960s,” in Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western, ed. Edward
Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson (London: BFI, 1998).
11. Jeanine Basinger, World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1986).
12. Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, China on Screen: Cinema and Nation (New York: Columbia University
Press, 2006), 5, 205, 208.
13. I borrow the term compressed modernization from Kathleen McHugh and Nancy Abelmann, who
cite as their source Chang Kyung-Sup, “Compressed Modernity and Its Discontents: South Korean
Society in Transition,” Economy and Society 28.1 (1999): 30–55. McHugh and Abelmann, South
Korean Golden Age Melodrama, 5. On South Korean history, see Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the
Sun (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).
14. Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun; Lee Kang-ro, “Critical Analysis of Anti-Americanism in Korea,”
Korea Focus 13 (March-April 2005): 74–98, online at http://www.koreafocus.or.kr/design1/Essays/
view.asp?volume_id=39&content_id=143&category=G (accessed June 20, 2005).
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15. Kim Mee hyun, ed. Korean Cinema: From Origins to Renaissance (Seoul: Communications Books for
the Korean Film Council, 2006), 115.
16. Seung Hyun Park, “Korean Cinema After Liberation: Production, Industry, and Regulatory Trends,”
in Gateward, Seoul Searching, 15–35.
17. Darcy Paquet, “The Korean Film Industry: 1992 to the Present,” in The New Korean Cinema, ed.
Chi-yun Shin and Julian Stringer (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 32–50.
18. Youn-hui Lim, ed., “Finding the Path of Reality in a Jungle of Genres,” Bong Joon-ho: Mapping Reality
within the Maze of Genre (Seoul: Korean Film Council in association with Cine 21, 2005), 19.
19. Mark Russell, “Unlike His Peers, the Director Bong Joon-Ho Likes Ideas and Metaphors,” New
York Times, May 28, 2006, online at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/28/movies/28russ.html?_r
(accessed March 8, 2007).
20. “Finding the Path of Reality,” 19; “‘My Creative Impulse Is Based on Encounters with the Unknown’:
Interview with Director Bong Joon-ho,” in Bong Joon-ho, 31; “Interview: Bong Joon-ho,” Twitch
Film, http://www.twitchfilm.net/archives/008512.html (accessed April 17, 2007).
21. Jin-kyung Lee, “Migrant Labor Activism and Re-Configurations of South Korea as a Nation and
Transnation” (paper presented at the Association of Asian Studies, San Diego, 2004); Kuan-hsing
Chen, “The Imperialist Eye: The Cultural Imaginary of a Subempire and a Nation-State,” positions
8.1 (2000): 9–76.
22. “‘The Host’,” Time Out Movie Blog.
23. Peter Sanchez, “Joon-Ho Bong: He’s the Host,” The 213, online journal, http://the213net/php/re-
view_print.php?id=255 (accessed April 7, 2007).
24. “‘My Creative Impulse,’” 37–39.
25. “The Great Capone Interviews the Extra-Great Joon-ho Bong! Director of the Super-Extra-Double
Great THE HOST!!” Ain’t It Cool News, March 4, 2007, http://www.aintitcool.com/?q=node/31767
(accessed April 7, 2007).
26. “‘The Host,’” Time Out Movie Blog.
27. “Finding the Path of Reality,” 25.
28. “‘My Creative Impulse,’” 37–38.
29. “Finding the Path of Reality,” 25.
30. Ibid., 19.
31. Kyung Hyun Kim, “Korean Cinema and Im Kwon-Taek: An Overview,” in Im Kwon-Taek: The
Making of Korean National Cinema, ed. David E. James ad Kyung Hyun Kim, (Detroit: Wayne State
University Press, 2002), 34–36.
32. “Memories of Murder,” Koreanfilm.org, http://koreanfilm.org/kfilm03.html#memories (accessed
April 20, 2007).
33. Carlo Rotella, Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 119.
34. “Finding the Path of Reality,” 23.
35. “‘My Creative Impulse,’” 35.
36. Donald Kirk, “Korea’s Bid for Truth and Reconciliation,” Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 2006,
http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0303/p25s01-woap.html (accessed June 10, 2007).
37. “‘My Creative Impulse,’” 41.
38. Kim Soo-kyung, “What the Commercial Success of ‘The Host’ Has Given Us,” Korean Film Observa-
tory 20 (2006): 11.
39. Kevin B. Lee, “The Han River Horror Show: An Interview with Bong Joon-ho,” Cineaste 32.2 (Spring
2007), online at http://www.cineaste.com/articles/an-interview-with-bong-joon-ho.htm (accessed
March 8, 2007).
40. Andrew Kasch, “Joon-ho, Bong (The Host),” Dread Central.com, http://www.dreadcentral.com/index.
php?name=Interviews&req=showcontent&id=476 (accessed April 17, 2007).
41. “U.S. Army Keeping Close Tabs on Han River Monster,” Chosun Ilbo, August 11, 2006, online at
http://english.chosun.com/w21data/html/news/200608/200608110014.html (accessed August 24,
42. Darcy Paquet, “A Short History of Korean Cinema,” KoreanFilm.org, http://www.koreanfilm.org
(accessed April 1, 2007).
43. Kim, Korean Cinema, 134, 171.
44. Ibid., 171.
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45. David Scott Diffrient, “Han’guk Heroism: Cinematic Spectacle and the Postwar Cultural Politics of
Red Muffler,” in South Korean Golden Age Melodrama, 171. The mixing of genres has become a staple
feature of contemporary Korean cinema as well. See Darcy Paquet, “Genrebending in Contemporary
Korean Cinema,” TAASA Review 9.1 (2000): 12–13.
46. Kathleen McHugh, “South Korean Film Melodrama: State, Nation, Woman, and the Transnational
Familiar,” in South Korean Golden Age Melodrama, 18.
47. Madame Freedom, DVD, extras and accompanying booklet, directed by Han Hyung-mo (1956;
Seoul, Korea: Korean Film Archives, 2005).
48. Ibid.
49. The Housemaid, DVD, directed by Kim Ki-young (1960; Seoul, Korea; recorded from Korean TV
broadcast). Thanks to Yuni Cho at the Korea Society, New York, for sharing her personal copy with
50. Chris Berry, “Scream and Scream Again: Korean Modernity as a House of Horrors in the Films of
Kim Ki-young,” in Seoul Searching, 109, 101.