The narrative of double death and two transnational networks in Korean cinema (3)
The expression 'global Korean cinema' might sound awkward if not oxymoronic. Does it refer to Korean films shot in a 'Gangnam style' or Hollywood movies made by Korean directors such as Stoker (Park Chan-wook. 2012) and The Last Stand (Kim Ji-woon, 2012)? Unmistakably all these testify to the globalization of Korean cinema, the ongoing global expansion of its production and reception like the K-Pop-driven Hallyu (Korean Wave). Against this industrial backdrop, however. I will address global Korean cinema like nothing other than a part of what I call 'global cinema' with its key issues localized in/around Korea. These issues largely concern 'systems of inclusion' generating the neoliberal milieu and multicultural traffic as well as 'symptoms of exclusion' generated by these whole systems, involving illegal migration, casual labor, and various catastrophes. This conceptual pair epitomizes two phases of the world since the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s. with the fall of the communist bloc, ideologically oppositional nations and cultures began to be incorporated into a single globe of rainbow communities where liberal democracy and transnational capitalism formed the so-called 'post-political,' 'post-historical' Zeitgeist. In the 2000s, however, such catastrophes as the 9/11 terror and the 2008 financial meltdown signaled the violent return of the repressed or excluded and viral effects of socioeconomic networking and polarization as if these were inevitable byproducts of glorious globalization. Radical antagonism now occurs less between internal social groups than between a whole society or the world system and its unwelcome remnants. In this two-faceted global age, both subjectivity and community undergo new crises and changes. Global cinema can then be thematically characterized as reflecting today's globalism with its inconsistency and today's humanity responding to this new condition of life.
Global cinema has a typical narrative arc allegorizing this human condition. Main characters die symbolically at the beginning by being lost, cast. detached, or expelled out of their community, while often encountering (this experience as) a traumatic event--on a daily level, it may appear as being abandoned, rejected, suspended, or fired from their family, school, workplace, or institution. This symbolic death makes them the "abject," deprived of their social identity and even homeless, jobless, or moneyless. Psychoanalytically, Julia Kristeva (1982, 1-18) defines the "abject" as that which is rejected or excluded from oneself but not yet a separate thing, thus thrown in a state of limbo between subject and object, neither alive nor dead. By extension, there has been growing scholarly attention to "social abjection" (Tyler 2013), the suspension of political subjectivity with legal rights. Stripped of their membership or citizenship, even human rights, those characters above are forced to live in the state of "bare life" like animals or homo saver vulnerably exposed to lethal violence outside the law as Giorgio Agamben (98) would say. The rest of the narrative shows how they survive in this symbolic postmortem state of being. Most of the abject then struggle to rejoin their community and regain their subjectivity, which succeeds or fails toward the end, often at the cost of their biological life--this means they are often redeemed paradoxically through their real death. The two deaths, symbolic and real, bracket and shape the narrative of abjection and redemption in this way, creating the "zone between life and death" (where Jacques Lacan (1997, 270-83) locates the tragic abject Antigone). Put another way, it is the narrative of double death.
However, it is critical that the abject's task is not limited to regaining their 'normal' state. They might take revenge, terrorize those who abjected them, or even destroy their ex- community. But in positive directions, they might also make a new relationship or form certain solidarity outside the biopolitical mechanism of abjection. In other words, the abject do not remain victimized once they cultivate 'agency': the causative force to activate actions, the capacity to act for a mission though effects are uncertain and might be negative. Agency is thus the abject mode of subjectivity. It is not preformed but performed only at the moment of action, and it can be constantly reperformed through temporary modulation and flexible adaptation to changing circumstances. Agency in this performativity, not predestined toward any lost origin or subservient to the established order, accounts better for the (re)assemblage of subjectivity confronting unpredictable crises in the global age than the traditional notion of identity or any a priori essence. So the abject with this agency are literally 'agents' including, but not limited to, genre-specific professional (secret) agents in spy, crime, or disaster films, who are often abjected from their institutional agency like the CIA. Professional or not, the abject agents in general play the role of action heroes in the narrative of double death with the potential for modifying their original mission itself as well as themselves. Their 'abject agency' often allegorizes the political impossibility of Utopian change in catastrophic situations but also suggests some ethical alternatives to the inclusion in or exclusion from the global system. (4)
I critically engage in this global cinema of abjection and agency, looking at contemporary films globally circulating in both the mainstream market and the festival circuit. Locality functions here less as the root of identification with a unique untranslatable reality, national or regional, than as a contingent springboard for embodying the concrete universality of the global system and precarious life in it. To map global Korean cinema, then, I locate in narrative space two transnational East Asian networks of capital around the Korean peninsula: two networks where global systems of inclusion are localized and symptoms of exclusion appear in the form of the agents of capital abjected from the very networks. The first network is the 'North-West network' that ranges over North Korea, northeastern China including provinces populated with ethnic Koreans such as Liaoning, Heilongjiang, and Jilin (where the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture is located) and Mongolia/Russia. The second is the 'South-East network' that spreads over Japan, Chinese metropolises such as Shanghai and Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. The North-West network has emerged in the background of the former communist big brothers. China and Russia, rapidly joining global capitalism since the end of the Cold War. The South-East network has long been the backbone of the East Asian economic and cultural markets significantly established in the world system. Korea has the tradition for film co-production and distribution including both importing and exporting films especially over the South-East network, and now the North-West network appears as a new channel for such exchanges. These two networks, with their differences, could be seen as Korea's main routes for what Jungbong Choi calls "cultural regionalization" through geo-historical, ethno-linguistic, and emotive- aesthetic correlatives shared in the East Asian cultural sphere (2010), and also for "transnational-Korean cinematrix" including not only film but diverse media and other public cultures (2012). But while Choi emphasizes the distinctive value of the term 'transnational' in this regional context, I will recontextualize it in the 'global' frame.
The point is how these networks are cinematically represented as harsh existential conditions of film characters and their frantic survival strategies, indicating their abjection and agency in the narrative of double death. The notion of network can be explored in many ways, but for now. let's take it as a geo-eultural web of connections that subjugate the characters to the system of capital and power, from which they often try in vain to draw Deleuzian "lines of flight," to flee, flow, or break through the cracks in the system toward a plane of exteriority (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 9-10). However, before delving into films in the two networks, it is worth mentioning a few films precursory to this theme that unfold dramas in the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) or similar places near the border, thereby touching on the origin of the division between the two networks, that is to say the division of Korea into South and North. In Park Chan-wook's Joint Security Area (2000), a South Korean soldier, lagging behind the line, strikes a mine but is saved by two North Korean soldiers. Then, they deepen a dangerous yet Utopian friendship, exchanging gifts at a DMZ checkpoint until they are exposed by the authorities and led to tragic incidents. In Welcome to Dongmakgol (Park Gvvang-hyun, 2005), the eponymous virtual village appears as a fantastic haven of lost soldiers from two Koreas and the UN during the Korean War. Touched by innocent golden-hearted villagers, these former 'enemies' team up to protect the peaceful village from the attacking armies to which they belonged. Underground Rendezvous (Kim Jong-jin, 2007) shows another imaginary place in a demilitarized village, a secret place that was built for the reunion of families and friends separated by the truce line and which has been kept until the 1980s as a time capsule, evoking Emir Kusturica's Underground (1995). On the Pitch (Kye Yoon-shik, 2010) is a comic fantasy about some North Korean guards of the DMZ who fall into the fever of the Korea-Japan 2002 World Cup through radio, melt down the national division, and join the imagined community of reunified Korea.
All these films have common points: (1) Protagonists are lost or separated from their family or army, so their social subjectivity or...