Sunday, July 5, 2015

Weekly Response 2

My written response to the screening of the 2013 Korean film, The Flu:

Family and Nation in Disaster Movies

The political and nationalist undertones (and the not-so-subtle allusion to foreign migrant labor as fatally infectious) of The Flu seem so overt at times that I am curious what Korean film reviews were like when the movie premiered. I know that Kristen has a lot of thoughts and critiques of the film’s seemingly unrealistic celebration of nationalism while citizens’ rights are blatantly violated and disregarded in the face of a national crisis, so I would like to focus on an aspect of the film and the genre of Korean thriller that aligns with my own research interests of the representations of family in Korean cultural productions.

A pattern I have found in several 21st-century Korean films that could be categorized as “thriller” or “disaster” movies, is the theme of single parenthood. Like The Flu, often the protagonist is a single parent, struggling to juggle the dual responsibilities of work and childrearing. And despite (or perhaps because of?) their deviation from the ideal model of Korean family, parent and child emerge from an ordeal that threatens both life and Korean society unscathed. In addition to The Flu, Kim Ji-hoon’s 2012 film, Tower, and to an extent, Yoon Je-kyoon’s 2009 film, Tidal Wave (해운대) and Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 blockbuster, The Host (괴물) follow a similar formula.[1]

In previous film analysis, I have argued that these portrayals of deviant family models mark a positive step toward new notions of Koreanness that deviate from heteronormative gender and family discourse. Further, I read such depictions as “means of cultural resistance to the postcolonial conditions” and the formation of a new national imaginary not dependent are on Western imperialism.[2] That is, the highlighting of deviant family models in such films are symbolic of South Korea’s moves toward deimperialization.

In The Host, the character of Gang-du embodies what Hyon Joo Yoo identifies as moribund masculinity, “a version of male subjectivity that refuses to fulfill the political, economic, and ideological demands that are made by the nation-state and global capitalism which together constitute patriarchal authority in the postcolonial nation.” [3] Gang-du is portrayed as a blundering man-child and an ineffectual (though doting) father who can barely manage to stay awake to tend to the menial responsibilities of managing his father’s snack stall. He cannot, or will not, perform the patriarchal role of masculine protector and breadwinner of the family. But in the end, Gang-du succeeds in defeating the monster, which renders the US military’s dispersal of the poisonous Agent Yellow on Korea soil unnecessary. Gang-du’s actions thus shift the perspective of his moribund masculinity from failure as proper subject to a legitimate refusal of hegemony.

Similarly, in The Flu, Kim In-hae is a woman who does not conform to the gender role expectations of traditional Korean womanhood. She is a single mother and works outside the home in the predominately-male field of medicine. In what could perhaps be seen as the opposite of moribund masculinity (but results in similar social ostracism), In-hae fails to perform the proper femininity of a female Korean citizen. Yet she is legitimized in the field of medicine and as a worthy Korean subject when her actions as a mother result in the creation of the antidote that will save all of Korea from infection and the heavy hand of Western interference in Korean national interests.

Clearly, further analysis and revision is needed to bring these observations to light in a full and comprehensive way in which I can form a real argument or framework. However, the recurring themes of single parenthood, nationalism, and anti-Western sentiments in these disaster films point to an interesting way in which they are all connected.


[1] If you think of other films that could be added to this list, please let me know! My Korean film research has mostly focused on Golden Age films, so my knowledge of more contemporary films is not up to speed.

[2] Yoo, Hyon Joo. Cinema at the Crossroads: Nation and the Subject in East Asian Cinema. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012, page 23.

[3] Ibid, 1.