VISUAL ARTS AND FILM STUDIES

Subject: 🎨 Art
Type: Profile Essay
Pages: 13
Word count: 3210
Topics: 🎞️ Film Analysis, 📽️ Film Review
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Introduction

Masculinity identity is one of the prominent features of Korean film industry. One of the significant features of Korean cinematic phenomena is the alienation of the male characters from the trauma experienced by women in the Korean War. The South Korean film arena seems to have masculinised the traumatic modern history where the masculine roles are reaffirmed and dominate the film plots (Abelmann, Nancy, & Kathleen, 2005). The depiction of the masculine role in the society is best demonstrated in Pyong-tae in whale hunting in 1984. The film depicts the character of Pyong-tae as having transformed from a masochistic, pathetic and aimless youth to an astute responsible man of the 1980s and the 1990s (Abelmann et al., 2005). This projection of the male character in the Korean film rests in the conflict between self-preservation and self-destruction. For females, the film, Whale hunting, subjugates them to the character of whores and mothers. 

The character of the male is transformed by film director Pyong-tae to violent, sadistic and aggressive man. The transformation of the masculine character of the South Korean man coincides with the consolidation of the Korean economy and democracy. This period also denotes the emergence of the South Korean film industry as more male-dominated, effectively aligning with the Asian society male-dominated society (Abelmann et al., 2005). Before the emasculation of the Korean film industry, it was dominated by despair arising from the loss of home due to urbanisation, the Korean war and working class and civil society oppression of the male gender (Abelmann et al., 2005).  

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Kwang-su Park films male characters are a reflection of the historical trauma that the male gender underwent and it engenders fascism, familialism and fetishism. In the film, there is strife in masculine perspective between self-hate and self-love (Howson et al., 2015). For the female characters, their roles are just femme fatales that are more imagined or fictional than real. However, for the male characters, there is the regaining and reaffirmation of masculinity throughout Kwang-su Park films. The political crises facing South Korea is relegated to the body of a woman. The scars of the tragic wars in the Korean War seem to resurrect the masculine identity while there is no mention of the female reaction to the trauma in the Korean cinema. The absence of feminine reactions to the trauma of Korean tragic history may be attributed to the gender inequality in the film industry; there was a relatively low number of female directors who could have campaigned for the feminist agenda (Kim, 2004).  

Men and women have had prominent representation in the films work spanning from the 1950s to the 1990s. The prolific South Korean who disappeared in North Korea in 1978 produced over 13 films that demonstrates the contrasting role of women and men in the Korean society. The director Shin Sang-ok made a film based on the short novel, Mother and a Guest, a novel that is included in the South Korean middle-school textbooks. The film directed by Shin Sang-ok is a typical Korean classic that highlights the prominent role played by women in the society (Howson et al., 2015). The film depicts a woman playing a prominent role as a rough and assertive head of the family. The Korean mother is not stigmatised even when playing the masculine role as the head of the family. Choi Eun-Hee is an embodiment of the “manly” woman who has survived historical gruelling period and is a stereotypical representation of the traditional Korean mother in the film Mother and a Guest (Kim, 2004). The director Shin Sang-ok links the neo-Confucian virtues of women chastity, sacrifice and devotion to the concept of manliness or masculinity. The image of a strong and an outstanding woman is equivocally represented as being masculine by film director, Shin Sang-ok (Howson et al., 2015). In the film, Mother and a Guest, the star images seem not to emerge from the confines of the society but are socially made to serve a particular need in the society. There is a controlling male desire in the director Shin Sang-ok relating a woman who overcomes difficulties and survives as being manly. A strong woman in the society, typified by being chastised and dutiful as a mother, still falls under the masculinity shadow. 

Although the film Mother and a Guest is about the story of a strong woman, at the end, it is all about a male desire. There are depictions of femininity traits with the insinuation that they are weak human traits. Even in death, the character of the father ‘s image is controlling the character and desire of Choi, a character in the Mother and a Guest film directed by Shin Sang-ok. The strong, according to the perspective of the director Shin Sang-ok, is the one who is ideal for men at that time (Yecies & Shim, 2015). A woman is only meaningful in the family context, operating under the whims of the life and desires of men of the time to be regarded by the society as strong. She is an idealised woman who fits in the values of the patriarchal Korean society. The sexuality of the woman is denied in the film Mother and a Guest, depicting either that women control their sexual desire or they do not have sexual desires at all. Shin Sang-ok seeks to idealise the idea of an asexual wife, mother type in the post-war Korean society (Chung, 2008.). The body of the woman is depicted as that which has been transformed from the notion of desiring in the traditional sense, to the labouring body under capitalism. In the pre-industrial era, the South Korean society depicted a female body as a reproductive and nurturing body. However, Shin Sang-ok works seek to reconstruct the traditional reference of a woman in the concept of authentic Koreanness as a dutiful and strong woman (Chang & Kim, 2005). 

Although the South Korean is being presented with a challenge of its masculinity privileged regime, tradition plays a critical role in the understanding of the hegemonic masculinity in determining the gender roles in the film works in Korea. Men appear in prominent roles in films, roles that have been defined over time by the Confucian system that shape Korean Confucian principles (Kim, 2004). The gender segregation that is a common feature in Korean traditions is the main reason behind the idea of spatial segregation of women to private affairs in the family settings.  They are regarded as strong and dutiful if they perform their family settings in the depictions by the film’s directors. The segregation principles also embody the virtue of supremacy which is depicted in the virtue of obedience and the subservience of women only n the private affairs. This aligns with the female identity in the Korean culture perspective from the 1950s to the 1980s (Kim, 2004). Feminism seems to run contrary to the Korean culture attitude that has been laid down from the country’s history of Confucianism (Howson et al., 2015). The dominant role of men in  postwar films is depicted by an anxiety-ridden and weak mean  who were gradually gaining their positions after the tragic history  of the Koreas

Park Chan-wook film work has a unique style though it attracts a polarising perspective due to the violence extremity in the film Oldboy. In his works, including the Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2004), there is more inclusive involvement of the female character although their roles have often been depicted as violent and vulnerable to the more masculine dominant male counterparts (Chang & Kim, 2005). In the Lady vengeance, the toxic masculinity is replaced by the contemporary expectations of the Korean woman. The female character Geum-ja, in the film Sympathy for Lady vengeance, cuts her hair and she quickly receives comments that “you’ve changed much”. This symbolises how the identity of women is shaped by the physical appearance as opposed to how men identity is perceived in the society. The new look she adopts is aligned with a more ruthless attitude, straightforward sexuality which channels her revenge plan in the film. These traits depicted by Park Chan-wook are in the opposing perspective of the Korean society that leans towards Confucianism (Howson et al., 2015). 

As Geum-ja is tried and imprisoned, she reckons that appearance makes her look virtuous and innocent even to colleague women. This depiction of women with appearance highlights the role of physical appearance that the Korean society places on women. The Lady vengeance film gravitates towards physical appearance of women, the lead actors, rather than class notations that are the bedrock of many Korean films. The film seeks to address the marginalised role of women in the society, depicting a society that has been influenced by Confucius thoughts through its gender inequality (Kim, 2004). While there has been a gradual fight for equal rights among the genders, women’s role continues to be defined and dominated by “the good wife, wise mother” (Hoffman, 1995).

In the film Lady Vengeance, Park Chan-wook brings the two perspectives in the women role; that of the Confucian wife and mother and that of a woman in peril, Geum-ja. The film director Park Chan-wook brings the struggles of women to the foreground rather than the class struggles that are a common feature in Korean film industry. Although there seems to be a romance in the arena film industry, such as in the hit film My Sassy Girl and My wife is a Gangster (2001), the representation of Korean characters has a hidden patriarchal representation of women (Chang & Kim, 2005). Women roles in the films are presented in the perspective of their male counterparts. From a distance, Korean culture seems to be modern and westernised; however, there is a hidden aspect of misrepresentations of women that are hidden from the viewer. As women are depicted to be tough, such as in the Lady vengeance, in Park Chan-wook film, this representation is just but a spectacle in the film. Women are just images, often depicted as ‘the other‘ men (Chang & Kim, 2005). They are placed in the films works as images of male desire, to appear beautiful to please the men. Therefore, women are viewed in the Korean culture from the perspective of men. They differ from the typical Confucianism view of women in the manner they have internalised western values and used to make desirable characters in the films (Kim, 2004). This depiction illustrates the role of women as that of being seen rather than being heard; they are just mere images in the films’ characters. 

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Women are rarely a subject of the films since they lack voice and the consequent subjectivity. This unconsciousness of Korean culture has been brought forth in the character of women in the films since the 1950s to the 1990s (Kim, 2004). Gaze and subjectivity are presented even when the film has a strong female protagonist. This reduces the character of women in the film to that of a spectacle, to gaze. This can be seen in the male control of the Camera, which renders the role of the woman as passive while that of men is positioned as active as a voyeur (Chang & Kim, 2005). The controlling gaze in the film production and reception often subjects the role of women to be passive in terms of the controlling gaze of the spectator and the controller of the camera. Women lack their own gaze in the films and are left to follow orders. Although female character appears decisive and strong, they are yet to be presented as a full-fledged human agency since they still appear as mere spectacles in the films. They do not have their gaze, a speaking voice or even their own desire (Chang & Kim, 2005). These films depict women as an internal colony where women characters have a colonial ambivalence of envy and hatred towards men (Chang & Kim, 2005). When women are depicted as a strong and decisive character, they tend to mimic the strong gender which in this case is men (Hoffman, 1995). The weaker envying and mimicking the powerful in order to seem more power is a sign of internal colonialism that is a prominent in the women roles in Korean film starting from the 1950s to the 1990s (Howson et al., 2015). The self-identity of the women or their voice is concealed in preference for the coloniser’s ideals.

Director Chan-wook Park films depict social and economic divisions that are ingrained in the South Korean Society. Men roles, such as Ryu in the film Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, is seen struggling to find money for his sister’s kidney transplants. He sells his kidney only to be conned. He ends kidnapping a wealthy man’s daughter, and the kidnap turns tragic when the kidnapped woman drowns and dies. Despair sets in when the wealthy businessman seeks vengeance eventually killing Ryu’s girlfriend. The transformation of South-Korean in the post-war era is laden with struggles with men working long hours that cannot even support their need or even afford medical care. The economic boom witnessed in the Korean in the 1980s and 1990s is not spread inequality in the society, leading to class struggles that breed crime on the part of men characters and despair and trauma for the women characters in Chan-wook Park’s films. Men roles are vulnerable in their roles while women appear strong, dutiful and resilient in their characters’ roles. Failure of the man to fulfil his role as the provider of the family is the source of strife and trauma and a string of despair witnessed in most families. For example, in the film, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, a father loses a job, leading to one family committing group suicide (Howson et al., 2015). Men kill with the intention to liberate themselves economically. For example, in Lady Vengeance, an English teacher preys a rich family, killing the children and still demands ransom from the distraught family. Graphic violence perpetrated by men is a common feature throughout Park’s work. The depictions of pain and violence in Park’s film may stem from the experiences of the directors’ own experiences during the military dictatorship where student demonstrations were met by brutal force. Poverty through the lack of income and by the men leads to a spiral of crimes and murder in the Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. Men are painted as cruel and are active role players in kidnap, murder, incest, and rape. 

Lee Chang-dong has been one of the prominent architects of the Korean film industry. In film Green Fish (1997), the directors immerse the audience in sexual politics where the protagonist, Mak-dong, is beaten when taking a train home by a group of guys he finds chastising a girl. The film seeks to place the role of the women in the Korean society as being low, to be degraded and treated as a subject by the male fiefdom (Howson et al., 2015). Still, in the film, the protagonist’s mother is degraded as a domestic worker while the daughter is referred as the sleazy cafe hostess. This role aligns with the long-held Confucianism that is inalienable to the Korean Culture, even after the film industry has apparently been influenced by the western culture. The role of men as depicted in the film Green Fish (1997) is that of the breadwinner as evident in the role Mak-dong plays. Just as in the other films in Korea, women lack a voice in the film. Their role is subservient to men’s role and is passive rather than active characters in the films. The character of the woman in the films is told from the male character perspective. For example, in Lee’s Sophomore feature, Peppermint Candy, the audience learns of Yong-ho’s sweetheart Sun-im who is likened to a girl the male character accidentally shoots to death at Kwangju. Men role in Lee Peppermint Candy is assumed to be violent in nature especially towards women and to each other. Mak-dong encounters a gang of men who he chastises for hitting an innocent girl. In return, the group of guys beats up Mak-dong for chastising them. Later, Mak-dong is humiliated in a quarry by a group of men. Women role is subservient and passive to that of their dominant male counterpart underlining the influence of Confucianism in the Korean film industry. Lee first two films have been criticised for their cursory representations of women. As demonstrated in Secret Sunshine, Lee’s film like other Korean films paints the role of women in traumatic conditions which demonstrates as the human agency that faces the horrors (Chang & Kim, 2005). This is demonstrated by the deceptively plain style teetering between horror and tragicomedy as a newly widowed mother, Lee Shin-ae car breaks down on her way to Milyang (“Secret sunshine”). In Peppermint Candy, a girl is repeatedly raped leading her to take her own life. In all women, depicted in Lee’s films there is the association of trauma. In the gender roles tragedy and despair underlines the main themes of Lee’s film.  

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In Lee’s film Peppermint Candy, the remasculinisation of Korean cinema is seen in the narcissistic, emasculate and traumatised character Yong-ho who is not capable of engaging the forces of modernity. Instead of men adapting to change, they are damaged and consumed by it. In the scene where Yong-ho rejects Sun-im and the gift of the camera, we see him beginning the long descent into oblivion and he finally commits suicide (Yecies & Shim, 2015). Lee’s film places aggressive roles on male characters where they commit murder and later subject them to self-reflection which leads them to sink to despair and eventually commit suicide. Unlike men, women are able to show strength in trauma, but whenever men are faced with self-reflection and despair they commit suicide (Chang & Kim, 2005). Men are consumed by their own engagement in aggressive behaviour. However, the aggressive nature that the male characters demonstrate in Director Lee’s films is perpetuated by the legacy of the dictatorship which he again leaves the men to deal with the trauma they met on their victims. The failure of men in their roles which are weak demonstrates the lack of support from the South Korean society and their aggressive and malevolent roles are not the only one to be blamed (Howson et al., 2015). Men are not able to endure the pain and the need for forgiveness for the aggressiveness, conditions that overwhelm Yong-ho in his entire life (Chang & Kim, 2005). 

Conclusion

Men roles are shaped by their attempts to alleviate pain where they end up being alcoholics and womanisers. However, at the end, all the displacement activities fail them and in an attempt to return to innocence they self-destruct. Men suffer in their aim to achieve economic dominance that makes them exercise power over others. In green Fish, for example, Mak-dong, forcibly buys a run-down factory from its owner who he claims insulted him as a child. Economic hardship reverses the roles of genders in Lee’s film, peppermint candy where even after Yong-ho becomes a successful businessman ends up sleeping in a slum on the outskirts of Seoul. In conclusion, men have an active role in most the films, whereas women roles are relegated to passive roles as images in the films. Where women have an active role in the film, it is usually to provide a melodrama on the reversed role of the genders. The strength of a woman in the characters of the films is viewed from the men’s perspective. This is in line with the South Korean long history of Confucianism that relegates woman less fledged human agency. 

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  1. Abelmann, Nancy and Kathleen McHugh (eds)., 2005. South Korean Golden Age Melodrama: Gender, Genre, and National Cinema. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
  2. Hoffman, Diane M., 1995. Blurred Genders: The Cultural Construction of Male and Female in South Korea,” Korean Studies 19.
  3. Chang, P., Kim, E -S. 2005. Women’s Experiences and Feminist Practices in South Korea. Seoul: Ewha Womans University Press.
  4. Howson, Richard, Yecies, Brian. 2015. Korean Cinema’s Female Writers–Directors and the Hegemony of Men. Gender, rovné příležitosti, výzkum, 16(1), pp. 14-22. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.13060/12130028.2015.16.1.167. 
  5. Kim, K.H., 2004. The remasculinization of Korean cinema, Asia-Pacific. Duke University Press, Durham. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004.
  6. Chung, S., 2008. Sin Sang-ok and Postwar Korean Mass Culture. Irvine: University of California, 2008; dissertation.
  7. Taylor-Jones, K. 2013. Rising Sun, Divided Land: Japanese and South Korean Filmmakers. New York: Columbia University Press. doi:10.7312/tayl16586 
  8. Yecies, B., Shim, A., 2015. The changing face of Korean Cinema: 1960 to 2015, The Changing Face of Korean Cinema: 1960 to 2015. Taylor and Francis Inc. doi:10.4324/9781315886640
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