Alison Peirse, Daniel Martin, eds. Korean Horror Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. xv + 240 pp. BP 19.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7486-4309-7; BP 70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7486-4310-3.
Reviewed by Irhe Sohn (University of Michigan)
Published on H-Asia (April, 2015)
Commissioned by Douglas Slaymaker (University of Kentucky)
The title of this volume edited by Alison Peirse and Daniel Martin, Korean Horror Cinema, immediately suggests two questions: What is horror cinema? and, what is Korean about Korean horror cinema? Instead of giving definitive answers, the editors and contributors to Korean Horror Cinema bring to the fore the diversity that unfolds before the eyes of audiences in this flexible genre. Editors Peirse and Martin suggest in their introduction that their purpose is to understand Korean films “within specific cycles of production rather than simply as part of a homogenous horror film genre” (p. 3).
This not only reframes our previous understanding of what constitutes a genre but also offers a fresh way to examine genre in South Korean contexts. For example, contributors to the volume locate recurring motifs of Korean horror cinema--wonhon (a spirit with ressentiment), foxes with nine tails (or gumiho in Korean), apartment horror, and high-school horror--that can each justifiably be located within their own historical contexts without being measured according to the Procrustean bed of the horror genre’s universal norms. Moreover, thinking about horror cinema through different cycles allows us to explore the broader implications of the affects and effects of horror cinema. Mark Morris discusses anticommunist war movies, which do not look like horror movies on the surface, as the effect of war-horror; Korean horror movies from different cycles can be examined through effects of close-up shots of faces, as in David Scott Diffrient’s analysis.
Given this reframing of Korean horror cinema, the editors collect fourteen different and unique cycles into three larger parts titled “Classic Korean Horror,” “Contemporary ‘Domestic’ Horror,” and “Contemporary ‘International’ Horror.” Most readers in the English-speaking world may be more familiar with films discussed in part 3 (“Contemporary ‘International’ Horror”). This section comprises five chapters: Daniel Martin on film director Ahn Byung-ki as a auteur of “Asian horror”; Robert L. Cagle on the Victorian sense of A Tale of Two Sisters (2003); Leung Wing-Fai on textual differences between A Tale of Two Sisters and its US remake The Uninvited (2009); Iain Robert Smith on Oldboy (2003) and its Indian remake Zinda (2006); and Kyu Hyun Kim on Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (2009).
If part 3 explores the global circulation of Korean horror cinema, parts 1 and 2 of Korean Horror Cinema urge us to turn our eyes to what happened, and is happening, with the horror genre in South Korea. Contributors to part 2 discuss the effect and affect of horror in contemporary Korea through five different cycles of horror: Yun Mi Hwang on horror films combined with historical drama; Hye Seung Chung on Acacia (2003) and a family anxiety stemming from adoption; Nikki J. Y. Lee on apartment horror; David Scott Diffrient on affective representation of faces in Korean horror films; and Chi-Yun Shin on high-school horror.
Readers will also appreciate part 1, which traces the genealogy of the horror genre in South Korean film history since the 1960s. It expands our knowledge to the “classical” Korean horror movies that Western audiences might never have known without these chapters. Hyangjin Lee finds that figures of the wonhon in 1960s South Korean cinema represent a crisis of family ideology and the patriarchal social norm; Alison Peirse and James Byrne follow a trajectory of gumiho from 1960s Korean movies to contemporary media; Mark Morris unpacks the effect and affect of war-horror; Eunha Oh engages the monster-mother figure in Korean horror films with Barbara Creed’s notion of the “monstrous feminine.”
As I turn to the index section in order to determine the commensurability of the range of Korean horror cinema that each contributor to this volume seeks to address, I realize how difficult and problematic it is to account for the “Koreanness” of Korean horror cinema. With terms denoting cinematic and technological quality, such as melodrama and flashback sequences, cultural specificities of Korean horror cinema are identified with terms like Confucianism and shamanism. Of course, this list does not represent the entire volume with its different perspectives and methods, nor am I attempting to flatten such diversity. Still, I would like to return to the question of what is Korean about Korean horror cinema and consider what is represented or implied by the use of such terms.
It is melodrama that is most indexed throughout the volume, appearing in eight essays out of fourteen. Notably, Korean horror cinema actively engages with emotional crises prompted by the pressure of dominant social values, using these as sources of horror. In many Korean horror movies, pathos-filled female ghosts return to the world that oppressed and repressed them, seeking revenge or reconciliation. They are represented as victims of South Korea’s competitive educational system (as evinced in Chi-Yun Shin’s chapter on high-school horror) or patriarchal family relations.
In some chapters of this volume--mostly in part 1, “Classic Korean Horror”--it is Confucianism, indexed eleven times in five chapters, that represents the patriarchal oppression against women. According to these chapters, the Confucianist idea of gender inequality is tested, or sometimes reinforced, in Korean horror movies by female ghosts who do not conform to the patriarchal gender hierarchy, or to put it differently, the Lacanian Law of the Father.
While such a “traditional” order must have affected many people’s imagination of horror, it remains unclear to what extent Confucianism differs from the generic understanding of the patriarchy in Korean movies that stage the suffering of the female ghost-turned victims. The problem is that, in fact, South Korean horror cinema has been saturated with different “traditions” since the 1960s, and a more nuanced understanding of its imagination of horror is required to appreciate the heterogeneity that it reveals. For example, A Devilish Homicide (1965) transcends a traditional and popular motif of the conflict between mother-in-law (siŏmŏni) and daughter-in-law (myŏnŭri), which is often understood as evincing the Confucianist son-preference ideology. From Confucianism and Buddhism to Hollywood and Japanese horror cinema, the film voraciously collects all of these different elements into this story: the Western-style depiction of a portrait melting down as a sign of the haunting ghosts, the daughter-in-law ghost in a white gown (the very traditional image of Korean female ghosts) sucking blood like a vampire, and the possessed cat (an apparition popular in Japanese folk tales). With this heterogeneity embedded in the text, can we still single out Confucianism as the sole source of oppression? Aren’t there other social relations or ideological constructs that engender the horror imagination?
Kyu Hyun Kim offers a pungent criticism against such a culturalist assumptions. He writes in his chapter on Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (2009): “To be blunt, much of what a fair number of (non-Korean and a surprising number of Korean) critics assume to be ‘foreign’ or ‘fictive’ elements in Park’s works is ‘Korean’ and ‘realistic’, entirely commensurate with the actual lived experiences and histories of the Korean people. This is as true of their characters, narratives and production details as of their themes and ideas” (p. 201). In my understanding, what he labels “internalised exoticism” applies to the culturalist assumption that gravitates toward Confucianism. It reiterates the binary between the West and the Korean by pushing both to the opposite sides, while as a result flattening the dynamic processes of the formation of Korean horror cinema.
In this regard, chapters by Yun Mi Hwang and Iain Robert Smith provide two alternatives to the culturalist approach to Korean horror cinema: historicizing and intra-Asian, respectively. In her chapter on Shadows in the Palace (2007), Yun Mi Hwang traces the trajectories of Korean horror movies both synchronically and diachronically, rejecting the idea that the history of Korean horror cinema is simply marked by discontinuity. In writing about the specific genre she calls “heritage horror,” which combines the horror genre with period drama, she successfully argues that the horror imagination of 1960s Korean movies is resuscitated and rearticulated to accommodate contemporary audience expectations. In considering a narrative that could easily be read in Confucianist terms, she chooses instead to approach its representation of distorted maternity in a royal palace from the shifting imagination of history, tradition, and the genre.
Iain Robert Smith’s chapter on a Bollywood remake of Oldboy (2003) suggests another way to contextualize Korean horror cinema. While it may sound banal to emphasize the transnational exchange that contemporary cinema embodies, what Smith means by “transnational” brings us to the very vibrant (yet invisible to those focused on the East-West binary and their border-crossing) phenomena that take place among Asian locales, namely intra-Asian or inter-Asian connections. What makes fresh and provocative his analysis of three different versions of Oldboy in different cultural and media settings is his focus on “shared elements which are retained,” rather than their immediately recognizable differences (p. 191). Prompting us to delve into “the more complicated transnational dimensions at play,” Smith’s account of the intra-Asian connections in the global genre of horror renews our understanding of the genre’s transnationalism by diversifying points of reference (p. 189).
Overall, Korean Horror Cinema proves to be an important scholarly contribution to Korean cinema studies in the English-speaking world. It lays the groundwork for future research of Korean horror cinema as well as horror genre studies in general. In fact, cultural assumptions regarding Korean cinema and culture, which I discussed here, are to a certain degree unavoidable, but we must keep addressing the issue to find a way to resolve it. In this sense, this volume does represent, with each compelling and provocative chapter, one such attempt to re-articulate Korean horror cinema. It is an important scholarly effort and collaboration on this topic.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-asia.
Irhe Sohn. Review of Peirse, Alison; Martin, Daniel, eds., Korean Horror Cinema.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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