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South Korean film genres and art-house anti-poetics: Erasure and Negation in the power Kangwon Province.

At the end of Les Mots et les choses, his breathtaking tour through four centuries worth of epistemological structures and institutional practices, Michel Foucault ruminates on the possible outcome of the modern episteme. Since the nineteenth-century, "man" has been veering inexorably towards an ontological crisis in which his status as biological, economic, and philological actor has become obsolescent, eclipsed by the organizing principles comprising objective language. Just as the various classificatory schemas undergirding the rule-bound "soft sciences" (psychology, sociology and cultural history) reconfigured the vestiges of earlier epistemological structures, from the resemblance systems of Renaissance thought to Classical modes of representation, so too is knowledge "as we know it" faced with its own imminent negation. The final paragraphs of Foucault's text thus recast his earlier arguments about the recent invention of "man" in a grim, premonitory pallor, and speak of humankind being erased "like a f ace drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea." (1) Near the beginning of Hong Sang-soo's cryptic film The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), a seemingly trivial scene lends visual texture to this idea of erasure. Not long after her arrival to the Korean seaside resort Kangwon-do, Chi-suk, a twenty-two year-old college student, accompanies her schoolmates to a beach where she bends down and casually draws something in the sand. Perhaps her sketch is a message, a signature, maybe even a Foucauldian face awaiting its salty demise. Or perhaps it is simply an empty gesture, a mindless doodle to kill time. The ambiguity of her textual inscription is left intact thanks to the static camera's emphatic detachment from the proceedings. Should we construe this mark, this semiological riddle, as a new wrinkle in the fabric of post-structuralist subjectivity, an already poignant if quietly understated beach scene is unexpectedly imbued with significance--manifesting some of the textual and industrial tensions unique to a n ow-internationally acclaimed and generically promiscuous South Korean cinema through an act of erasure. Before the breaking surf rolls in to dissolve the sand-script, Chi-suk wipes away the image, robbing the spectator of a glimpse into this character's troubled psyche while setting an early precedent for other enigmatic, quickly erased compositions throughout the film.

This essay proposes a set of hypotheses around this fleeting moment in The Power of Kangwon Province, which not only foregrounds erasure as a kind of self-effacing authorial prerogative but also highlights an ostensibly non-generic "art-house" film's implicit connection to genre. Indeed, taken as an example of the categorical impetus and imagery undergirding Foucault's text (tables, grids, classificatory charts, etc--all of which contribute to the experience of order, which is "the writing of history itself"), The Power of Kangwon Province offers an illuminating case study of generic inversion at the end of the twentieth century. After contextualizing the film with reference to the industry's millennial drive toward genre diversification, I examine the many instances of erasure (both literal and figurative) throughout the film in hopes of pinpointing some of the thematic preoccupations of Hong Sang-soo. Hong is a filmmaker whose own authorial inclination throughout his seven-year directing and screenwriting c areer appears to be linked to graphological tropes (retracing and erasing) and the questioning of empirical knowledge, as well as the possibility of rendering positive the power of negation. Running parallel to the frequent moments of literal erasure in his films is the director's gravitation toward the "rubbing out" of generic taxonomies. By sprinkling semantic cues and iconographic elements throughout his texts only to blot them out in the end, Hong is able to subtly demonstrate the presence of absence (and vice-versa).

At first glance, the four films thus far comprising Hong's oeuvre have little in common with South Korea's mainstream, genre-based productions. The Day a Pig Fell into a Well (1996), The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), and Turning Gate (2002) appear to be the minimalistic antitheses of such films as Shin (1999), Friend (2001), Champion (2002), and YMCA Baseball Team (2002), 50 ensconced are the former in the niche market logic of film festival distribution that any attempt to align them with escapist blockbusters, gangster epics, biopics, and sports dramas is met with skepticism. Certainly, The Power of Kangwon Province, a personal project undertaken by a director known for his enigmatic yet stripped-down narratives and preference for neo-realistic location-shooting and non-professional actors, would seem to rebuke the formulaic constraints of commercial flimmaking. One of the goals of this essay is to cast in relief the problematic nature of such "either/or" binarism once mainstream genre produ ctions and art-house "boutique" fare begin to slip from their antagonistically aligned positions and are shown to be in dialogue (if not communion) with one another. The Power of Kangwon Province alone dips into the semantic pools of the family melodrama, the murder mystery, the detective film, the police procedural, the buddy film, the youthpic, and the travelogue. Understood as a non-generic genre text, this ultimately deconstructive film is an exemplary manifestation of "negative genrification," inviting viewers to adopt alternative reading positions vis-a-vis Korea's fin-de-siecle film renaissance--an admittedly unusual petition for a film that presumably falls outside the purview of genre studies.

Cinematic Signatures and the Difficulties of Naming

Just as his films frustrate knee-jerk summarizations, so too is Hong Sang-soo a decidedly difficult figure to pin down. Having earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the California College of Arts and a Masters from the Art Institute of Chicago, this self-proclaimed "anti-nationalist" is at once the most cosmopolitan or worldly of filmmakers as well as the "most Korean"--an insular wonder whose ear for the comic inflections, tautological wordplay, and slip-pages of meaning unique to his native language match his ability to distill parochial mannerisms, city rhythms and quotidian details into a profound meditation on "saenghwal ui balgyon" ("the discovery of everyday life"--a more accurate Anglicization of the original title for Turning Gate). One of the many examples of Hong's unsurpassed command of verbal puns and double meanings occurs during the above-mentioned beach scene in The Power.... When Chi-suk and her friends Mi-son and Un-kyong sing a Korean version of "My Darling Clementine," a question abou t the lyrics arises. Singing part of a stanza that in English would read, "You are lost and gone forever," the girls stumble upon a linguistic discrepancy, and debate whether the Korean lyrics should be "Yongyong odil gatnuya" ("Forever gone where") or "Nonun odil gatnuya" ("You are gone where"). Because the subject-pronoun is inessential to and variable in Korean sentences--not linguistically pinned to either "he" or "she," "you" or "I"--their question is rendered moot and sent sliding down the slippery slope of subjectivity. Rather than pursue that question into a signifying pit, the girls wisely segue to a Korean song--"Arumdaun gusok" ("Beautiful Imprisonment")--whose lyrics are written in a songbook. This scene emphasizes the sense of forgetfulness, disagreement, and absence that will hereafter permeate the film. Moreover, it gestures toward other linguistic ruptures and moments of communication breakdown, subtly underscoring how a subject can get lost in a thicket of connotative intricacies and identifi catory uncertainties. The slipperiness of selfhood and the ontological trickiness of naming--themes pivotal to Hong's oeuvre--are comically conveyed in an ensuing scene, when the young women meet an awkward policeman from the district who tells a corny joke. Referring to the "musso" (hippopotamus) hood-ornament adorning many Korean RVs, the cop asks, "Do you know why the small figure is there [on the automobile]?" His punchline--"To remind [the vehicle] that it is a hippopotamus in case it forgets its name"--prompts us to consider other markers of identity throughout a film which both frustrates yet demands generic classification.

Eager to slap a name on Hong's work, Western critics often resort to pulling out analogies from their Crayola boxes of international cinema. While there is an obvious affinity between Hong's modernist aesthetic and that of his European and American forebears--whether it's the austerity of Robert Bresson, the catatonic romanticism of Michelangelo Antonioni, or the hangdog longueurs of Jim Jarmusch--over-emphasis on Western precedents and stylistic traditions threatens to undermine the indigenous character and local flavors of his films. Though I myself detect similarities between Hong's densely-woven narratives and the work of Alan Rudolph at his best (in particular, Welcome to L.A., a bicentennial rondo filled with cheating spouses and self-absorbed artists that conjures The Day a Pig Fell into the Well in both its spirit of minutia and free-floating, multi-character plot), I will be the first to admit that little of substantive weight can be derived from such a comparison if it is not historically grounded. Cross-cultural comparisons should be done not to validate a filmmaker's status as a new torchbearer in the high modernist tradition, but rather as an opportunity to expand pre-existing critical paradigms of authorship and genre while moving beyond the rigid strictures of nationalism and ideological hermeticism. If not encyclopedically steeped in the history of international cinema, Hong knows his Bunuel from his Lynch, and can insert a dream sequence into a narrative (as in The Day...) that would make either of these two cine-surrealists proud. But how do we make sense of such allusions? If indeed The Virgin... is Bressonian in its mise-en-scenic precision, Rashomonic in its questioning of the camera-eye's claim to truth, then shouldn't the politics of transnational appropriation be contextually analyzed? What can be made of the blatant, titular reference to a John Cheever short story in The Day...; or of the ironic usage, in The Power..., of Lou Reed's already cynical single "Perfect Day" as diegetic musical commentary? We might question the significance of Scott Nearing, an American pacifist who lived over a hundred years only to commit suicide in the end and whose paperback autobiography Kyong-su, the main character in Turning Gate, is immersed in. These are but a handful of instances in which traces of non-Korean culture bob to the surface of intrinsically Korean texts. If indeed Hong's films invite cross-cultural comparisons, then we should be prepared to engage their narrative structures, thematic motifs and stylistic patterns on their own generically promiscuous terms.

With the exceptions of Im Kwon-t'aek (a one-man institution in Korea and the first to generate a book-length auteurist study in the West) and Chang Sun-woo (the iconoclastic subject of Tony Rayns' 2001 digital documentary), no other Korean director has earned such international prestige. (2) Hong Sang-soo is typically portrayed as the posterboy of Korean art cinema whose work, though sometimes disparaged by the general populace at home, is the toast of film festivals throughout Asia, North America and Europe. From Cannes to Montreal, in the pages of Film Comment and Cinema Scope, his works are lauded for their nuance and emotional shading as well as their narrative sophistication. Of the director's four films, his second feature, The Power..., is the most complex and enigmatic, perhaps the summation of Hong's storytelling art, distilling persistent themes into one supremely crafted work whose mysteries deepen with each viewing. Indeed, "storytelling" appears to be one of the principal themes of his work. As a filmmaker who once compared the act of making a film to diary-writing, Hong draws liberally from literary traditions and foregrounds the narrative speech-act through chapter-titles and the embedding of stories within stories. Such literary aspirations might seem at odds with the representational modes unique to film, but in fact they allow him to unravel cinema-specific paradigms, such as the medium's chronotopic density, while lending structure to decentred stories perforated by disruption, indeterminacy, and multiplicity.

But for all its narrative sophistication, The Power...'s underlying story is deceptively simple: As the Celsius soars and Seoulites leave their sweltering city in droves for more provincial ports of call, three female college students set off for Kangwon-do, a mountainous region stretching along the northeastern coast of South Korea. Of the three young women, Chi-suk takes centre-stage in the narrative. With more than just relaxation on her mind, Chi-suk uses this trip as an opportunity to banish memories of her previous lover, a married college lecturer named Sang-kwon, from her disconsolate heart. The aftershock of their breakup threatens to derail her happiness, even after she falls into the arms of a policeman from Kangwon-do--another married man who helps the three girls procure a room at a private house. They all get drunk on the eve of their return to Seoul, and later the policeman tries to have sex with Chi-suk. Back in the thriving smog-choked metropolis, an indecisive Chi-suk receives counsel from U n-kyong, who is not able to deter her friend from returning to Kangwon-do for a rendezvous with the policeman. Their second one-night-stand is as alcoholdrenched as their first, and about as fulfilling--culminating with another failed attempt by the cop to have early morning sex with Chi-suk in a hotel room. The hopelessness of the situation sends Chi-suk back once again to Seoul by bus, this time in tears.

Thanks to the vagaries of episodic narrativity, Chi-suk herself is susceptible to erasure and, by the forty-two minute mark, her story gives way to that of her ex-lover, Sang-kwon, who will be the main character throughout the second half of the film. Once the narrative concerning the young woman grinds to a halt, the film recommences abruptly in another bus, where the male protagonist sits. Unlike Chisuk, Sang-kwon, a man in his late thirties who divides his time between office work and teaching duties at a local university, does not seem to be harboring any resentment. Although he channels his time and energy toward establishing tenure, he seems to lack the drive and initiative necessary to gain permanent footing in academia (though he is not above bribes and unethical tactics in order to land the desired position). He and his friend Chae-wan, a tenured professor a few years his junior, take a weekend trip to Kangwon-do for a momentary break from job and family. A scene from the first half of the film, in w hich passengers are shown sardine-packed in a train compartment, is repeated from a reverse angle, indicating that Sang-kwon and Chi-suk are on the same train. However, their paths do not cross, as might be expected, but remain parallel. Only at the end of the film, after Sang-kwon has returned home to Seoul and won a position as professor at Ch'unch'on University, do the two meet again. Their empty and loveless reunion is dampened by her confession that she recently had an abortion--a remark that calls into question her activities in Kangwondo. Cynically muttering, "Don't worry...It wasn't your baby," Chi-suk hints that she did have sex with the policeman. Though she is now unable to have intercourse, she satiates Sang-kwon's selfish needs through fellatio. The emotional vacuity of this scene, plus the film's curtain-closing emphasis on abortion, cyclically gestures to Chi-suk's first act of negation on the beach, where she wiped away a sandy hieroglyph drawn in a dreamily vacant state.

The above description of the narrative does little to indicate its generic affiliations. Nor does it convey the depth of Hong's "anti-poetics," in which incidental occurrences play out in extreme long shots and characters appear only to disappear unexpectedly. By not italicizing plot details, Hong places an unusual amount of confidence in the spectator's imagination. An example of this occurs in Sang-kwon's narrative, when he and his friend encounter an attractive woman walking alone through the woods. Mistakenly thinking that she is "available," Sang-kwon pursues her--an act that ultimately upsets her male traveling companion and likely leads to her murder. The death of the woman, which occurs offscreen, is a genre element (related to the murder mystery) that is treated impartially and indirectly by the filmmaker, who is more concerned with the quiet dementia leading up to such physical acts of violence.

South Korean Film Genres

As in other national contexts, genres function primarily in South Korea as promotional categories, and thus have as much to do with marketing strategies as they do with critical concepts. The heightened recognition of genre as an unspoken contract between audiences and film companies says a lot about the Ch'ungmuro industry's attempts to forge a reception apparatus through self-definitions. Product differentiation has spawned some unusual neologisms in recent years. Chang Yun-hyon's Tell Me Something (2000), for instance, was marketed by Koo & Cee Film as "hard gore"--a "new" genre that telescoped pornography and the splatter film. Ardor (2002), Pyon Yong-ju's mainstream follow-up to her celebrated "Comfort Woman Trilogy," was promoted by its producers not simply as a melodrama, but as a "passionate melodrama" ("kyokjong melo"), a nomenclature that seemed to implicate the filmmaker's gender and sensitivity to the spectatorial desires of the film's largely female audience. And in one of the most politically (i n)correct, ideologically suspect maneuvers, Kim Tae-sung's Bungee Jumping on their Own (2001) was labeled as both a "soulmate film" and a "fusion love story" so as to counter accusations that the narrative's same-sex love story was more homoerotic than universal (the filmmakers, in tempering the film's queer sensibilities, were obviously trying to eke out a wider audience for this marketing nightmare).

The last three years have seen the emergence of new generic dominants in the industry, from the ubiquitous "Chop'ok" or gangster drama (Die Bad [2000], Failan [2001], Friend) to a post-World Cup batch of sports films (Champion, YMCA Baseball Team). While they reverberate with the current cultural zeitgeist of renewed masculinity, these internationally distributed films suggest that the South Korean film industry has grown from a burgeoning contender to a heavyweight champion in the East Asian market. Film parody is only the most recent manifestation of genre diversification, and has proven to be fertile ground for up-and-coming directors, based on the box-office success of Kim Sangjin's Kick the Moon (2001) and Chang Kyu-song's Funny Movie (2002)--the latter a virtual compendium of intertextual references and in-jokes that waggishly rewards the audience's familiarity with genre conventions. Though, on the surface, the two are as similar as rubber chickens and real elephants, The Power of Kangwon Province shar es with Funny Movie a deconstructive impulse--a critical engagement with genrification as process. While Chang's parodic text accomplishes this by making overt comic allusions to Sopyonje (1993), Contact (1997), Whispering Corridors (1998), No. 3 (1999), Shin, Attack the Gas Station (1999), Lies (1999), Nowhere to Hide (1999), Joint Security Area (2000), and numerous other films in staccato fashion, Hong's satirizes the industrial standards of contemporary cinematic praxis in a more languorous, deceptive, and ambiguous way. If Funny Movie operates according to the positive logic of accretion, then The Power... operates according to the negative logic of depletion.

In The Power..., genre depletion is linked to textual negation. As critical concepts relevant to everything from social theory and literary studies to macroeconomics, negation and negativity have filtered into western academia over the past four decades through the writings of such far-flung theorists as Theodor Adorno, Stephen Heath, and Slavoj Zizek. For Heath, negativity is a potentially transgressive force at the heart of Hollywood's classically constructed "narrative space," one that enables and contains yet emerges from a "realist" text's illusionism; whereas in Adorno's Negative Dialectics it has come to both represent and contest the post-Cold War gravitation toward multinational capitalism. Giving the term a slightly different shading, Zizek's Tarrying with the Negative posits it as a form of radical post-Marxist social antagonism. But for all of its sundry uses and miscellaneous meanings, the negative has become one of the guiding principles for disarticulating the hegemonic "order of things" in the post-'68 era of shattered ideals--an era in which most possibilities of radical change (social, political, ideological) have been exhausted. Hong Sang-soo, an ostensibly "apolitical" filmmaker, ironically engages history by turning away from it, by pushing it to the margins of the frame and dealing with its psychological fallout head-on. Hong is interested in the concreteness of life, the material things that congeal around a person and delimit his or her intellectual, emotional and interpersonal maturation. The dueling desires to leach away and to leave intact the residual effects of this fallout is allegorically alluded to in one of the many curious passages of dialogue in The Power...: Taking a break from hiking, Sang-kwon informs Chae-wan how to wash his body. Going against hygienic reason, he tells his friend that he need only take a bath twice a month. It is good for the body to build up dead skin, which can then be scraped away (as a snake might slither out of its skin). This "ttae," or epidermal resi due, which connotes the middle-class male protagonist's susceptibility to corruption and cowardliness, rests on negation and is similar to the mantra-like expression spoken throughout Hong's Turning Gate: "It's difficult being human, but let's not become monsters." This phrase signifies both the liberatory and imprisoning facets of the negative ("let's not") even as its arbitrary and meaningless repetition turns speech into an empty gesture.

The art-house desire to do away with traditional categories and liberate narrative from the straight jacket of convention is destined to fail, for, as Rick Altman has remarked, even "anti-genre romantics could not escape the tyranny of genre history as they sought to destroy generic specificity and with it the weight of the past." (3) This builds on Jacques Derrida's argument that, "Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre...yet such participation never amounts to belonging. And not because of an abundant overflowing or a free, anarchic, and unclassifiable productivity, but because of the trait of participation itself." (4) We find in Derrida's words the very crux of Hong's cinema: participation, a decidedly positive and playful upshot of the negative. Despite its dinosaur status, genre has survived into the postmodern era--a period when canonical genres are thought to be anachronistic, outmoded, because they cannot fully contain the textual indeter minacies of contemporary film praxis.

According to Fredric Jameson, "high art" has been historically characterized as the repository of all that is unsaid or repressed by society. Though much the same could be said about "low" or trash art, high modernist cultural productions--of which The Power... is an example--recuperate the signifying impulses which fall outside the domain of genre codification. In his essay, "The Existence of Italy," Jameson argues that a single text can, under fortuitous circumstances, provide a multi-genre microcosm of the ideological tensions at play during a particular historical moment, even as it masks codes of realism through distraction tactics. To illustrate his point, Jameson briefly discusses the MGM Depression-era film After the Thin Man, a 1936 sequel to the popular screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's detective novel The Thin Man. Though After the Thin Man is explicitly affiliated with the already-hybrid form of screwball mystery, a number of other generic traces can be teased from the text, from noir elemen ts to musical motifs, from "white telephone" iconography to Wild West symbiology. But despite its omnibus-like ability to oscillate between distinct generic thresholds, this classical studio-era film "which parades the various genres before us as in a variety show or music hall...has nothing to do in its structure with that transcendence of genre we will observe in nascent sound-film modernism; rather, it remains a specifically generic text, which in the process reinforces the genre system as a whole, as though the formal commitment to any specific genre finally obligated the filmic text to touch bases will all of them, in something like an inversion of what will later be call the auteur theory." (5)

Conversely, The Power of Kangwon Province is a film whose "author" (unlike the director of After the Thin Man, W. S. Van Dyke II) has not slipped into anonymity but rather signifies and constitutes in his own right a cinematic shorthand for recurrent stylistic and thematic motifs. By trotting out various semantic elements only to capsize the ontological basis upon which they are built, Hong's film works as a deconstruction rather than outright repudiation or celebration of the genre system, stripping away the categorical imperatives of genrification while highlighting the spectator's own allegiance to and pleasure in a pre-inscribed system of codes through diegetic acts of authorial erasure and re-inscription. The difficulty in ascribing categorical links to Hong's films derives, ironically, from their already encoded status as "art films," a label which presupposes liberation from a factory-line mode of production yet unimpeachable connection to the name "Hong Sang-soo," a signifier in its own right. With Th e Power..., authorial expressiveness transforms a simple story about ex-lovers into a rumination on repetition and change, two mutually entangled aspects of genre formation.

The film, rather than being handcuffed to any one genre, instead mobilizes and consolidates several generic impulses. In the following paragraphs, I summon some of those impulses, and explain how The Power... both visualizes and erases the foundations of genre in a way that can be likened to "anti-poetics." Just as critic Douglas Winter has argued that the so-called "anti-horror film" is horror in its "purest state," so too does The Power... use genre conventions sub versively, playing against them and going beyond them in search of new epistemological paths. It does this by incorporating anomalous elements that are the generic province of the family melodrama, the buddy film, the murder mystery, the police procedural, the youthpic, and the travelogue.


...Anti-FamlIy Melodrama

According to the Korean Film Archive Internet database (, The Power... falls squarely under the "melodrama" umbrella. However, the film's meager domestic box-office numbers in the spring of 1998 attests to the fact that the film might be labeled a "failed melodrama"--a financially unsuccessful heir apparent to the many classics of the genre, such as Madame Freedom (1956), The Houseguest and My Mother (1961), Bitter Once Again (1968), and Hometown of Stars (1974). (6) Though we might be tempted to brush off its lack of commercial viability as a sign of the film-going public's appetite for big-budget spectacles, I argue that its "failure" in faithfully adhering to the time-honored tropes of melodrama marks a success on the part of Hong Sang-soo in upending the semantic base of Korea's film genre par excellence.

While Hollywood's Eisenhower-era soap-operas typically revolve around upper-middle-class wives and widows trapped in dysfunctional homes, a number of the family melodramas of the Korean Golden Age--such as Shin Sang-ok's Romance Papa (1960) and Kang Dae-jin's Mr. Pak (1960) and The Coachman (1961)--centre on a benevolent patriarch (usually played by Kim Sung-ho) who experiences intense generational and class conflict in the face of modernization. Running parallel to this trend is a strong tradition of maternal melodrama, from Han Hyong-mo's Madame Freedom and Shin Sang-ok's The Houseguest and My Mother to sleeker and more sophisticated updatings such as E J-yong's An Affair (1998) and Chong Chi-u's Happy End (1999). Regardless of their gendered focalizations, practically all Korean melodramas thematize the friction between familial duties and individual desires, usually ending with reconciliation and reaffirmation of the family, a self-sustaining unit whose strength is derived from the members' resistance to outside threats.

Many feminist critics cite Chong So-yong's Bitter Once Again as a prototypical melodrama, a film distantly reminiscent of The Power... insofar as the former similarly fluctuates between male and female subjectivities, between a middle-class married man and his ex-lover who, like Chi-suk, had fallen for a "sonsaengnim" ("teacher"--a term that denotes male intellectual superiority and class status). This woman from the past re-enters his life with an eight-year old illegitimate son in tow. Shame and embarrassments ensue, as the guilt-wracked husband breaks the news to his wife, who years ago had discovered his infidelity through an accidental encounter with the mistress. During their second face-to-face confrontation, the two women negotiate custody of the son. Competition or rivalry between the wife and the mistress is a fundamental component of numerous Korean melodramas, from Shin Sang-ok's Romance Gray (1963) to Kim Ki-yong's "Housemaid" trilogy (1960/1971/1982). This component is omitted from The Power.... At no point in the film do the two women presumably vying for Sang-kwon's love ever meet. Nor is Sang-kwon's son a locus around which men and women gather and shed tears. Although Sang-kwon expresses casual affection for his son when he fleetingly appears, the child fails to function as an emotional focus. The missing confrontation between Chi-suk and Sang-kwon's wife, the non-presence of Chi-suk's family, and the absence of a child-centric discourse collectively renovate the family melodrama genre through acts of erasure and negation.

...Anti-Buddy Film

If male-female relations are shown to be in a state of paralysis, then what does the film say of same-sex companionship? Such a rhetorical inquiry forms the thematic core of the genre known as the buddy film, a type of narrative in which private prerogative and individual autonomy give way to usually unselfish, mutually-fulfilling allegiances. The buddy film genre is certainly no stranger to Korean cinema, which has been characterized by feminist critics as virulently misogynous, a boys' club whose control over modes of production and discrimination against women reflects the gender hegemony of a patriarchal society. A short list of films exploring male camaraderie--often to the exclusion or subjugation of women--includes Mandala (1981), Declaration of Fools (1983), Gagman (1988), Chilsu and Mansu (1988), Two Cops (1993), Wild Animals (1997), and Joint Security Area. The everyday world of marriage, income, and familial ties is pushed to the periphery of the buddy universe, which accommodates only those congen ialities that strengthen the fraternal bonds between men. In The Power of Kangwon Province, the relationship between Sang-kwon and Chae-wan initially mimics the buddy formula, depicting a world in which wives and children mean less to men than their loyal business partners and associates. Indeed, if Sang-kwon is attached to anyone besides Chi-suk, then Chae-wan would indeed appear to be that person. Yet the emotional bond between the two is weakened over time, and lack of solidarity exacerbates the sense of personal isolation and egocentric behavior. More than anything, they share a joint narcissism, which underscores the hypocrisy and pettiness of male relationships. Even acts of generosity betray a latent stinginess, as when Chae-wan buys eyedrops for Sang-kwon--not the expensive brand from Japan but the cheap variety from Korea. Later, Sang-kwon, as if to display his seniority and save face, "generously" pays for both a round of drinks and two prostitutes for the evening, but does so in an insulting and co ndescending way that exposes his inferiority complex. In the end, the two men go their separate ways; Chaewan takes the last remaining airplane seat and returns to Seoul while Sang-kwon stays behind in Kangwon-do an extra day.

The Western literary, cinematic and televisual imagination spills over with male duos whose affection for one another endures all challenges and misfortunes, whether in the furnace of war-time battle (as in such classic WWI novels and films as All Quiet on the Western Front and What Price Glory?) or in the interstellar playground of outer space. A list of famous "buddies" would include the Lone Ranger and Tonto; Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday; Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; Poirot and Hastings; Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock; and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The latter duo--nineteenth-century Wyoming outlaws popularized by the eponymous 1969 film directed by George Roy Hill--became permanently ingrained in the spectatorial consciousness as devoted buddies jumping together from a mountain cliff. This stock image of the two friends falling to their possible demise cemented the theme of undying loyalty. When men plummet from great heights in Korean films (for example, a filmmaker's suicidal leap from a highrise at the beginning of Declaration of Fools; or a graphic artist's free-fall from a billboard at the end of Chilsu and Mansu), such moments of peril tend to occur not in tandem but as solo acts of self-destruction, as doomed rituals reflecting the psychological toil that arises in a politically and/or socially repressive climate.

In The Power..., the two so-called buddies are not only afraid of falling (near the craggy summit of Sorak-san, Sang-kwon and Chae-wan sit at a safe distance from the mountain ledge and watch foolhardy tourists testing their mettle near the precipice) but are also mortified by a social phenomenon prevalent among the intellectual and junior-managerial classes--one in which a slide down the promotional ladder is equivalent to losing one's fiscal as well as physical footing in the world. Read outside the generic framework of the buddy film, a brief scene in which Chae-wan boasts about the "anti-slip soles" on his new pair of Nikes would seem extraneous; but when understood as a sign of regressively figured masculinity (implicitly linked to the West), his curious comment gains relevance and unleashes the thematic undertow of a film constantly hovering over images and non-images of falling. Before their ascent up the mountain, Sang-kwon and Chae-wan discuss the cable car's safety, noting an information plaque near the entrance that details the maximum tonnage of the vehicle and the strength of the cable. Their fear of falling from the mountain echoes an earlier scene: After dropping off his application documents at Ch'unch'on University, Sang-kwon encounters a stray dog and is frozen in fear. His timidity stands in marked contrast to the drunken caprices of the fearless cop who hangs precariously from a hotel balcony in an attempt to sober up and have sex with Chi-suk. The "failure" of the film to make good on its promises of generic satisfaction is thus linked to a deficiency in male agency, an impotence on the part of self-centred men who would rather risk losing friendship and romance than face the domestic repercussions and societal backlash of infidelity. Sang-kwon's inability to act upon the world is thus a source rather than a byproduct of the film's abortive claim to genericity. This is perhaps most tellingly evoked in the film's reference to and displacement of tropes central to the "murder mystery" and "poli ce procedural" genres.

...Anti-Murder Mystery and Anti-Police Procedural

Though Hong's detractors sometimes assert that "nothing happens" in his films, even hastily written synopses reveal quite the opposite. Besides the obvious dollops of sex, violence, and alcohol, in both The Day... and The Power... there is a murder, a key ingredient within the mystery and the police procedural genres. However, in The Power..., the question which haunts the narrative--How did the mysterious woman whom Sang-kwon met in Kangwon-do die?--is resolved non-dramatically and ambiguously, thus short-circuiting the audience's expectations. By relegating details about this potentially intriguing and hermeneutically rich source of generic material to the periphery, Hong confounds preconceptions of what constitutes a "strong" narrative (i.e. one organized around a compelling premise and carried through in logical order to its inevitable, yet satisfying denouement).

The murder mystery, one of the perennial genres in American cinema, has become a fixture in recent Korean cinema. Such films as Pak Chol-su's 301/302 (1995), Yu Sang-uk's Mystery of the Cube (1999), Chang Yu-hyon's Tell Me Something, Yi Myong-hyon's Truth Game (2000), Kim Sung-hong's Say Yes (2001), Pae Ch'ang-ho's The Last Witness (2001), and Kang U-sok's Public Enemy (2002) revolve around enigmas--the How, Why and (most importantly) Who behind a murder case. In these and similar whodunits, detectives mobilize an investigative gaze so as to piece together clues that lead to the unmasking of a killer who is revealed at the end. This, the hermeneutic crux of the genre, is notably absent in Hong's film. In an early scene, we hear that there has been an "accident" on the mountain. Someone has fallen off a cliff. A scream was heard, but no witnesses have thus far been found. In Sang-kwon's section of the film, attentive viewers learn that the victim was the same woman he briefly met in Kangwon-do. She was likely murdered by a male companion named Myong-hun, whom Sang-kwon sees in the airport alone. Whether a lover or a husband, Myong-hun is certainly no villainous mastermind but instead another, more troubling archetype: a jealous man pushed too far. Had the Kangwon-do cop not been engaged in a drunken soiree with the girls, he might have participated in the criminal investigation and given the narrative a shot of iconography unique to the murder mystery (in response to the girls' question, "How come you didn't go?" the cop evasively claims that his beat is confined to the village and does not extend to the mountains).

Additionally, had Sang-kwon taken an initiative and reported the crime in person at a local police department, rather than from the comfortable anonymity and distance afforded by the telephone, images associated with the police procedural genre might have entered more fully into the picture. In such films as Two Cops and Nowhere to Hide, male toughness and gut instinct are only partially kept in check by guidelines, procedures, and the need for empirical evidence. The goal of the law enforcement officer in the typical police procedural is to anticipate the motives of criminals and apprehend them before carrying out their nefarious plans. In The Power..., the cop who claims he is not cut out for the job is considering quitting the force (though he does not yet have any plans for the future). This video-game-addicted man does not even carry a gun, saying to Chi-suk and her friends (who question whether he really is a policeman) that he absent-mindedly left it behind. These examples show that men, not women, are the source of a cinematic lack in Hong's universe, and their apprehension in the face of natural and human obstacles provides a basis for generic critique.


The "teenpic," historically cross-pollinated with other genres (such as science fiction and the social-problem film of the 1950s), would seem to have little in common with The Power of Kangwon Province, an adult-oriented "art film" whose thematic concerns are deeply rooted in Korean soil. However, in much the same way Hong's work mobilizes archetypal buddy film motifs only to capsize the very modes of production upon which they are buttressed, semantic details affiliated with the youthpic genre sift into the diegesis and provide yet another opportunity for both textual erasure and generic negation. Though many Hollywood teenpics produced throughout the last five decades revolve around juvenile delinquency and generational angst, they more often than not devolve into frivolous flings on the beach where handsome hunks and Barbie Doll blondes spend their "Endless Summers" and bacchanalian spring breaks. Populating the seashores and shopping malls of these films are Coppertoned teenyboppers, many of whom are play ed by ensemble casts of twentysomethings--actors and actresses whose facial stubble or chest size belie their pubescence. While the iconographic beach setting in The Power of Kangwon Province initially suggests a carefree place for the three young women to frolic about and gaze flirtatiously at the opposite sex, the film departs from the generic coordinates of the youth picture in numerous ways. Not only does it foreground an image of femininity that does not correspond to traditional notions of Korean beauty, but it also robs the potentially liberating seaside backdrop of its erotic intensity. The sparsely populated beach is little more than a lonely vista, a melancholy landscape where one might momentarily reflect on the messiness, not sexiness, of life.

Chi-suk, Mi-son and Un-kyong are far from being the fresh-faced, perpetually convivial schoolmates we have come to expect in the youth picture (which, in South Korean, dates back to the "Yalgae cycle" of films from the late-1960s to the 1980s--a comic series focusing on mischievous yet wholesome youth). To begin with, these childlike, somewhat homely women are college students and, though they are not immune to adolescent fantasies, have much weightier issues on their minds than their American equivalents. Chi-suk, for instance, will have an abortion by the end of the film, and her failure to enter into motherhood not only brings to mind her own absent mother (a staple of the teenpic) but also underscores the moral ambivalence at the heart of a genre that sees its protagonists in a liminal stage of life--as children preparing to have children. Chi-suk is literally caught between teenage dreams and adult responsibilities. When she alludes to her high school years in the scene immediately following their trip t o the beach, she recounts an anecdote about a lovelorn boy who fell from a terrace and was rushed to the hospital. Though it represents the most memorable event in her life, the anecdote will soon be overwritten by the traumatic termination of her pregnancy, an event that Chi-suk hides from her friends. Unlike the gynocentric coming-of-age films produced in Hollywood, The Power... does not paint a rosy image of female bonding and solidarity, but shows interpersonal relations among young women to be lacerated by jealousy and apathy, with occasional flashes of forgiveness to alleviate the bleakness (after a drunken night of bitter tears and brutal honesty, Chi-suk and Mi-son apologize to one another the next morning). The film's honest, underplayed presentation of same-sex companionship paved the way for subsequent Korean anti-teenpics, such as Im Sun-rye's Three Friends (1996) and Chong Chaeun's Take Care of My Cat (2001), the latter a film which similarly charts the interpersonal dynamic between five Inchonit es--high school graduates whose friendship weathers physical, economic and emotional strains against a bleak industrial backdrop.

...Anti-Travel Film

The "travelogue" or "exploration" genre dates back to turn-of-the-century "scenics," early American, French and British non-fiction actualites offering panoramic, sometimes stereoscopic, visions of exotic tourist sites, from Cairo to Shanghai and all points between. From these filmed scenics emerged the lyrical city-symphony film of the 1920s as well as the mountain film" genre that gained popularity in Scandinavia, Italy, France and Germany throughout the ensuing decades. In this latter manifestation, the outdoors provided a pristine if inhospitable landscape to be conquered by daredevil mountaineers. Man's ability to reach the proverbial peak in such films as The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929) and The Ski Chase (1931) denotes a transcendence over awesome elemental forces--one notably absent in The Power of Kangwon Province, which features timid men pitted against a more formidable foe of their own making. Given Hong's penchant for extreme long shots, the settings of his films threaten to dwarf the already s mall characters at every turn. Though the same could be said of other picaresque tales, such as Yi Man-hi's Road to Sampo (1975), Pae Ch'ang-ho's Whale Hunting (1984), Yo Kyun-dong's Out of the World (1994), or any number of films made by elder statesman Im Kwon-t'aek which similarly revolve around men and women searching for personal and artistic meaning in natural environments, the erasure of tourist attractions in Hong's films marks a significant break from the past and stymies the spectatorial drive toward all things exotic.

As denoted by the title, at least half of Hong's film is set in Kangwon-do. With its combination of craggy highlands, radiant beaches and spiritual sanctuaries, Kangwon-do provides a bucolic alternative to the smog-choked capital city--one which we naturally expect to see depicted as a series of sweeping vistas and lovingly-photographed postcard images. Had another filmmaker been behind the lens, this vacation get-away might indeed have been rendered more resplendently, less interior-bound. In lieu of capturing Kangwon-do's natural beauty, magnificent monuments, and local celebrations, The Power... feeds us a small diet of bird's-eye views (such as the girls splashing in riverbeds) or, more often, tiny swatches of a much larger landscape which intensify feelings of spectatorial estrangement and the characters' mounting ennui. When Chi-suk visits Naksan temple, for example, the towering white statue known to Koreans as the "Ocean Bodhisattva" remains offscreen for the duration of the shot. The camera, which si mply fixates on Chi-suk kneeling but does not show the object of her prayer, visually conveys the young woman's isolation as well as the simultaneous presence and absence of an obliquely-situated genre element.

Though all of his films deal with indigenous travel, Hong has exhibited remarkable restraint in his depictions of tourist destinations, opting several times to conceal or deflect anticipated "money shots" of shrines, pagodas, folkcraft villages, theme parks and museums. For example, the promised trip to Cheju Island in The Virgin... never arrives. Instead, Chae-hun, who had originally promised Su-jong a lover's excursion to the isle, convinces her that a cheaper and nearer hotel in Uui-dong (a district of Seoul) will sufficiently serve their needs and bring to fruition their long-delayed sex-act. A comparable excursion-exclusion occurs in Turning Gate: After Kyongsu's friend recounts in detail the folkloric legend of the Ch'ongp'yong-sa revolving gate near Ch'unch'on (a fable involving a snake-coiled Chinese princess and the titular entrance that together suggest a metaphor for lovemaking), the two men opt not to see it at the last minute, and instead return to the ferryboat on which they arrived. Later, when Kyong-su searches for the woman he met briefly on a train in Kyongju, he departs from his sightseeing itinerary, climbs a residential hill and peers out over the dingy rooftops of the former Shilla Dynasty capital--its famous tourist sites conspicuous in their absence. In each of these cases, sights are intentionally left unseen, and the whimsical actions (or non-actions) of men derail the film's potential for generic fulfillment.

The Power..., is filled with similar moments of emptiness, and its emphatic aversion of the touristic gaze is even ironically commented on in a self-reflexive scene set in the woods. Hiking through the mountain forest, Chi-suk and her friends momentarily stop at a "picture spot." As Chi-suk and Mi-son pose for their photo by a stream, the light-dappled forest provides a "beautiful" backdrop for a snapshot that Un-kyong, the photographer who adduces the scene from the audience's point of view, calls "mystical." This is the only moment in the film when an aestheticized transposition of the characters' (and audiences') desires bubbles to the surface. But like so many other instances of erasure throughout the film, the shot's "beauty" is undermined by its status as constructed or mediated illusion. This point is strengthened by the many scenes set inside photo-shops throughout Hong's oeuvre (spaces that serve as metaphors of a fabricated reality--one of mummified poses and empty gestures keeping intact the thread bare sanctity of family) as well as by the fact that Unkyong, before departing Kangwon-do, loses her cherished Nikon The absence of the camera, a gift from Un-kyong's own vacationing uncle in Japan, prevents the spectator from witnessing the "beautiful" photo of Chi-suk and Mi-son as it was designed to be seen--as a fetish object linked nostalgically to an inauthentic past.

In the Absence of Writing: Erasure as Textual Inscription

Just as Hong performs a tabula rasa of the touristic gaze, withholding shots of breathtaking vistas that are part and parcel of the vacation-travel film genre, so too does he limit the epistemological gaze. When Sang-kwon receives an official letter from Ch'unch'on University reporting the good news that he had been waiting for, this pivotal moment in his career is presented anti-climactically. We do not see the contents of the correspondence, though the next scene, showing an after-dinner drink among professorial colleagues, attests to his new position. But perhaps the most significant moment of textual erasure occurs when Chi-suk returns to her apartment after washing herself at a public bath. Just as she enters, she spots pencil-scribbles on the wall next to the door, spelling out the message: "Breathing deeply, let's wait a little longer." There is no indication at this point who the author of the message is, or why it was written. As an extension of her own cleaning impulse, she rubs out the graffiti. La ter, in Sang-kwon's narrative, we see him writing the words that she had earlier erased. Because of the repetitive and recursive nature of the narrative, erasure actually precedes writing. Thus, erasure is a primal scene whose own undoing or effacement is an act of textual inscription. Though Chi-suk's narrative has effectively been "written-over" by Sang-kwon's, she has the power to erase, just as she has chosen to abort her baby (whose earlier presence as life inside her belly only spawned another absence).

Hong is not a filmmaker given to extravagance, and his (and cinematographer Kim Yong-chol's) judicious deployment of deep focus, suppression of close-ups, and static camera placements effectively render quotidian details in slice-of-life tableaux. Less forgiving audience members might be lulled to sleep by the tortoise-paced progression of his narratives- as if conscious of such feelings, there is a point-of-view shot from Chi-suk's position outside a temple showing two turtles floating languorously in a pond But this is precisely what Hong's style is about: Leaching away excess so as to make way for anomalies--the "turtles" that have no overt function in the text. If, according to the old adage, "less is more," then nothing is the most. Out of nothing comes a bounty. This is the negative flipside of the generic coin. On the surface, Hong's minimalism runs counter to the superfluity of detail in 1990s genre films, which, as Wheeler Winston Dixon argues, are "everywhere a creature of excess--excess running tim e, excess budgeting, excess spectacle." (7) Made during the era of the Korean blockbuster (when the incorporation of digital special effects and the convenience of post-production doctoring contribute to the proliferation of picture-perfect extravaganzas), The Power of Kangwon Province zeroes in on the emptiness at the heart of cinematic spectacle. But just as explosive genre films such as Shin beguile audiences by diverting attention away from that void, so too does Hong's unfussy and introverted style distract us from the film's generic elements, which sometimes appear like "matter out of place."

Matter out of Place and the Metaphysics of Modernity

Toward the end of his life, a bitter Mark Twain wrote the posthumously-published novelette The Mysterious Stranger, in which the following words drip from the mouth of Satan's nephew: "Man is made of dirt...Man is a museum of diseases, a home of impurities; he comes to-day and is gone to-morrow." Though the young narrator, a church organist's son who meets the evil apparition, believes that "one cannot compare things by which their nature and by the interval between them are not comparable," he begins to grasp in those infernal words a fundamental truth about the human condition, one that had heretofore escaped his consciousness. This truth has not been lost on Hong Sang-soo. Not only do his multi-character episode films force us to compare people and situations that, on the surface, have little in common; but he also draws our attention to the "dirtiness" of men and women who are like mere specks of dust in a hostile universe. Hence the thematic obsession with cleanliness, which can be read as a futile attem pt to bide one's time before earthly departure. One of the four main characters in The Day..., a film filled with literal and figurative "stains," is a cheating husband whose handwashing compulsion grows not only from his fear that he has contracted a sexually transmitted disease but also from his desire to "wash away everything tainted in our hearts." The husband's neurosis reemerges in Turning Gate, when Kyong-su unexpectedly says to a woman he has been hotly pursuing, "Let's not have sex...Let's stay clean and die."

But what is dirt if not "matter out of place"? The title of The Day a Pig Fell into the Well highlights the sense of displacement and incongruity that accompanies this well-known definition of dirt. With the exception of "Babe," the titular pig in George Miller's 1998 film who travels to the city, farm animals are not usually found in wells. In Hong's films, however, there are numerous examples of matter out of place, foreign elements whose "unbelonging" ruptures the visual coherence and verisimilitude of otherwise realistically depicted scenes. The Power of Kangwon Province brims with such instances. Before he and Chae-wan depart for Kangwon-do, Sang-kwon gets a speck of dirt in his eye. Though a minor incident, five minutes are devoted to this minutia, suggesting that other similar "irritants" will test our own patience before the end of the film. In a later scene, Sang-kwon goes to Professor Kim's apartment and drinks a glass of Coke with a bug floating in it (though certainly out of its natural element, t he bug could be said to represent the corruptibility of Western culture--a latent theme in this and other Hong Sang-soo films). After leaving his former professor, Sang-kwon realizes that he has left his umbrella inside and--although only a few paces outside the building--opts not to retrieve it, perhaps because his already-wounded pride could not tolerate such embarrassment.

Just as a speck of dirt in Sang-kwon's eye is an example of matter out of place, so too are there more "metaphysical" displacements throughout the film. In one scene, Sangkwon enters his office carrying a Tupperware bowl filled with water and two fish left behind by neighbors. The presence of the fish recalls an early scene in Chi-suk's narrative, when the three girls happen upon a fish floundering about on a dirt path. "How did that get here?" they ask before Chi-suk buries the still-living fish under a rock. Even earlier in the film, when the three girls are at the beach, another visual anachronism pricks our senses. On the beach is a pony, which seems as grossly out of place as a pig in a well. Informed that the horse's name is Zuppie, they ask the animal, "What are you doing here?" Reminiscent of the severed ear in the grass during the opening scene of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986)--an appendage that, like Hong's fish, mysteriously figures in the last half of the film--the bizarre and unaccountable ima ges in The Power... suggest that, for all of its ethnographic authenticity as a social document, the film refuses to be categorized as simply a realist text. Like the invisible tennis ball that rolls to a rest on its grassy cushion at the end of Antonioni's metaphysical mystery Blow Up (1966), inexplicable elements such as the fish and the pony contribute to the film's "irreal realism," imparting an air of strangeness and irregularity to a straightforward story. Ever since his first film, based on Ku Hyo-so's novel Natson yorum (Strange Summer), strangeness has been a salient aspect of Hong's universe. This may emerge as simply a slight deviation from the norm, as when the Kangwon-do policeman muses to Chi-suk, "Isn't this strange? I never thought we'd be meeting and drinking like this." More often, the film's strangeness springs from the paradox of absence, which is necessarily predicated on a presence that continues to exert psychic and emotional sway. The argument that because one is not in a given place h e or she must be somewhere else--a vector of situated identity that is by definition not "here"--suggests that the film's emphasis on place and province underscores the inability to forget someone in his or her absence. The puzzling ambiguity of the final scene, which shows Sang-kwon returning to his old office and staring into the void of the makeshift fish bowl (which now contains only one fish) suggests that we too are bound to an ineffable yet palpable absence.

Beginning this essay with a passage from Foucault's magisterial if fiercely debated Les Mots et les choses might seem to be a capricious way of staging Hong's unique and overlooked connection to film genre. After all, Foucault, in arguing against the transcendental consciousness of the phenomenological subject for a theory of discursive practices unique to Western teleology, is not concerned with concrete individuals but in epistemes--movements of knowledge-flow with no apparent connection to Korean consciousness or history. But in introducing the latent characteristics of The Power of Kangwon Province by way of a text which locates the experience of order in the gap between logic and perception (or, in other words, "the non-place of language"), (8) I have attempted to construct countervailing alternatives to the binaristic logic subtending film studies. Though critics are apt to separate art-house films from the mainstream chaff, we can begin reconciling pop cinema and its brainier cousin once the horizons o f genre studies are expanded. Skeptical readers may chafe at the notion that something positive can be derived from a film full of negations, but The Power... can not only be fruitfully linked to historical trends within the South Korean film industry but also extended well beyond its indigenous cultural context. Before the incoming tide of Foucault's epistemic eraser enacts a "natural" dissolution of time, before the waves come lapping at the haptic shore, let us recall the image of Chi-suk on the beach: Just as she obliterates her own authorial signature--the "stamp" of identity that would bind her to the past--so too does Hong attempt to return things to a natural and unadorned state from which new and less restrictive categories can be constructed.

In returning to these images of erasure in Foucault's and Hong's texts, when the metaphorical breakers threaten to wash over beaches Past and Present, it should now be apparent that The Power... had much the same effect of those waves, and indeed rode the crest of a new wave of Korean cinema that cleared the stage for subsequent generic deconstructions from the likes of directors Vi Ch'ang-dong, Yun Chong-ch'an, and Pak Ch'an-uk. With the benefit of historical hindsight, it is possible to situate Hong's 1998 film at that pivotal point in Korean history when increased artistic freedom and reduced censorship paved the way for a revitalization, if not complete erasure, of pre-existing film praxis. Released the same spectacular year, Yi Kwang-mo's antiwar film Spring in My Hometown (1998) and Ho Chin-ho's muted melodrama Christmas in August further contributed to this new artistic movement. That three films of such profundity and magnitude arrived within six months of each other attests to the dynamism of South K orea's fin-de-siecle film renaissance. The Power of Kangwon Province is more than a refreshing, palette-cleansing break from the earlier spate of straight-faced melodramas; more than an oasis of contemplation amid the hyperbolic bombast of contemporary blockbusters. It is an exemplary manifestation of both the positive and negative aspects of genrification, made at a time when genre-based filmmaking has become an industrial imperative for a national cinema whose current reputation for excellence remains unexcelled.

I would like to thank Hye Seung Chung for her invaluable assistance in translating and conceptualizing key texts and films. Her support--both intellectual and emotional--was crucial to the writing of this paper.

(1.) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, New York: Routledge Classics, 2002. p. 422.

(2.) The first book-length study of a Korean filmmaker published in the United States is Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema, David E. James and Kyung Hyun Kim, eds. Detroit, MI: Wayne State Univ. Press, 2002.

(3.) Rick Altman, "Reusable Packaging: Generic Products and the Recycling Process," Refiguring American Film Genres, ed. Nick Browne, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998, p. 1.

(4.) Jacques Derrida, "The Laws of Genre," Critical Inquiry Vol. 7, no. 1 Autumn 1980, p.65.

(5.) Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible, New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 176.

(6.) According to the Korean Film Archive database, the box-office receipts for The Power of Kangwon Province upon its original theatrical release indicate a movie attendance of just 15,967. This figure is less than 1% of the attendance for such recent blockbusters as Shiri, Joint Security Area, and Friend.

(7.) Wheeler Winston Dixon, from the Introduction to Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000, pp.4-5.

(8.) Foucault, xxv.

David Scott Diffrient is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Film and Television at UCLA. His work has appeared in Paradoxa, Film Quarterly, and Asian Cinema, with essays to be published in the forthcoming Made in Korea: Cinema and Society, New Korean Cinema, Recyclables: Critical Approaches to Cultural Recycling, and The Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities.
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Date:Jan 1, 2003
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