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Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-ok and Postwar Cinema.

Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-ok and Postwar Cinema

Steven Chung, University of Minnesota Press: 2014. 304 pages. $25 paper.

After a decade or so of rising global prominence, Korean cinema has recently gained even further attention stateside thanks to excellent scholarship epitomized by Kyung Hyun Kim's Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era (2011) and Theodore Hughes' Literature and Film in Cold War South Korea: Freedom's Frontier (2012). While, as those books reflect, there has been no shortage of important historical and theoretical work in Korean film studies no book since Kim's and David James' 2001 tome on Im Kwon-Taek has partaken in the project, of highlighting key directors. For this and several other reasons, Steven Chung's Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-ok and Postwar Cinema is a very welcome addition to the field.

Despite his non-auteur reputation today by comparison to the likes of Kim Ki-young, Shin Sang-ok is an ingenious subject for a book. Prominent enough to have already been the subject of an English-language monograph, he conducted such a multifaceted, quixotic, and, most importantly, radically apolitical career that his work is best analyzed, as Chung recognizes well, not as a coherent oeuvre but as a prickly locus around which to address theoretical questions of film, ideology, and nationhood on the Korean peninsula. That Shin has already been written about extensively--probably more so than any other Korean director--allows the book to assume a historiographical scope that makes it an original contribution to the recent wave of Korean film studies in English. If Split Screen Korea has an agenda, though, it is less about reevaluating Shin's stature than using his career to challenge our assumptions about the relationship between politics, mass culture, and historical visuality on the Korean peninsula.

Before roughly tracing Shin's iterant career, which led him from war-torn Seoul to Pyongyang, where he spent most of the 1980s making films for Kim Jong-il, and finally to Hollywood for a batch of sequels to 3 Ninjas (sic), the book starts with an excellent chapter that draws on early Korean film theory. Using as a template Linda Williams' conception of melodrama as a "mode" rather than a genre, Steven Chung draws upon the 1920s conception of kyemong to posit an "enlightenment mode" of filmmaking. These Korean films, he argues, tend to exhibit three characteristics: a "vnarod or agrarian return narrative," nationalistic overtones, and a certain didacticism. While this theoretical excavation is an excellent move and in keeping with film studies' current return to classical film theory (exemplified in particular right now by scholars working on German and Chinese cinema), I would have liked a more thorough account of the roots of this concept. Chung laconically defines the mode as a trans-generic means of raising national consciousness, but what the target of that effort might be remains ambiguous.

The following three chapters, though, offer concrete insights into the relationship between postwar film production and the complexities of South Korea's modernization. Chapter 2 places Shin Sangok's female-centric melodramas of the late 1950s alongside other key films of the period, such as the famous Madame Freedom, and contemporaneous visual culture. Its main strength is its extensive archival work with fashion magazines and other visual ephemera that reflect the centrality of cinema in 1950s South Korean mass culture. Shifting focus, Chapter 3 provides a critical history of Shin Films, the studio that our subject ran from the 1950s to the mid-'70s. Wisely eschewing a traditional auteurist approach to Shin's work in this period, Chung elucidates the ways in which Shin navigated South Korea's film market and its motion picture laws. He demonstrates how Shin's economic and political interests largely dictated the type of films he made: youth and war films would sit well neither with the Park Chung-hee administration nor with the masses of middle-aged women that dominated audiences, and so he stuck by and large to family melodramas. This primarily economic history precedes the most concisely argued section of the book, Chapter 4, which offers a penetrating reading of two of Shin's films in the enlightenment mode, Evergreen (1961) and Rice (1963). Professors will likely find the chapter to be a valuable teaching tool. Chung astutely contextualizes these melodramas within the important debate amongst prominent Korean intellectuals about whether or not the masses were complicit in the Park regime's ruthless implementation of nationalist-developmentalist policies. He is also quick to caution, however, that the government's rabidly capitalistic project was only one of several ideologies to inform these films.

Chapter 5, Split Screen Korea's last, tackles the part of Shin Sang-ok's career that is a Westerner's likely first point of encounter with the director: his prolific eight-year exile --willing or otherwise, a question that Chung sidesteps altogether--in North Korea. While Chung makes the wise decision to deal neither with Shin's insistence that the DPRK kidnapped him and his wife to come work there nor with critics' assertions that only his own directorial ambition--stymied as it was by the severe economic limitations that beset his studio in the 1970s--lured him north, the chapter is not always as incisive as the others. For example, Chung asks how a filmmaker was able to function in two different film industries in which strict political agendas always preceded (and essentially precluded) the development of aesthetic ones. A bona fide rhetorical question, one possible answer is that the utter banality characterizing Shin's films has assured their legibility in antagonistic yet fraternal lands. Another issue with this chapter is Chung's assessment of Shin's huge popularity in North Korea as a testament to the cosmopolitanism of his films. Firstly, the films seem staunchly provincial, albeit probably much less than most of North Korea's. But, more significantly, a cosmopolitan flair would signal less of an authorial constant than a rupture. Chung had previously argued that, in contradistinction to some of Shin Films' products, the films that Shin Sang-ok directed catered specifically to rural Korean audiences. Perhaps the real challenge of this chapter, though, is that its implicit conclusion is so unsettling. Shin Sang-ok, arguably the most technically and economically savvy of all pre-hallyu Korean filmmakers, emerges as so staunch a conservative as to preclude any kind of subversive reading of his works. Postwar South Korean films in the "enlightenment mode" and North Korean films of the juch'e era prove to be far more similar than we might like to believe. However, though Chung alludes to the didacticism that characterizes both cinemas, he fails to offer concrete comparisons between Shin's films North and South, which might have elucidated the issues of modernism, Cold War politics, and mass culture that he expresses an interest in interrogating at the chapter's start.

Despite such occasional rhetorical slippages, Split Screen Korea is a major scholarly achievement, blending theoretical insight with a critical history not just of Shin Sang-ok's work but of postwar Korean cinema and mass culture in toto. Chung raises the bar of Korean film studies--and really, work on Asian film in general--by displaying, alongside his original analysis and groundwork in contemporary theory, a mastery of now-historical Korean film criticism and scholarship. This historiographical drive is crucial because it underlines the gaps in previous writing on Shin Sang-ok and postwar cinema and aims to fill them. Chung's primary rectification is to foreground the exigencies of the market that obviously sculpted Shin's career. But, at its best, Split Screen Korea uses the storied and geopolitically fraught career of a film mogul who was ostensibly apolitical to challenge our entire conception of the category of the political on the Korean peninsula.

Joseph Pomp, Harvard University
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Author:Pomp, Joseph
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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