Kyung Hyun Kim - Associate Professor of East Asian Language & Literature and Film & Media Studies, UC Irvine
South Korea witnessed the cementing of the two-party political system and the big global corporate domination during the first decade of the 2000s that arguably sealed the triumph of neoliberalism and Francis Fukuyama’s conservative mantra of the “end of history.” Lost has been the ethical urgency, in other words, that places the past in the context of the Hegelian continuum of humankind’s progression toward its Utopian ideals. As argued throughout my book Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era, South Korea, despite its ongoing political crisis marred by the recalcitrant presence of Communist North Korea, has flirted with a sense of end of various kinds (i.e., ideology, modernism, socialist democracy, egalitarian welfare state, etc., etc.). The affirmation of neoliberalism’s victory in South Korea was the effective outcome of these “ends,” with neither conservatives nor liberals pushing agendas to slow down Korea’s full embrace of the capitalist system that tolerated the growing gap between classes and increase of corporate power.
The two films set in the premodern times released in 2003, Hwang San Beol and Untold Scandal, transformed the landscape of commercial films in Korea by becoming unlikely blockbusters and changing the perceptions of investors who previously were unfavorable to the idea of commercially viable period films in Korea. The emotional nuances of these two sagûk titles extended well beyond 2003. Not only did Lee Joon-ik, the director of Hwang San Beol, become one of the surprising hit filmmakers of the decade with the mega-success of The King and the Clown (Wang ûi namja, 2006) and another martial-arts drama set during the 1592 Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invastion of Korea, Like the Moon Escaping from the Clouds (Kurûm ûl pôsônan talch’ôrôm, 2010), but Kim Dae-woo, who wrote the screenplay for Untold Scandal, also would later in the decade emerge as one of the most talented writer/directors through two successful sagûk films: a fictive romantic between the queen and an erotic genre writer, Forbidden Quest (Umran sôsaeng, 2007), and a Shrek-like revisionist interpretation of the classic tale of Chunhyang, The Servant (Pangjajeon, 2010). The successes of these period films beg a riddled question: do the deconstruction and demise of historical authenticity in these films suggest that there is no need for representation, for historical analysis, and for the consciousness required to reveal the logic of the current systematic failures that legitimates the increasing discrepancy between the rich and the poor? In this paper, I propose to read two sagûks, Jeon Woo-chi (Choi Dong-hoon, 2010) and The Servant, to point to the renaissance of sagûk (Korea’s jidai-geki) in the beginning of the 2010s as a cautiously optimistic, to borrow a Deleuze-ian cinematic term, Originary World for Korean cinema and one that best fulfills the potential of its virtuality.