우물 안 개구리


Red Chapel Ironies

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 4:11 pm Print

I recently got around to watching the Red Chapel, the unusual guerrilla documentary by the Danish journalist Mads Brügger.1 The basic premise is a visit to North Korea by Mads Brügger and two Danish-Korean comedians for the purpose of cultural exchange. Brügger’s main ploy is the use of the speaking disability of one of the two, Jacob Nossell, as a way to create embarrassment, conceal criticism, and attempt to expose the heartless evil of the DPRK.

The movie fails at its task. We learn nothing about North Korea that any number of other documentaries, journalistic accounts, or other limited looks into the bubble of elite life in Pyongyang have not already shown us. Brügger seems to completely unable to understand the psychological universe that North Koreans live in. Instead of coming to terms with the victory the Stalinist state has had in transforming the worldview of its people, he sees everyone around him acting always and only out of fear, and engaged constantly in a kind of performance that helps him justify his own deceit. Of course, it isn’t either of these. We are seeing a people who have carved out a livable fiction, parts of which they know is a lie, and parts they grasp tightly in order to function in their society. In terms of basic technique, it is no different than the ability we develop to ignore injustice around us and participate enthusiastically in social games we know are built on fantasies. Fear and falsehood, of course, play a part, but I suspect many of the emotions he sees are as powerful and genuine as any we see these three Danes offer the camera.

Nor is there much in the way of new evils exposed. While Brügger seems almost delighted to be able to show the North Korean treatment of Jacob and his disabilities, especially when he is silenced and almost written out of the reworked comic sketch that is the product of the entire affair, this clashes awkwardly with the deep warmth Jacob is shown by their handler, and Jacob’s own complex emotions over what he sees and his own role in the deceptive game that Mads has invited him to join. For those of us who have seen or read of the treatment of some disabled elsewhere in the world, including South Korea, this documentary fails to shock.

While Brügger makes ominous references to the horrible conditions of the camps in remote places, the starvation of the multitude, and at one point reminds himself that having a picnic in the woods is like enjoying a trip to the Black Forest during Nazi rule, the only two real forms of oppression we see in the movie is the complete editing license assumed by the North Koreans over the performances of their Danish guests, and by Mads himself as he cajoles and pressures his two companions to go along with the North Korean demands and the deception they are carrying out.

But this is why the documentary is a most interesting failure. It shows how Brügger is so different from someone like Sacha Baron Cohen or the interviewers of the Daily Show. The Red Chapel makes a good pair with The Ambassador, Brügger’s adventure in the Central African Republic with credentials as a Liberian consul purchased through a Dutch supplier of diplomatic titles. As with the Red Chapel, we don’t really learn anything new. Most of us recognize North Korea as a Stalinist hell and none of us are surprised when Brügger discovers corruption in central Africa. However, these two documentaries reveal a genuinely interesting approach that Brügger takes: On the one hand he reveals his own willingness to carry his deceit to extreme limits, and his willingness to drag vulnerable individuals into the heart of his game (Jacob in Red Chapel, and two Pygmies he hires for his match factory in Africa). On the other, the both documentaries use extensive footage and commentary to the end of exposing his own failures. The result is that characters come alive in his documentaries in a way that they are merely reduced to stand-ins for stereotypes in other similar projects.

Brügger also includes footage where others criticize him directly, especially from own collaborators. Mads Brügger, the director, despite the authoritative narrative voice he offers over the action, does not spare Mads, the participant, from his own strange interrogation. This is seen throughout the Red Chapel, where the tension and interaction between Jacob and Mads nearly steals us away from the core drama of the interaction between the Danes and the North Koreans. The result is, for example, that instead of Jacob getting used as a tool of propaganda by Mads (something that Brügger admits doing), and subjected to abuse by the North Koreans, the young man’s agency comes through strong throughout the documentary. The climax of both documentaries happens at the decisive moment when Brügger’s collaborators take a stand against him and refuse to participate any more. Jacob will not join Brügger in pumping his fist in a state organized street march against American imperialism and, during a blood diamond negotiation, Brügger’s Danish assistant and French interpreter is heard yelling that the game has reached its limit, and he must proceed no further.

At the close of the Red Chapel Brügger graciously hands Jacob complete victory, a victory of compassion over the strike against totalitarianism that Brügger was aiming for. When he persuades Jacob to hand their North Korean handler a letter in which he asks why he never saw or met other disabled people in North Korea, instead of waiting for the awkward silence or some propagandistic reply, Jacob immediately lets her off the hook by telling her that perhaps next time he will get the chance to meet them.

The result is that Brügger has created—and given his personality, he may well be satisfied with the irony of it—a documentary that repeatedly declares itself to be a condemnation of North Korea as the world’s most evil country, and instead puts humanity on display with a far more positive message.

  1. The title, Det røde kapel, is a Danish play on words from the German Rote Kapelle = The Red Orchestra communist resistance organization under Nazi rule []


Cultural Consumption and Comprehension

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:39 pm Print

There’s an interesting article up at Japan Focus this week, “Disarming Japan’s Cannons with Hollywood’s Cameras: Cinema in Korea Under U.S. Occupation, 1945-1948” by Brian Yecies and Ae-Gyung Shim. For the most part, it’s a pretty conventional occupation history, done with official USAMGIK sources, Korean newspapers, plus some secondary sources on the early occupation period, and reveals that USAMGIK used cinema, especially Hollywood imports, as a way to reeducate the formerly colonial subject population. Nothing too surprising there: US efforts to use American media to engineer democratic and capitalist cultures is pretty much a universal story in the post-war.

The twist here: a steady theme running through the article highlighting the disconnect between the values depicted on screen (intentionally or unintentionally) and the culture of the audience. Again, there’s nothing terribly new there: if the Koreans were already democratic pro-American capitalists, then the program wouldn’t exist in the first place. But the authors offer no obvious evidence either regarding audiences’ comprehension or tension with the material presented and make claims for the effects of the program which boggle the mind. This seems to be the result of conflating vocal conservative voices with popular reception. For example, this early passage sets the stage for a lot of the rest of the article:

Generally speaking, Koreans had had long-standing Confucian traditions that required physical separation between noblemen and commoners on the one hand, and men and women on the other hand. Confucianism provided the foundational social, moral and legal guidelines and customs between people of all ages. Not only did cinema-going in this era enable all walks of life to mingle together in ways that were different from traditional Korean moral values, but the images, themes and motifs presented in the onslaught of spectacle Hollywood films, which was not a new phenomenon, did continually present ‘American’ situations that shook the roots of traditions and worried traditionalists.

This rings rather false to me. First, the conflation of social customs with Confucianism and the conflation of conservatives with tradition, but more the idea that modern egalitarian ideas were new to most Koreans in the post-colonial age, after a third of a century of Japanese modernization – industrialization, migration, education and other changes. There is some discussion of “a formal survey of local attitudes in Korea” but it’s not clear to me that an American survey of attitudes at that point would produce results other than confirmation of American attitudes.

Worse, the evidence offered in the article about the surprising popularity of movies with untraditional and complex moral presentation suggests that the movies weren’t disturbing their audiences at all. They write “Almost immediately, these first Hollywood films made a splash in the marketplace as audiences lapped them up with enthusiasm,” but they can’t stop there. They finish that sentence with an unsourced and unsupported, “whether of not they understood them or appreciated the cultural values they contained.”

In the conclusion, Yecies and Shim suggest that the success of Hollywood and other movies in the 60s is a result of the acculturation to such fare in the ’40s. In fact, they credit the movie program with success beyond any reasonable expectation: “USAMGIK’s aim of reorientating Koreans away from the legacies of the former Japanese colonial regime was achieved with surprising ease by allowing hundreds of Hollywood spectacle films back into the region.” If the USAMGIK program was a success, then it couldn’t have been too far out of the mainstream. They discuss the pre-’45 movie scene, which sounds quite lively until the wartime rationing kicked it, but seem to dismiss it as a factor in their post-war discussion. It’s as though pre-liberation Koreans were nothing more than pre-colonial traditionalists with an overlay of colonial ideology, reeducated with great discomfort through the power of Humphrey Bogart and Roy Rogers. I suppose there must be more to this story, but the evidence presented here is grossly inadequate to prove the rather astonishing assertions being made.

On the plus side, one of the other articles at Japan Focus this week is Mark Caprio’s expanded version of the talk he gave at the AAS Conroy panel, in which he takes a contemporary right-wing revisionist discourse on Korean annexation and exposes the ahistoricity of it in great detail.


BAKS 2008

Filed under: — John P. DiMoia @ 9:07 pm Print

     I just returned to SG this past weekend from BAKS (British Association Korean Studies) 2008, and wanted to post as the film panel in particular intersects nicely with something posted earlier this summer.  For those interested in a brief summary of the conference as a whole, please see Philip Gowman’s take at: http://londonkoreanlinks.net/2008/09/12/baks-conference-report-looking-forward-looking-back/.

     To return to the issue of film, the Tuesday afternoon panel (9 / 9) offered a number of interesting film clips, one of which featured two scenes from “Homeless Angels” /  집없는 천사.   To be fair, I would have to see the entire film to say more; but for now, I agree with a basic reading of the film which reads the placement of these Korean orphans in terms of a paternalistic Japanese state and ithe attempted formation of new imperial subjects through tutelage.  The scene I’m referring to specifically in making this claim comes near the close of the film, and features one of the characters saluting / reciting while the Japanese flag is being raised: in effect, the perfomative force of the scene is roughly equivalent to a recruitment pitch.

     The speaker / presenter also raised an interesting point in conjunction with this film–and I want to be careful, as I’m operating here on jet lag, and may be conflating points made across the entire panel–pointing to the recurring popularity of the trope of the displaced orphan, with (1) “Boys Town” featured as one of the earliest films approved and shown by USAMGIK, and with the subsequent appearance of (2) Douglas Sirk’s (1957) “Battle Hymn.” 

     While I’m not comfortable with making sweeping juxtapositions from the standpoint of history–would want to know much more about the circumstances underlying each of the three films before making any links–the loose observation in the previous paragraph does lend itself to some interesting comparative questions.  Namely, what were the economic / social / political / communitarian ideals informing the practice of dealing with refugees (particular orphans) during and in the aftermath of the Korean War?  I’m familiar with an overall take that places New Deal reformers, broadly construed, in Japan and Korea for the respective occupations, but does this suggest potentially that 1930′s American-style social welfare practices were simply mapped onto the issue of dealing with refugees and orphans?  Can we complicate this further with the recognition (see Dan Rodgers and Atlantic Crossings)  that much of the New Deal was informed by an eclectic set of borrowed practices from earlier European practices related to social welfare?

     What I’m fumbling at here, in a none too articulate fashion, are ways of comparing the social welfare practices adopted under USAMGIK (and during the subsequent Korean War), and the comparable practices mobilized under Japanese Imperial authority only a decade or two earlier.  In what ways were Americans attempting to form new subjects of Korean orphans (perhaps new “South Korean” subjects?)–if we put this to the same litmus test as the Japanese Imperium–and how were  American practices distinct / different?  My recollection of images of orphans from the Holt folks (see the historical introduction at the Holt International website, which links the 1955 founding of the organization to Holt’s viewing of a film about Korea) is that they were generally designated as “Korean,” but is this an innocent designation or does it assume a case where half of the peninsula subsumes the whole? 

I’m trying to do this kind of work for medicine now (looking at material and pedagogical changes in medical education pre and post war), and wondering what this might look like in a similar  context.  I also recognize that the question of distingiushing between categories and attributing sources of authority becomes almost hopelessly muddled, as what’s “Japanese” and “American” is rarely clear, and there’s a signficant difference between the offical rhetoric and on the ground practice.


Modernization or Japanization? –The Movie “Homeless Angels” 1941

Filed under: — Sayaka Chatani @ 10:17 am Print

I had a chance to watch a Korean movie from the colonial period, called “Homeless Angels (집없는 천사, 家なき天使),” at the Korean Film Archive (KFA) in Susek, Seoul, the other day. This movie was made by the infamously pro-Japanese director of the time, Choi Inkyu, in the late 1930s, and released in 1941. The Korean Film Archive listed it as one of 100 representative works that reflect Korean cinema, “because it is one of the very few surviving movies from the Japanese colonial era” despite the fact that the last scene (where all the children recite the pledge of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor) was propagandistic for the  Japanese imperialist cause.

The movie is about the founder of an orphanage called 香隣園 and the Korean boys who joined the orphanage. Conversations took place mostly in Korean, except for some occasional code switching with Japanese. Since Matt at GUSTS OF POPULAR FEELING has featured this movie a while ago, giving details of the plot and pictures of various scenes, I will not explain the story in detail here. I would rather like to point out the key historiographical issue in the discussions related to this movie among Korean film scholars, the KFA and GUSTS OF POPULAR FEELING.

The KFA interprets this movie as mostly a humanist story of enlightenment by Koreans for Koreans, and argues that “the propagandistic sequence is inserted irrespective of the plot and thus does not pose a substantial threat to the text’s actual subject.” In critique of this interpretation, Matt has highlighted the militaristic nature of the training that children receive, and indirect expressions that praise Japanese military advancement in the film. His interpretations suggest that children could represent Koreans in general, and that the film could leave the audience with the lesson that Koreans could have become real Japanese citizens if they had made a great effort.1 The interpretations of this movie among film scholars today are similarly divided on how to interpret the nature of this movie in the same way as the Japanese imperial authorities were bewildered.2 Is this a mere Japanese propaganda? Or is this a ‘Korean’ humanist story of rescuing and enlightening homeless children?

Let’s step back from this question for a moment. There are many elements in this movie that reflect the global trends at the time. The first thing to notice is that in the movie there is clear pastoral idealism depicted as a reaction to industrialization. The film shows the decadence and corruption of urban culture, and its contrast to the healthy, disciplined, frugal and simple rural life. The idealization of rural agricultural life is found in media and intellectual discourse, not only in Korea and Japan, but also in Britain, Germany and other places in the world since the 1900s. Secondly, the special role of children as ‘our future’ and ‘our hope,’ but at the same time, as those that adults have to lead in the right direction, can be considered as a new concept that rapidly spread around the world in the 1910s. Historians often point out Stanley Hall‘s theory of developmental child psychology as having helped create and spread such an image of children. With these two elements combined, it is not surprising to see that large-scale youth movements were launched around the world around the same time — the Boy Scouts, Hitler Jugend, Japanese Seinendan, Communist Komsomol, etc. All these youth groups praised militarized discipline and pastoral ideology. Lastly, while idealization of rural life is clearly a rejection of modern consumerism, the movie seems to imply that Western Enlightenment itself was the basis of their activities. In the movie, the founder of the orphanage gains support from his brother-in-law, a rich doctor who owns an empty Western style house, a sizable farm and a farmhouse outside of Seoul available for use. There was a quick flashback scene in which this brother-in-law was spending time with his German girlfriend there, showing that he was educated in the Western style and is familiar with European culture. More interestingly, the founder names his son and daughter ” Johann (요한)” and “Mary (마리아)” respectively, which we can’t help but see as bizarre given the setting of Japanese colonialism. Overall, the adults who help the children in this film are all “Westernized.” This close relationship between the Enlightenment thought and anti-industrial youth movements was also prevalent in other parts of the world.

Coming back to the question of how to interpret the nature of the movie “Homeless Angels,” it is clear that the film was not simply about “Koreans helping Koreans.” At the same time, the question of “to what extent it was Japanese” has become a much harder question to answer because Korea, as well as Japan, was embedded within the larger historical trends of the time. The same difficulty of separating “Japanese” colonial modernity from world-historical trends is a common problem with many of the writings about the Korean colonial history. I wish that historians had better tools to capture the interaction of all the world, regional, national, provincial, and personal contexts instead of endeavoring to fit all the elements into narrower national terms. 


  1. I would add the fact that the orphanage was available only for boys. It reflects the tendency of Japanese colonialism that regarded Koreans as military and labor human resources at the time. []
  2. See 강성률, 영화로 보는 우리 역사 3 [집 없는 천사]와 찬일: 계몽을 가장한 자발적 친일, 내일을 여는 역사, no. 20, 2005.6, pp.227-232 []


1949 Banning Japanese Subtitles

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:51 am Print

On the second page of the June 25th issue of The Korean Free Press (자유신문 自由新聞) there is a very small article which shows how long the process of eliminating the most outwardly visible elements of “Japanese remnants” (일제잔재) could take. While newspaper articles today continue to point to long lasting legacies of the Japanese colonial period, more than four years after the end of Japanese colonial period legislation and executive orders continued to be used to get rid of some of the more glaring reminders of the recent colonial past, including the use of Japanese subtitles for foreign movies.

The Showing of Movies with Japanese Subtitles will be Prohibited after the End of This Month

Japanese subtitles banned

That was not the only Japanese remnant to be dealt with in the newspaper on that day in 1949. The newspaper article just above this one reported that 柳混龍, a 43 year old former “Kempei spy” (憲兵密偵) had been arrested in Cheju-do.


EALA Update: Yonsei Library and Korean Film Archive

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 8:34 am Print

I have added two entries to the East Asian Libraries and Archives wiki here at Frog in a Well.

Yonsei University Central Library

I have so far only made a few reconnaissance trips to the library and checked out a few books so I don’t know all the tricks or secrets about making full use of the library’s collections but as my year in Korea progresses I’ll be updating the wiki entry.

 Users Fool Library Application-Support Ecto Attachments Dscf1622

Korean Film Archive

The film reference library at the Korean Film archive, located near Susaek station is really wonderful and the archivists have also done a fantastic job of putting together DVDs of some of the old classic movies, and providing access to movie scripts. The library was a bit of a pain to locate, even with the map found on their website, since the “Digital Media City” is still mostly an urban wasteland but I put detailed instructions on the wiki entry.

Korean Film Archive

Cultural Content Center

Have you been to these places? Do you see some mistakes on the wiki entry? Fix them! Have you been to other useful Korean libraries, archives, or museums? Add an entry! The EALA wiki will only be as good as the information that gets added to it and updated as time passes.


Koguryŏ on the box

Filed under: — Owen @ 6:02 pm Print

I know I’m way behind the times on this subject as it was already brought up at the Marmot’s Hole weeks ago, but I’d like to put out a call for people’s thoughts on the recent flurry of new historical dramas in South Korea on the Koguryŏ kingdom. I’d be fascinated to know what any of our readers and contributors who are currently in Korea make of MBC’s ‘Jumong‘ and SBS’s ‘Yeongaesomun‘ from either a historical or dramatic point of view.

In case there is anyone else who, like me, is not in Korea and wants some more background, there was an article on the popularity of the new dramas in the Korea Herald a couple of weeks back, which I’ve saved from the oblivion of the KH website here. No doubt whatever their historical problems or the nationalist motivations behind them, these dramas will make spectacular watching as in my experience Korean sagŭk pull out all the stops (although sometimes I wish they’d spend a bit more on the artificial facial hair).

By the way, just so as not to be left out, KBS will be broadcasting its historical drama on the Parhae (Balhae/발해) kingdom, beginning in September.


4.19 and 5.18: spot the difference

Filed under: — Owen @ 5:17 pm Print

In lieu of actually providing some original content myself (soon…), can I point our patient readers once again toward the excellent blog Gusts of Popular Feeling, where Matt has provided a fascinating comparison of photographs of the uprisings that took place in Seoul in April 1960 and Kwangju in May 1980. The similarities between the pictures, although perhaps not all that significant, are intriguing.

As an aside, Matt’s mention of the Japanese film director Oshima Nagisa sent me on one of those distracting internet excursions, at the end of which I decided I really must see the film Koshikei sometime. I wonder if anyone knows anything more about the Korean actor who played the lead in the film, Yun Yungdo (not Yu To-yun as it says in this link)? A search on Naver only turns up this entry on the film.


Cinema, nationalism, and nostalgia

Filed under: — Remco Breuker @ 4:33 am Print

I have just finished reading a new book on Korean cinema (New Korean Cinema, New York: NYU Press, 2005, edited by Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Springer). It was a satisfactory read, most of the essays in it are good, some excellent. It has left me with some questions, though, and I am curious how other academics working on Korea think about these questions. Reading this book (and others as well), I have come across repeated statements on nationalism with which I find it hard to agree. The first one is the generally shared assumption that South Korea is an intensely nationalist country and that art (cinema) has to overcome nationalism (and nationalism alone) to become ‘real’ art. While superficially this may seem to be the case (especially from the outside), I have often found that, with the exception of the radical nationalists, nationalism is often a matter of rhetorics, not entirely perhaps, but to a significant extent at the least. Cultural studies in particular seem to take the all-pervasive influence of nationalism as a given, without problematizing what kind of nationalism is being discussed, in what context and from whom it emerges and for whom it is intended. The rhetorics of nationalism, as those of any influential ideology, must perhaps not be taken at face value, but be seen as a distinctive and for its users familiar way of communication.

Related to this is the also popular notion (present in several essays in this book) that due to the disappearance of the oppressively propagated nationalism of the 70′s and ’80s South Korea now is more fragmented, more anxiety-ridden and more diverse than it was during the 70′s and 80′s. (more…)

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