2022년 3월 3일 목요일

Interview with Professor Kirsten Ziomek on BOY SOLDIERS: THE SECRET WAR IN OKINAWA

Today’s special guest for  a discussion of  the devastating and illuminating Japanese documentary Okinawa supai senshi (Boy Soldiers: The Secret War in Okinawa) is Professor Kirsten Ziomek, Associate Professor of History at Adelphi University, and the author of Lost Histories: Recovering the Lives of Japan’s Colonial Peoples (Harvard Asia Center, 2019), a pathbreaking study of the ways the Japanese empire’s colonized population— mainly Okinawans, Ainu, Indigenous Taiwanese and Micronesians—  interacted with the metropole, astonishingly rich in detail and deeply challenging to today’s complacent notions of how the Japanese colonial empire actually worked. Her current book project is tentatively entitled The Disorder of Killing in the Pacific War:  the Colonial Soldiers, Laborers and Local Peoples at the Japanese Empire’s Edge, in which she seeks to examine the lives and experiences of the colonized and indigenous peoples during the Pacific War. This new book promises to be as powerful and upsetting to the status quo as her first, moving beyond the categorizations of the colonized and indigenous peoples as monochromatic victims or those who “joined the system” to become Japanese nationals. 

This interview was conducted in August 2, 2021 through Zoom. It has been edited and somewhat shortened for clarity and economy. The contents of this interview are copyrighted to Professors Kirsten Ziomek and Kyu Hyun Kim. Any reproduction of the contents therein without the explicit written consent of Professor Ziomek will be considered a breach of copyright laws as defined by the United States court system. “K” refers to Kyu Hyun Kim and “Z” refers to Kirsten Ziomek in the following interview text.

  


K: So grateful that you could join me today! To start off, could you tell me how you had come to hear about this documentary and your interest in the subject matter?

Z: I am writing a book, one of the chapters of which explores “spies” in wartime Okinawa. The more research I conducted, the more I have come to realize that these stories of Okinawans being subject to suspicion as spies by the Japanese military and executed are actually much more complex than previously thought, including a disturbing dimension of Okinawan civilian complicity in scapegoating or blaming fellow residents as spies. The rest of the chapter deals with the gokyōtai, the Okinawan youth who were mobilized to conduct guerilla warfare against the Americans, as “spies” by infiltrating enemy lines.  So not surprisingly, this film was extremely interesting and illuminating for me. For one, I had visited Iriomote and Ishigaki islands a long time ago, but I was then unaware of the terrible histories of relocation and violence told in the film. It was really shocking and powerful to listen to the testimonies of the survivors who had been children during this time, including that of Mr. Kudaka whose mother went insane after losing her son, a member of the gokyōtai (executed by Japanese officers), and his frank admission that he did not necessarily want his brother back but wanted his mother restored to normalcy.

K: The film draws upon two interrelated but distinct strands of discourses, one a more familiar anti-war message and another that specifically focuses on the sufferings of the Okinawans by the Yamatonchū or the “mainlanders (hondojin).” Do you feel these two strands are well integrated in the film?

Z: I feel that the first strand is always there, but whenever we deal with the modern history of Okinawa the question of colonialism is unavoidable. I cannot help but wonder if the Japanese wartime government would have treated the mainlanders the same way they had done with Okinawans as described in this film, for instance, forcibly and knowingly relocating a population of one island to a malaria-infested location just for strategic reasons. The directors’ main contribution to the discussion about the Japanese military’s treatment of Okinawan civilians during the Battle of Okinawa is to contend that how the Okinawans were treated- executed for being suspected “spies”- would have happened to Japanese civilians if fighting came to the mainland. Previous scholars have usually discussed the spy executions vis a vis the lens of colonialism; that is to say because Okinawans were seen as “others” they were viewed with suspicion, thus their mistreatment by the Japanese military. This film offers a different view, namely it was the military-civilian dynamic that took precedence over the fact that the civilians were Okinawan. It complicates the issue for sure, and I am torn whether what happened in Okinawa really could have been replicated on the mainland, as the filmmakers contend. 

K: Indeed. I was too surprised to see a direct acknowledgement in the film of the fact that the Japanese military had never really sought to “protect” civilians, that they really did not care how many ordinary Japanese citizens ended up dying in the course of protecting the emperor and the “national body.” This point is somehow not clearly conveyed in some of the more conventionally pacifist, anti-war films made in Japan. 

Z: I am looking at the Japanese military mobilization of the native population in New Guinea in my new book, and historically I could chart the relationship between the occupying Japanese and the native population that had begun at least with the stated intent of friendly cooperation and progressively deteriorated into something abjectly cruel and exploitative as conditions of war worsened. And again, this narrative reminded me of the Okinawan experience since it seemed so opposite. Namely, there was no pretense of civilian protection in Okinawa. In some respects, the Japanese military treated their own compatriots in Okinawa on par with or worse than how they treated foreign populations they forcibly occupied during the war.


K: In my research on the Japanese wartime mobilization of Koreans, I have come across time and again the characterization of Koreans by the colonial state and the Tokyo headquarters as “human resources” (jinteki shigen). Equally disturbing is the fact that this view of regarding its own population as resources has been squarely adopted and even flourishing in today’s East Asian nations— China, North and South Korea, Japan.

Z: Yes, and there is almost a kind of pointlessness built into the whole mentality behind seeing the population as exploitable resources. Exploit them towards what ends?  The answer the film provides-civilians were utilized in order to protect the nation’s power hierarchy is unsatisfying. Were soldiers so devoted to the emperor that they unquestionably saw civilians as resources to be utilized and disposed of as they saw fit? It is often told that when Japanese soldiers died they called for their mothers and did not say the emperor’s name. It is hard to believe this cruel attitude toward civilians was so simplistically conveyed and embraced. My previous research has found bonds of friendship between Okinawans and Japanese soldiers- not enough to combat the   view of the Japanese military as aggressive perpetrators, but enough to question if it is historically accurate to view the Japanese military with having such a single-minded and unified aim that could be executed during the war. I wonder to what extent the treatment of  Okinawans  during the war was due to the circumstances of war and how much it was due to specific military orders. The flimmakers want us to believe it was only the latter, but I am not certain.

K: I have also not seen in any other film the argument against operations of the Self-Defense Forces in Okinawa presented in this one, that the latter will not protect the Okinawan population against an external threat, whether it is China, North Korea, or whichever “enemy,” because that is not what they are set up to do. Do you feel that the filmmakers are attempting to expand the scope from the Okinawan experience to address the larger issues of Japanese geopolitics and do you think the attempt was successful?

Z: I think they are attempting to link what happened during the Battle of Okinawa to present day Okinawa with the SDF bases but they talk about the SDF bases without mention of American bases. The situation in Okinawa is obviously very complicated. Their attempt to link what happened to Okinawans during WWII to Japan’s current geopolitical position (Japan being an outpost of American empire) I think was halfhearted and not satisfying. That being said, I still think this film is very much an Okinawan story. The Okinawans I have encountered, from academics to cab drivers, continued to make a distinction between Uchinānchū (Okinawan natives) and Yamatonchū. The Nagano School agents sent to Okinawa were able to draw upon the ambivalent and complex relationships between Okinawans and Japanese in order to mobilize the youth as soldiers.  This film made me think of Matthew Allen’s “Wolves at the Back Door” (See references) where he describes a group of civilians, including some Koreans, who resided on Kumejima island and were killed in August 1945, after the war had officially been terminated, by a group of Japanese soldiers who had suspected the former of “working with the enemy.” The commanding officer, a man named Kayama Tadashi, survived well into the postwar period.  In media interviews he was completely unrepentant, assuming the attitude of “we did what had to be done.” While the Kumejima massacre is one of the most well-known cases of Okinawans being executed as spies, the filmmakers do not discuss this event. Instead they offer many examples of how and why Okinawans were executed as spies including how Okinawan civilians worked to root out other Okinawans as “spies.”

K: Unfortunately, I have seen this kind of dehumanization of the “local population as enemies” more than once when I was growing up in South Korea. There was, for instance, a military training instructor at my junior high school, a Viet Nam War veteran who used to reminisce with relish about his killing of “Viet Congs.”

Z: Yes, and I keep coming back to this terrible fact that all these horrors are known to us today because the eyewitnesses had experienced them as children.



K: I am conflicted about the pacifist messages prevalent in the postwar Japanese culture, many of which seem to be predicated on two premises: that the postwar Japan is so different from the prewar Japan that it will never engage in a similar type of behavior regarding its “outside” population or its own citizens, and that the Japanese people in general are exempt from “war responsibility,” however the “bad apples” responsible for the war might be defined.  I am in principle sympathetic to these pacifist sentiments and ideas but as a historian I cannot help feel that they miss out important stories and experiences as well as the broader picture of the Japanese empire. 

Z: I wholeheartedly agree.  The film we are discussing certainly locates a significant piece that fits into the larger puzzle picture constituting the war experience for Asians.  Having said that, it should remain a constant struggle for historians like us, journalists, artists and ordinary citizens, too, to try to find other equally relevant puzzle pieces and at the same time not to lose sight of the whole picture.

K: Any aspect of the present documentary that you had questions about, or any subject matter that you feel could have been covered in greater depth or detail?

Z: The relocation of the Hateruma island residents, for one, could have fleshed out more from my historian’s point of view, and there are other instances where I felt more corroborating evidence would have been helpful. However, I understand that  Mikami Chie has published her research in book form and I assume the book presumably answers some of my questions- I have not yet finished reading through it yet (see References). The stories about the Nakano School have been well researched. Stephen Mercado’s study (see References) deals with this institution but I was not aware that some 42 graduates were sent to Okinawa, a large number by any standard. The documentary also offered invaluable first hand testimony from former gyokyōtai, which Mercado’s study does not include.

K: This is perhaps a sideline point but the parallel between Okinawa during the Pacific War and Cheju [Jeju] island before and after the Korean War, as well as the islanders’ postwar struggles with the wartime legacies and subsequent militarization of the islands is quite striking.

Z: I have heard about what happened after WWII at Cheju Island but can you tell me a bit more about what you mean?

K:  Hyôn Kirôn (1949-2020), for instance, has written a story about a Cheju diver who is promoted as an anti-Japanese nationalist heroine, but she herself remains conflicted about the relationship with the “mainlanders” and questions others seeing her in such a light. The imposition of the nationalist narrative, compounded by the Cold War dynamics, on the Cheju population tends to obscure the semi-colonial or internal colonial relationship the islanders had had with the rest of the Koreans.


K: I am, then, not far off when I say you approve the current documentary for alerting the viewers to certain important aspects of the Pacific War and Okinawan experiences?

Z: No, I wouldn’t say you are far off. I would say it is a significant contribution that will offer new information to many who think they know the typical narratives about of how Okinawans suffered during the war.

K: Thank you so much for the insightful discussion! Let’s keep the discussion going about these and other matters of common interest.  

Z: Absolutely!

 

References:

Allen, Matthew.  “Wolves at the Back Door: Remembering the Kumejima Massacres,” in Laura Hein, Mark Selden, eds. Islands of Discontent: Okinawan Responses to Japanese and American Power (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

Mercado, Stephen. The Shadow Warriors of Nakano: A History of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Elite Intelligence School (Washington D.C.: Brassey’s Inc., 2003).

Mikami Chie. Shōgen Okinawa supai senshi  (Tokyo: Shūeisha, 2020).

Ziomek, Kirsten. Lost Histories: Recovering the Lives of Japan’s Colonial Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Asia Center Publication, 2019). (For more information see: www.kziomek.com)

 

 

2022년 3월 2일 수요일

'We Never Treated These Civilians Unfairly'- DVD Review of BOY SOLDIERS: THE SECRET WAR IN OKINAWA

BOY SOLDIERS: THE SECRET WAR IN OKINAWA 沖縄スパイ戦史. Japan, 2018. A Tofoo Films/Documentary Japan Co-Production, with assistant from Ryūkyū shinpōsha, Okinawa Times Company, Okinawa Kiroku Eiga-wo Ōen-suru Kai. Aspect ratio 1.78:1. 1 hour 54 minutes. Directors: Mikami Chie 三上智恵, Ōya Hanayo 大矢英代 . Cinematography: Hirata Mamoru 平田守 .  Editor: Suzuo Keita 鈴尾啓太. Music: Fujii Yūji 藤井祐二   Interviewed: Sugeyama Ryōkō 瑞慶山良光 , Kudaka Eiichi 久高栄一 Tamazato Katsuzō 玉里勝三 Tamai Teiji 玉城貞二, Miyagi Kōji 宮城康二, Ōshiro Hirokichi 大城弘吉 . 



The horrible treatment that Okinawans received during the Pacific War, especially in its end stages, has been public knowledge for quite a while now, but of course there are stories from the Okinawan experiences that remain untold or insufficiently publicized. A committed movement in the postwar Japan against militarization of the Okinawan islands has drawn upon the tragic wartime history of the island population to remind the world that the horrors of wartime mobilization could repeat itself in the near future, if the Okinawans let the US-Japan international-security network in the Pacific that ultimately regard the local population as strategically “expendable” dictate their fates. One outcome of the concerted efforts to excavate the hidden history of the military exploitation of Okinawans is this documentary, co-directed by Mikami Chie (1964-), a veteran journalist at Ryūkyū Asahi Radio and director of such Okinawa-themed documentaries as The Targeted Village (2012), and Ōya Hanayo, a young former reporter for Ryūkyū Asahi Broadcasting Station and producer of the award-winning TV program The Terrorist Was Me (2016), about former US soldiers stationed in Okinawa who had become anti-war and anti-base activists.     

The film is far from a leftist screed, although some viewers who want to strenuously decouple contemporary global geopolitics from the histories of wartime Japan, Okinawa and the Pacific War might still find it “excessively political.” Mikami and Ōya ground their work firmly in the recollections of the septuagenarian and octogenarian Okinawan survivors of the Pacific War. Their accounts are told in an unhurried, minimalist manner avoiding dramatic emphases, rendering this film stylistically “conservative” compared to well-known non-fiction features dealing with memories of a war such as Erol Morris’s The Fog of War (2003).   

Harrowing, emotionally devastating yet ultimately hopeful, these stories contribute to the deepening of our historical understanding of not only the colonial and neo-colonial experiences of the Okinawans in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries but also the ways in which the Japanese wartime regime wanted to play the “end game” of their horrifying war.  The Army Nakano School established in 1938, the notorious anti-espionage and spy-training institution figures importantly in the narrative of establishment and deployment of Gokyōtai (The Hometown Protection Unit), a guerrilla paramilitary group specifically designed to attack and sabotage American troops moving into Okinawa and composed of young Okinawan boys aged fourteen to eighteen.  Some 160 boys perished in their combat actions against the Americans, and the filmmakers do not avert their eyes from graphic presentations of the horribly perforated and mangled remains of these children, captured in the photographs of the American soldiers.  A few of them were summarily executed by their “superiors” for their failure to be “good soldiers,” such as a boy named Takaesu who had apparently displayed symptoms of psychotic breakdown.  The “officer” from the mainland put a blanket over the hysterically laughing boy and summarily shot him dead, as recalled by a surviving Gokyōtai member.  Nakano School-trained counter-espionage specialists— 42 in total were sent to Okinawa, according to the filmmakers— infiltrated the Okinawan society, winning the trust of the locals, especially children: one such individual named Murakami Haruo played a charming, sophisticated “mainland” teacher to a group of schoolchildren, giving them pep talks and displaying warm smiles, only to take off his sheep’s skin once the American landing became imminent, organizing his “charges” into human grenades and mines and sending them to certain death.   



Another lesser-known episode that filmmakers discuss is the forced relocation of the residents of Hateruma island, one of the Okinawa’s many islands, to a section of the bigger Iriomote island. The residents were told to slaughter all of their livestock (Okinawans, unlike the sometimes ridiculously misleading “Blue Zone” characterization of them as nature-loving rustics living off fish and seaweed, were consuming much red meat prior to the advent of McDonalds and KFC in the postwar, US-military-dominated periods) so that the Americans, a “carnivore race,” could not make use out of them, but the meat was of course filched for the consumption of the Japanese soldiers.  And many residents knew that the relocation to Iriomote could expose them to malaria, already established to have been circulating in that section of the island.  The Nakano School agent named “Yamashita Torao” overruled these objections and pushed through the relocation.  As a result, many Hateruma island residents perished following prolonged suffering, having contracted malaria without availability of an adequate medical assistance. “Yamashita,” whose real name was Sakai Kiyoshi, did quite well as a civilian businessman after the war, becoming a factory owner, and the documentary records a chilling telephone interview with him by an Okinawan journalist, wherein he punctuates his complete denial of ever having “mistreated” the locals with smooth aizuchi (“yes, yes,” “of course, of course”) and personable guffaws.    

While the film is not short, clocking at nearly two hours, and some of the local details, such as names of the individual islands, could be a bit confusing for those unfamiliar with Okinawan geography, history and culture, it admirably holds the viewer’s interest and plays scrupulously fair to all participants, never lingering on any one particular issue for dramatic effect. It also does not merely focus on “human interest” stories and makes an attempt to reach out to historians and academics in order to make sense out of the eyewitness accounts in the context of modern Japanese history. Kawamitsu Akira, a specialist of Nago City history and author of numerous academic studies on the Gokyōtai and war orphans, and other historians argue that the Japanese army in truth never wanted to protect the civilian population of Okinawa, or for that matter, the civilian population of Japan, from the ravages of the war. Their objective had always been “protection of the kokutai,” the mythical “national body” embodied in the person of the emperor: the rest of the Japanese population was, in a word, “expendable.” The historical sources explored in the documentary illustrate that the plans to continue combatting, via guerrilla warfare and sabotage, the American forces should they end up landing and occupying Japan were in the works, and Okinawa was regarded as a prefatory stage for this eventuality.    




Can It Be Used in Class?   This documentary is currently uploaded with English subtitles as a paid rental service at Vimeo: you can access it from this URL.  The curated VOD channel MUBI has the present title in their catalogue with a trailer, but the film itself appears unavailable.  Taking into consideration difficulties of navigating such a dialogue-heavy film, you could assign this work as a supplementary material in a course covering modern Okinawan history, history of Japanese militarism and/or the end stages of the Pacific War. So often the American historical perspective about Okinawa is rigidly bifurcated between that of a particularly brutal battle theater in the late stages of the Pacific War and that of an exotic tourist spot with some sideline knowledge about the US military presence. The present documentary forces the viewers to recognize the immediacy and urgency of the history of the ongoing (neo-)colonial relationship between Japan and Okinawa and how such a history is also unavoidably intertwined with the ongoing presence of the US military stemming from the postwar US-Japan security partnership.  

The Japanese DVD (NTSC and all-region, so it should play in American and non-Japanese Asian players), issued from Kinokuniya Bookstore is well-produced with three rather substantial supplementary videos. For me, the first segment (clocking in around 17 minutes) regarding the post-production, marketing and the screening of the film for the local Okinawan viewers, is the most interesting and illuminating, the extremely fresh-looking director Ōya— looking hardly aged from her college student days— leaving a striking impression as an ethnographer-historian. The second video, longer at 37 minutes, is the longer version of the fieldwork footage involving the Cherry Blossom Sightseeing Society organized by the Gokyōtai survivors. The last short (19 minutes) is an edited recording of more eyewitness accounts at a public symposium discussing the Gokyōtai’s suppressed history.  All in all, this is an excellent presentation of a soft-spoken but provocative documentary that deserves to be seen by many viewers with more than a passing interest in the history of Japan, Okinawa and the Pacific War.

2022년 2월 16일 수요일

My Favorite Twenty Blu Rays/4K UHD Blu Rays of 2021

I am back with My Favorite Blu Ray (and 4K UHD Blu Ray) List of 2021.  Those who have checked back with this blog might have noticed that I was unable to upload the annual 2020 list, even though I was still able to upload the Korean language version.  It was all I could do to simply post a list of titles, sans screenshots, at various social media outlets.  The reason for this absence, the global plague that has demolished and damaged so many lives in the last year, should be obvious to anyone currently living on Planet Earth, so I will not belabor the point. 

However, I do want to mention that in 2021 I underwent a major physical transformation, not just by means of quasi-cybernetic surgeries augmenting parts of my body (that had taken place, too, but in previous years), but consciously engineered by me to improve my “health,” which, I have learned to my horror, fascination and ultimately enlightenment, is really a discursive construct.  No details about my diet (the dreaded and vilified K-diet… no, not Korean food diet, but the one that rhymes with “veto,” in the first three months of summer, and subsequently oscillating on the low-carb spectrum from the modified Atkins to the Mediterranean-with-red-meat-and-less-wine up to the present point, mid-February, 2022) as there are few things more boring than listening to middle-aged/old people lecturing, hectoring and/or whining about their body issues.  

Suffice to state that I now have some inkling of what Shin’ichi, the hero of Iwaaki Hitoshi’s Japanese manga masterpiece Parasyte (Kiseiju) must have felt like, especially after Migii, his “parasite,” partially merged with him on cellular level in order to save his life (read the manga if you are curious).   Who is that guy looking back at me from the other side of the mirror?  He looks like a Pod Person replica of me, but there was apparently a glitch in the copying process, and the aliens ended up with an incompletely aged version of myself who has the bodily shape of myself twenty years ago, just appropriately aging hair and wrinkles.  Or a parallel universe version of myself, somehow aged to the identical juncture in personal histories but with a radically different intervening experience starting off some point twenty years ago— sort of like Christian Vale playing the protagonist in Machinist and playing Bruce Wayne meeting in the same movie. It was simultaneously thrilling, funny and a little scary to meet up with one of my lovely former RAs at LA last November, and seeing her hesitant response, not entirely sure that I am actually Professor Kyu Hyun Kim she had known for many years.

Anyway, enough digressions.  Despite the ravages of the COVID-19, appreciation of old (not necessarily “classic”) motion pictures on my part has not been adversely affected at all, to say the very least.  2021 still saw a veritable glut of special editions, restored classics and not-so-classics, jaw-dropping boxsets containing 80-page, 90-page “booklets,” 4K UHD discs that literally brought theater-going experiences to my living room, and more.  Even though partly due to the above-mentioned physical transformation that did require an unprecedented level of commitment and prioritization on my part during the summer season, the overall number of Blu Ray and 4K UHD titles collected this year declined perhaps by 9-10 per-cent compared to 2021, but this is in my view a negligible change, and it was just as difficult in this year to distill the list to mere 20 titles for 2021 as it had been for any other year.  

Physical media marches on, and as I have already stated in my Best of 2019 post, the shrinkage of pie for Blu Rays in the overall audio-visual product market has been a given for the last twenty-five years and it literally does not matter in the big scheme of things. BTW, I actually own more than one hundred Korean (and non-Korean) movies as video files in my hard drives.  So I am not a physical media “purist” by a long shot.   It is just that if the choice is between downloading a movie for $19.99 for “ownership” at Vudu (don’t misunderstand, this is still my go-to website for renting a film for home theater) or Amazon, giving these companies the total right to “delete” these films anytime they want (you American believers of free market out there, you wouldn’t call this kind of deal perpetuated by Disney, Amazon, whatever, a real form of “ownership,” would you?  I didn’t think so), and owning an optic disc for the same price, I will always go for the latter.

As is the case with every year, I would like to reiterate that this list is not a compendium of the greatest or even historically most meaningful Blu Ray releases in 2021, nor is it an assessment of best restorations or the most high-quality presentations of particular motion pictures: it is a highly personal, eclectic and eccentric assessment of the discs that I had purchased last year, with the operating keywords being “(re) discovery” and “emotional responses.”  And as with the list in any other year, the selections here do not exactly replicate the Korean-language version uploaded here. I thought that as I age, the compartmentalization in my brain between Korean-language and English-language-speaking selves would gradually deteriorate.  Well, this did happen in some areas of my life, but in other areas, the division still holds.  And no, I do not feel “nostalgic” about South Korea in which I had grown up (although I love teaching about it to my students).  I was blessed with a very happy childhood with many material and educational privileges, but I vastly, totally, absolutely prefer today’s South Korean society, politics and cultures over those of the “old” version, even South Korea of twenty years ago, when the country was entering its embryonic phase as a global pop culture powerhouse of today.  
  
Onward now to the list!   Again, a note to those not familiar with Blu Rays: Region “A” discs are playable without modification in North America, Japan and South Korea, whereas Region “B” discs are playable only in Europe. 4K UHD Blu Rays, on the other hand, have no regional codes so you need not worry about purchasing discs released in the regions different from your own.   However, I do not recommend getting into collecting 4K UHD discs unless your home is equipped with a TV with at least 56-inch or larger-sized screen and other appropriate accoutrements for a high-end home theater.  You won’t feel much difference in the viewing experience otherwise.  

20.  Night Gallery Season One (1969-1971, Blu Ray- Region A, Kino Lorber-Universal) 



Often accorded little respect among the cognoscenti of the American genre TV as the inferior sibling of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, it was still one of those shows, like Circle of Fear and The Invaders, left indelible impression on me when it played with inexhaustible frequency at the AFKN TV network, mostly in black and white (color TV broadcasts in South Korea did not commence until the tail end of ‘70s).   This Blu Ray edition, which collects the pilot film composed of three segments, one of them starring Joan Crawford directed by Steven Spielberg (Did this wunderkind somehow convince Crawford that her character is supposed to be a sympathetic victim?), as well as 14 episodes of varying lengths and effectiveness from Season 1.    

 This Kino Lorber Blu Ray collection distinguishes itself by gathering together an impressive group of genre aficionados, scholars and TV historians as audio commentators, including Tim Lucas, Kim Newman, Constantine Nasr and Gary Gerani. They provide the appropriate context for appreciating innovations as well as limitations of this troubled series.   I particularly appreciated, as a historian, Craig Beam’s video essay on the ways in which the series was butchered by the powers-that-be for syndicated reruns, intermixed with dollops of completely inappropriate stock footage culled from a variety of sources.    

 
19.  The Dead Zone (1983, Blu Ray- Region A, Scream Factory)   



David Cronenberg, as of 2021 reported as embarking on a brand new horror film, has been served well by the physical media, with such specialty labels as Criterion, Arrow and 101 Films competitively releasing the master’s oeuvre in ever-expanding and elaborate special editions.   Now it is Shout! Factory’s turn, as they drop us a very welcome Blu Ray edition of The Dead Zone, perhaps Cronenberg’s most mainstream work, with a new 4K scan of the original negative and a series of substantial supplements. 

Watching this film again for the umpteenth time via this sparkling new Blu Ray edition, I am struck by just how powerful and sensitive Chris Walken’s portrayal of Johnny Smith is, and how affecting and authentic his bittersweet relationship with the Brooke Adams character comes across as.  I speculate, along with The Fly, this “tragic romance” angle, enlivened by the film’s unconventional but brilliant casting (Stephen King allegedly wanted Bill Murray in the role of the clairvoyant!), is what endows The Dead Zone with its strong beyond-horror-fandom and non-gender-specific appeal.    

 
18. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, Blu Ray- Region B, Arrow Video)   



One of the most controversial, most beautiful and most affecting horror films ever made in South Korea have been subject to its share of debates and criticisms, and its physical media iterations too, mainly due to the color timing issues.   Arrow’s special edition Blu Ray does not exactly resolve this issue to everyone’s satisfaction, using as it does the HD transfer used for the South Korean release of some years ago. Otherwise, it is filled to the brim with supplementary materials many of which do not replicate those of the already jam-packed South Korean Blu Ray edition.   Of particular interest to students of New Korean Cinema are video essays by Pierce Conran, a Korean film specialist and the manager of the Modern Korean Cinema website, and Kat Ellinger, who requires little introduction to the collectors of horror-fantasy physical media releases in the UK.    


17. The Cool Lakes of Death (1982, Blu Ray- Region Free, Cult Epics)   



This Dutch film, much talked about but seldom seen, is primarily renowned as a star-making role for the actress Reneé Soutendijk, in a film that fascinatingly combines the conventions and styles of a Swedish psychodrama, a literary adaptation in the British Masterpiece Theater mode and in-your-face, overtly sexualized melodramatics of Central European cinema into an indelible mix.  It is by no means a perfect film, nor is it likely to appeal to the viewers of all persuasion, but there is no questioning the impeccable presentation that Cult Epics wrangled out of the vaults, beginning with a new 4K restoration from the original negative.  And Soutendijk is a feast to the eyes of the viewers all by herself, with her daring yet sensitive portrayal of a woman whose path to happiness and self-realization is constantly beset by both the specific obtuseness and hypocrisies of 19th century Christian “civilization” as well as the sheer cruelty of the fate.   
  

16. The One-Armed Boxer (1971, Blu Ray- Region B, Eureka!)


This is another film that I had a chance to watch as a kid (with my paternal uncle, if I remember correctly) in a jam-packed South Korean theater with an eager and enthusiastic audience.  I vividly remember that being impressed by the title track, not realizing that it was wholesale pilfered (illegally, of course) from Isaac Hayes’ Shaft.  Many years later, when I had a chance to watch the film in a Japanese dubbed version (I in fact own the Japan-released Blu Ray) I was surprised to hear a perfectly decent, uber-funky original score (composed by Joseph Koo, who also did other Hong Kong films including Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon).  Well, both versions are included in this great presentation from Eureka!  The film is a fascinating blend of exaggerated ethnic stereotypes functioning as villainous but superhuman traits, combined with a kabuki-like theatricality of “chop socky” action.  It is almost as stylized as a Japanese sentai (think Power Ranger) series, which explains its popularity among Japanese, despite the almost grotesque presentation of the head Japanese villain as literally an ogre with two-inch incisors protruding from his mouth.

 

15.  The Damned (1969, Blu Ray- Region A, Criterion Collection)



I have always had mixed feelings about the “fascism as erotic/sexual corruption” subgenre of European cinema, starting with The Conformist (which I believe is a masterpiece despite my misgivings about its sexual politics) and down to Night Porter (which I believe is not even good as a pornography.  Give me Radley Metzger over this kind of self-important, self-consciously “disturbing” Liliana Cavanini claptrap any time of the year).  Sitting somewhere in the middle in my estimation is Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, with the kind of once-in-a-lifetime international cast colliding into an icy melodrama of familial conspiracy, corruption, sexual predation and betrayal, interspersed with the disturbingly authentic-looking sequences of young, naked Nazi soldiers violently frolicking, cross-dressing and then belting out patriotic and military songs in German.  Criterion Collection’s excellent presentation properly contextualize this problematic work within Visconti’s oeuvre as an aristocratic and gay Italian filmmaker. 


14. Irezumi (1966, Blu Ray- Region A, Arrow Video)


I honestly do not believe there has been any cinematic adaptation of Tanizaki Jun’ichiro that has avoided some form of controversy, or fans of the Japanese author attacking it for just not “getting” what makes his novels so exquisitely and sometimes disturbingly attractive.  Premier among the cinematic adaptors of Tanizaki is incontrovertibly Masumura Yasuzo, whose Manji (1964) can be used as a great example of how to tackle a supposedly “unfilmable” work of literature.  Irezumi, another adaptation of a Tanizaki story, shows a strong color of the screenwriter Shindo Kaneto, and perhaps pushes the story a bit away from its almost psychedelic masochism toward not-quite-feminist, socially angry pulp noir. Yet a mere vista of Wakao Ayako’s amazing performance as a uber-femme fatale with the demon-faced spider tatoo squirming in her backside, rendered in the hypnotically eroticized, deeply shaded color cinematography by the master Miyagawa Kazuo, is sufficient to make any nay-sayer look like a complete idiot.  Arrow’s expert presentation based on Kadokawa’s new 4K restored transfer is accompanied by reliable scholarly exegeses, topped by an audio commentary by David Desser. 

 

13. The Forbidden Door (2009, Blu Ray- Region Free, Severin Films)


Indonesian genre films have steadily been gaining international reputation since at least mid-2000s, and I am partial to them (as opposed to, say, the more aesthetically consistent Thai horror films) for various reasons.  Joko Anwar’s Forbidden Door is one of those films with cult reputations that nonetheless seem to fall through the cracks.  I have been on a lookout for a decent physical media presentation of this ambitious third directorial effort from Anwar, but it literally dropped on my lap from Severin Films in 2021.  Now that Severin has not only this film but also the 1982 original Satan’s Slaves (which Anwar remade into another crackling horror in 2017) under their belt, it is sincerely hoped that they will continue the mine the rich treasury of Southeast Asian-Indonesian horror in the future. 

 

12.  The Invisible Man Appears/ The Invisible Man vs. Human Fly (1949-1957, Blu Ray- Region A, Arrow Video)



Arrow’s expertise in curation of the more obscure titles from the vaults of classic Japanese cinema is currently unmatched by any other label, including the studios in Japan.  These two takes on Invisible Man tropes are fascinating in their reflection of the immediate postwar Japanese culture and mores, but also in their reworking of the prewar legacies of Japanese cinema, such as the striking presence of the androgynous musical star Mizunoe Takiko.  The competent special effects for The Invisible Man Appears are the handiworks of Tsuburaya Eiji, who in 1948 had been fired from Toho Studios by the Allied Powers GHQ for his technical contribution to the wartime propaganda films, and for whom this unassuming programmer was the first special effects supervisor credit after that harrowing experience. 

 

11. Daimajin Collection (1966, Blu Ray- Region A, Arrow Video)



The three Daimajin films, minor classics of the Japanese special effects cinema and all released within the space of one year, like Gamera the Flying Turtle films, have previously been available as blu rays via Mill Creek productions, but Arrow’s gorgeous designed box set simply ups the ante by showering the film with meticulous attention befitting a high-end catalogue for a major museum exhibition of a renowned woodblock artist.  As is the case with Gamera collections, the astonishing care and respect Arrow pours on these titles by themselves warrant a double dipping for any serious collector of the Asian genre cinema. 

 

9. The Dungeon of Andy Milligan Collection (1968-1998, Blu Ray- Region Free, Severin Films) 



One of the massive, jaw-dropping boxset collections to have come out in 2021, the Andy Milligan collection is only ranked at the tail end of the Ten Best because, let’s face it, some of Milligan’s films do not necessarily invite multiple revisits, even for seasoned connoisseurs of the cult and exploitative cinema.  Having said that, would I shell out the dough for the Andy Milligan boxset any day over a Jess Franco or Lars von Trier boxset?  You bet your steaming mug of matcha latte!  The lot of the Staten Island maverick’s oeuvre are not merely grungy or scuzzy, but imbued with a strangely authentic nastiness that is in many ways a hallmark of a genuine auteur, someone who is working out a twisted personal vision.  The dedication and commitment that Severin put into this boxset is, needless to say, exemplary and sets the bar as high as any collector could ever hope.

 

8. Cast a Dark Shadow/Wanted for Murder (1946-1955, Blu Ray- Region A, Cohen Media)


I purchased this double feature release from Cohen Media based on only the titles and the designation “British film noir.” Turns out that this was the “why didn’t I know about this movie until now?” title of 2021.  Both films draw upon the idioms of classic mysteries but also reflect the dark undercurrents of postwar film noir in their styles, characterizations and themes.  Cast a Dark Shadow in particular is distinguished by a remarkable performance from a young Dirk Bogarde, strikingly sympathetic and complex, even when he is plotting a cold-blooded murder of his much older wife.

 

7-6. The Day of the Beast/Perdita Durango (1995-1997, 4K UHD Blu Ray, Severin Films)




This year’s 4K UHD selections went to the surprise releases of Alexis de la Iglesia’s audacious and more than a little crazy ‘90s prime cut examples of extreme cinema, The Day of the Beast and Perdita Durango, the latter film memorable for, among other things, having introduced to me Javier Bardem and pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini (that was already fifteen years ago!  Egad…).  Seen in this sparkling ultra-high-definition presentations, these two early works of de la Iglesia come across as unexpectedly nostalgic and robustly cinematic, with strong ties to the macho-excessive, in-your-face works of American masters from earlier generations, such as the films of Robert Aldrich, whose magnificent “dirty” Western Vera Cruz is reverentially referenced in Perdita. 

 

5.  Nightmare Alley (1947, Blu Ray- Region A, Criterion Collection)



One can debate whether this unsung masterpiece from the immediate postwar period is actually a film noir, but no matter.  It features an authentically great performance by Tyrone Power, as a beautiful-looking carny barker who plots to make it big as a spiritualist with the help of titanium-hearted psychiatrist femme fatale Lilith Ritter, played with great aplomb by Helen Walker.  Criterion’s very welcome special edition does this unexpectedly thoughtful and deeply mysterious “thriller of the soul” justice. The graphic design is especially pleasing, including a set of major arcana Tarot deck designed by Ricardo Diseño, representing the Tarot signs represented by the film’s characters (Lilith is designated as The Emperor, a truly apt choice!).

 

4. Mill of the Stone Women (1960, Blu Ray- Region A, Arrow Video)



After nearly fifty years, I am still rediscovering the European-Filipino-Japanese-Mexican-Latin American horror films that I had watched through the crack opened up between my comforter and pillow on the American Forces Korean Network channel in late ‘60s and early ‘70s, where such titles as Brides of Blood (1968) would air uncensored (yep, all nudity and gore intact) and in black and white. Mill of the Stone Women is one of the premier titles that I remember from these days, because it is the one that for one reason or another my Dad translated key dialogues for my benefit, not that you had any difficulty following the thread of horrific events taking place in the film, by simply taking in visual information onscreen. 

Mondo Macabro had previously brought this film out to DVD, but Arrow Video’s lavish Blu Ray special edition justifies the double dipping any way you cut it.  Arrow performed a 2K restoration on the original negative, but also presents four different versions in Italian, French and English languages with varying extents of exploitation contents and rolls out a series of unbeatable supplementary materials spearheaded by a Tim Lucas commentary and an essay on female wax figures/statues in Gothic horror films by Kat Ellinger. Topping it all off are sumptuous art design with illustrations by Adam Rabalais.  In a nutshell, the boxset is a work of art in and of itself. 


3. Shawscope Collection vol. 1 (1972-1979, Blu Ray- Region A, Arrow Video)


I do not believe any self-respecting fan of Sinophone martial arts films (should I keep using the designation “kung fu” films?  Most characters of these films do use the term kung fu or gongfu, so it is perhaps not so far off the mark) could possibly pass up this twelve-film collection that comes with an appropriately widescreen-formatted booklet and original illustrations from a host of artists that reproduce the look and feel of the ‘70s Asian theater marquees.  A special mention should be made about the fact that some of these Shaw Brothers extravaganzas— especially King Boxer, The Five Venoms, and The Boxer from Shantung, which I have been able to check out in some detail— have been restored by Arrow from the original negatives and sport the looks significantly different from their previous HD editions, much more film-like and missing that excessively smooth countenance familiar from some Celestial Pictures transfers of the Hong Kong classic films.  

And of course, the fans need not be reminded that this collection, massive and overwhelming as it is, is only volume one! 


2.  Deep Cover (1992, Blu Ray- Region A, Criterion Collection)



On top of my list for a long time for the most desirable American titles from late ‘80s-early ‘90s that should have received special edition treatments but been neglected for all these years (other titles include M Butterfly and The Mosquito Coast), Deep Cover is in my view the most interesting and politically prescient urban Afro-American films that came out in this era, more so than anything directed by Spike Lee, the Hughes Brothers or Mario Van Peebles.  Twenty years of time has only deepened our appreciation of the film’s trenchant and direct critique of the Reaganite-Republican hypocrisies of the so-called War on Drugs, its enormously entertaining filmmaking finesse, and great acting by the participants all around, including only once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Lawrence Fishburne, also in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, and Jeff Goldblum, just coming off playing the hideous psychopathic killer in Mr. Frost.  This is not exactly Sidney Poitier bantering with Tony Curtis, folks, uh-uh, nope.

 

1.  The Eurocrypt of Christopher Lee Collection (1962-1972, Blu Ray- Region A/Region Free, Severin Films)


This year’s number one title goes to another unreal boxset crafted with love and care by the good folks of Severin.  This boxset includes some films that are, let’s be honest, complete duds, the kind of films that would not necessarily merit inclusion in a sumptuous collection such as this had they not starred Christopher Lee.  After all these years, I am realizing that, among all deceased great film actors regardless of their nationality, training or eras they were active in, I miss Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee most.  I dearly wish they are still around, appearing in all manners of movies.  How much I would have loved to see Mr. Cushing appearing as one of the villains or sympathetic scientists in a South Korean SF or horror film!  Yes, I do dearly miss Sir Laurence Oliver, Kirk Douglas, Heo Jang-gang (the premier villain actor in classic Korean cinema), Mifune Toshiro, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Bruce Lee (Notice that I am confining myself to male actors here.  I am hundred percent sure I will get a chance to ramble on like this about deceased great female actors soon), but none of them occupy quite the position Mr. Cushing and Mr. Lee have in my movie fan’s pantheon of great stars.  

We should consider ourselves fortunate that these gentlemen have left such a bountiful legacy, many of which after all these years are ripe for rediscovery.  So perhaps my nostalgia pushed this boxset to the top position in the list.  So be it.  I really cannot think of a more appropriate reason for it belonging here. 

So it is finally done this year as well!  Better late than never, what can I say?   My profound thanks to all the labels who keep believing in the physical media as the premier venue for watching classic cinema, led by Severin Films and Arrow Video, but also including Criterion Collection, Kino Lorber, Shout! Factory, Cohen Media, Vinegar Syndrome, Cult Epics, Studio Canal, Warner Archive Collection, Powerhouse Indicator and many others.  Additional showers of gratitude to ever-reliable online reviewers, again led by DVD Savant and Mondo Digital, and including DVD Beaver, Blu-ray.com and other sites.  Let us all hope that 2022 will see resumption of the semblance of normalcy for movie theaters, but I have zero concern as far as the continued availability of great classical films on the physical media.   

One final note: Severin’s stupendous, jaw-dropping boxset, All the Haunts be Ours: A Compendium of Folk Horror, was obtained in early weeks of January and I briefly considered including it in the 2021 list, but I have decided not to.  I was not really concerned about technicalities such as whether the boxset was really copyrighted to 2021 or 2022, but the fact that it included so many titles that I was not even aware of and doing it justice would definitely take more time than merely one month or so. It will be amazing if any other boxset/special edition beats it out for the top spot in the 2022 list! 

2021년 8월 9일 월요일

Depicting Korean History Beyond "Factual Accuracy"-- An Interview with Professor Ki Kyong-ryang on Representation of History in Contemporary Korean Cinema and TV Dramas

Having been teaching Korean and Japanese history at a wonderful American public university for more than 25 years, I have always been meaning to put up a series of discussions regarding representation of history in Korean and Japanese cinema. Those who have been following my Q Branch blog know that many of my reviews of the Korean and Japanese films have engaged with the question of whether they could serve as good educational texts for my students interested in learning about Korean and Japanese histories.  

With this entry, I seek to launch a new series of interviews with some real academic experts on Korean history and culture that go beyond the usual hair-splitting exercises on how “accurately” a particular work of New Korean Cinema reflects Korean history and culture.  The recent controversy regarding the hybrid-genre TV drama Joseon Exorcist [Joseon Gumasa, hereafter JE] which was abruptly cancelled by its home station, SBS, in March 2021 after airing only two episodes, I believe provides an entry point for tackling the complex question of the representation of history in New Korean Cinema. 

The first expert who had graciously agreed to an interview despite his busy schedule is Professor Ki Kyoung-ryang, Assistant Professor of Korean History at the Catholic University of Korea.  He received his Ph. D. in Korean history, specializing in ancient period, from Seoul National University in 2017, and is currently conducting research on the castle-towns of Goguryeo kingdom.  Professor Ki has always been interested in the close communication between professional historians and the general public: he is a regular panelist in the podcast group Maninmansaek Yeoksagongjakdan and has been one of the vocal critics of the chauvinistic pseudo-histories that have gained a good deal of popularity over the years.  


This interview was conducted on June 20, 2021, through Zoom.  It has been edited and somewhat shortened for clarity and economy. However, I have done my best to capture the actual flavor of the exchange we have had throughout this highly informative session. The contents of this interview are copyrighted to Professor Ki Kyoung-ryang and Koreanfilm.org.  Any citation or reproduction without an explicit permission of Professor Ki is forbidden and will be regarded as a breach of copyright laws as defined by the United States and South Korean courts.  “Q” refers to Kyu Hyun Kim and “K” refers to Professor Ki Kyoung-ryang in the subsequent text.

Q: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview despite your busy schedule! I found your writings regarding the convoluted and complex relationship between historical studies as an academic discipline and popular cultural presentation of Korean history extremely illuminating.  Your latest reflections on this issue were spurred by the abrupt cancellation of the TV drama due to the public outcry that it was “historically distorting” (waegok 歪曲) and subservient to the Chinese interests. I thought this unfortunate incident would mark an interesting occasion to examine this issue of the relationship between history and popular culture in the context of Korean cinema and TV dramas. Do you think the criticisms levelled at the drama were typical or somewhat unique? 
K: It is somewhat unique in the sense that this reflects a very recent trend. First, it was assumed that JE was reflecting the ideology behind the so-called Northeast Project (東北工程, short for Research Project on the History and Current State of the Northeast Borderlands, originally slated as a five-year plan between 2003 and 2007).  This project has angered many Koreans for its perceived treatment of Goguryeo, Pohai and other regions that Koreans consider as a part of their history as Northeastern borderlands of China. Throughout the subsequent decade, the Northeast Project has become a shorthand for Chinese arrogance and imperialistic intent among many Koreans. In truth, there is hardly any content in JE that explicitly promoted the Northeast Project.  However, the hostility directed at Chinese “appropriation” of Korean history, and in fact the underlying anger toward the imperialistic condescension implied in such behavior, happened to find a powerful vent through this episode.  One of the most controversial scenes set in an Euiju inn featured Korean characters eating what appeared to be Chinese food presented as “Korean” in a rather barbaric, brusque manner, provoking some viewers to see this as both misrepresentation of Korean culture as well as sly infiltration of Chinese-ness into a popular cultural product clearly set in Korea.    
Q: Generation gap may be a factor in this turn of events, don’t you think?
K: That certainly seems to be one of the reasons. The older generation probably does not quite understand how young South Koreans— those under 30s— take strong pride in the global success of their popular culture. And many among the latter are intensely aware how some Chinese pop cultural products seem to “copy” Koreans. 

An official poster for Joseon Exorcist.
Q: That is precisely the kind of behavior that Korean pop culture industry shamelessly used to indulge in three to four decades ago with Japanese pop culture. Comic books, TV variety shows…
K: Absolutely. Of course, Japan used to wholesale “copy” Hollywood and American pop culture, especially immediately after losing the Pacific War. The difference perhaps is that Chinese government, if not Chinese people, considers itself a “big nation” and many Koreans, who, like many other citizens of today’s world, tend to see the nations in terms of a hierarchical order, with Republic of Korea now at least in terms of affluence and cultural sophistication “ahead” of China, take a strong umbrage at this behavior.  There was in fact a Korean TV drama titled Mr. Queen [哲仁王后, 2020], which if I remember correctly was moderately successful.  However, there was some criticism of the drama at that time, because it was based on a Chinese source novel.  Its writer subsequently wrote JE and the critics quickly found a connection.  The station released an explanation that Chinese capital was not involved in producing the latter TV drama, but it was wholly inadequate in stemming the negative tide. 

Q: So, the “nationalistic” negative surge regarding JE is different from the familiar “nationalistic” animosity against Japan?
K: I think it is different. The latter tends to be tied to the issue of resolving the painful history of colonial experience. In contrast, the issue with JE is connected, I think, to the recent global success of the Korean popular culture and its incommensurability with what Koreans perceive as “hegemonic” behavior of the Chinese government as well as some among the Chinese population. In any case, the TV drama was more of a symbolic item, functioning as a lightning rod that attracted the powerful electric charge building up in the storm cloud of negative public opinion for some years.

Q: Most interesting.  Things have indeed shifted greatly since the times in which I had grown up in Seoul. Can we expand the scope of the discussion a bit, and inquire your opinions about the relationship between historical dramas (sageuk) and history as studied by academic historians as reflected in Korean cinema (and TV dramas) in the last decade and a half or so?
K: Broadly speaking, they have become more beautiful to look at, more aesthetically pleasing, better designed and materially better endowed.  Recent TV dramas appear to evince a stronger trend of moving away from the “realistic recreation of the past” model, mixing in deliberate anachronisms, fantastic elements and so on. But this trend is also discernible among theatrical feature films. Also the more successful TV dramas like Daejanggeum [Jewel in the Palace, 2003], I think, show a greater level of creative reinterpretation, rather than following conventional stories that every Korean knows already.

Q:
Oh, I cannot go any further without asking what you thought of Daejanggeum!  [Laughter]
K: I actually enjoyed it a lot.  The drama focused on the everyday details of Joseon dynasty folks and upped the ante in terms of aesthetic quality.  Of course, many of the details took creative license with historical studies had so far revealed about the life in early Joseon dynasty, beginning with some of the impossibly appetizing cuisine that Janggeum and other members of the royal kitchen staff come up with in the show, which more often than not reflect our modern conception of the Joseon dynasty “great food” than the historical reality.  But what was really significant about Daejanggeum was, in my view, its characters and narrative were far more important than “history:” Korean history served as a background, neither its theme nor its raison d’etre. Watching the drama, or other ones like it, while superbly entertaining and even moving, does not necessarily give us new insights or understandings of the past. 


Q: So even Daejanggeum is limited as a historical drama? 
K: Well, to be honest, I sort of disagree with some of my colleagues, professional historians, who tend to believe that “accurate recreation of the past” is the reason why we make and watch historical dramas.  It might be a bit strange coming from a historian [Laughter] but I do not believe “history” has to at all times take priority over “literature” or other forms of creative endeavor.  Having said that, I do find the obvious tampering of well-known historical facts to score some plot points, or to emphasize a particular character’s villainous qualities, rather less effective or problematic. 

Q:  I wholeheartedly agree. I previously wrote about Lee Jun-ik’s Blades of Blood (2010) messing with the chronology of Joseon dynasty history, just to grind the director’s axe aimed at King Seonjo (r. d. 1567-1608) as a failed monarch. I have been complaining for some time about “presentism” in many Korean sageuk, using historical figures as shorthand projections of contemporary political figures, which at worst could be a form of disrespect for the historical personages.  In addition, the producers and writers of these movies and TV dramas seldom draw upon what I actually think are really “dramatic,” interesting and intriguing stories, utterances and events in the existing historical sources, even from the often-relied-upon Joseon wangjo sillok (Real Records of the Joseon Dynasty).
K:  I remember one of my junior colleagues who had spent considerable time digging up the more historically authentic cultural representations, such as dress designs, for a TV drama (which shall remain nameless here: let’s just stay it was set in Three Kingdoms Period) for which he was a consultant. In the end, he had to ask for his credit removed because his painstaking work was virtually ignored.  He was in essence told that his more authentic findings were “not attractive or magnificent enough.”      

Q: Can we talk about negative and positive recent examples among the sageuk, for now confining ourselves to feature films? 
K: Oh boy. [Laughter] You mentioned that you thought rather positively of Kim Han-min’s War of the Arrows (2011).  Let’s say I cannot say the same thing about his far more commercially successful next effort, The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014).  However, Lee Joon-ik’s The Throne (2015) I can cite as one of the more positive recent examples.  I think the latter film successfully evaded the popular conception of Prince Sado as a tragic victim of the court intrigue and attempted to capture complexities of his character based on actual historical records, illuminating in the process some of the less-than-generous qualities of Yeongjo’ behavior as his father and other aspects of its supposedly well-known characters and events. 


 Roaring Currents, on the other hand, fails to present any fresh insight or interpretation regarding its central protagonist, Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598), not to say Choi Min-shik playing the general did not do a great job.  Presenting Admiral Yi as some kind of “democratic” or “populist” hero was possibly one of the reasons the film appealed so much to the contemporary Korean moviegoers.  However, aside from this almost pandering attitude toward the ticket buyers, the film was in my view not much different from the kind of nationalist biopic produced during the military dictatorships. 
Q: Having been a practicing historian of Japan for nearly thirty years, I was bothered by its shallow and stereotypical characterization of Japanese enemies, although this is more or less par for the course in Korean popular culture.
K: Right, there is a long Korean tradition of popular cultural representation of Admiral Yi, in which he is always exalted for being a great general, strategist, et cetera, by his Japanese enemies.  However, having said all this, I do acknowledge that there are few recent Korean sageuk movies set in the ancient, medieval or early modern periods that are as flagrantly bad as, say, some of the more obstreperously political “historical” films set in the modern period, such as Operation Chromite (2016).  Most of them seem to reach a certain level of competency these days, at least in terms of their production qualities. 

Q: Is there a particular subject, topic or figure in the entirety of Korean history you feel has been neglected or inadequately treated by Korean cinema? 
K: Hmm.  Nothing specific comes to my mind at this moment… however, I will say that Goryeo period has relatively been neglected, in comparison to the ancient (Three Kingdoms, Unified Silla) and early modern (Joseon) periods.  For Joseon period, of course, there are bountiful historical sources. Plus, it is easier for the producers to materially reconstruct the period details. The ancient periods could be rendered with the narratives centered on the wars and national conflicts.  During the Goryeo period, the Military Rule (1170-1270) era has so far received a lion’s share of attention, but among professional historians, the late Goryeo period under the Mongol [Yuan] Empire’s domination (approximately 1259-1356) is being cast in a new light. In these studies, the Goryeo regime “intervened” by the Yuan empire is reinterpreted not as a weak state completely under the thumb of the powerful Mongol suzerain but as a dynamic subject both influencing and influenced by the greater changes in Asia.  Having said this, I do not know if Korean moviegoing public is ready to accept a movie that truthfully explores the complex hybrid reality of late Goryeo dynasty.
 

 A portrait of King Gongmin, one of the later Goryeo kings and his
Mongol wife, Queen Noguk, a.k.a. Borjigin Budasiri.

Q:What do you think about my question that too many Korean sageuk films and TV dramas focus on kings, good or bad?
K: I think the interest in royal family might not easily abate, but the more recent producers and viewers appear to be more interested in princes than kings. 
Q: Aha. 
K: The princes are figures of possibility rather than establishment and serve as better identification figures especially for the younger generations of viewers.  I also think that it is to a certain extent inevitable that the public prefers to watch films and TV dramas featuring pageantry and pomp of the royal personages, an opulent and luxury-filled world far removed from their everyday lives, than those set in more mundane settings. Just like the way a good deal of modern-day-set Korean TV dramas take place among the chaebol super-rich!   

Q: My wish is that one day we could see a Korean film set in, say, Goryeo period and a viewer reaction would be “What the heck? How could this be Goryeo? This looks like a foreign country, not Korea!” And the filmmaker would respond, “You are absolutely right. The movie is set in a foreign country called Goryeo, not in Korea.”[Laughter] 
K: I am actually rather optimistic about the prospect of eventually witnessing a genuinely challenging cinematic sageuk, that, as you put it, renders the (mistakenly) familiar into the (truthfully) unfamiliar again.  Even regarding the ever-problematic superficial obsession on material details, as the example of the so-called “Korean hat” becoming widely popular among the non-Korean viewers due to the Netflix zombie sageuk series Kingdom (2019-2020) demonstrates, getting these details “right” could pay off with unexpected dividends.    
Q: I agree!  I only wish the producers and filmmakers understand that you don’t really need to invent a zombie epidemic (not that such an effort is not worthwhile) to tell interesting and compelling stories or portray amazingly fascinating characters set in the distant Korean past, that “real” history has an ample supply of these and more. 

Q: Well, regrettably we have come to the finishing line. Any final thoughts? 
K: I hope that more open and friendly channels of communication between academic historians and the creative people come into being, instead of the latter only consulting the former to maintain their baseline of “factual correctness,” which are often ignored anyway in the end, or the former viewing the creative products only to nitpick about how the latter got everything wrong.  We can probably help each other a lot more than we currently do, to the ultimate benefit of the Korean film industry. 
Q: Thank you so much for a hugely educational and wonderful discussion! 
K: You are so very welcome.