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.
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.
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.