Korea, Girlhood and Cinema: some reflections.


By Dr Kate Taylor-Jones, Senior Lecturer in East Asian Studies, SEAS

Earlier this year, Dr Fiona Handside and myself published a collection of essays entitled International Cinema and the Girl (London: Palgrave Mcmillan). Inside this collected edition we bought together a group of scholars to explore how the girl has been visualized in global cinema. Our broad aims were to explore the cinematic girl outside the mainstream American social context in which many of us are surrounded by. For example how many young women have seen, and have been influenced by, Hollywood features such as the Step Up series (2006-2014, various directors) or the older Mean Girls (2004, Mark Waters) despite the fact that the images of teenage girls shown are often completely at odds with their real life experiences. We were keen to explore how the girl has been visualized outside of Hollywood images and to this end we explored the cinema from over eleven countries to show how the girl has been show in nations as diverse as Italy, France, Argentina, Iran, Japan as well as the USA and the UK.

As writer John Hartley comments in the last few decade’s girls have been “up to their ankles, if not their necks, in public signification, becoming objects of public policy, public debate, the public gaze”. What he means by this is that for global popular culture ‘the girl’ has become the site and the symbol of both public fascination, (her looks, her fashion, her music), whilst at the same time this young female has become a site of anxiety and social panic (teen pregnancy, sexting, teenage consumerism etc.).

So what of the girl in the context of East Asia? My own recent work on this figure has been more historical in nature and the film Mimong/Sweet Dreams has especially fascinated me. Originally released in 1936, Sweet Dreams (directed by Yang Joo-nam) is one of the earliest surviving Korean films to have emerged from the China Film Archive in 2010. For those interested in film history it has been commonly presumed that most of the cinema from pre-1945 Korea has been lost but the discovery of a few films in various far-flung archives and the Korean Film Council’s restoration and distribution of them, has allowed scholars and audiences alike a chance to engage with the cinema of this period.

For those who wish to watch more Korean cinema, the Korean Film Council’s YouTube channel allows you to watch a vast number of Korean films for free and this includes Sweet Dreams. This new engagement has not only taken place as a result of the practical availability of products. There has been a steadily growing shift in the academic approach to the early period of Korean cinema that has been informed by the dialogues and questioning of colonial and post-colonial studies (including my own forthcoming monograph study). The early period in Korean film history was, for many years, consigned to a small paragraph lamenting Korea’s colonial status and there was a dismissal of any products made under Japanese rule as more part of Japanese cinema than Korean. However, film scholars in the last couple of decades now understand this period as both an innovative time in its own right and the complex birthplace of the modern Korean cinematic moment.¹

Returning to the topic of girlhood, I find Sweet Dreams a fascinating study for more than just its place in film history. What interests me is the role that the female plays and, more specifically, the way that ideas of girlhood are engaged with throughout the film. Following the story of an adulterous housewife, Sweet Dreams offers a vision of a new and modern colonial space. We see busy road networks, train stations, jazz cafes, coffee shops and department stores. In short, Sweet Dreams reflects the moment of compressed and enforced colonial modernity that Korea was undergoing. Korea had been officially occupied by Japan in 1910 and had undergone a radical process of modernisation with the nation restructured with a series of land, legal, monetary, educational and linguistic reforms. Women played an important role in Japan’s aims and ambitions for the citizens of her colony and new modern vision of womanhood, which often came into conflict with the traditional Korean Confucian-based vision of the female status.

The bodies of young colonial females who were no longer clearly demarcated as child were a problematic entity. Their in-between status was therefore a point of concern and potential site of disruption. This fixation of the girl as the site of disruption can be more clearly illustrated in the contemporary debate on the ‘modern girl’. Specific to the time frame of Sweet Dreams, the modern girl dominated the popular press of the 1920s and 1930s. The modern girl in the Korean context had been imported from Japan. The Modaru Garu, stylized on the American flapper, had burst on to the Korean cultural scene in the early 1920s alongside other key visions of modernity such as music, consumer goods and the motorcar. She quickly became a figure of social fear and stigmatization and was identified with promiscuity, prostitution, drug and drink abuse and, more shockingly, her actions and beliefs seemed to be working towards the dismantling of the centuries old rigid family and patriarchal structures². This new female mode of being was therefore both celebrated and condemned in equal measure.

In Sweet Dreams she was both a potential figure of liberation and a worrying tale of deviant femininity. In the longer paper, that will hopefully by published early next year, I argue that by focusing of the role of the female in Sweet Dreams, we can see a film that reveals the very artifice on which the colonial narratives of the period were built upon. Anita Harris³ notes that girlhood has come to function as a kind of container for narratives of both anxiety and progress – a situation that holds true even in the early days of cinematic girlhood. In a film such as Sweet Dreams, we can see how narratives of both anxiety and progress are bought together in a filmic moment that serves to reflect the cultural milieu of Korea in the period of colonial modernity at the same time as it promoted the early origins of a specifically Korean cinema.

¹ See, Micheal Baskett, The Attractive Empire: Transnational Film Culture in Imperial Japan. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009), Brian Yecies and Ae-Gyung Shim, Korea’s Occupied Cinemas, 1893-1948, London and New York: Routledge Press, 2011) and Jung-Bong Choi ‘Mapping Japanese Imperialism onto Postcolonial Criticism’, Social Identities, vol. 9, no. 3 (2003) pp. 325-339
²Miriam Silverberg, ‘The Modern girl as Militant’ in Gail Lee Bernstein (ed), Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945 (Berkley: University of California Press, 1991) and Hyaeweol Choi, ‘Wise Mother, Good Wife’: A Trans-cultural Discursive construct in Modern Korea’, Journal of Korean Studies vol.14, no.1 (2009), pp.1-34.
³Anita Harris, Future Girl: Young Women in the 21st Century (New York: Routledge, 2004)