Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South
Korean Cinema: The Coachman and
The Stray Bullet
This paper examines two remarkable films from the Golden Age of South Korean cinema (1955–72) against the larger sociocultural backdrop of postwar South Korea.
The films Mabu (The Coachman, Kang Taejin, director 1961) and Obalt’an (The
Stray Bullet, Yu Hyônmok, director 1961) came out at a crucial historical moment for
South Korea’s nation rebuilding and postwar industrialization efforts, and reveal
much about Korea’s nationhood, its masculine character, and its responses to postwar chaos and America’s quasi-colonial presence. Through their reaffirmation of
patriarchy, construction of a modern masculine national subject, and vilification of
women, who are visually and otherwise associated with modernity and Westernization, the films offer insight into postwar Korean life and values—and betray Korea’s
deeply ambiguous feelings toward modernity. Hence this paper seeks to illustrate
the connection between popular movies and the government ideology of this period,
and more specifically, how the issues of family, masculinity, and modernity are connected to the nation rebuilding project that the South Korean state proposed during
the early 1960s.
Ever since the late Chosôn dynasty period, Korea has consistently endured
various threats to its nationhood. The twentieth century in particular was
punctuated by a series of social and political upheavals. Given Korea’s strong
tradition of patriarchy, it could be said that the state perceives the nation as
a collective, universally male subject. As such, a threat to the nationhood of
Korea can also, by extension, be interpreted as a threat to the Korean masculine subject. Ernest Renan articulated centuries earlier that a nation that
Kelly Jeong teaches in the Department of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City
University of New York. She received her PhD from the Department of Comparative Literature,
University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests include modern Korean literature,
film, and popular culture.
The Journal of Korean Studies 11, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 129–62
9/27/2006 7:59:15 AM
conceives of itself as a nation is a “soul, a spiritual principle.”1 The sheer
impossibility of a universal national subjectivity does not diminish the
power of that narrative and national longing for cohesion. The postwar South
Korean state responded to the threats on its nationhood, both imagined and
otherwise, by overmilitarizing the nation, and by constructing a masculine
national subject in monolithic, exclusive, and specific ways.
This paper examines two remarkable films from the Golden Age of South
Korean cinema (1955–72)—Mabu (The Coachman, Kang Taejin, director,
1961) and Obalt’an (The Stray Bullet, Yu Hyônmok, director, 1961)—against
the larger sociocultural backdrop of postwar South Korea.2 In terms of both
the number and the quality of films produced, South Korean cinema reached
its peak during this Golden Age, the period between the end of the Korean
War and before the wide availability of television. The star system in South
Korean cinema was also established during this period, after the government
announced a huge tax break for the film industry in 1954, which abolished
the tax on movie theater ticket sales. There was very little else in the way of
mass entertainment in South Korea during this period—television became a
household fixture for the middle class only around the late 1960s—and audiences therefore flocked to the movie theaters. Both The Coachman and The
Stray Bullet were released during a shift in the national leadership from the
Syngman Rhee (Yi Sûngman) regime (1948–60) to the equally repressive,
and arguably even more violent, Park Chung Hee (Pak Chônghûi) regime
(1961–79). Therefore, the two films serve as cinematic texts filled with sociocultural and historical significance.
These two films, born in a crucial historical moment for South Korea’s
nation rebuilding and postwar industrialization efforts, reveal much about
Korea’s nationhood, its masculine character, and its responses to postwar
chaos and America’s quasi-colonial presence. Through their reaffirmation
of patriarchy, construction of a modern masculine national subject, and vilification of women—who are visually and otherwise associated with modernity and Westernization—the films offer insight into postwar Korean life
and values, and betray Korea’s deeply ambiguous feelings toward modernity.
This paper seeks to illustrate the connection between popular movies and the
government ideology of this period, and, more specifically, how the issues
of family, masculinity, and modernity are connected to the nation rebuilding
project that the South Korean state proposed during the early 1960s.
In The Coachman, the protagonist’s son represents state-sponsored masculinity, and in turn suggests a model that the new national leadership might
follow in rebuilding the nation.3 By contrast, The Stray Bullet depicts a kind
of liminal masculine figure that hovers around the edges of two worlds and
does not fit into the state agenda of building a consumerist society. This film’s
9/27/2006 7:59:15 AM
Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
protagonist is never quite able to make clear choices, and his angst is revealed
as a painful physical symptom. However, even though the two films have
fundamentally different messages, they are both thoroughly masculinist in
tone and point of view. The women’s stories of suffering are either completely
elided or, shown only as men’s symptoms.
THE HISTORICAL BACKDROP TO SOUTH
KOREAN CINEMA’S GOLDEN AGE
By first revisiting colonial Korea, we can better examine the historical events
and contexts that shaped the nation in the postcolonial period. Korea’s industrial revolution began around 1935, with such attendant problems as rapid and
uneven urbanization, the emergence of a working class, and, of particular
importance for this discussion, the massive uprooting of the peasant population.
The effects of industrialization were tremendous. They included, especially in
the last decade of Korea’s colonization, phenomenal and massive shifts and
dislocations of people.4 The 1930s ushered in the earnest beginnings of modern Korea, but it was also the same decade that saw many of the modern state’s
most intractable problems. The dislocation of the Korean population after the
Korean War had already begun in the 1930s: “[w]hat the Japanese had begun
with their massive shifts of Korean population in 1935–45, what the national
division had intensified, the Korean War completed: Koreans of all classes
were now thoroughly displaced from their local roots.”5 Given that Korea’s
population was largely agrarian at the time and thus strongly connected to
their local roots, one can imagine the chaos as modern Korea emerged from
colonial rule, only to go through a devastating fratricidal war.
The concept of nation rebuilding is embedded in this historical context.
Postcolonial South Korea was far from being a cohesive, well-organized
“nation,” even after the First Republic was established in 1948. Beginning in
the 1950s, the state led a national reconstruction project and sought to build
a modern, sovereign nation by mimicking other national models, including
Japan, Germany, and the United States. Even though the government inherited a massive—and oppressive—colonial bureaucracy, postwar South Korea
lacked both infrastructure and superstructure.6 Many saw these weaknesses
as a threat to the national sovereignty.7 Korea had freed itself from colonization, but the chaotic events that ensued gave the nation no time to recover,
reorganize, nor indeed to rebuild. But from the very beginning of the republic, South Korea suffered from patterns of corruption in which the politically
and economically powerful helped one another and sacrificed fairness and
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Throughout the 1950s the Syngman Rhee administration perpetuated the
chaos and instability in the South—culturally, socially, economically, and
politically. For example, the administration’s majority party unilaterally
passed newly revised national security laws in January 1959. These laws
expanded the perimeter of treasonous acts to a ridiculous degree, in order to
preempt progressives and anyone who dissented from the administration’s
practices. The laws were passed over fierce protests from the minority party
members, who were physically dragged out of the National Assembly building by policemen trained in martial arts.9 All of this turmoil came to a head
and erupted in the April 19 Student Revolution in 1960. The revolution created a power vacuum that allowed another charismatic, dictatorial leader,
Park Chung Hee, to seize power in a military coup d’état on May 16, 1961. It is
worth noting that Park immediately created the national reconstruction committee (kukka chaegôn wiwônhôe) after his successful coup and appointed
himself as chair. Searching for an effective way to reach the masses, Park’s
regime wanted to use the mass media in their “modernization of the motherland” project (choguk kûndaehwa). The regime actively set up amplifiers and
distributed speakers and radio sets to even the remotest villages. Under Park’s
rule, the state’s broadcast network eventually reached the entire country, and
so, therefore, did the administration’s anticommunist propaganda and educational messages to the citizens of the republic.10
Although I use the descriptive phrase “nation rebuilding,” I will also problematize the content of this project, the eventual economic success that was
called the “Miracle of the Han River.” The nation worked to reconstruct itself
during a succession of repressive regimes and a state-led modernization plan,
and in so doing, excluded many of the people who must necessarily make up
a modern nation. The Park administration attempted to garner legitimacy by
adopting the “modernization of the motherland” as its motto, but the major
problem of unequal distribution of wealth persisted, and the administration
ultimately failed to gain the people’s consent.11 Among those left out of postwar, modernized South Korea were the workers, who were never adequately
compensated for their labor; the poor, who stayed poor and became even
more marginalized as the state sought to hide their existence within the newly
industrializing nation; women, whose gender-based oppression never fundamentally changed; and even some men who did not fit the state-sponsored
ideal of the new Korean masculinity.
Syngman Rhee’s dictatorial leadership determined the cultural atmosphere
of South Korea in the 1950s. The literary critic Kim Hyôn observes that writers
during that decade faced a particular predicament, which he terms as a “closed
openness.”12 This means that, in addition to the ideologically inclined works
deemed “friendly” to North Korea or Communist philosophy, the writers of
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
this decade were exposed to every other kind of work that was freely imported
to South Korea. Hence, the era’s ideological rigidity and the Cold War mentality penetrated the intelligentsia and even affected the assessment and the
historiography of Korean literature. The critic Cho Yônhyôn, for example,
wrote History of Modern Korean Literature (Han’guk munhaksa) from 1955
to 1958, with the express intent to justify and lend support to South Korea’s
political legitimacy after the Korean War.13 This work criticized the leftist literary tradition in modern Korean literature in an extremely politicized manner. At the same time, the author argued, ironically, for “pure literature” or
sunsu munhak that was untainted by politics.
Although the Rhee government was actually a civilian leadership, since
Rhee was not then and never had been a military leader, his regime utilized
the South Korean national police, the military, the notorious youth groups,
the “political thugs,” and other violent terror organizations with chilling
efficacy to disseminate progovernment propaganda and to eliminate oppositional political forces. Some of the better-organized political thugs had names
like “The White Skulls” (paekkoltan) and were mobilized to threaten and
terrorize dissenters within the National Assembly, as well as anyone who
vocally opposed the Rhee administration’s policies. As a result, Rhee and his
political party held virtually dictatorial power even though South Korea was
nominally a republic.14 As part of the progovernment propaganda after he
became South Korea’s first president, Rhee’s followers touted him as kukpu
(the nation’s father).15 This title of “nation’s father” illustrates the way in
which Korea’s Confucian patriarchal tradition still held sway in the national
imagination. Given these conditions, South Korean society experienced rampant corruption and violence during the 1950s, from the highest levels of the
national leadership down to the black marketers and smugglers.16
Meanwhile, the South Korean military had swelled from 100,000 in 1950
to over 600,000 by 1953. In the immediate postwar period, it was “the strongest, most cohesive, best-organized institution in Korean life.”17 One significant impact of the overdeveloped military was that it normalized military-style
authoritarian practices for the whole society. In other words, as the military
became South Korea’s most influential institution, elements of military culture—such as hierarchy, unconditional obedience, and nationalism—also penetrated the everyday, civilian society. This penetration, in turn, engendered a
kind of masculine ideal in postwar South Korea, which is prominently displayed
in the films I discuss in this paper. Needless to say, this ideal differs greatly
from the gentle Confucian scholar-official ideal of the Chosôn dynasty.
The person most responsible for the Rhee regime’s state ideology was An
Hosang, the country’s first minister of culture and education.18 An played a
major role in creating postwar Korea’s educational system, which educated
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every student in anticommunist propaganda, ethics, and nationalism, and
made military-style drills in school mandatory for all male students. He called
this military ideology ilminjuûi (ideology of one people); together with anticommunism, it served as the state ideology throughout the Rhee regime.19
While the nation was being thoroughly militarized, there was an equally
strong counter-push toward democratic government, or at least the appearance thereof. Postwar Korea appeared to be, and to some degree was, a democratic republic modeled on the American system.20 The Rhee regime was
closer to a dictatorship than to a democratic administration, but Rhee and
his hand-picked followers wanted it both ways: they remained in control, and
yet they sought to appear democratic. To this end, they did in fact implement
some elements of democracy, such as holding elections. In typical paternalistic and patronizing fashion, Rhee called this system kyodo minjujuûi (guided
democracy): “ignorant” Koreans did not comprehend democracy and therefore needed to learn it from their leadership.21 However, scholars like Ch’ôe
Changjip have pointed out that modernization never happens in a vacuum.
As we see in South Korea, change has occurred because it has tapped into the
traditional elements of people’s lives, such as their neo-Confucian mindset.
Hence it would seem natural for people to see their elected officials (and the
president) as their teacher and moral guide.22
The Coachman and The Stray Bullet came out of a nation marked by massive dislocation and displacement of the population, extreme political and
social chaos and the resulting elision of ethical boundaries, overgrowth of the
military forces, and a widespread defeatist and fatalistic attitude. On the one
hand, the state-sponsored subjectivity in postwar South Korea was heavily
associated with militarism. The military was the most powerful organization in Korea, and the mandatory conscription of all males into the already
overly developed forces affected the psyche of the general population. Militaristic discipline and education extended to the male students in schools,
and the nation’s leaders envisioned a country that adhered to a specific kind
of masculine ideal. The ideal subject was disciplined, obedient, and respectful of hierarchy and nationalism. On the other hand, and with the help of its
greatest ally, the United States, the government also created and fostered a
class of elites—such as professors, journalists, legal professionals, and other
members of the intelligentsia, nearly all of them men—who could claim
legitimacy without the use of violence or coercion. They were the legitimate
“face” of the democratic South. The implication of such a narrowly defined
masculine ideal—militaristic or elite—seems clear: the nation had no room
for other masculine subjects who did not meet these criteria. Not surprisingly, women were handed the conservatively prescribed role of proverbial
hyônmo yangch’ô (wise mother and good wife).23
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
IDEAL KOREAN MASCULINITY AND THE COACHMAN
In the following discussion, I posit that The Coachman is a representative
film text that illustrates the connection between the postwar South Korean
patriarchy and the national rebuilding project. In the film, the protagonist,
Ha Ch’unsam, is set up as a sympathetic everyman in postwar Seoul, where
thousands of uprooted poor urban working-class people live. While life presents Ch’unsam with a series of difficulties, he never loses his humanity and
decency. Ch’unsam’s ultimate triumph explicitly addressed the audience’s
need for the film’s happy ending, because it strongly identified with his character and his very plausible struggle to make ends meet until his son, Suôp,
transforms himself socioculturally by becoming a prosecutor.24 The film’s
deus ex machina ending is nothing short of a modern-day fairy tale, in which
the son of an impoverished but morally righteous family becomes a prince
(or at least a modern-day aristocrat) by passing the bar examination, a rite
of passage marking the individual’s successful transformation into a modern
(nationalized, masculine) subject.25 At the end of the film, the audience could
appropriate and internalize the family’s triumph for themselves. This narrative
teleology of the family that pulls itself up by its bootstraps showed the audience that they too could make such dreams come true. As I discuss later in this
paper, the character Suôp typifies the masculine ideal of this period, but not in
militaristic style. Rather, he is a modern subject, a member of the national elite
that American aid and “guidance” created after the Korean War.
The Coachman follows the lives of a poor widower and coach driver,
Ch’unsam, and his children, who live in postwar Seoul. The patriarch of the
family lives with his oldest son, Suôp, who is studying to become a prosecutor, and a daughter, Okhûi, who is experiencing a tumultuous coming-of-age.
Ch’unsam’s youngest child, Taeôp, is a teenager who is fast turning into a juvenile delinquent. His eldest daughter, a deaf mute named Ongnye, is married to a
man her father rescued during the war from a certain death, but he is an abusive
philanderer and eventually drives her to commit suicide. The coachman’s fondest wish is for Suôp’s success, for it is a sure path to financial security and high
social status for the entire family. During the film’s lighter moments, Ch’unsam
courts his employer’s maid, Suwôn taek, who warmly reciprocates his affection.26 This relationship is juxtaposed with the daughter Okhûi’s relationship
with a man, which she enters in hopes of escaping her poverty-stricken life.
Her reckless romantic adventure results in disappointment, but her brother’s
decent, hardworking friend rescues her and she finally accepts his love. At the
film’s climactic ending, the wayward daughter Okhûi returns home, Ch’unsam
and Suwôn taek are united as a couple, and most significantly, Suôp finally
passes the bar examination, thus validating all of his father’s sacrifice.
9/27/2006 7:59:18 AM
The Coachman’s director, Kang Taejin, typified postwar South Korean film
directors in that he was most comfortable with what is known in Korean narrative tradition in film and literature as the sinp’a (new wave) style, which uses
tear-jerking melodramatic conventions.27 The popularity of the sinp’a drama
continued long after the colonial period; most South Korean films of the 1950s
belong in this category.28 In terms of genre conventions, The Coachman is a
melodrama with sinp’a undertones. It does not feature the exaggeratedly emotional acting style typical of the genre, but it does include some typical sinp’a
elements, such as clearly defined “good” versus “evil” characters who function
as each other’s foils; the poor but morally righteous protagonist (Ch’unsam)
versus his wealthy and morally corrupt adversary (Ch’unsam’s employer, Mr.
Hwang); a tragic love story; numerous coincidences; and the ultimate triumph
of the good (the coachman becomes the father of a prosecutor, positioning him
socially higher than his evil boss). Such victory restores order to the characters’ moral universe, and by extension, to that of the audience as well.
The coachman, Ch’unsam, seems powerless and unsure of himself at times
when he faces overwhelming problems. Both literally and metaphorically, he
loses his footing in the narrative, first when he gets pushed out of the way by
his employer’s car, and again when he discovers the happy result of his son’s
examination. The first incident leads to a sequence of crises, as Ch’unsam not
only is injured but also loses his job and is led to believe that Suwôn taek has
left the city, presumably never to return. Being sideswiped by a car occupied
by none other than his ruthless capitalist boss, Hwang, signals Ch’unsam’s
surplus status in the industrializing, capitalist South Korean economic landscape. And although the emotional tone of Ch’unsam’s second fall at the end
of the film is comic rather than tragic, it also underscores that the coachman
no longer needs to support his family; that burden has been lifted and transferred to the shoulders of his son Suôp.
Suôp represents all that was positive about the next generation of South
Korean patriarchs. He is every hardworking father’s dream; he is intelligent,
polite to his elders, and unfailingly moral, and he is always providing guidance for his younger siblings. When his father is out of commission, Suôp
gladly shoulders the burden of providing for his family by taking over his
father’s horse-drawn cart. Unlike his father, however, Suôp has been educated in modern schools and can successfully function as the bridge between
the inexperienced new, represented by his younger sister, and the old, represented by his father. In a nation that was hurriedly entering a period of stateled modernization and rebuilding, those who bridged the gap between these
two were no doubt crucial.
Suôp’s chosen profession, as a prosecutor in the newly democratized, constitutional South Korea, is another significant narrative facet that dovetails at
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
various points in the film with the larger national rebuilding project. Suôp’s
connection to modernity—the state of grace toward which the newly emerging nation was striving—is evident in his association with modern education and the rule of law. Visually, this connection is driven home because
he wears a school uniform in some of the scenes. He wears it (even at home)
for the same reason his father wears a military-issue bomber jacket over his
traditional Korean clothes: because such clothing happened to be cheaply
and widely available in the postwar period. When Suôp finally passes the bar
examination, it is as if he symbolically takes off his uniform, signaling his
passage from the role of student, with its boyhood associations, to manhood.
His success in the modern system of meritocracy confirms both his masculinity, and for the audience, the supposition that even a coachman’s son can
become an elite member of the society.
On the one hand, by showing Suôp in his school uniform, the film directs
the Korean viewers’ attention to the Japanese colonial education, which dictated that all male students wear some variation of the black school uniform,
itself modeled after the nineteenth-century Prussian military uniform. Due to
Korea’s colonial education experience, this image of the school uniform functions as a visual code that conjures up the ghosts of Japanese colonial discipline, hierarchy, authority, and finally, the empire’s militarism. Indeed, many
young male students wearing such uniforms were forcibly conscripted to serve
the Japanese empire in the Pacific War in the early 1940s. On the other hand,
this young, future patriarch’s school uniform also signals that he is a beneficiary of the modern educational system, which is in turn part of the mixed
postliberation legacy of the American neo-colonial presence in Korea.29
In one sequence, Suôp goes to meet his father’s employer, Mr. Hwang, after
his father’s injury and loss of job. When he asks to work in his father’s place,
Mr. Hwang and his mistress refuse, and try to put him in his place by remarking that he is only a coachman’s son and thus should not aspire to be anything
better. This positively feudal statement reflects their belief in the traditional
hereditary class system. It also signals to the audience that Mr. Hwang’s era
is waning, while Suôp’s era—that of the modern, self-made elite—is just
beginning. Suôp replies it is only right that the strong should help the weak,
and points out the unfairness of Mr. Hwang’s arbitrary decision to lay off his
father, who is not to blame for his accident.
Suôp’s righteous speech brings to mind the new, postwar South Korea that
was heavily influenced by America. The United States played a crucial role,
first as a superpower military presence and powerful ally during the Korean
War, and later as a dominant cultural force in the war’s aftermath. In 1959,
for example, more than three out of four foreign movies screened in Korea
were American.30 The cultural atmosphere of postwar South Korea was such
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that many saw America as the national savior and indiscriminately accepted
its culture. If something was made in America or was even associated with
America, it immediately gained a caché that was beyond calculable currency.
A certain metropolis-periphery relationship was also established between
the United States and South Korea, and Korean masses longed to experience
America in some way, doing so mostly through their contact with American consumer goods, available during this era through both legal and illegal
markets. Such fetishization of all things American—at its height between the
1950s and the 1970s31—stemmed from South Korea’s introduction to its culture through its popular songs, through the mostly young American soldiers
stationed in Korea, and especially through the Hollywood movies that filled
many of the nation’s movie theaters. These films featured modern and hightech consumer goods that dazzled the people of the then poverty-stricken
nation. The content of Suôp’s remarks in The Coachman does not derive from
the part of his education that recalls the Japanese colonial past in Korea, but
rather, from the American influence that popularized concepts like democracy and equality among all people. In many ways, the character of Suôp
embodies Korea’s mixed heritage of Japanese colonialism on the one hand,
and postwar American influence on the other.
The streets of Seoul as captured in The Coachman share this quality of
postcolonial pastiche. In the film, Seoul is a place of layered temporality,
in which traces of colonial influence compete with Korean tradition.32 The
capital city is disorganized and disjointed at this historical moment in time.
Dirt roads coexist with paved ones, and the coexistence of several temporalities is represented by corresponding modes of transportation. There are automobiles, American military Jeeps, horse-drawn carriages, and handcarts, as
well as truck-motorcycle hybrids used for deliveries. The visual images of
these machines in Seoul streets attest to the hybrid time and space that was
postcolonial, postwar South Korea.
The chaotic atmosphere is not limited to the landscape of Seoul. It also
spills into the characters’ moral landscape, which still displays deep-rooted
Confucian patriarchal tradition. This moral universe is both pure and dignified on the one hand, and hopelessly outdated on the other: the ideal of a gentle world of wise, morally impeccable scholar-official rulers had long passed.
The Seoul captured in The Coachman aspires to be urban and industrialized, reflecting changes that bring with them a new kind of morality, where
one tries to get ahead by acquiring as much of the ultimate prize, money, as
possible, by whatever means possible. It is a place where “rough people . . .
prospered at the nexus of human despair.”33
The Coachman depicts how, in the harsh postwar society, human relationships, and even romance, have become economic transactions. The film also
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
reveals the overmilitarized postwar South Korea as a ruthless marketplace.
Some of the characters, such as the coachman’s young daughter Okhûi and
her suitor, embody this new kind of morality; they try to use each other to
gain access to wealth and higher social status. In this capitalist society, one’s
virtues appear worthless unless they can be translated into hard currency. In
the narrative, Okhûi’s innocence and, perhaps, virginity (which the film only
hints at) function as her bargaining chips with her suitor, who is supposedly
rich and socially prestigious.
In one scene in the film, a girlfriend who introduces Okhûi to the suitor
helps her prepare for her first date. To appear wealthy and sophisticated, Okhûi
abandons her own traditional Korean clothes and borrows Western clothes,
a scarf, a handbag, and a pair of high heels from her friend. The persona of
this girlfriend is depicted in a way that spells trouble to the contemporary
audience; she wears risqué Western clothes with heavy makeup, and smokes
cigarettes. In other words, she is not the demure, chaste Korean woman who
retains traditional values and morality. Okhûi is thus transformed, with this
friend’s help, into a modern woman, hiding her true identity as a povertystricken coachman’s daughter behind borrowed clothes. Predictably, she is
punished for this transgression when her suitor, who has the same ulterior
motive as she, abandons her upon discovering her true identity. Okhûi’s
actions follow a familiar pattern of the era’s films, in which young women
leave the domestic sphere, taste the freedom of spending money and having
romantic relationships, and then return home after paying dearly for their
experience.34 In this case, it is hinted that the loss of her virginity was the
price she paid. Okhûi’s union with her rescuer (her brother’s hardworking
friend) at the end of the film reassures the audience by restoring order to the
moral universe that both the characters and the audience inhabit. The young
woman and her dangerous sexuality are returned to the safe sphere of family
Interestingly, The Coachman’s most emblematic representations of gender are actually captured in its silences and gaps; that is, in the diegetic
amnesia about the deaf mute eldest daughter’s tragic life and suicide. After
Ongnye kills herself, it is as if the whole family—and the film’s narrative
itself—forgets she ever existed. Ongnye’s suicide expresses both her absolute despair and her resolve never to return to the house that she must share
with her relentlessly abusive husband and his mistress, nor to her father’s
house, from which he always drives her away, he believes, for her own good.
The film’s narrative presents Ongnye as the ultimate outsider, a metaphorical and in some ways real figure who cannot find a place in the new nation.
Significantly, the mise-en-scène associated with Ongnye is the claustrophobic, domestic milieu of her home and that of her father, and especially the
9/27/2006 7:59:21 AM
traditional woman’s sphere, the kitchen. In fact, the only time Ongnye is seen
outside of either home is when she wanders the street in despair and visits her
mother’s gravesite before committing suicide in the most public of all spaces,
by jumping into the Han River. She is a victim of both patriarchy and tradition, because it is not only her husband’s abuse but also her father’s paternalistic, Confucian desire to return her to her home, to her husband’s house,
where tradition dictates she belongs, that drives her to commit suicide. The
father’s desire for order ultimately corners her, and Ongnye, finding no place
of her own, kills herself in a final act of desperation, defiance, and rejection
of the status quo that had oppressed her in life.
The lacunae surrounding the issue of gender inequalities that the character of Ongnye embodies are never filled up in The Coachman; afterward,
the narrative seems to forget her completely. She is never mentioned again,
and the film simply returns all the characters to their traditional positions,
as we see with the example of her younger sister Okhûi, who returns home.
The climactic ending sequence only confirms this suspicion of a convenient
masculinist storytelling when women appear as peripheral characters. Suwôn
taek suddenly reappears to reunite with the coachman, and young Okhûi likewise returns to complete the happy family portrait, although this seems to be
only an afterthought. At the film’s end, all is well with the world: the family
is together again, as the once-wayward daughter returns home, and romantic
couples—not just one, but two—are born.
The Coachman’s last sequence shows Ch’unsam’s family happily reuniting in a snowy landscape after discovering Suôp’s successful examination
results. According to the film scholar Kim Soyông (Soyoung Kim), this final
sequence had a special resonance for the contemporary audience watching it
in light of the historical events that followed the film’s release. As she points
out, the film was released in the same year that the repressive Park Chung Hee
regime came to power in South Korea. Watching the film’s climactic, happy
ending of the film was actually an ironic, and even a depressing experience,
given that it was shot against the backdrop of the famous central government
building (chung’angch’ông) and that it shows the reconstituted family marching toward a brighter future.35
In 1961, while the film industry enjoyed an apparent Golden Age—the
audience went to the movies in record numbers, numerous film stars were
born, and the general technical quality of films improved—Park Chung Hee’s
dictatorship was only just beginning its eighteen-year stretch. The visual
image of Chungangch’ông, one of the most famous colonial-era structures,
awakened viewers of The Coachman to Park’s original power base—the
Japanese colonial rulers. Park served in the Japanese imperial army, and his
early military training and familiarity with militaristic discipline served him
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
well when he later established himself as an ardent Korean nationalist leader
in the postcolonial, postwar period. Thus, reading the filmic text against the
grain yields a picture of the intimate and enduring association between colonialism, militarism, and state-sponsored masculinity, which unfolds in The
Coachman as a saga of the triumph of the nation’s patriarchy, both young and
old. The last, and lasting, visual image in the film—of the euphoric reconstituted family under patriarchy, in front of the storied government building,
about to march off together into a glorious future—reminds the viewer of the
real story, of sociocultural inconsistencies and political repression.
LIMINAL MASCULINITY AND THE STRAY BULLET
The second film I examine in this paper, Obalt’an (The Stray Bullet, Yu
Hyônmok, director, 1961), differs from The Coachman in a variety of ways.
Many consider its director, Yu Hyônmok, to be one of the best filmmakers of
postwar South Korean cinema. Whether or not one agrees with this assessment, it is clear that he is a self-aware intellectual who is self-conscious about
filmmaking as a form of controlled artistic expression.36 He made his first
film in 1949 as a college student,37 and soon got a chance to work with the
legendary director Sin Sangok on the film Agya (Evil Night, 1950), but the
Korean War erupted during production.38 Also around this time, Yu watched
Vittorio de Sica’s post–World War II Italian neo-realist classic The Bicycle
Thief (1948), which made a profound impression on the budding filmmaker.
Later, he recollected that he wanted to make such films when he became
a director.39 Indeed, this black-and-white film includes some striking street
sequences whose virtuoso lighting and stark beauty recall the Italian classic.40
After working as an assistant director on many films, Yu made his directorial debut in 1956 with Kyoch’aro (Crossroads).41 The foregoing key moments
in his life are noteworthy because they show his pedigree as a rare cerebral
director in postwar Korean cinema, and explain why The Stray Bullet stands
the test of time, both intellectually and technically.
Yu Hyônmok began filming The Stray Bullet in 1959, toward the end of the
Rhee regime, when the government’s censorship practices severely restricted
artistic expressions in all media. Scholars today and the film makers who
were working at the time largely agree that there seemed to be few or no clear
guidelines for materials appropriate for censorship. Rather, the government
bureaucrats involved in film censorship were overzealous and paranoid, which
resulted in arbitrary censoring of films, and of Korean films in particular. For
example, Korean film historian Lee Young Il (Yi Yôngil) writes that various
Korean films were censored for nudity, social criticism, and political content,
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including procommunist propaganda.42 Korean films during this period frequently lost ten to twenty minutes of both sound and visuals, which virtually
ruined some films. The arbitrary film censorship was only one element of the
anticommunist paranoia on which Syngman Rhee’s corrupt regime was built.
Rhee’s own paranoia was not limited to actual communist groups; he used
totalitarian tactics to control, destroy, and terrorize other groups that dared
to oppose him.
During this time, South Korea’s mostly agrarian economy was left destitute, because much of the agrarian population had left rural areas for urban
centers in search of livelihood. As a result, the number of urban poor was
also growing rapidly. Amid these changes, the refugees from North Korea,
along with many thousands of people whom the war uprooted, displaced, and
separated from their villages and families, faced abject poverty, unemployment, economic inflation, and the loss of their former status and identity. The
society at this time, in short, was in extreme moral, economic, and political
chaos, and the social circumstances were ripe for a democratic revolution.
The revolution did arrive. Syngman Rhee’s regime finally toppled in 1960,
following a student-led revolution on April 19 (commonly known as sailgu
or 4.19). Even before 1960, though, changes were happening in South Korea.
Between 1948 and 1960, college and high school enrollments nearly quadrupled. By the late 1950s the number of newspapers and reporters had soared,
with one survey counting some 100,000 people who claimed to be journalists in the period immediately after Syngman Rhee’s exile to Hawaii.43 And
just as the Korean War defined a generation of Koreans and their sensibility,
so did the 4.19 Revolution. In the aftermath of the student-led revolution,
popular culture—and especially youth culture—bloomed in South Korea,
and a generation of cultural consumers and producers would come to identify themselves as the “April 19 generation” (sailgu sedae). Aside from its
political significance, the revolution and all it symbolized for South Korea’s
democratic possibility had become a cultural and social barometer for possible change and progress. The shared sensibility of the April 19 generation
was more Westernized, modern, and democratic.44
This timely shift in political atmosphere was crucial to the making of
the film The Stray Bullet, as Yu himself mentions in his memoir: the film’s
gloomy plot and dark atmosphere meant a virtual guarantee at the time that
it would not be finished, and almost the entire staff and stars worked on it
without pay.45 In terms of pure content, The Stray Bullet would have been a
different film altogether had the 4.19 Revolution not erupted. The film opened
in March 1961, immediately after the fall of the Rhee regime. During this
window of time, when the government (briefly) shut down its film censorship organization, The Stray Bullet could honestly and completely depict the
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
hopelessness that pervaded the postwar South Korean society.46 It seems that
Yu had precensored the story’s dark ending in order to earn the censorship
board’s approval. But after the revolution, he rewrote the script as he originally had intended it, and refilmed some of the sequences. The end result is
a canonical, poetic postwar film that reflects the gloomy reality of the period
and that also earned a lasting fame for its director. The Stray Bullet, in which
Yu tried to realize his personal vision of neorealist cinema, took one year and
two scripts to finish. Other films produced during this period typically took
only a month.47
The Stray Bullet is based on a short story of the same title written in 1959
by Yi Pômsôn, a well-known writer of the Korean War generation. In his essay
on this famous short story, Ha Chôngil observes that it is based on the author’s
principle of “no longer.” Yi creates main characters that represent the majority of the postwar South Korean population: the downtrodden and destitute
masses who can no longer maintain their miserable existence. Ha reads the
protagonist’s repetition of his mother’s cry (“Let’s go!”) as a metaphorical representation of the South Korean predicament, in which a societal integration
and “suture” (ponghap) are no longer possible.48 The relentlessly gloomy short
story clearly touched a nerve in postwar Korean national consciousness.49
Though the point is debatable, many consider The Stray Bullet to be the very
first South Korean film with modernist sensibility. The story begins with the
protagonist Song Ch’ôrho suffering from a severe toothache. He is an accountant in his mid-thirties, a war refugee who fled with his family from the North
to the South to avoid communist persecution. He belonged to the landlord
class in the North and was thus considered a reactionary. The Song family—
Ch’ôrho’s pregnant wife, young daughter, two younger brothers, younger sister Myôngsuk, and elderly mother who went insane from the shock of her war
experiences—settle in the Liberation Village (Haebangch’on), in one of the
shantytowns that sprouted up throughout the South after the war. The family
lives in dire poverty. Myôngsuk’s lover, a veteran who has returned from the
war emotionally and physically wounded, rejects her. Driven to desperation,
she becomes a prostitute for American soldiers. Ch’ôrho’s younger brother,
Yôngho, also a wounded veteran, is equally desperate and bitter about the
war that took everything from his life—his love, status, and (he believes) his
future. He rejects an offer to be in a movie after discovering he was hired to
display his “authentic” war wounds, and he eventually robs a bank, believing
that rules no longer exist in the world. Meanwhile, Ch’ôrho’s wife dies after
childbirth, from a prolonged malnutrition. The insane mother’s cries—“Let’s
go!” she continually shouts—punctuate the film and heighten its desperate
atmosphere.50 At the film’s powerful end, Ch’ôrho’s world collapses as he
learns of his brother’s bank robbery and subsequent arrest, and hears the news
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of his wife’s death at the hospital. Contemplating which of the numerous family crises to handle first, he suddenly decides at last to have a dentist pull out
the teeth that have been tormenting him night and day. Ch’ôrho insists on a
dangerous surgery and leaves the dentist’s office bleeding profusely. Finally,
he gets into a taxi and cries out “Let’s go!” as he slowly loses consciousness.
In The Coachman, postcolonial, postwar Korea is a site of chaos, where
several temporalities seem simultaneously present. The Coachman celebrates
modernity, its exciting possibilities, and its new values, including democratic
ideals and meritocracy for the recovering nation, underscored by the film’s
masculine subjectivity. The Stray Bullet, by contrast, paints a darker, more
ambivalent picture of modernity in postwar Korea. The film shows that the
signs of modernity’s postwar collapse are everywhere, side by side with the
trappings of modernity. The film addresses the difficulty of Korea’s postcolonial situation, and suggests that far from embracing modernity, the nation has
merely moved from one unequal relationship (with Japan) to another (with
the United States). It is to be expected, then, that modernity should surface in
The Stray Bullet in mostly negative contexts.
Many of South Korea’s pervasive social ills and postwar devastation manifest themselves in the Song family, which might be seen as a microcosm
of the nation. Given postwar Korea’s anxiety about the national rebuilding
project, through An Hosang’s realization of the ilminjuûi (ideology of one
people), for instance, the film’s plot and characterization clearly ran counter
to the state’s ideal of new Korean masculine subjectivity and rebuilt nation.
The Coachman portrays a positive, accessible patriarch who ultimately overcomes adversity. But the patriarch in The Stray Bullet does not summon the
hopeful—and quite unrealistic—dream of economic success and harmonious family life despite poverty. Instead, the film presents a defeated patriarch who loses everything by the end of the narrative, including his will to
continue his struggle. Furthermore, the nation is not presented as a space of
harmony, nor as one that permits any semblance of a family life. The family’s matriarch is insane, the pregnant wife dies from malnutrition, the sister
resorts to prostitution, the brother robs a bank, and even the young daughter
suffers from near starvation. In addition, other characters in the film seem
to exist only as individuals, divorced from the idyllic connotations of home
and family, of support, warmth, stability, and moral foundation. Not coincidentally, given the South Korean political and social backdrop of the 1950s,
many young intellectuals during this period found affinity with the writings
of Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and other proponents of the French existentialist philosophy. The contemporary popularity of existentialism surfaces
in the characterization of the younger brother, Yôngho, who embodies this
philosophy more than any other character in the film.
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
In an essay on modernity in Korean cinema, particularly about the liminal
characters that live in kijich’on—a name that literally means military base
town, but actually refers to the red-light districts around U.S. military bases
in Korea in existence since the Korean War—film scholar Kim discusses the
film Chiok hwa (Flower of Hell, Sin Sangok, director, 1958).51 She describes
two of the main characters as liminal because they struggle with the decision
about whether to return to their rural hometown, which they imagine as a
pristine paradise of their innocent past, or remain in Seoul, set up in the film
as a depraved, corrupt place emblematized by kijich’on, a “wasteland” where
“Baudelaire and existentialism bed each other.”52
The concept of liminality here refers to a state of being in which the subjects
are acutely aware of being caught between two worlds, whether literal or metaphorical. The subjects are tormented not only by their dilemma of living in
two worlds, but also by their consciousness of it. This concept offers a point of
departure for my reading of The Stray Bullet, a film which the protagonist and
his home also represent a liminal subjectivity and space within the rebuilding nation of postwar South Korea. Song Ch’ôrho is a mild-mannered man
defeated by the overwhelming circumstances of his present life. Throughout
the film he seems unable to make decisions or act upon his wishes. The horrible toothache he endures until the end of the film functions as a metaphor
for his liminal subjectivity: he is well aware of his problem (the toothache is
terrible, but he cannot afford to see a dentist), and yet his consciousness of it
seems to paralyze him. All he can do is endure the blinding pain.
Song Ch’ôrho is no less sympathetic for his lack of action. In fact, as a
dialogue with his brother Yôngho illustrates, Ch’ôrho possesses considerable
fortitude of character to endure his harsh reality and resist the urge to escape
it through violence or crime. Ch’ôrho chooses to endure his predicament while
Yôngho commits a robbery out of desperation. The film presents a refugee
family whose dire poverty and displacement from their home in the North
lead to their psychological displacement as well. Along with the war’s more
tangible aftermath, they suffer from other, intangible effects, including their
loss of identity and sense of belonging. The sense of loss renders them even
more inconsolable because, as Koreans, their identity is firmly attached to
their home village, or kohyang. When people become rootless they lose their
ontological bearings. Ch’ôrho and his family fled to the South, but they do not
firmly belong in the nation being newly constructed all around them. The tragedy that unfolds for the characters in the film is a layered one, but the common
cause that underpins it is their failure and/or unwillingness to be integrated
and co-opted by the nation’s rhetoric of nationalism and hope (however false)
for a better future. The characters’ liminal subjectivity dooms them, for they
see all too clearly the fallacy of the state’s rhetoric of patriotism and progress.
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The Stray Bullet’s mise-en-scène also directs one’s attention to the characters’ liminal masculinity. The code for the female characters seems clear:
their attire visually signals their moral and sexual compromises or passive,
long-suffering feminine “virtues.” For the male characters, the code is more
complicated, as particular spaces and visual cues in the narrative focus our
attention on given masculinist elements of their plight. For example, Yôngho
is often seen in a run-down bar, drinking and raging against the unfairness
of life and keeping company with cronies from his glorious army days, who
look up to him as their leader. The shabby bar is a masculine space filled with
drunken, impotent despair, yet it is also the stage for hatching his reckless
plan to rob a bank, fueled by his resentment, anger, and the courage he draws
from his admiring friends. Ch’ôrho’s liminal masculinity likewise comes
across through his physical, geographical situation as he sits working in his
claustrophobic office, walks along the crowded streets of postwar Seoul, or
makes his daily grim ascent to his home in the Liberation Village, looking
like a martyr. The disparity between his home and the Seoul streets around
his office is striking. His house presents a surreal vision of extreme poverty,
while the streets are full of cars and bustling with crowds. This stark contrast
visually underlines his alienation. He is left out of the consumerist culture
despite his seemingly middle-class occupation as an accountant. His guilt
feelings about his inability to provide for his family, especially for his wife
and sister, reveal the emasculating power of poverty in a capitalist patriarchal
social context.53 His lack of financial prowess and, more significantly, his
recognition that he is not a reliable wage earner, seem to make him less of a
man. As if to illustrate this point, a young female co-worker tells him as much
when he repeatedly refuses to dine out with her.
Audiences, especially the intelligentsia, responded enthusiastically to The
Stray Bullet; people even held spontaneous discussions after viewing, in bars
and restaurants around theaters.54 However, the interim phase that allowed for
the uncensored production and screening of this film did not last long. The
4.19 Revolution permitted only a glimpse of democratic possibilities and civil
liberties. In this sense, it was an unfinished revolution.55 Another dictator soon
rose to power, this time through a military coup d’état on May 16, 1961 (commonly know as oillyuk or 5.16). South Korean Army Brigadier General Park
Chung Hee, one of the leaders of the coup, proclaimed a national state of emergency and became the next president shortly thereafter. The United States was
hoping for an oppositional leader strong enough to defeat Syngman Rhee’s
system, but Park Chung Hee’s military credentials—which included his tenure
in the Japanese colonial army—made the U.S. uncomfortable. Never theless,
his staunch anticommunist stance and agenda to modernize Korea allowed
him to come to power with the tacit approval of Korea’s biggest ally. Indeed,
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
as Seungsook Moon argues, Park’s “nationalist themes as the mainstay of
official nationalism share certain elements with earlier forms of nationalism
of the colonial period as well as the turn of the century.”56 Park fostered the
national common interest in “restoring history and tradition as the essence of
the nation,” and deployed the “themes of ‘reconstruction’ and ‘self-reliance,’
first made current by the Protestant nationalist intellectuals such as Yun Ch’iho
and An Ch’angho.”57
Meanwhile, encouraged by critical acclaim it had received, Yu Hyônmok
applied to reopen the film, but it was banned by the same government organization that had temporarily stopped censoring films after the 4.19 Revolution.
The Stray Bullet was banned for what the censors considered its suspicious
ideological content, as revealed (they argued) in the insane mother’s repeated
cry, which the censors believed showed her wish to go back to the communist North.58 The degree to which anticommunist paranoia penetrated every
facet of postwar South Korean society is apparent in the very setting of the
film: Ch’ôrho and his family live in “Liberation Village,” a “squatters’ town”
inhabited by war refugees.59
As noted earlier, the military culture’s penetration into the everyday life of
postwar South Korea engendered a particular kind of masculine ideal. Those
who did not fit the new ideal of Korean masculinity, such as the defeated
characters in The Stray Bullet, were relegated to the margins of the society.
The character Yôngho’s story is especially interesting—and ironic—in this
context, because he is a victim of the state-sponsored masculine ideal of the
patriotic young man/soldier. He volunteers for military service during the
war, but subsequently comes to believe that he lost everything because of it.
He comes to regret his decision bitterly, along with the “foolish patriotism”
that drove him to it.60 In an action that sets a disastrous chain of events in
motion, Yôngho steals a pistol from his lover’s apartment, which she confiscated as a joke from one of her suitors she calls “cowboy.” Significantly,
the “cowboy” is actually a military officer, drunk on his own power, who
enjoys waving the pistol around. It is the pistol, easily rendered as the ultimate phallic symbol of destruction and masculine power, which leads to
Yôngho’s reckless bank robbery and eventual demise. Ultimately, however,
it is not only Yôngho’s fundamental marginalization, but also his crucial
consciousness of his status as a young man who refuses to buy into the patriotic propaganda, that makes him a true outsider and a liminal figure in the
context of this discussion.
It is equally important to consider the postwar nation’s construction of
ideal femininity. In The Stray Bullet, women seem to be worse off than even
the miserable men. Of course, the film’s sympathy lies firmly with the men,
and especially with the protagonist Ch’ôrho. The women’s suffering registers
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on the screen only as a symptom of the men’s suffering. The camera does
not capture the images of women’s suffering directly, but instead expresses
it by showing its impact on the men responsible for the (suffering) women’s
Visual codes signify two distinct kinds of femininity in The Stray Bullet. The first is located in the female characters’ clothes. For the first half
of the film, Myôngsuk’s character wears hanbok (traditional Korean dress),
but when she begins to work as a prostitute, she wears Western dresses. In
one telling sequence, Ch’ôrho sees, from inside a bus, his sister Myôngsuk
sitting in a military Jeep with an American soldier, who is probably her customer. She does not see her brother. The male passengers on the bus literally
look down on and contemptuously laugh at her, immediately assuming her
to be the worst kind of Korean prostitute, yanggongju or “Western princess,”
who caters exclusively to American soldiers.61 In this sequence the audience
sees, on the one hand, the impassive face of Myôngsuk, whose eyes are hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses, and on the other, a close-up shot of
Ch’ôrho’s face, which registers humiliation and agony.
The Stray Bullet depicts the brother’s witnessing of his sister’s prostitution
as more painful than his sister’s own experience as a prostitute. The female
character’s dark sunglasses effectively block the viewer’s emotional identification with her, while the close-up of the male character’s face facilitates
identification and sympathy. This is a revealing cinematic moment, a glimpse
at the way in which this masculinist film pushes women’s pain and misery
out of the frame. At the same time, this moment reflects the nation’s miserable condition better than most films of the era. While the film presents the
nation’s postwar predicament metaphorically, in the form of Ch’ôrho’s toothache, his wife’s postpartum death from malnutrition and his sister’s prostitution occur outside the visual frame.62 The women’s experiences make an
impact on the narrative only insofar as they weigh on the male protagonist’s
already tortured psyche. Women in the story are thereby further marginalized and broadly represent the truly precarious position of Korea’s women
during this period.
The bus sequence also shows how the film deploys the familiar trope of
the woman as the nation. While the bus passengers gaze at Myôngsuk in the
Jeep, two kinds of music compete in the background. One is a Western popular song coming from the Jeep, and the other, playing on the radio in the bus,
is a traditional Korean opera, p’ansori. The effect here, achieved through a
series of metonymic associations, is both subliminal and ideological. The
traditional Korean music seems equated with Myôngsuk, the native woman,
and the native woman with the nation of Korea, the nation thus feminized
under the threat of the highly sexualized foreign masculinity, represented
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
in the scene by the anonymous American soldier in the Jeep. The sequence
implies that the dignity of the feminized nation of postwar Korea has indeed
been compromised. The new nation relates to woman in a once-removed
way; she is recruited to represent the nation only at critical moments. Woman’s pain serves the film’s rhetorical purpose insofar as it is mediated by
the man’s tortured condition, rendered more real because it is projected on
a screen. The characters of Myôngsuk and Ch’ôrho’s wife clearly illustrate
this point in the film: the pain belongs to the sister and the wife as well as
to the male protagonist, yet the consciousness of it belongs only to him. The
women’s pain materializes in this masculinist film text only as a symptom
of the male protagonist’s masochism, as when Ch’ôrho insists on dangerous
It is these unspoken associations in The Stray Bullet, as opposed to what is
conveyed through dialogue in the less subtle The Coachman, that make the
former such an interesting text.64 The female characters who wear Western
dress are encoded as fallen and/or promiscuous, while those attired in traditional Korean dress are associated with the traditional feminine virtues such
as patience, domestic service, self-effacement, and deference to the men of
the family. We can read these associations along the same lines as the scene
on the bus that captures the male subject’s pain and humiliation while glossing over the woman’s suffering, with which the audience cannot identify.
At the same time, The Stray Bullet almost irrepressibly highlights women’s
sacrifice, seemingly despite its male-centered narrative. The protagonist
Ch’ôrho is defeated by poverty, and its brutal, humiliating effects have turned
his and his family’s world upside down. But because he seems so weak at
first glance, the story can be read against the grain, with the suffering of the
women at the core of the narrative. Indeed, in this film, we see another death
of a wife/mother/woman. But unlike the suicide in The Coachman, which
is never referred to again, the death of Ch’ôrho’s wife reverberates in the
narrative and acts as the catalyst that sends him off into the self-destructive
tailspin and literally bloody climax that ends the film.
Finally, through a metonymical process, Myôngsuk is again associated
with the troubled nation of Korea vis-à-vis America that dominates her/
Korea. A poignant scene depicts Myôngsuk standing in front of the massive
traditional-style gates of Choson Bando (Chosôn Pando) Hotel, soliciting
American soldiers, when she runs into her former lover. The name Bando,
or peninsula, evokes Korea’s colonial past, because the country was often
referred to as a peninsula, just as Japan was referred to as naeji, or inland,
identifying it as the colonial motherland, or mainland, in relation to Korea.
Choson Bando was the most famous Korean hotel at this time, and the film
shows how the nation must again cater to another quasicolonial presence in
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the nation, represented by American soldiers. The encounter between Myôngsuk, her former lover—whose physical condition as a wounded veteran on
crutches hints at his emotional and sexual impotence—and a drunken American soldier illustrates the power dynamics among the neocolonial master, the
colonized native, and the native woman, who is doubly oppressed through her
race and gender. On the one hand, the American GI’s leering presence in the
scene signifies the powerful, neo-imperialist masculinity that had already
become part of postwar South Korea’s contemporary culture. On the other
hand, Myôngsuk’s wounded lover stumbles onto the scene in a manner that
represents the lack of masculinity, both physical and psychological, in the
native men. The mise-en-scène of the hotel’s elegant traditional door, now
used as a backdrop for the sex trade between Korean women and American
soldiers, adds irony and pathos to the scene, and the focus on Myôngsuk’s
shame at encountering her former lover turns her into an emblem of the ravaged postwar Korean womanhood.65 As in the scene on the bus when Myôngsuk’s mortified brother spots her in a military Jeep with an American soldier,
she stands in for her downtrodden nation.
Another female character in The Stray Bullet, Myôngsuk’s friend Miri,
serves a different cinematic purpose. A caricature of a vain movie actress,
Miri usually appears on the screen in the middle of a film set, with its unrealistic, idealized props of gaudy modern consumer goods, such as a parasol
and a vanity chest set. Her ostentatious Western dress and hairstyle add to
the impression of her as existing outside the reality of the rest of the film’s
characters. The paraphernalia of film production strewn around Miri’s film
studio also bring to mind accounts of the early years of the film-viewing
experience in Korea, which was nothing short of a magic show. Korea’s first
filmgoers thought the movies (moving-photograph show, or hwaltong sajin)
showed people who came out of the little box to play, and thus endowed it
with an array of incomprehensible, magical powers, as many did to other
trappings of modernity, including trains, the telegraph, and the telephone.66
Ch’ôrho’s house looks just as unrealistic as Miri’s film set, but its unreal, stagy
quality comes not from a lack of reality, but rather from the hyperreality of
the cluttered hovel that serves as a family home in the context of postwar
South Korea. Today’s audience may view this scene with the skepticism of
those who have never experienced such widespread dire poverty and despair.
The unreality of Miri’s life on the film set coexists in the narrative with the
unreality of the squalid poverty of Ch’ôrho’s family and that of many thousands who lived that life in the postwar era. The Stray Bullet shows both the
glamour of modernity, represented by the character Miri and the modern
consumer goods that surround her, and its collapse after the Korean War, as
shown by the protagonist’s dilapidated home.
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
MODERNITY AND PATRIARCHAL TRADITION
IN THE COACHMAN AND THE STRAY BULLET
In The Stray Bullet, characters that are associated with modernity, such as
the film industry people and American soldiers, are depicted as deplorable.
For instance, the scene of Miri on the film set portrays the film producer and
the director as shallow and callous; they ask Yôngho to show his “authentic
war wounds,” letting him know it is the only reason for putting him in the
movie. The incident enrages him, and indeed functions as a critical turning
point for this character. Thereafter, he decides to live life on his own terms,
whatever the consequences. The dizzying landscape of postwar Seoul is full
of modernity’s recognizable trappings—replete with cars, tall Western-style
buildings, and a bustling crowd of people dressed in Western-style clothes.
However, the imposing tall buildings are in fact the remnants of Korea’s Japanese colonial past, and the women busily walking around the city just may
be looking for their next meal ticket in the form of an American GI. Amid all
this, cars speed by—and through—the crowds of people, for there are modern cars but no modern roadways to separate people from machines. In the
same vein, the tall buildings and the cars mingle in the film with premodern
materiality, such as the Liberation Village and the protagonist’s ramshackle
house situated there.
The American influence in South Korea was at its height during this era,
and the visual and aural codes for cheap “Yankee” culture—unwelcome
signs of modernity—are everywhere: American soldiers chase prostitutes on
streets, loud American popular songs blare from passing military vehicles
and from shops catering to the soldiers, and people are eager to use what few
English words they know, only adding to the general atmosphere of stilted
affectation of being “modern” or, in this context, Americanized. The corrupting yet also immensely compelling influence of the new, powerful, and
wealthy Other testifies to the power of the modern, which hypnotized and
then stung the postwar Korean population with its phantasmagoric powers.
And yet for the characters in The Stray Bullet—and the kind of real people
they represent—the primary experience of modernity is despair.
The kind of moral bankruptcy we saw in The Coachman surfaces again in
The Stray Bullet, most notably in the character Yôngho. To be sure, his sister,
Myôngsuk, also transgresses the society’s law when she becomes a prostitute,
but a self-destructive impulse, rather than greed, motivates her transgression.
This film depicts how the historical rupture brought on by the Korean War
also comes to signify a personal rupture in time, space, and indeed, selfidentity for the characters. During this period, French existentialist thought
became popular among intellectual South Koreans.67 They embraced it out
9/27/2006 7:59:27 AM
of necessity and intellectual curiosity as they sought to respond to the overwhelming experiences of fratricidal war and its aftermath, the militarization
of their country, and its repressive, ideologically rigid atmosphere. In the film,
the character Yôngho espouses such a philosophy; he believes that every man
is ultimately responsible for his own actions and that no one can judge those
of another. At the same time, his desperate act of violence in robbing the bank
reveals him to be a coward, one who is defeated by life, though at first glance
his brother seems the more hopeless and defeated of the two. Yôngho justifies
his transgression on existentialist grounds: that he is responsible for his own
actions and that he cannot be judged according to some external normative
measure, such as society’s laws. Instead, one should be judged according to
his own subjective psychological structure. For example, feeling a subjective sense of shame and guilt for an act of transgression is one’s “judgment,”
rather than formal legal prosecution. Interestingly, Yôngho’s capacity to feel
shame and guilt—to be a part of humanity—dooms him, and his bank robbery eventually fails. He could ignore the law’s claim on his individual desire,
but he could not silence his own humanity, and he surrenders to the law rather
than kill an innocent bystander to escape punishment.
This existentialist attitude also underpins the male protagonists’ masochistic behavior. Masochism in The Coachman and The Stray Bullet does not
occur in a context of sexual perversion (though it is related), but is framed
instead in social and gender discourse of postwar Korea. In the two films,
the male protagonists’/patriarchs’ loss of power seems only temporary. This
issue is fruitful to investigate as it points to the hidden male desire to lose
power, knowing it is only a temporary condition, in the face of overwhelming
adversity. In other words, as desperate as they are at certain moments, these
men’s struggles can be read as a masquerade of powerlessness. The male
characters allow women to usurp their power position, creating a temporary
vacuum. This arises both with the surrogate mother/maid in The Coachman,
and with the prostitute sister Myôngsuk and Ch’ôrho, who provide money for
the family at times of crisis—but after the crisis, the men return to reclaim
their power. Tania Modleski quotes Christopher Newfield’s argument that
one must consider the “extent to which male power is actually consolidated
through cycles of crises and resolution, whereby men ultimately deal with
the threat of female power by incorporating it.”68 Further, male power often
works “to efface female subjectivity by occupying the site of femininity.”69 In
The Stray Bullet, this manifests in the depiction of men’s struggle and their
loss of social standing amid the postwar chaos. Men “occupy the site of femininity” when the narrative emphasizes their lack of masculinity via some
physical and psychological defect/defeat, such as Yôngho and his wounded
army buddies who incessantly grumble about losing “everything” in the war,
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
not to mention their lack of financial power to protect the women in their
lives from dishonor and even death. Their talk is actually about the war having stripped them of their most vital characteristic: their masculinity. The
women in the film, by contrast, are completely silent on the subject of loss of
social position and wealth, and the narrative elides their glorious past. In her
analysis of the gendering of melancholia, Juliana Schiesari posits this as the
precise scenario through which the male thinker is culturally empowered to
represent his “losses” at the expense of the female subject. Schiesari’s concept of the “ideology of melancholia” argues that men can temporarily appropriate women’s real sense of loss and later compensate for it as a “privileged
form of male expression.”70
However, the hidden, masochistic male desire is culturally constructed
as weak and shameful, because ultimately it is regarded as effeminate. This
“effeminate” desire is an urge to stay down for the count, rather than get up
again only to be repeatedly beaten down by circumstances. In the last scene
of The Stray Bullet, the protagonist bleeds so much that he passes out, a clear
example of the masochistic male desire to forfeit control over a given situation. Sitting in a taxi he cannot afford, Ch’ôrho finally repeats his insane
mother’s plea, “Let’s go!” He too is losing his true self. This loss of control
actually marks a liberating moment for the protagonist, in a narrative that
held nothing but overwhelming adversity until now. It is not a moment of
complete dejection and pessimism, as others have argued, because it is still
possible that he, and the new patriarchy he represents, will triumph in the
end. What is also interesting is that, when the patriarchy’s loss of control
becomes apparent in both films, they reveal too much, disclosing how patriarchy’s main players harbor a self-contradictory, masochistic desire for a temporary loss of control. This desire is repressed, of course, and the status quo
is restored at the end, in an especially spectacular fashion in The Coachman,
as the younger-generation patriarch passes the bar exam and thus becomes
the law for the rebuilding Korean society.
The Stray Bullet reveals a different kind of nation under reconstruction
from the one depicted in The Coachman. Unlike The Coachman’s hopeful
portrayal of postwar South Korea and its cheerful people looking toward a
bright future, The Stray Bullet shows people filled with despair and impotent
rage, living in a present so painful that they cannot imagine a better tomorrow. In The Coachman, two couples eventually come together to create new
families and rebuild lives once blighted by war. In The Stray Bullet, many
couples are either unable to create families together or to protect or sustain
their existing ones.71 The obstacles to these family-building objectives are
practically insurmountable: poverty shatters romantic and familial bonds,
and self-destructive impulses lead to crime, violence, prostitution, and death.
9/27/2006 7:59:28 AM
In short, the characters in The Stray Bullet represent precisely the part of the
nation that the postwar South Korean state wanted to make invisible.
The Coachman and The Stray Bullet are conventional texts that served the
cause of modern Korea’s Confucian patriarchal status quo, not least because
they were shot from a perspective of a typical male gaze. However, both
films exhibit ideological struggles that belie their otherwise mainstream messages. Both present critical views of the newly emerging social hierarchy
and crass materialism that were intertwined with the nation’s militarization
and modernization/Westernization and with its quasi-colonial relations with
America. For example, The Stray Bullet, which is essentially a story of suffering, uses woman as a trope for the degraded nation, even as it signally
fails to acknowledge women’s suffering. Both films show the postwar Korean
patriarchy’s efforts to confine women’s sexuality to the conventional spheres
of family and marriage. Both also reveal projections of Korean masculinity
that reflect the social and cultural concerns of a difficult and transitional time.
These projections—manifest, significantly, both in the portrayals made visible on the screen (presence) and through those that are withheld (absence)—
illuminate how Korea’s nationhood and its masculine subjects responded to
the social, moral, sexual, and cultural challenges of the postwar period. They
answered the chaos by reaffirming patriarchal values and vilifying women,
whose association with modernity, imagined or otherwise, made them suspect in the eyes of their fathers, husbands, brothers, and their nation.
1. Ernest Renan, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 17–18.
2. “Coach” is actually a misnomer for the horse-drawn cart that protagonist
Ch’unsam drives for a living in the film. Nevertheless, I use the better-known title
The Coachman to avoid confusion. Officially released DVDs of The Coachman and
The Stray Bullet are now available from various Internet sellers in Korea and the
United States. For a detailed examination of the period designation of the Golden Age
of South Korean cinema, see Nancy Abelmann and Kathleen McHugh, eds., South
Korean Golden Age Melodrama: Gender, Genre, and National Cinema (Detroit,
Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2005), especially pp. 1–15.
3. In his discussion of Christianity in Korean melodrama, Jinsoo An also argues
that Korean melodrama movies show that the nation itself becomes the virtuous
hero(ine) who eventually triumphs over hostile circumstances. Many such narratives
appear in this period’s film melodramas. See Jinsoo An, “Screening the Redemption: Christianity in Korean Melodrama,” in South Korean Golden Age Melodrama:
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
Gender, Genre, and National Cinema, ed. Nancy Abelmann and Kathleen McHugh
(Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 65–97.
4. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (New York:
W.W. Norton, 1997), 175.
5. Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, 301.
6. O Myôngho, Han’guk kûndae chôngch’isa ûi ihae (An Understanding of Modern Korean Political History), (Seoul: Orŭm Publishing House, 1999), 175–8.
7. Postwar South Korea depended heavily on foreign aid and was especially
reliant on the United States. Along with the military aid that gave the United States
decision-making power, this economic dependency essentially meant that South
Korea and the United States were bound in a neocolonial relationship. See Im
Yôngt’ae, Taehan min’guk 50-nyônsa (History of South Korea’s Fifty Years). (Seoul:
Tûllyôk, 1998), 195.
8. This pattern of symbiotic relationships between South Korea’s political and
economic powers-that-be is called chônggyông yuch’ak in Korean. It has appeared
repeatedly in the country’s history since 1945. Many historians see chônggyông
yuch’ak partially as a result of the republic’s inauspicious beginnings, when power
positions were still occupied by those who had collaborated with the Japanese during
the colonial era. See Im Yôngt’ae, Taehanmin’guk 50-nyônsa, 193–4.
9. Kim Samung, ed., Saryo ro ponûn 20-segi Han’guksa: Hwalbindang sônôn
esô Chôn, No hangsosim p’an’gyôl kk’aji (Perspective on the Twentieth-Century History of Korea through Documents: From the Declaration of Hwalbin Party to the
Appeals of the Ex-Presidents Chun and Roh) (Seoul: Karam Kihoek, 1997), 237–8.
10. On the one hand, scholars have pointed out that Park Chung Hee might have
learned this practice from Japanese colonizers, who had built an effective surveillance grid through the police boxes scattered all over the peninsula. On the other
hand, this kind of policymaking and execution seems to typify Park’s repressive
regime, and interestingly, left a legacy of unexpected side-benefits from the forced
march toward “progress” and “modernization.” See Han’guk chôngsin munhwa
yôn’guhôe, ed., Han’guk hyôndaesa ûi chae insik 9: 1960-nyôndae sahôe pyônhwa
yôn’gu, 1963–1970 (Rethinking Modern Korean History, vol. 9—The Study of the
Social Change in 1960s: 1963–1970) (Seoul: Paeksan Sôdang, 1999), 158–62.
11. Minjok munhaksa yôn’guso hyôndae munhak punkwa, 1960-nyôndae munhak yôn’gu (Study of 1960s Literature) (Seoul: Kip’ûnsaem, 1998), 255.
12. Hyôn Kim, Sahôe wa yulli (Society and Ethics) (Seoul: Munhak Kwa Chisôngsa,
1991), 243. The Korean phrase is p’yeswaejôk kaebangsông.
13. Munhak kwa sasang yôn’guhôe, 20-segi Han’guk munhak ûi pansông kwa
chaengchôm (The Reflection and Prospect on Korean Literature in the Twentieth
Century) (Seoul: Somyông Ch’ulp’an, 1999), 45–8.
14. See, for example, Han’guk yôksa yôn’guhôe, Han’guk hyôndaesa 2: 1950nyôndae Han’guk sahôe wa sawôl minjung hangjaeng (Modern Korean History II:
Korean Society in the 1950s and the April Revolution) (Seoul: P’ulpit, 1991), 89–123;
and Yôksahak yôn’guso, Hamkke ponûn Han’guk kûnhyôndaesa (A Look at Modern
Korean History) (Seoul: Sôhae Munjip, 2004), 317–18.
9/27/2006 7:59:30 AM
15. Im, Taehan min’guk 50-nyônsa, 176.
16. Han’guk yôksa yôn’guhôe, Han’guk hyôndaesa 2: 1950-nyôndae Han’guk
sahôe wa sawôl minjung hangjaeng, 89–123.
17. Cumings, 303. The national conscription “sent every male who could not bribe
his way out through its brand of education: boot camps, drills, discipline, patriotism,
anticommunism, and an authoritarian practice that chilled even the most hard-bitten
18. Im, Taehan min’guk 50-nyônsa, 216. An Hosang studied in Germany and had
already been actively involved with the establishment of the nascent postcolonial
educational system during the American military rule in South Korea (1945–48).
19. When the First Republic was established, leftist political and cultural leaders
were coerced to declare their allegiance to the new democratic republic. Many among
them chose to defect to North Korea between 1948 and 1953. See Im, Taehan min’guk
20. Han’guk yôksa yôn’guhôe, 83–6.
21. Han’guk yôksa yôn’guhôe, 115.
22. Ch’oe Changjip, Han’guksa 17 (Korean History, vol. 17) (Seoul: Han’gilsa,
23. Hyônmo yangch’ô is a Sino-Korean expression that denotes “wise mother and
good wife,” and connotes the paragon of female virtue according to the Confucian
worldview. Confucian philosophy argues that all beings and all things have their
proper place in the world, and that a society is harmonious when people, including
women and children, know and respect their own and others’ place in the society.
24. Ho Hyônch’an, et al., Korean Filmstars Retrospective Catalogue (Seoul: Korean
Film Archive, 1998), 7. Ho writes that, during the crucial period of nation rebuilding,
Kim embodied the poor everyman of postwar Korea better than any other actor of his
25. Im, Taehan min’guk 50-nyônsa, 210. It is ironic that the 1950s also saw the
rapid growth of the big South Korean conglomerates (chaebôl). Many started out
during the colonial period as members of the landlord class, but during the Syngman
Rhee regime they were awarded unfair advantages over smaller businesses, in the
form of large loans from the newly established Industrial Bank.
26. Suwôn taek means “a woman from Suwôn,” which is not extraordinary, given
her social position and Korea’s cultural norm at the time.
27. Yu China, et al., “Sinp’a wa Han’guk mellodûrama” (Sinp’a and Korean Melodrama), in Mellodûrama ran muôsin’ga: ‘Chayu puin’esô ‘Chôpsok’ kk’aji (What
Is Melodrama: From Madame Freedom to Contact) (Seoul: Minûmsa, 1999), 16–21.
Since he was not a critically acclaimed director, I could not find any significant material on Kang Taejin. But he was one of many prolific film directors who made popular
movies during the Golden Age of South Korean cinema. Sinp’a originated in Japan
during the Meiji Era, roughly between 1887 and 1896. It was at first an innovative
challenge to the Kabuki tradition, but popularity soon corrupted it, and by the time
it arrived in colonial Korea in the 1910s, it was associated with lowbrow stories of
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
love triangles and macabre crime stories. Thereafter, it had a tremendous influence
on Korean melodrama tradition.
28. The actor in the leading role of The Coachman was one of the legendary
actors of the Golden Age of Korean cinema. In 1960, a year before he starred in The
Coachman, he had already made another film with the same director, Kang Taejin,
titled Pak sôbang (Mr. Park). Mr. Park was a successful example of a “new wave”
melodrama, one of the top-grossing films of 1960, and indeed one of the decade’s
most popular films. Kim Sûngho’s role in Mr. Park was essentially revived numerous
times during his film career, because his natural acting style and physicality matched
well with the benign but slightly bumbling patriarch type of the middle, or more
often, lower middle class.
29. Han’guk yôksa yôn’guhôe, 84–5. The historian Chông Ch’anghyôn persuasively argues that the hegemonic ideology of postwar Korea was largely a product of
American policy, whose goal was to further the American interest in South Korea
through anticommunist, pro-American propaganda. The postwar education system,
which the United States strongly influenced, was the most significant and effective tool for disseminating propaganda. Chông also cites specific examples of U.S.funded overseas study programs, such as the Smith-Mundt Program, which in the
1960s expanded into the Fulbright-Hayes Program.
30. Of the foreign films screened in South Korean theaters in 1959, 78.8 percent
were from the United States/Hollywood. See Im, 230, and Chu Yusin, ed., Han’guk
yônghwa wa kûndaesông (Korean Cinema and Modernity) (Seoul: Sodo), 127–9.
31. Cumings, 255. “American influence in the South had reached new heights by
1950 . . . Americans kept the government, the army, the economy, the railroads, the airports, the mines, and the factories going, supplying money, electricity, expertise, and
psychological succor. . . . ‘America is the dream-land’ to thousands if not millions of
Koreans.” (British Foreign Office, FO317, piece no. 84053, Holt to FO, May 1, 1950).
32. Chungmoo Choi et al., Post-Colonial Classics of Korean Cinema Film Festival Catalogue (Irvine: Korean Film Festival Committee at UCI, 1998), 5. In her essay
introducing the film, Choi describes The Coachman as follows: “[Picture] a man in
a dyed military jacket over traditional pants with ankle ties and flat rubber shoes
delivering goods on his horse-drawn carriage through the city that is strewn with
buildings of Korean, Japanese, and Western architectural styles.”
33. Cumings, 303.
34. Kim Soyông, Ssinema, t’ek’ûno munhwa ûi p’urûn kk’ot (Cinema, The Blue
Flower in the Land of Technology) (Seoul: Yôrhwadang, 1996), 111. Kim writes in her
study of Madame Freedom (Chayu puin, Han Hyôngmo, dir., 1955), that the society’s
resentment and anxiety about postwar Korea’s sudden sexual chaos and freedom are
projected onto the figure of a young woman, who goes out of the domestic sphere for
the first time and tastes freedom, sexual and otherwise.
35. Kim Soyông, Ssinema, t’ek’ûno munhwa ûi p’urûn kk’ot, 115–16.
36. Yu was born in 1925 in Hwanghae Province in the northern part of Korea to
a wealthy family. He came to the South for education in 1946. In other words, his
9/27/2006 7:59:31 AM
socioeconomic background is similar to that of the protagonist in The Stray Bullet.
See Yi Yôngil’s Han’guk yônghwasa kangûirok (Lectures on Korean Film History)
(Seoul: Sodo, 2002), especially 88, 90–97, 194–96.
37. The film was a sound film that was 47 minutes long, which was considered
a great achievement, given the lack of systematic film education, technical knowledge, and equipment at the time. See Kim Hwa, Saerossûn Han’guk yônghwa chônsa
(Korean Film History) (Seoul: Tain midiô, 2003), 244–50.
38. Kim Hwa, Saerossûn Han’guk yônghwa chônsa, 250. During this period, Yu
wrote a script for Ch’oehu ûi yuhok (The Last Temptation, Chông Ch’anghwa, dir.,
1953) that featured a psychiatrist, reflecting his interest in Freudian psychoanalytic
39. “Yu Hyônmok Memoir 14,” Cine 21 (Ssine 21),Feb. 2, 2001, (Jul. 18, 2006).
40. Eunsun Cho considers The Stray Bullet to be fractured, due to its mimicry of
noir and gangster movies in the Hollywood style, and reads the character Yôngho
and the film’s stylization as essentially embodying Homi Bhabha’s notion of “cultural hybridity.” Although Cho otherwise presents a compelling argument about the
male characters’ scopophobia (fear of the gaze), I would argue that she dismisses
too easily the fractured quality of the film’s “realism,” which functions as a crucial
filmic and narrative tool for storytelling. See McHugh and Abelmann, South Korean
Golden Age Melodrama, 99–116.
41. Yi Yôngil, Han’guk yôngh wa chônsa (History of Korean Cinema) (Seoul:
Sodo, 2004), 255.
42. Yi, Han’guk yônghwa chônsa, 321–23.
43. Cumings, 303. A far higher percentage of the population attended college in
Korea than in England, for example. By 1965, one of every 280 Koreans was in college, compared to one in 425 in England. This high rate of secondary education led to
general sociopolitical awareness and critical thinking in the Korean population.
44. See Han’guk chôngsin munhwa yôn’guhôe, vol. 7., 295–99.
45. Yu’s memoir is a biased account of his working life as a film director and must
be understood as such. In it, he addresses the political message of The Stray Bullet,
which gives the impression that he is a very politically involved filmmaker. In fact,
he is an apolitical, experimental artist whose works often became mired in controversy. What is interesting is not the question of whether he is a political director, but
rather his desire to be seen as one, which clearly illustrates the politically charged
atmosphere of Cold War–era South Korea.
46. This timeline is significant because Park Chung Hee’s administration—which
established itself in the next year, 1962—was no more lenient than Rhee’s in its
absolute anticommunist stance. The administration changed the motion picture laws
four times between 1962 and 1972 to better control the ideological content of South
Korean films. See Im, 424–26.
47. The apparent reasons for such a rapid film production schedule were twofold.
First, film production companies operating in this era were almost guaranteed an
audience for every movie they produced, and so they produced a great many. Second,
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Nation Rebuilding and Postwar South Korean Cinema
the Korean film industry of the time lacked skilled staff and even equipment, such
as sound or lighting engineers and movie cameras. All film directors of this era were
under tremendous pressure to produce movies as quickly and as cheaply possible.
48. Ha Chôngil, Pundan chabonjuûi sidae ûi minjok munhak saron (Essays on the
History of Korean National Literature in the Period of Division Capitalism) (Seoul:
Somyông Ch’ulp’an, 2002), 187–206. Ha borrows this concept of “no longer” from
Georg Lukacs, Solzhenitsyn (New York: MIT Press, 1971), 7–26.
49. Unlike the film version, the original short story was not censored. One might
conjecture that literature was not censored as harshly as films during the 1950s. In addition, the censorship of the film version was due partly to the unfortunate timing of the
re-edited film’s release, which came after the military coup led by Park Chung Hee.
50. The anticommunist paranoia of the era was clearly reflected in the censorship that the film underwent. The censors believed that the mother’s repeated “Let’s
go!” indicated the film’s pro–North Korean politics and that it pointed to the character’s desire to go back to North Korea. The film was banned partly because this
element of its narrative was considered friendly to North Korea and its communist
51. Kim, Ssinema, t’ek’ûno munhwa ûi p’urûn kk’ot, 131. The social and psychological space of a military base town is a clear example of a liminal space. A base
town serves as a kind of demi-monde centered on Korean women’s prostitution to
American soldiers stationed in Korea. The Americans’ presence is itself embarrassing and shameful for Koreans to acknowledge, and as such, a base town does not
truly belong in Korea or America. Rather, it stands isolated, tenuously connected to
both countries, a symbol of the unequal power relations between the two.
52. Kim, Ssinema, t’ek’ûno munhwa ûi p’urûn kk’ot, 131.
53. The film does not explain why Ch’ôrho was so poor, since he had a whitecollar job as an accountant. According to the director’s memoir, the Berlin Film
Festival judges could not understand this situation, and Yu cites it as one of the
reasons the film did not receive an award. In general, however, it was received very
54. Kim Haksu, Sûk’ûrin pak ûi Han’guk yônghwasa I (Off-Screen History of
Korean Cinema I) (Seoul: Inmul Kwa Sasangsa, 2002), 197.
55. Ha, Pundan chabonjuûi sidae ûi minjok munhak saron, 219.
56. Seungsook Moon, “Begetting the Nation: The Androcentric Discourse of
National History and Tradition in South Korea,” in Dangerous Women: Gender and
Korean Nationalism, ed. Elaine H. Kim and Chungmoo Choi (New York: Routledge,
57. Moon, “Begetting the Nation” in Dangerous Women, 36.
58. Moon, “Begetting the Nation” in Dangerous Women, 36.
59. Choi, Post-Colonial Classics of Korean Cinema Film Festival Catalogue, 8.
Choi observes that the name of the village itself suggests that “its residents have been
liberated from the grips of the ‘evil’ Communist North. In the film the name of this
shantytown is utilized as a shorthand for the Cold War ideology that had been naturalized in the consciousness of the South Korean people. Liberation Village actually
9/27/2006 7:59:32 AM
existed behind the 8th U.S. Army Headquarters in the Yongsan area of Seoul within
view of the U.S. military authorities.”
60. More than his older brother, Yôngho seems to represent the new “lost” generation. The critic Ha Chôngil reads the literature of the 1960s as a “narrative of reflection,” regardless of the authors’ political leanings in the very politicized postwar era.
In Ha’s view, authors most wanted to reflect on the modernization of South Korea.
See Ha, Pundan chabonjuûi sidae ûi minjok munhak saron, 238.
61. In the essay “Yanggongju as an Allegory of the Nation” in Dangerous Women:
Gender and Korean Nationalism, Hyun Sook Kim says, “Historically, the term
yanggongju has referred to Korean women who engage in sexual labor for foreign
soldiers. . . . Used derogatorily, it means ‘Yankee whore,’ ‘Yankee wife,’ ‘UN lady,’
and/or ‘Western princess.’ This epithet . . . relegates Korean women working in militarized prostitution with foreign men to the lowest status within the hierarchy of
prostitution. Since the end of the Korean War, this category has been extended to
include Korean women who marry American servicemen (pejoratively called ‘GI
Brides’). In postwar Korea, the epithet . . . has become synonymous with ‘GI Brides,’
so that Korean women in interracial marriages are also viewed as yanggongju.” See
Kim in Dangerous Women, 178.
62. In her reading of The Stray Bullet, Eunsun Cho posits that instead of scopophilia (the desire to look, usually at female body, a concept that she borrows
from Laura Mulvey’s famous 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,”
Screen 16, no. 3 [Autumn 1975]: 6–18), the male characters have scopophobia (the
fear of looking) due to their colonized and emasculated subject position. Cho sees
this as a symptom of masculinity in crisis. While I agree with her assessment that
the male characters’ refusal to look stems from some kind of pain, I think this
pain is metaphysical and existential, rather than phobic in nature. See McHugh and
63. After his teeth are pulled, Ch’ôrho passes out in a taxi from massive loss of
blood. His masochistic decision, the bloody mouth, and his hysterical “swooning”
offer fertile ground for psychoanalytic interpretation.
64. The coachman’s son lectures his younger sister for wearing fancy (read: Western) dresses that do not belong to her, and warns her that her head is as empty as her
65. It is not an accident that this humiliating episode for Myôngsuk takes place in
the most public of spaces, in front of a famous hotel in downtown Seoul. Recently,
there have been many suggestive studies of women’s place in South Korean melodrama of the 1950s and 1960s. Pak Hyônsôn, for example, writes that although many
films from the sixties show various female characters who leave home to find work,
love, and public ident...
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