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Review: Steven Chung’s Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-Ok and Postwar Cinema

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Review: Steven Chung’s Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-Ok and Postwar Cinema

Split Screen Korea exemplifies a kind of necessary scholarly monograph that will never go out of style. Instead of seeking to construct yet another fashionable revisionist history, Steven Chung writes fluidly and directly, establishing “film and nation” as the basic binary from which his research emanates. To achieve this, he references prior writings by Fredric Jameson and Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto and explains how film and nation function as “mutual reinforcement” for one another, using Japanese cinema as the most direct comparative model. Thus, Chung avoids treating Korean cinema and Shin Sang-Ok, the central auteur up for examination, as ars gratia artis by homing in on geography, capital, and their inextricable influence on the art that actually makes its way on screen. Moreover, by selecting Shin’s films as metonymic for larger concerns within postwar Korean filmmaking, Chung provides an accessible, workable theory addressing the totality of one’s historic concerns, from production to exhibition to reception, without ever losing grasp of an economic impetus that informs the work.

Nothing better demonstrates Chung’s abilities than his first chapter on the “Enlightenment mode” in Korean cinema. By this, Chung refers to a filmmaking ideal that thought it “the responsibility of the modern, radicalized intellectual elite to enlighten the poor, backward, primitive masses for a specific purpose: social, spiritual, and political awakening.” However, Chung complicates this model by explaining the resiliency of artists and that this mode’s desires do not necessarily equate to automatic hegemony. Although he doesn’t explicitly evoke Stuart Hall’s “encoding/decoding” model of dominant, negotiated, and oppositional readings, his suggestion that these films’ effects lie in “their invocation of language and style of instruction and conversion” indicates a similar understanding of cultural interpretation to Hall’s.

After establishing the methodological groundwork, Chung turns almost exclusively to a discussion of Shin’s films within their cultural contexts and the financial history of his production company, Shin Films. As such, Shin’s work should be read through “the dominant codes of image production in film, fashion, and print that so acutely expressed the layered ontologies and trajectories that belie the discourse of Americanization in 1950s South Korea.” In essence, Shin’s films sought to catch up, technologically, with the films being made overseas and did so within numerous melodramas, often tending toward revealing neorealist social spaces. Chung even compares Shin to Kenji Mizoguchi for their shared interest in “fallen women,” though Chung remains hesitant to suggest Shin as possessing the formal rigor of his Japanese forerunner. Not every film sounds indebted to Mizoguchi; Chung’s description of 1958’s Hellflower, both formally and thematically, reads like a descendant of Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan, for example. Various stills and explanations make numerous films look and sound masterful and exemplary, a feat all the more important given their long unavailability on Region 1 home video.

Aside from informative explanations of individual films, Chung acutely contextualizes how Shin and other filmmakers sought to survive in a rapidly depreciating film market and adapt to the changed licensing system of the 1970s; one technique was “counterfeit co-productions,” in which Shin spliced several Korean faces onto the bodies of actors in an otherwise wholly Hong Kong film. These attempts proved insufficient, however, as Shin Films fell into bankruptcy, leaving Shin, “the era’s savviest film entrepreneur,” without many options as a filmmaker. Later chapters look at other directors like Ch’ae Yŏng-sin and Pak Tong-hyŏg, but Shin’s presence remains, whether as comparison or for political explication. Shin would eventually turn predominately to a producer role, producing several of the films in the 3 Ninjas franchise, but as Chung reiterates throughout and concludes, his aims and desires were “a cinematic testament to the complexities of Korean Modernity.”

Steven Chung’s Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-Ok and Postwar Cinema is available now from University of Minnesota Press; to purchase it, click here.