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.