Emasculated: Angry Men in Korean New Wave Cinema

Source: BLARB/Blog, Los Angeles Review of Books

 …the mission of psychoanalysis – that is, “to reestablish the broken network of communication by allowing the patient to verbalize the meaning of his symptom: through this verbalization, the system is automatically dissolved.” 

In any new national cinema that has long endured political terror, a “post-traumatic” identity often emerges whose mission is to help viewers remember what is too painful to recuperate.

– ‘Post-Trauma and Historical Remembrance in A Single Spark and A Petal’, Kyung Hyun Kim, page 108.

 Emasculation (a man feeling less male by taking away his confidence and/or power) can be traced back far in South Korea – spanning from the Confucianism hierarchy of classes and gender, Japanese colonial rule, the Korean War and post-Korean War survival, rapid industrialisation, and the authoritarian military governments, to its quick entrance into capitalism, and the subsequent decline during the Asian Financial Crisis. The country has been nothing short of rapid change and national trauma. On the macro level, this comprises of Korean men losing power over their country and women due to Japanese colonialism and American imperialism. On a micro level, it involves the loss of one’s status and self-worth as the breadwinner due to war injury, or mistreatment in the military and/or workplace. In a nation with its foundations firmly in patriarchy how does this leave the national male psyche? If one focuses on 1980s and 90s South Korean cinema, there are signs of male crisis within. This article highlights some films from this period that focus on emasculation, with a special focus on Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, 1988) by Park Kwang-su, with the portrayal of two working class protagonists’ fall.

 1980s political whirlwind

Within months of Chun Doo-hwan’s coup, hundreds were killed and injured in the Gwangju Uprising (18-27th May 1980 / 광주 민주화 항쟁). The upheaval didn’t end there. During the first four years of his presidency from 1980 to 1983, as part of his “cleansing” campaign, all political competition was restricted, heavy censorship was imposed on the press, and thousands of students, professors, teachers, journalists, pastors, and politicians were arrested for their involvement in anti-government demonstrations. He closed colleges and universities, and banned all political discussions and labour strikes. 

 However, this all changed in late 1983 when Chun’s regime decided to be nice, as a way to gain more popularity and obtain more votes in the upcoming election of 1985. Political prisoners were released, anti-government students and professors were allowed to return to their universities, and military police were removed from university campuses. This was the start of the resurrection of the people. The nation was ready to fight for democracy during the June 1987 Democratic Uprising (10-29th June 1987 / 6월 민주항쟁) – hailing an end to Chun, and the very beginning of democracy for South Korea. Alongside these socio-political transformations, a new revolution was being birthed through cinema.

A new cinema is born

Still from Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Park Kwang-su, 1988). Source: Chilsu and Mansu – The Impossibility of Communication.

With the liberalisation of laws from Chun’s government in 1983, the film industry was also affected. In 1985, for the first time since 1962, it was now possible for almost anyone to open a film production company, as long as they could complete the relevant application forms and prove that they had the necessary funds. However, the industry faced stiff competition from 1987, when the US government persuaded the South Korean government to lower importation laws and allow American distribution agencies to be set up in South Korea for direct distribution. In 1988, Article 22 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, which stated “the right to artistic freedom” strongly contributed to the liberalisation of filmmaking. The late 1980s signalled the start of a new type of South Korean cinema, deemed as the Korean New Wave (코리안 뉴 웨이브). Many of its founders were student activists and/or followers of Marxist thought, who wanted to accentuate the importance of democracy through film, and elevate South Korean cinema to auteurship – raising its cultural value to that of literature. Park Kwang-su, Jang Sun-woo, and Lee Myung-se were some of its predominantly male leaders, and male characters were usually the focal point. The films of this movement focused on realism and social issues, with allegory being recurrent in its manifestations. 

 Emasculation within national cinema

The Korean New Wave produced gendered films depicting angry men. This included male characters who were frustrated with having their voices silenced by the military government, had difficulty making money during globalisation, lost their girlfriends/wives to other men, and/or suffered from disrespectful treatment from their superiors at work. The loss of self and the attempted recuperation of masculinity are recurring themes within this oeuvre, and history is rewritten from the male perspective. Urban alienation for angry young men and intellectual writers is common. Amidst the boom of modernisation and capitalism of 1980s South Korea, two working class billboard painters in Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Park Kwang-su, 1988) yell their frustrations at an audience of authorities and public who cannot hear them. In a Whale Hunting (고래사냥, Bae Chang-ho, 1984), Byung-tae fails to attract a woman he likes, and flees from the demoralising city, aiming to reconnect to his masculinity during his literal (and phallic) search for a whale.

 A barber assistant’s woman has an affair, so he slashes her lover to death at the barbershop in A Fine, Windy Day (바람 불어 좋은 날, Lee Chang-ho, 1980). A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Park Kwang-su, 1995) is a retelling of Jeon Tae-il who immolated himself in 1970, as a form of activism against the state’s treatment of labourers. In The Portrait of Youth (젊은날의 초상, Kwak Chi-kyun, 1991), a university student decides to leave after the suicides of two of his best friends as activism against constricting Confucian family values and the authoritarian government. Recuperation of the male self occurs through the destruction of others or through self-extermination.

Chilsu and Mansu

Park Kwang-su was regarded as the leader of the Korean New Wave, with Chilsu and Mansu (1988) capturing the zeitgeist of the late 1980s. Park strategically approached the censorship board during the hustle and bustle of the opening day of the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics, and the film was quickly and successfully approved. It features two working class men who paint advertisements on billboards. Chilsu is the younger man courting a middle class student, and Mansu is a middle-aged man who is the son of a staunch left-wing father. 

Stills from Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Park Kwang-su, 1988).  On a high building while painting a billboard, the two working class protagonists shout their grievances to the crowds of onlookers below. The authorities however, cannot hear them. Source: ‘Chilsu and Mansu – The Impossibility of Communication.’

One day while painting a billboard on the top of a high building, the police misconstrue them to be suicidal activists. The situation becomes more dire with the military being called in, a helicopter flying above capturing them on camera, tons of press, and a growing number of the public attentively watching the drama unfold. In the final scene, Chilsu and Mansu are shouting to make their intentions clear that they are innocent people, however, the authorities cannot hear them and they are misunderstood. The clear gap, lack of communication, and anger from the working classes to the middle classes in positions of power is made through this allegory. At the end, Chilsu is arrested and escorted away into a police car, and Mansu is presumed to have jumped to his death. Both men lose their confidence, freedom, and power. 

Park stated in an interview that he used comedy in the initial opening part of the film, in order to draw the audience into a seemingly light-hearted film. However, as the film progressed, it would become evident that it contained politically subversive elements. The two characters have physically demanding jobs, but making enough money is a challenge for them – this is a film that deals with class issues. The billboard that they are painting is a huge advertisement with the face of a Caucasian woman – symbolic of American/Western culture and capitalism infiltrating this country as well as its cinema screens. 

 The film was partly based on a play that Park had seen in Seoul, by a Taiwanese writer who was producing anti-government work in Taiwan. His producers decided not to reveal the writer’s name to the South Korean government as the film was being born from a gene of disruption. Chilsu and Mansu is a strong representative film of the allegorical, socio-political films of this era, highlighting the hardships that many men, particularly from the working class faced. 

 Film as catharsis

A journey through the Korean New Wave is a journey through the nation’s metamorphosis from authoritarianism to democracy, and from modernisation to rapid globalisation. Both the country’s foundation and people were shaken and upended. In addition to providing a historical and social perspective into an era, as well as entertainment, can these films provide psychological relief to the masses?

 ‘Han’ (한) is a Korean term to describe an emotion that includes deep-seated resentment and grief, which resides within both the individuals and the nation. Through the allegorical works of the Korean New Wave reifying the pain of the nation’s people, particularly its men, maybe some of them could also function as cathartic release of both individual and collective han/pain. Perhaps these films have the power to act as mediums to exorcise the inner anguish of men who have felt lost, taken advantage of, and emasculated.

Nilesh Kumar
About Nilesh Kumar 6 Articles
Nilesh Kumar is British-Indian and is pursuing his Master's in Korean Studies at Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies. His main areas of interest include gender, sexuality, and modern Korean history. He has worked as a producer, programmer, curator, and writer. Nilesh is an avid reader with a passion for Post-1950s European classic car design.