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Sun 1
Table of Contents
Dedication 2
Acknowledgements 3
Preface 6
Abstract 7
Introduction 8
Ambivalent Relations: Korea and American Cinemas in a Comparative Context 12
Chapter Descriptions 19
Chapter 1: Remembering the Korean War through Gran Torino 21
Finding One‟s Place in the National Narrative 21
Erasing Dissenting Voices of Power 30
Chapter 2: Remembering the Korean War through Address Unknown 35
Crazy Ghost Woman 35
Finding One‟s Place in the National Narrative 43
Conclusion 51
Appendix 52
Bibliography 63
Sun 2
Dedication
I dedicate this thesis to Dr. Jinah Kim, whose support and encouragement has given me a
lifelong passion, and who has taught me to challenge my surroundings, question my
assumptions, and to always read against the grain.
Sun 3
Acknowledgements
I would like to thank the American Studies Department for making it possible for me to
write a senior honors thesis. I joined the program in my junior year, after a disastrous two years
as a math major. The major has allowed me to put together all of my interests into one field of
study and to execute this project, which I have been working on over the past two years. Thank
you Dr. Baldwin for allowing me the opportunity to participate in this program. To my American
Studies cohort – Adam, Elisa, Jordan, Kristin, Michael Lobel, Michael Waxman, Veronica, and
Vicky – I have really enjoyed working with all of you and in learning more about your topics. I
feel really lucky to have gotten to know all of you better throughout this year and am happy to be
graduating with such awesome people. Professor Grossman, thank you for all of your help with
working with my writing. You have taught me how to write with greater clarity in order to get
my point across in the best possible way. I owe so much to the senior thesis seminar and your
comments along the way.
I would like to take the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship for supporting me with
my research. Participating in SROP (Summer Research Opportunity Program) at Northwestern
has made me realize that graduate school is the right choice for me and of course, allowed me to
get a head start on writing this thesis. Andrea Abel, Dr. Eugene Lowe, and the faculty members
on the MMUF committee, I do not know what you saw in me when I interviewed, but I am
forever grateful for all of the support that you have given me and am glad that all of you
recognized my passion before I even discovered it myself. My MMUF cohort – Judy Landeros,
Veronica Morales, Dana Nickson, and Marcus Shepard – you are all off to really great futures
and I am so glad to have shared my time here at Northwestern with you.
Sun 4
I owe my depth of knowledge on my thesis topic not just to the books that I have read
and my research, but also to the classes that I have taken at Northwestern. Therefore, I would
like to thank all of the professors who have impacted my way of thinking and really shaped my
undergraduate career. Even if these professors are not fully aware of it, all of them have had
great influences on me: Mr. Tatsu Aoki, Dr. Geraldo Cadava, Dr. Carolyn Chen, Dr. John Alba
Cutler, Dr. Brian Edwards, Dr. Betsy Erkkila, Dr. Susannah Gottlieb, Dr. Jay Grossman, Dr.
Jinah Kim, Dr. Bruce Knickerbocker, Dr. Phuong Nguyen, Dr. Kirsten Pike, Dr. Janice Radway,
Dr. Jeffrey Sconce, Dr. Michael Sherry, and Frederick Staidum (PhD candidate).
I would like to thank Gabriel Geada for reading and rereading my thesis. I know that this
topic does not interest you, but your help has been invaluable to the revision process. Whenever I
need a fresh pair of eyes, you are always there for me. Whenever I am tired and stressed out, you
are always there for me. Thank you for your unconditional love and support. Thank you to my
family – my mom, my dad, and my sister – for being (somewhat) interested in my topic, and for
being there whenever I need to vent about schoolwork. Katie, you are the best sister anyone can
ask for, and I owe much of my productive writing sessions to the music that you gave me.
Candy, 1999-2011, you will always be missed.
Lastly, I would like to thank Dr. Jinah Kim, my faculty mentor. I would not be where I
am today without her. Dr. Kim has gone above and beyond with helping me on this project. Even
though she was pregnant and on leave for most of the summer and this year, she has continued to
meet with me and to discuss ideas with me. She agreed to be my mentor after I sent her an email
before beginning my junior year and never even having met her. Not once have I ever doubted
my choice. Dr. Kim, I do not ever think I can repay you for all of the time that you have put into
me and my project. My project has morphed ever since I first approached you, and you have
Sun 5
been there with me every step of the way. It has been a great pleasure working with you for these
past two years and I hope that we can continue to work together in the future. This thesis is as
much a part of you as it is a part of me.
Sun 6
Preface
My first taste of Korean cinema was in the winter of my freshman year at Northwestern
University at a Korean film retrospective at Block Cinema. There was something so different
about the films that I watched – Bad Guy (Kim Ki-duk, 2001), Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk,
2001), Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003), Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) to name a
few – in that there was an energy about the films that felt so alive, vital, and even angry. I could
not put my name on it until two years later when I learned about the existing military bases that
litter the Asian continent, particularly Korea, in a course that I took on “The American Century
in Asia,” taught by Dr. Jinah Kim. All of a sudden, I felt like everything made sense and I began
to understand that the anticolonial theory that I was studying in the course was present, if not
explicitly stated, in the Korean films that I had loved so much and felt an unexplainable
connection. This thesis is the end product as well as the beginning of my interests in Korean
cinema, America as empire, and war and memory.
Sun 7
Abstract
The lack of filmic representations of the Korean War, labeled by scholars as the
“Forgotten War,” is glaring given the popularity of war films in Hollywood, particularly of
WWII and the Vietnam War. Through a study of Korean and American filmic representations,
the main question this project asks is: why is this war cast as forgotten, and profoundly, rendered
unrepresentable? Drawing on an interdisciplinary body of scholarship, I argue that forgetting is
not a passive act; rather it indicates an act of repression and perhaps, a will not to remember.
Remembering and representing war is a particularly difficult project because war memories and
memorials tend to privilege narratives that valorize the nation and its soldiers; furthermore,
remembrances that challenge the idea of the nation as anything but heroic are relegated to the
margins and encouraged to be forgotten or discredited. Thus, a central concern of this project is,
how can we reconstruct and remember the Korean War in a manner that challenges and allows
non American-exceptionalist and non-patriarchal narratives to emerge? What do we gain by
centering the silenced and the female subject of war?
Sun 8
Introduction
The lack of representations of the Korean War in Hollywood remains glaring given the
popularity of war films and the plenitude of WWII and Vietnam War representations. This war
remains forgotten and perhaps even more profoundly, unrepresentable. Specifically, the Korean
War is difficult to represent in American cinema because it ended in a stalemate and does not fit
into clear national narratives of winning or losing. The Korean War is an important part of
American history and thus, it is simply not enough to label it as “forgotten” without asking why
it is forgotten and who has forgotten it. Furthermore, forgetting is not a passive act; forgetting
indicates an act of repression and a will not to remember. Therefore, the main questions that I
explore in this thesis are: How can American and Korean cinema help remember and represent
the Korean War, a war that is commonly characterized as the “Forgotten War” in the United
States and is relatively unrepresented in American cinema and popular culture?1
More broadly,
how does such inquiry further the project of transnationalizing American Studies?
As Marita Sturken, Lisa Yoneyama, and other scholars who work within the realm of war
and memory have argued, remembering and representing war is a particularly difficult project
because war memories and memorials tend to privilege narratives that valorize the nation and its
soldiers. Therefore, remembrances that challenge the idea of the nation and the soldier as
anything but heroes are relegated to the margins. I find these traditional memories problematic to
center on because they are emblematic of the national narrative and do not provide alternative
spaces and voices to emerge. In this project, I seek to explore marginal spaces and voices, which
is what I identify as transnational spaces and histories, in order to ask: How can we reconstruct
1
The Korean War is labeled by American historians and scholars as the Forgotten War because of its lack of
representation in American popular culture and history books. There are several implications for the Korean War to
be remembered as a “forgotten” war – firstly, that it is over even though the Koreas are in a state of suspended war
and secondly, that it is not worth studying.
Sun 9
and remember the Korean War in a manner that challenges and allows non American-
exceptionalist and non-patriarchal narratives to emerge?
As the concern with memory and representation indicates, this project is interested in the
recuperation of stories, histories, and experiences. Furthermore, it also seeks new ways of
narrating and representing American wars in order to provide a transnational lens, which
broadens the traditional nationalist understanding of war. Thus, my objects of study span both
Korean and American cinemas, and I look to examine the ways that the transnational is
represented for the act of recovery. Specifically, I choose to study three films – The Host (Bong
Joon-ho, 2006), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008), and Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk,
2001).
Juxtaposing Korean cinema with American cinema‟s representation of the Korean War is
a particularly fruitful enterprise because doing so provides a specific set of claims, ideas, and
perspectives about the Korean War that cannot be recognized by looking solely at American or
Korean American films about the war.2
Korean cinema‟s treatment of the Korean War offers a
unique lens from which to break down the perception of the war as a relic of the past. This is
different from American depictions of the war as over.3
Furthermore, in order to answer the
question of how to view the Korean War as anything other than forgotten, which is a way of
excluding the Korean voice from speaking, I look at Korean cinema in order to provide a
transnational lens to the study of the Korean War. I explain this in greater detail in the next
2
The Korean War has traditionally been studied in the fields of history, political science, and international relations.
Bruce Cumings, who I discuss later in this thesis, argues against the way that the Korean War has been represented
in those fields, namely as a part of the Cold War. He instead argues that the Korean War should be viewed as a civil
war among Koreans and not just as a smaller war in the context of the Cold War and stopping/advancing
Communism. On the other hand, within the humanities, the study of the Korean War is relatively new and has been
spearheaded by Korean Americans. My thesis is different in its study of the Korean War in that I incorporate Korean
film to achieve a broader transnational understanding of the Korean War.
3
The Korean War never ended in Korea; the Koreas are in a state of suspended war. Recent news articles and events
demonstrate that there are still conflicts between North and South Korea.
Sun 10
section of my thesis, which serves as a background for my larger study of Gran Torino and
Address Unknown.
The voices within these films are those that have been forgotten, which I define as those
who have been subsumed into the national narrative, whether it is in Korea or America.
Specifically, the voices of women are reduced to symbols and thus are disappeared. By asking
what is to be gained by a focus on the female figure, this thesis seeks to challenge the
conventional binary depictions of women as either victim or whore within war narratives by
going beyond national remembrances of war that are not entwined with masculine or
nationalistic tropes. The female body/voice is one of the transgressive and transnational spaces
that explicitly challenges these narratives.
Furthermore, the presence of the female body troubles the typical war narratives that
focus on gendered relationships. For example, the most common trope is that of masculinized
colonial conqueror dominating the feminized and colonized subordinate nation. Within colonial
discourse subordinate nations are feminized, which leaves no space for the female subjects of the
nation to speak as the male subjects of the nation have now (figuratively) become feminized
subjects. Thus, this erases the female body/voice and allows for it to disappear from the national
narrative. Furthermore, the counterpoint to colonial discourse – anticolonial discourse – attempts
to reinscribe masculinity back into the colonized nation, rendering all attributes of femininity and
the female body as abject and dangerous to nationalism.4
Lastly, the presence of the female body/voice in films about war, particularly in Gran
Torino and Address Unknown, usually comes with the assumption that the female is an object.
She cannot speak for herself because she lacks agency and language to do so, whether it is
4
See a further analysis of anticolonial discourse within Chungmoo Choi‟s “The Politics of War Memories toward
Healing” in Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s).
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because she is a victim of her situation (for example, Sue‟s rape in Gran Torino) or a willing
participant (Chang-guk‟s mother as the “whore”/yanggongju5
in Address Unknown). On the
contrary, the very presence of these women within these films places them in a position where
they can speak and they can assert agency, even if it is on the margins of the screen or in the
ghostly imprints/shadows of the story. Borrowing from bell hook‟s notion of reading against the
grain6
, I pair up the study of women with the theory of “haunting,” in which afterimages and
marginal figures trouble traditional narratives in unsettling ways.7
5
“Western princess” in Korean. A euphemism used for prostitutes catering to U.S. soldiers and a derogatory term
for any woman who associates with American men.
6
See bell hooks‟ “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” in Black Looks: Race and Representation.
7
See Avery Gordon‟s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, which has informed my writing
but I do not have the space to further analyze. Also see Grace Cho‟s Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame,
Secrecy, and the Forgotten War, which I analyze in the literature review as well as in the section where I discuss
Chang-guk‟s mother and Sue.
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Ambivalent Relations: Korean and American Cinemas in a Comparative
Context
In this section, I explore the fruitfulness in studying Korean cinema as a way of
understanding the Korean War. One of the most important reasons that Korean cinema stands
apart from American cinema about the Korean War is the way that the Korean War is
remembered. In the American context, the Korean War has been “forgotten.” As Bruce Cumings
writes: “They [Americans] intervene on the side of the good, they appear to win quickly only to
lose suddenly, finally they eke out a stalemated ending that was prelude to a forgetting.
Forgotten, never known, abandoned: Americans sought to grab hold of this war and win it, only
to see victory slip from their hands and the war sink into oblivion” (Cumings, p. xv).8
Cumings
argues that the stalemate is one of the reasons why this war has become forgotten and
subsequently, it is also one of the reasons why this war is particularly difficult to represent in
cinema. Unlike WWII (the “good war”) in which Americans came out the victors or the Vietnam
War (the “bad war”) in which Americans lost,9
the Korean War has never officially ended and
has left Americans in an ambivalent position. There is no national narrative in which Americans
can summarize the war in Korea and despite historical dates attributed to the war – June 25, 1950
to July 27, 1953 – there is no clear result or ending, which Cumings argues is what easily
contributes to the Korean War as the “Forgotten War.” Even though wars are never really over,
the very historical dates of the Korean War only apply to the American intervention period and
not to the war as a whole. Therefore, the Korean War does not fit into American history and
complicates the idea of America as exceptional.10
Specifically, Korean cinema is a testament that
8
Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: AHistory.
9
The situation is more complicated, but this is a general summary.
10
Even the loss of the Vietnam War could be woven into exceptional narratives, as evident with the Rambo films in
which Americans become preoccupied with “doing things better.” Furthermore, the loss also shows the ways in
Sun 13
the war is still present within the context of Korean politics, contemporary South Korean-North
Korean, and U.S.-Korean relationships.
The “forgetting” of the Korean War in American society and the inability of Koreans to
forget about the Korean War causes the Korean War to become a ghost that haunts both
American and Korean societies, albeit in different ways. Grace Cho explains this process of
haunting, especially in relation to Camptown, which are areas that serve the economic and
leisure needs of American military bases in Korea.11
In fact, she mentions that Korea is literally
haunted by ghosts from the Korean War:
In this part of the country in particular, there is a reported
phenomenon called honbul, or “ghost flames,” in which flickering
lights rise up from the ground, usually at the site of a
massacre….In places where buried bodies are heavily concentrated,
the remains have changed the chemical makeup of the earth,
causing the soul to ignite. Through ghost flames, the spirits of the
dead release their grief and rage, their han, into the world” (Cho, p.
16).
This haunting that is an aftermath of the fighting during the Korean War forces the living to
never forget about the war. Wars are impossible to forget and participants and veterans of the
Korean War function as the honbul within American society in the similar way that torn family
relationships, veterans, and ghosts haunt Korea as well. This haunting is reflected in South
Korean cinema. For example, The Host (Bong Jong-ho, 2006) is inextricably tied with the
Korean War and is haunted by the war. If The Host deals with ghosts in such a way as to
highlight them within the text, then American films such as Gran Torino attempt to erase those
ghosts.
which Americans can learn from their past mistakes and the loss of American innocence trope is a particularly
popular trope, especially in American films about the Vietnam War. See Marita Sturken‟s essay “Reenactment,
Fantasy, and the Paranoia of History: Oliver Stone‟s Docudramas” and Yen Le Espiritu‟s essay “The „We-Win-
Even-When-We-Lose‟ Syndrome: U.S. Press Coverage of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the „Fall of Saigon.‟”
11
Grace Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War.
Sun 14
Furthermore, The Host allows for Korean subjects to speak back to Americans and
comment on the unequal power structure of U.S.-Korean relations since the Korean War. While
the film deals with themes and ideas specific to South Korea and critiques American
exceptionalism, it simultaneously borrows from conventions of the monster movie genre and
blockbuster style that is emblematic of Hollywood.12
However, the medium of the film as a
blockbuster horror/monster movie complicates its negative portrayals of Americans and Koreans
acquiescing to the Americans. It is not simply enough to view The Host as an anti-American film,
as many of its artistic influences are directly inspired by Hollywood generic conventions.
Furthermore, this ambivalence turns into a transnational space that is productive, as the film
constantly questions and challenges this unequal relationship.
The Host most powerfully challenges this relationship when its national subjects within
the film directly speak back to “America.”13
In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, the
main protagonist, Gang-du, finally unleashes his anger. (See Figure 1.) Gang-du is the father of
Hyun-seo, who is kidnapped by the monster. In this scene, which comes near the middle of the
film, after the monster has been spotted and Seoul is put into quarantine, Gang-du is taken by
Korean police who believe he has been exposed to the monster‟s disease. We quickly learn,
however, that Korean doctors are monsters themselves, using Gang-du against his will as a test
subject to learn more about the monster and its impact on people.14
Furthermore, Gang-du knows
that his daughter is still alive after the monster kidnaps her because he received a phone call from
her. While the doctor and the assistant discuss this, Gang-du finally snaps and cannot hold in his
12
What is unique about The Host is that it is the highest-grossing film in South Korean history. See two anthologies
of Korean cinema: New Korean Cinema edited by Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer and Seoul Searching: Culture
and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema edited by Frances Gateward.
13
Generally speaking, this is not found within American films about the Korean War or any war, where the enemy
is usually portrayed as a nameless horde. Particularly with enemies of color, they are never allowed to speak or to
have any agency as subjects, serving only to dot the landscape of the film as backdrops or are reduced to objects.
14
It is later revealed in the film that this disease never existed, which serves as a critique of the mismanagement of
U.S.-South Korean power.
Sun 15
frustration. However, he chooses to snap not at the American doctor, but at the Korean assistant
who also serves another function as translator.15
When the white doctor discovers that Gang-du‟s
daughter might still be alive, he rattles off a list of organizations that Gang-du should have
contacted for help: the police, the military, a television station, a human rights organization, etc.
Ironically, those were the very people who quarantined Gang-du and refused to let him find his
daughter.16
At this point of irony, Gang-du finally breaks down and the interpreter translates his
response: “Because nobody fucking listens to me.” However, when the interpreter says this,
Gang-du screams at him: “Please don‟t cut me off. My words are words too. Why don‟t you
listen to my words?”
Gang-du‟s words in themselves are particularly important to hear, but it is also important
to consider how these words should be heard. Gang-du screams at the interpreter because of his
refusal to be translated.17
Moreover, this is another critique of American culture in this
implication that English is not the universal language, but the language of the home country –
Korean – should be the default language. This is another way in which language serves as a
direct critique of the unequal relationships between Americans and Koreans. Furthermore, this
scene is what makes Korean cinema such a fruitful area of study because it allows for multiple
voices to speak, especially those voices that seek to critique the existing hierarchy of
15
This role of translator is particularly interesting, especially in the context of Homi Bhaba‟s “Of Mimicry and Man:
The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” The translator could be seen in the position of mimicry, trying to be like
his white superior although it is evident that even though his position is above Gang-du, he would never reach the
position of the doctor. Gang-du‟s lashing out at the Korean assistant demonstrates the anger in which the colonial
subject views other members of his/her race who abandon their people to help out the colonizer. The role of
translation and language comes up again in this thesis: see my analysis of Chang-guk‟s mother‟s use of language
and my analysis of Sue as cultural translator between Walt Kowalski (the American) and the Hmong.
16
All of these organizations are in positions of power and show the divide between the common Korean people and
people in positions of authority, mostly held by Americans and Koreans complicit with the Americans.
17
Ironically, in order to understand what he is saying, I must accept the “translated” Gang-du, not in the figure of
the translator in the film but through the subtitles.
Sun 16
neocolonialism.18
Transnational film allows for different voices and different types of people to
speak outside of the traditional narratives of the Korean War as “forgotten” in America.
Speaking from a broader perspective, The Host takes place in Seoul, South Korea along
the Han River, when a monster emerges from the polluted river (a result of U.S. military
experiments) and attacks the local populace. Reading this film alongside Christina Klein‟s article,
“Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the
Films of Bong Joon-ho,” it becomes apparent that ambivalence characterizes Korean cinema –
and Korean politics and culture – towards America. In this way, Americans tend to view the
Korean War from the perspective of heroism or winning/losing, which is why it ends up
becoming a “forgotten war” – because there are no victors as mentioned in Cumings‟ idea of
stalemate. On the other hand, Koreans are more concern with the hierarchal role of their status in
this relationship between the two countries.
Furthermore, the film uses anti-Americanism in a more complicated way than in
portraying one-sided views. For example, in the scene that I analyzed, Gang-du is not only
critical of the Americans, but also of Korean complicity with Americans as well. Christina Klein
describes this “ambivalent” relation: “In the end, the close relationship between the two countries
has produced among Koreans both a pervasive orientation toward the United States in economic
and cultural matters, and a deep resentment of the fundamentally unequal terms of the
relationship” (Klein, p. 875). This sense of ambivalence is elaborated by Jodi Kim19
:
Significantly, the war set into motion a neoimperial relationship
between the United States and South Korea. Following the war, the
United States poured $4 billion of aid into South Korea in one
18
Gang-du is also a bit of a marginal person (although he is the main character of the film) because he is a single
father, a bit stupid, adopted, and poor. In other words, he is clearly not one of the Koreans who have benefitted from
the economic boom.
19
This quotation is found in Jodi Kim‟s chapter “The Forgotten War: Korean America‟s Conditions of Possibility”
from Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War.
Sun 17
decade alone and supported a string of autocratic and military-
controlled regimes, beginning with Rhee‟s. Today, the United
States continues to maintain a strong military presence in South
Korea, making South Korea‟s efforts toward a peaceful
reunification with North Korea much more difficult (Kim, p. 149).
Kim and Klein demonstrate how South Korea has always been aware of the deep impact of
American culture and economy, stemming from their roles as allies since the Korean War. While
this relationship is not viewed as entirely equal, Grace Cho argues that it is the military
camptowns that represents the unequal relationship between the two countries, as well as Korea‟s
willingness to acquiesce to these demands until relatively recently. Therefore, the representation
of American colonialism in relation to the Korean War as a haunting presence in The Host is a
critique of Korea‟s collusion with the system. This sense of guilt, anger, and shame is a recurring
narrative within Korean cinema that is represented in han, which manifests itself not only within
the living people, but the ghost flames of the dead as well. Korean cinema not only grapples with
this ambivalence that is characteristic of Korean politics and culture, but it is also constituted by
this ambivalence.
Furthermore, The Host takes the genre of the monster movie and uses it as a way of
expressing post-Korean War contemporary society in relation to American imperialism and
colonialism. In this way, The Host is instrumental in demonstrating the ambivalence within
transnationality. On one hand, it reflects the influences of American cultural imperialism and
how it is grappled with by people of other cultures. On the other hand, throughout the film there
are many instances of explicit anti-American sentiment, much of which results from the still-
present American occupation and the many military bases that occupy the country as a constant
reminder of Korea‟s position in the neocolonial hierarchy. This cultural ambivalence then
permeates the very nature of the film. In this way, The Host is able to critique America and the
Sun 18
Korean War in a way that is particularly productive to my project. This argument previews my
argument with Chang-guk‟s mother in Address Unknown and Sue in Gran Torino, in which I
discuss how language and (trans)nationalism critiques existing power structures and ways of
remembering the Korean War.
Sun 19
Chapter Descriptions
In the first chapter, I discuss Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008). In the first section of
this chapter, I examine how the film remembers the Korean War through the main character Walt
Kowalski, a Korean War veteran. I also explore how he chooses to heal himself and absolve his
sins from the war, as I find it particularly interesting that he uses a transnational figure to achieve
this. This transnational figure is Thao, who is part of the Hmong family who moves next door
and the brother of Sue, who first teaches Walt about the Hmong. Walt passes on his Silver Star to
Thao and confesses what he has done, relieving him of his pain. However, I argue that this form
of transnational healing is unproductive and problematic as Walt equates Thao with the boy that
he killed during the Korean War, conflating two people of different ethnicities.
In the second part of this chapter, I examine Sue, who I believe operates as a
transnational figure that is productive in remembrance, and I explore why Walt did not choose
her to be his successor. In this section, I also question why and how she disappears and recognize
that her power, especially of her self-awareness as an Asian American woman, makes her too
close of a hero and too problematic to exist in the traditional American national narrative of war
where women remain victims/whores. I also explore the way that Sue harnesses language as a
form of power and how her constantly questioning voice unsettles the otherwise conventional
war narrative of the film.
In the second chapter, I discuss Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001). In the first part of
this chapter, I ask the same questions that I do in Gran Torino: How is the Korean War
remembered and is this way of remembering productive? I first examine one of the main
character‟s (Chang-guk, a mixed-race Korean teenager) mother. She is never given a name in the
film even though she is one of the central characters. However, I argue that she is like a ghost
Sun 20
because she exists on the margins of Camptown and is unable to belong because of her “shamed”
status as a yanggongju. The irony of this is that Camptown is a transnational space that is neither
America nor Korea and I argue that Chang-guk‟s mother is perhaps the only figure in the film
that understands this transnationality, which codes her as crazy in the context of the film. While
Sue becomes a victim because of her unsettling presence, Chang-guk‟s mother is the crazy
woman/”whore” because of her ghostly and unsettling presence.
In the second part of this chapter, I examine another main character‟s (Jihum, a quiet
teenager who acts as the observer of the events around him) father. Jihum‟s father is in the
opposite position as Walt, since he did not receive a medal for his “heroic” actions. Walt
recognizes the irony of the national narrative that codes him as a hero when he was in fact a
murderer, but Jihum‟s father wants nothing more than to be subsumed into the national narrative,
especially because of his longing to reclaim his masculinity. As an inhabitant of a colonized
nation and of Camptown, Jihum‟s father is aware of his secondary status to the American
military members and seeks to be recognized as a hero and as a masculine figure. While all Walt
wants to do is to forget the Korean War and his past sins by healing through a transnational
figure, Jihum‟s father demonstrates that no matter how he wants to forget it is impossible and he
must establish a Korean national brotherhood.
Sun 21
Chapter 1: Remembering the Korean War through Gran Torino (Clint
Eastwood, 2008)
Finding One’s Place in the National Narrative
Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008) is the twenty-ninth film that Eastwood directed and
the third that focuses on the American war in the Asia-Pacific.20
Following the success of his
series Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood,
2006), which focus on the Asia-Pacific front during WWII, Eastwood centers Gran Torino on a
Korean War veteran. The story revolves around Walt Kowalski (played by Eastwood), who is
unable to come to terms with his traumas stemming from the Korean War, and his gradual
friendship with a Hmong family (particularly the children, Sue and her younger brother Thao)
who moves in next door. The story simultaneously deals with Walt‟s role as a veteran haunted
with his memories and his gradual acceptance of the changing demographics of his
neighborhood. Despite the story having been praised for its authenticity in its way of dealing
with the Hmong people and its usage of authentic (and amateur) Hmong people as actors, the
actor who plays Thao (Bee Vang) has since spoken out about the demeaning way that Eastwood
treated the Hmong actors on set as well as his lack of agency in playing Thao and the
stereotypical nature of his character. Even though Gran Torino is one of the few films that
employs a majority Asian cast, issues of race and representation are still a major problem not
only in the story of the film, but also in the treatment of the actors as well.
My analysis of Gran Torino focuses on how the Korean War is remembered through
Walt Kowalski and the way in which he achieves his transnational means of healing through
Thao. The way in which the Hmong characters have been portrayed in stereotypical ways as well
as the racism on the set only further emphasizes the way in which Walt‟s character has been
20
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000142/.
Sun 22
privileged in this film, above all the other characters. The Hmong function only to allow Walt to
come to terms with his Korean War memories. As to Walt‟s traumas, the film demonstrates that
what is forgotten about the Korean War is violence, which clashes with the national narrative of
the war and veterans of the war as heroes. Specifically, this is represented by Walt Kowalski‟s
Silver Star medal. As a veteran, Walt earned this medal for his heroism during the war, but he is
haunted by the killing that he had to do and the film explicitly demonstrates Walt‟s disconnect
with the medal. One of the main themes of the film, then, is the attempt to reconcile Walt‟s place
as a hero and how he can potentially be subsumed back into the national narrative, which writes
him as a hero. In this section, I demonstrate how Walt works against yet simultaneously with
existing Korean War narratives that render the war and its participants as invisible.
The first time the medal appears on screen is after the opening of the film and the funeral
reception of Walt‟s wife. (See Figure 2.) Walt‟s grandchildren are in the basement, looking
through a box of his Korean War mementoes. Within the box, the children find the Silver Star.
The camera zooms into the medal and then the children look through the rest of the box to find
photographs. This is the first time the viewers learn that Walt is a Korean War veteran when one
of his grandchildren reads “Korea” on the label in the photograph. The grandchildren do not
know about this information and one of them asks if it is their father that is in the photographs
and the other does not know where Korea is located. This scene directly demonstrates the
forgotten nature of the Korean War as well as the silences surrounding it; only the ghostly
presence of the war exists in old photographs and keepsakes that have been locked away.
The medal scene reveals the divide between national memory and personal memory.
National narratives and remembrances of the war are wrapped around the idea of heroism, which
is represented by Walt‟s Silver Star medal. Personal memory and remembrances of the war are
Sun 23
likewise indicated by Walt‟s traumas, particularly relating to his inability to connect his Korean
War memories with the medal. After all, Walt recognizes that his medal was earned through
murder and not heroism. There is a disconnect between personal memory and national memory,
which leads to the implication that national narratives about the Korean War in this film are
trying to forget about the violence that also constitutes the figure of the veteran. This is directly
evidenced by the medal, which not only carries with it the connotations of heroism and glory, but
erases the history of deaths and murder that come along with this perceived heroism. These
contradictions are what haunt Walt throughout the film. Moreover, the medal is able to absolve
trauma in the national arena and instead makes trauma the burden of the personal. Therefore, the
medal functions to propagate the national narrative of heroism and success (which goes along
with the theories of American exceptionalism) as well as functioning to erase and silence the
veteran because their personal memories run counter to this national narrative.
Despite this divide, however, the film still portrays Walt as a hero, even if he is reluctant
to accept this title. The Hmong family that he gets close to – especially Sue and Thao – is
increasingly forced to deal with persistent Hmong gangbangers who want to recruit Thao into
their group. The conflict between Thao and the gangbangers is what leads Walt to come into
contact with Sue and Thao. From the very beginning of the film, he chases the Hmong
gangbangers away and the family reveres him as a hero, leaving plate after plate of ceremonial
food and tributes at his door. Despite Walt‟s refusal to believe himself as a hero, the viewers are
meant to see him as one regardless of what he had done in Korea. He also saves Sue from a
group of black teenagers, which also earn him the respect of her family; I discuss this scene in
the next section of this chapter. Even though Walt does not think of himself as a hero, the film,
Sun 24
from the very beginning, sets him up to be one, especially by focusing on how he saves the
Hmong family in a stereotypical rehashing of the white male savior role.
Nevertheless, Walt‟s internal conflicts are a major part of the film, particularly in the
scenes where he converses with Father Janovich, a Catholic priest who was particularly close
with his late wife. After Walt first chases the Hmong gangbangers away from Sue and Thao (as
well as his own lawn) at the beginning of the film, Father Janovich comes to Walt‟s house to
reprimand him. During this scene, Father Janovich tries to persuade Walt to “unload his burden”
and to achieve some form of catharsis or healing:
It seems it would do you good to unload some of that burden.
Things done during war are terrible. Being ordered to kill. Killing
to save yourself, killing to save others. You‟re right. Those are
things I know nothing about but I do know about forgiveness and
I‟ve seen a lot of men who have confessed their sins, admitted their
guilt, and left their burdens behind them. Stronger men than you.
Men at war who are ordered to do appalling things and are now at
peace.
The most interesting aspect of this scene is the expectation that veterans must be able to move on
and to come to terms with what they have done. According to Father Janovich, it is unproductive
to live with ghosts of the past and to be unable to reintegrate with regular society. This way of
thinking is also representative of the way in which American history tends to forget about the
Korean War; after an event is “over,” there is no point in dealing with the past. In this sense, the
medal and Father Janovich embrace the same national narrative, which serves to silence Walt‟s
experiences. Even if Walt is truly not a hero, he is expected to become one and to forget about
his past experiences, which is reflected in how the film sets Walt up to become a hero throughout
the film as well as at the end of the film.
However, Walt further emphasizes his disconnect with the medal and his own perception
of himself as a hero by telling Father Janovich that “the thing that haunts a man most is what he
Sun 25
isn‟t ordered to do.” This demonstrates that while it is easy to absolve oneself from guilt if a
soldier believes he was ordered to kill, wartime violence complicates this belief. Walt
acknowledges that he is guilty because of his knowledge of his own active participation in the
violence. For this reason, Father Janovich considers Walt to be an aberration because he is
unable to let go of his trauma. This insight is also perhaps what makes the medal such a palatable
symbol for war: it represents all the good aspects and good narratives of war – heroism,
American exceptionalism – without acknowledging the personal traumas involved in war.
Furthermore, I situate the medal as a cultural object that works as a tool of remembrance.
The medal is a cultural object that is specifically associated with war as well as carrying certain
memories of war, both to the nation and to the person who has earned it. Specifically, Marita
Sturken discusses this concept in her book Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS
Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering. In her chapter, “The Wall and the Screen Memory:
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” she provides an analysis of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Wall and its cultural meanings and discusses the objects that are left behind at the memorial
wall.21
These objects are all deeply personal, much like the medal to Walt, and when passed on,
they allow the person to achieve a form of catharsis: “For many, leaving artifacts at the memorial
is an act of catharsis, a release of long-held objects to memory….For those who have left these
objects, the memorial represents a final destination and a relinquishing of their memory”
(Sturken, p. 78).22
According to Sturken, what enables this catharsis is the design of the wall.
The wall is a different kind of monument; in contrast to celebrating victory and power, the wall
resembles a long black grave. Sturken describes the wall as such:
21
It is somewhat ironic that I am using the Vietnam War to help me analyze the Korean War given what my project
topic is, but Marita Sturken is one of the cultural studies scholars that works within the same type of scholarship that
I strive to be a part of.
22
Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering.
Sun 26
The memorial functions in opposition to the codes of remembrance
evidenced on the Washington Mall. Virtually all the national
memorials and monuments in Washington are made of white stone
and designed to be visible from a distance. In contrast, the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial cuts into the sloping earth: it is not visible until
one is almost upon it; if approached from behind, it seems to
disappear into the landscape….The black stone creates a reflective
surface, one that echoes the reflecting pool of the Lincoln
Memorial and allows viewers to participate in the memorial;
seeing their own image reflected in the names, they are implicated
in the listing of the dead (Sturken, p. 46).
Functioning as a different type of memorial, the wall allows for visitors to achieve a
transformation that would not normally occur in a typical experience of a monument. In
particular, the personal and interactive experiences with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall
allows for an active form of participation in the national narrative of the war.
Sturken‟s concept of catharsis is particularly important to an understanding of how Walt
in Gran Torino is able to heal. First, I explore how catharsis is possible in relation to the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial Wall. The interactive quality of the wall and the personal reflection that it
inspires has created a ritual where people leave behind objects at the wall. Furthermore, this act
has become so pervasive that there is a museum on site, which explicitly displays these objects,
emphasizing how national memory absorbs personal memories and allows for these personal
memories to be subsumed into the national narrative. Some of the objects that have been left
behind include “photographs, letters, poems, teddy bears, dog tags, combat boots, and helmets,
MIA/POW bracelets, clothes, medals of honor, headbands, beer cans, plaques, crosses, playing
cards” (Sturken, p. 76). The medal has a very similar meaning to these objects, attaching a
national narrative to personal events. In the case of Gran Torino, the main difference is that Walt
hides away his medal in the basement. He only comes to terms with the medal and its meaning
when he passes it on to Thao, treating him as his successor and also treating him as the
Sun 27
receptacle for his traumas. In other words, Thao is a type of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall to
Walt – Thao becomes the means through which Walt can relinquish his painful memories and
heal himself. While the wall allows for a form of collective healing, Walt‟s form of healing takes
place on an individual-to-individual level, reflecting the personal nature of his traumas and his
inability to express himself within the national narrative (and the lack of a similar space for
Korean War veterans, reflecting the invisibility of the Korean War). Walt seeks Thao to help him
heal because he is a transnational figure that operates outside of the national narratives, which
silences Walt.
The scene in which this takes place happens at the end of the film, before Walt confronts
the Hmong gang for attacking Sue and right after he goes to church for confession, a ritual that
he had always refused to take part in. In the church confession scene with Father Janovich, he
deliberately refuses to talk about his war experiences. Instead, Walt makes his official
“confession” to Thao when he passes on the medal to him: “1952, we were sent up to take out a
chink machine-gun nest. Been shredding us up pretty good. I was the only one who came back
that day. For that, they gave me a Silver Star. Here it is.” (See Figure 3.) Therefore, the medal
could be read as a way of not only silencing Walt, but of also shutting him up. The criminal act
then is renamed as heroism in the American narrative; therefore, the veteran cannot talk about
violence and there is a dissonance between how the veteran is expected to act and what he thinks.
After Thao closes the case where Walt‟s memorabilia is kept after receiving the medal,
Walt locks him in the basement and provides his first official confession of what his actions were:
You know what it‟s like to kill a man? Well, it‟s goddamn awful,
that‟s what it is. The only thing worse is getting a medal of valor
for killing some poor kid that wanted to just give up, that‟s all.
Yeah, some scared little gook just like you. I shot him in the face
with that rifle you were holding in there a while ago. Not a day
goes by that I don‟t think about it, and you don‟t want that on your
Sun 28
soul. Now, I got blood on my hands. I‟m soiled. That‟s why I‟m
going it alone tonight.
This scene provides a contrast to the confession scene with Father Janovich, as the mise-en-scene
of the shot looks very much like a confession booth. (See Figure 4.) This is especially evident as
Thao‟s face is kept in the shadows and in the dark much like a priest during confession. (See
Figure 5.) The lighting also privileges Walt‟s face. The way in which this scene is composed is
nearly identical to the confession scene with Father Janovich, which takes place in a confessional
in the church. The only difference is that Father Janovich and Walt sit across from each other,
whereas in this scene Walt towers above Thao, which demonstrates the disparity in power
between Walt and Thao. Additionally, the darkness of Thao makes a parallel to the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial Wall, which has a lot of power based on its reflective and dark qualities – it
allows for the spectator to bare themselves to the memorial and to grapple with and accept their
feelings. However, this form of transnational forgiveness enables Walt to connect Thao and the
“scared little gook.” This statement, together with Walt‟s guilt that he was the “only one who
came back that day,” demonstrates how Walt needs forgiveness from the Koreans and
specifically, those he killed. Since this is not possible physically, he has to find a surrogate. This
surrogate forgiver is Thao, even though it is not Thao‟s sin (or even his war) to forgive.23
While
Thao serves to relieve Walt of his guilt, Thao is then left without a voice and becomes a symbol
and object for Walt‟s usage, much like how Sue functions within the film.
The actor for Thao, Bee Vang, heavily criticizes his role in the film, partly because of his
inability to have any agency since the film is centered heavily on Walt Kowalski. In an interview
for the article “Gran Torino‟s Hmong Lead: Bee Vang on Film, Race and Masculinity,” Vang
23
This surrogate nature reminds me of how the Korean War and the Vietnam War are conflated, much like how
Thao and the Korean boy that Walt killed are conflated in Walt‟s mind. The most famous example of this is the
television show M.A.S.H., which takes place during the Korean War but is an allegory for the Vietnam War.
Sun 29
discusses his role as Thao: “The thing is, the story can‟t take place without those Hmong
characters, especially mine. But in the end, it‟s Walt that gets glorified. We fade out in favor of
his heroism. I felt negated by the script and by extension in my assuming the role. It‟s almost like
a non-role. Strange for a lead…”24
Even though Walt is able to come to terms with the war, this
ultimately is what erases Thao and the Hmong. Much like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall,
which also erases the Vietnamese side of the war, Thao, even though he is a transnational means
of forgiveness, also ends up being erased as well.
Furthermore, at the end of the film, when Walt sacrifices himself for the Hmong people,
the image of him as sole hero is emphasized even further. After he locks Thao up, he heads over
to the Hmong gangbangers‟ house and causes the entire neighborhood to notice the conflict so
that there would be witnesses. While reaching for his lighter, Walt makes a quick movement so
as to trick the Hmong gang to thinking that he is reaching for a gun and the gang end up shooting
him. While lying in the lawn, Walt is splayed out in the form of a crucifix, further securing his
role as hero and martyr. (See Figure 6.) In this way, Walt is subsumed back into the national
narrative of heroism, which he has been fighting against throughout the entire film and this is his
act of catharsis.
Catharsis is particularly important to achieve, personally and politically, because it is part
of the process of healing. Healing is such a powerful narrative because it is what allows for
something to be forgotten – it implies that someone has moved on from the event and can leave it
behind, literally as in the case with Walt through passing on the medal to Thao and the people
who leave personal objects behind at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. This demonstrates
how catharsis and healing are so inextricably tied with objects; it is as if the objects themselves
24
Louisa Schein, “Gran Torino‟s Hmong Lead: Bee Vang on Film, Race and Masculinity” in Hmong Studies
Journal, Volume 11.
Sun 30
come to embody and are imbued with the emotion or memory. Therefore, it becomes relatively
easier to let memories go when they are attached to material objects because the relinquishing of
these objects means the relinquishing of these memories as well. Furthermore, this is all tied into
national memory because on a larger scale, national memory works in similar ways with cultural
representations of an event, such as the Korean War. In order to maintain American
exceptionalism, it becomes politically important to discard or subsume certain painful memories
that do not fit within the national narrative. This demonstrates how Walt‟s personal memories of
murder and violence come into conflict with the medal, which in turn silences him. After Walt is
finally able to relinquish his memories, then he can be allowed to die as a true “hero” and to be
subsumed into the national narrative of the white male savior.
Erasing Dissenting Voices of Power
Sue plays a very unique role in Gran Torino. At the beginning of the film exhibits much
agency, which she gradually loses. Sue is the older sister of Thao and serves as a powerful
female figure in her family – she lives with her mother who has not remarried, her grandmother
who even scares Walt, and Thao. From the very beginning of the film, the Hmong family is
portrayed as dominated by women, which in turn emasculates Thao and shows how he is at the
mercy of the women in his family. Sue recognizes the dangers of the Hmong gangbangers and
knows that Thao would not be able to succeed in America if he socializes with the gang
members. Within the film, her relationship with Walt is to act as his “translator” or bridge – she
teaches him about Hmong culture and history and introduces him into her family. She is never
given as much agency as she potentially could have and like Chang-guk‟s mother, if she were
given full agency than it would be particularly dangerous and unsettling to the narrative of the
film. This becomes evident by the end of the film, as Walt chooses Thao as his successor and
Sun 31
Sue eventually becomes a victim of sexual violence by the Hmong gang and is silenced for the
remainder of the film. This silencing of Sue is particularly unsettling because she is one of the
few Asian American women in film who recognizes the power of her voice and language in
articulating knowledge. This knowledge though is too unsettling and dangerous to Walt and Sue
comes too close to being a hero and stealing the spotlight from him; therefore, she must be
silenced.
In terms of the purpose that Sue serves Walt, she acts as a transnational bridge between
him and the Hmong people. In this way, her knowledge and ability to convey that knowledge
also gives her power as well. For example, she teaches Walt (and the viewers) who the Hmong
are: “Hmong isn‟t a place. It‟s a people. Hmong people come from different parts of Laos,
Thailand, and China.” She also explains how the Hmong fought with the Americans,
emphasizing (in Walt‟s mind) that even though they are “gooks” to him, they were actually on
his side: “It‟s a Vietnam thing. We fought on your side. And when the Americans quit, the
Communists started killing all the Hmong. So we came over here.” Despite their initial
connection, as Sue is the means through which Walt becomes involved with her family, Walt
picks Thao to be his successor instead of Sue.25
Perhaps it is because Sue is too powerful of a
figure to carry on Walt‟s legacy unquestioningly as throughout the film, she challenges
stereotypes and corrects misconceptions.
Sue‟s knowledge of her usage of language as power occurs near the beginning of the film
when she is on a date with a white classmate. While they are walking home, they are confronted
by a group of black male teenagers. Unbeknownst to them, Walt is watching the entire scene
from his pick-up truck nearby. The beginning of this scene is filmed as if it were from Sue‟s
25
The father-surrogate son relationship leaves no space for women. This is seen also at the epilogue of The Host and
the need for Korean brotherhood in Address Unknown.
Sun 32
perspective and privileges her – she is placed at the center of almost every frame as if her power
is affirmed by the camera. (See Figure 7.) This is one of the instances in which Sue “steals”
power from Walt; the majority of the film is filmed from Walt‟s perspective and follows his gaze.
Furthermore, in this particular scene, Sue channels the power of language, which is that of an
Asian American woman‟s consciousness. Her controlling words, emphasized by her centering on
the screen, allows for Sue to have temporary, but enormous power.
The scene begins with the black male teenagers harassing and insulting Sue and her date.
She is referred to as a “little Oriental yummy” as well as other racial and sexual epithets for
Asian women. Even though this scene demonstrates the cultural/racial clashes in a town that is
gradually shifting in demographics as well as an Asian woman‟s position in this triangle between
white and black, these slurs directed toward Sue are also reminiscent of the treatment that Asian
women receive in war films. Rather than submit or acquiesce, Sue fights back and sardonically
replies: “Oh great. Another asshole who has a fetish for Asian girls? God, that gets so old.”
When asked her name, she states: “It‟s „take your crude come-on to every woman who walks
past and cram it.‟ That‟s my name.” Even when the black teenagers insult her by telling her date
to “put a chain on that whore and yank that motherfucker,” she responds back: “Of course. Right
to the stereotype thesaurus. Call me a whore and a bitch in the same sentence.” Part of the appeal
of Sue‟s character is that she is one of the few women of color in film who fight back and talk
back – she does not need to rely on her white date to stand up for her and she takes control of the
situation, if only temporarily. Furthermore, she directly questions their “come-ons” in the context
of race (“God, that gets so old”), reflecting a knowledge that is uniquely Asian American as well.
This scene allows Sue to express herself in a powerful way. Her refusal to be categorized as a
victim or a sexual object of the male gaze threatens to overtake the film, even challenging Walt‟s
Sun 33
authority, as Walt would like to be seen as the white male savior – a popular American trope –
which he does achieve at the end of the film.
Sue begins to lose her power, however, at the end of the scene when Walt steps in to
reassert his role as the dominant power and to take his “rightful” place as the savior/hero. (See
Figure 8.) After Sue finishes her sarcastic replies, one of the black teenagers comments that “this
bitch is crazy,” which is reminiscent of Chang-guk‟s mother in Address Unknown who is also
relegated as a “crazy bitch” for speaking her mind as well. Sue‟s power, language, and voice
which comes from her knowledge is then relegated to her being a “crazy bitch” because her
voice is unsettling and threatening if anyone were to believe that she was anything but a “crazy
bitch.” Much like Chang-guk‟s mother, Sue is not given as much credit as she should have by the
film in which she exists. To further deemphasize Sue‟s power, Walt drives up in his truck and
“rescues” her from the black teenagers, as it is evident that she probably would have been raped.
The camera angle complies with Walt and it reverts back to its original position, Walt‟s point-of-
view, which casts Sue in the stereotypical victim role.
This is mirrored in the ending of the film, although this time Walt is unable to save Sue
from being raped. Sue is beaten and raped by the Hmong gang in retaliation for Walt beating up
one of the gang members for bothering Thao. This cycle of violence, which is ironically
perpetrated by Walt for getting involved with the gangbangers in the first place, ends up exacting
punishment on the body of the women, which is one of the conventions of women‟s portrayals
during war. When Sue is returned to her house by the gang, she is unable to speak and remains
virtually silent for the rest of the film. (See Figure 9.) Her rape is what allows for Walt to finally
see himself as a hero and he is determined to die for Sue‟s sake. However, it is almost as if Sue‟s
rape is a punishment for her earlier transgression and challenge to Walt – in her refusal to take
Sun 34
her place, the only recourse is for her to become a victim through sexual violence. After all, Walt
can only become a hero if Sue is properly disposed of as a victim. In this sense, Gran Torino is
very similar to a war film in its portrayal of the eventual silencing of the Asian woman and the
white man‟s final stand to avenge her. From the perspective of Walt, Sue‟s body is heavily
sexualized – he intervenes when the black teenagers were about to rape her and she is eventually
raped – and thus, needs saving by the white American man. When he is finally unable to save her,
he sacrifices himself for her and for the greater good of the Hmong community, reasserting his
role as the hero fighting for the underprivileged minority horde.
By the end of the film, Sue has been silenced effectively and in an incredibly violent way.
Moreover, what is troubling about Sue‟s rape is that it almost needs to happen in order to allow
Walt to die as a hero. Sue‟s body then no longer retains its subject position and becomes an
object to allow for Walt to achieve his heroic ending. Sue, as a character, is also too close to
being a hero, especially when the camera cedes to and complies with her power. For that reason,
Sue‟s language and self-knowledge mark her as too dangerous and transgressive of a character.
Unlike Thao, she would probably not have acquiesced to be Walt‟s forgiver, but would continue
to challenge his ideas. With her transnational knowledge – not just of her Hmong heritage, but
also her identity as an Asian American woman – and her powerful voice, Sue provides too much
of a challenge to Walt and would not allow him to be subsumed into the national narrative of
heroism.
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Chapter 2: Remembering the Korean War through Address Unknown
(Kim Ki-duk, 2001)
Crazy Ghost Woman
Address Unknown is a film that takes place in the outskirts of an American military base,
probably around the 1980s in South Korea. The film centers on the development of three main
characters who lead intersecting lives: a girl with one blind eye (Eunok), a mixed-race Korean
and black American teenager who lives with his mother (Chang-guk), and a shy boy (Jihum).
However, Chang-guk‟s mother is one of the most interesting characters in the film. She is never
given a name in the film despite her central position in the narrative.26
Furthermore, she seems to
represent the unspoken in that she serves as a history or a backstory to these other main
characters – a ghostly haunting perhaps. The other characters in the film treat her as a Camptown
prostitute or a yanggongju; regardless of whether she was a prostitute or not, the other residents
of Camptown treat her as a stand-in for the shamed woman, byproducts of the Korean War and
American imperialism. Both Chang-guk‟s mother and Chang-guk are ostracized by the
Camptown community because they represent the legacies of the Korean War as an intermixing
of two cultures that destroys the purity of the Korean nation. These are the legacies of the war
that the Korean nation and people want to erase and destroy. As a result, both Chang-guk and his
mother are relegated to the margins of Camptown, living in an abandoned bus. Chang-guk‟s
mother, unlike her son, refuses to view her situation with shame and asserts her agency through
her pride, counteracting the national narrative of shame that a “fallen woman” or prostitute
should have. Therefore, she is considered crazy by the other Camptown residents, as well as her
own son.
26
The film is also named Address Unknown for her actions – she addresses letters to her boyfriend in America,
hoping for a return letter but never receiving one.
Sun 36
In this regard, Chang-guk‟s mother operates as a troubling presence in the film. She
refuses to fade into the background and refuses to succumb to feelings of shame. Rather, she is
proud of her position and her ability to communicate in English. Chang-guk‟s mother transforms
narratives of shame into narratives of pride, directly challenging the conceptions of the
Camptown residents and contradicting the normative narratives. She also functions as a type of
“ghost” or a third space, as asserted by Grace Cho:
In the context of the making of the yanggongju, September 1945
signaled the transition between the system of sexual slavery set up
for the Japanese Imperial Army (the comfort stations) and the
system of camptown prostitution set up for the U.S. military
(gijichon)….The yanggongju bears the traces of this devastation as
a haunted and haunting figure that transmits her trauma across
boundaries of time and space. September 1945 and its aftermath,
the Korean War and its aftermath, are in the past, but they are not
over (Cho, p. 8).27
The yanggongju is a figure that is inextricably intertwined with Japanese colonialism and
American neocolonialism in a Korean context. She is the representation of Korea‟s subordinate
status as a nation, and serves as a reminder of the inability of Korean men to protect their women,
some even willingly giving up their women (particularly in the case of U.S. military
prostitution).28
In this sense then, the very presence of the yanggongju triggers memories and
active remembrances of colonialism. For Chang-guk‟s mother to be proud of her status and her
refusal to be shamed, demonstrates her ghostly presence not just on the margins of the frame, but
in the center as a figure that cannot be ignored or forgotten.
Chang-guk‟s mother is never given full control within the film, yet she haunts it and
asserts herself within the space of the film. Like Sue, she has the potential to have enormous
power within the film if only she were allowed to assert it, which forms the unsettling nature of
27
Grace Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War.
28
Prostitution is illegal in South Korea, but under the Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) it is legalized and
institutionalized in Camptowns and military bases.
Sun 37
both characters. Chang-guk‟s mother stands apart from the other characters with her
transnational understanding of the relationship between South Korea and the U.S. Much like Sue
with her unsettling power in her knowledge and her ability to talk back, Chang-guk‟s
transnationalism is represented by her knowledge of English and her flaunting it to the other
characters in the film. This power to bridge the two cultures reflects her understanding of her
position in Camptown. Cho describes this power as a unique aspect of the yanggongju: “She is
the woman who simultaneously provokes her compatriots‟ hatred because of her complicity with
Korea‟s subordination and inspires their envy because she is within arm‟s reach of the American
dream” (Cho, p. 4). This is the power that Chang-guk‟s mother demonstrates in the film – her
ability to transcend the confines of Camptown, which is an inaccessible terrain for the other
characters that are stuck in the cycle of violence surrounding Camptown. If she were able to
achieve her full potential and power in the film by escaping the confines of Camptown, it would
demonstrate that this “post”-war violence could be avoided. Unfortunately, this power is not
granted to her and at the end of the film, she and Chang-guk attempt to erase themselves from
the film.
Chang-guk‟s mother can be read as not only a “whore” or a “crazy bitch,” as the other
townspeople see her, but also as victim of the legacy of the Korean War. Since Chang-guk‟s
mother refuses to succumb to shame, the townspeople believe that she is crazy and that she
brought her terrible living conditions upon herself. One of the townspeople directly addresses
Chang-guk‟s mother: “Your life is shitty because you were so shameless!” Therefore, the
townspeople see Chang-guk‟s mother as deserving of her station in life, especially in light of her
refusal to feel shame for herself and her situation. The mistreatment of Chang-guk‟s mother, as
well as Chang-guk, allows for the viewers to also view Chang-guk‟s mother as a victim. After all,
Sun 38
she is extremely desperate to contact Chang-guk‟s father, repeatedly addressing letters to him
and as a result, is beaten by Chang-guk. She also has Chang-guk‟s father‟s name tattooed on her
breast, which becomes a point of contention with Chang-guk, as he wishes to erase all evidence
of his mixed-race nature. Chang-guk‟s mother receives abuse from the townspeople and her son,
but it is unproductive to view her solely as a victim or a whore, as her character is more
complicated than this binary reading.
In particular, Chang-guk‟s mother asserts her agency through her usage of language as a
form of power. Language could also be an indicator of her craziness, which is represented by her
almost constant wailing throughout her scenes in the film. This wailing occurs when Chang-guk
beats her, after discovering that she continues to write letters to her American boyfriend, even
after they repeatedly return with an “address unknown” stamp. These scenes are performed
entirely without dialogue; the only sounds belong to the mother‟s wails. Her screams are
incredibly powerful, particularly coupled with the cruelty and somewhat sexual nature of Chang-
guk‟s assaults (he exposes her breasts several times throughout the film in his frenzied attempts
to remove her tattoo). These screams constitute a third language, that of the body in pain, in
addition to the English and Korean that she speaks; furthermore, these screams emphasize her
stubbornness in conforming to the world around her. If other characters refuse to listen while she
speaks normally, whether in English or Korean, her screams are her way of asserting herself in a
way that cannot be ignored or forgotten.
The tension between mother and son stems from their competing notions of Camptown.
Chang-guk and his mother are discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens because
of the shame that they have wrought upon the Korean community through the birth of a mixed-
race child. In Korean nationalist discourse, the emphasis is on Korean purity, which is a myth in
Sun 39
its own right. However, this conception of Korean purity cannot exist if mixed-race children,
couplings between Koreans and Americans, exist as well. Chang-guk must live with his mother‟s
status as a yanggonju. While she refuses to bear the shame of this stigma, Chang-guk must bear
this burden. This is reflected in the portrayals of his everyday life. He is unable to find work and
must work in one of the most violent and lowest-status positions – as an assistant to the dog
butcher, Dog Eyes. (See Figure 10.) He attempts to rise above this humiliation, however, and
tries to find a job as a manual laborer, loading heavy packages into trucks. The foreman takes
pity on Chang-guk and pays him some leftover money, after Chang-guk voluntarily demonstrates
that he is capable of working just as hard as any of the other characters. The foreman grows to
like Chang-guk and defends him when one of the other workers accuses Chang-guk of stealing
their money. However, even though the foreman defends Chang-guk, this is another reminder of
Chang-guk‟s inability to fully integrate within Camptown. He cannot continue to work under
Dog Eyes in the lowliest profession in Camptown, yet he cannot continue to suffer abuse from
his status as a mixed-race Korean even in a job that pays relatively well and that has the potential
of upward mobility. As a result, Chang-guk eventually commits suicide because he cannot bear
the burden of shame. Unlike his mother, who refuses to succumb to shame, Chang-guk
recognizes that he cannot exist in this transnational space of Camptown.
While Chang-guk takes much of the abuse that he suffers from the other townspeople,
Chang-guk‟s mother actively fights back against them, using her knowledge of English. While
English is used sparingly by other characters throughout the film, Chang-guk‟s mother uses
English perhaps most notably in order to flaunt her status as the girlfriend of an American soldier
and to reinforce her belief that she will someday go to America to live a better life. This usage of
English is the mother‟s way of asserting her power with the intention of upward mobility that is
Sun 40
not accessible to the other Camptown residents. However, to those residents, they view her
lifestyle and usage of English as a condemnation of her yanngongju status and as a result, she
should be treated with shame and contempt. Chang-guk‟s mother refuses to fall into this national
narrative of shame despite Camptown society‟s attempt to treat her with shame.
In one particularly memorable scene, Chang-guk‟s mother speaks English to a Korean
storekeeper, who pretends not to understand what she is saying and then reprimands her by
stating that “this is Korea! Speak Korean!” (See Figure 11.) Camptown is not technically Korea
or America – it is an area controlled by the American military and revolves around the economy
of the military base. Therefore, by its very nature, Camptown is a microcosm of a global world
or an “island” that is neither Korea nor America. Therefore, the nationalist desire to retain one
language – which is reminiscent of Gang-du‟s breakdown in The Host – is an act of futility.
Nationalism becomes a reaction against the transnationalism and mixing between peoples found
in Camptown, but it is not a productive act in such a space. However, within the film, Chang-
guk‟s mother is thought of as crazy because she refuses to speak Korean even though it is just as
“crazy” to only speak Korean. Furthermore, the mother challenges her “craziness” in the second
and final scene in which she fights with the other Camptown residents. In this scene, she
attempts to steal a farmer‟s cabbages. (See Figure 12.) After getting into a fight with the farmer‟s
wife, the wife calls her a “crazy bitch” and she retorts back: “Why am I a crazy bitch?” The
mother‟s usage of English is a way for her to assert her power over the other Camptown
residents who do not have this cultural/language capital and she actively uses English to
challenge her assumed craziness. After all, she is not crazy, she is the only one who recognizes
the transnationality of Camptown and the power in learning English to escape from her position.
This is essentially what contributes to Chang-guk‟s mother‟s unsettling presence: she has the
Sun 41
power to destroy the Korean national narrative of shame and reveal Camptown for what it is, a
transnational entity much like herself.
Chang-guk‟s mother is the only character who appears to be striving for something other
than Camptown; all of the other characters view their lives as stuck within this world, some even
actively contributing to the violence of such a location that is precariously on the balance
between Korean nationalism and American imperialism. Chang-guk‟s mother has some hope in
her seemingly desperate situation, which lies within her steadfast belief that she will one day go
to America. This contrasts with Chang-guk, who knows that he will never be accepted into either
American or Korean society, or even Camptown society in which his race makes him perhaps the
most abject figure in the film. While the other people in Camptown, even her own son until the
end of the film, view her as crazy, she is the only one who understands what Camptown is about
– it is not a space for American exceptionalism or Korean nationalism, but a space for a global
person who has bigger dreams than the place itself. This is what allows Chang-guk‟s mother to
have such a powerful presence within the film – if she were allowed full agency, she could
completely unsettle the very foundations of the other characters‟ conception of Camptown,
particularly other Koreans who view Camptown as a national space and not as the transnational
space that it really is.
Even though Chang-guk‟s mother is a figure that Camptown society wishes would
disappear and who refuses to disappear throughout the film, at the end of the film she ends up
disappearing. After Chang-guk kills himself, being unable to cope with his position in
Camptown, his mother also takes her own life. The film also suggests that before she kills herself,
she consumes his dead body, as mentioned by Myung Ja Kim, a Korean film scholar: “Like Eva
in Toni Morrison‟s Sula, who burned her beloved son whom she could not „get back in‟ her
Sun 42
womb again, Chang-guk‟s mother, by devouring her son‟s body, symbolically unbirths him”
(Kim, p. 259).29
While this seems to be another symptom of her craziness, the scene seems to
demonstrate that the destruction of her son is the destruction of her dream. (See Figure 13.) Right
before Chang-guk kills himself, he finally succeeds in slicing off the tattoo on his mother‟s
breast, which is a symbolic destruction of her relationship with her American boyfriend. (See
Figure 14.) He then tells her in English: “Mom! Mom, I was wrong all this time. Please forgive
me! I want to live happily with you, too.” He finally concedes to his mother‟s transnational
understanding, but he still recognizes that he would never be able to have this outlook, as even in
America he would be treated as a second-class citizen. There is no space, even in a transnational
world, for a mixed-race black American and Korean subject in Chang-guk‟s mind. By the end of
the film, the mother seems to understand Chang-guk‟s desire to eliminate all traces of his
existence. She thus fulfills her son‟s wish to the fullest extent possible; her ultimate sacrifice is to
destroy herself and to eliminate all traces of both of their bodies, by consuming his and burning
hers. She ends up setting the bus in which she lives on fire. The final irony occurs at the very last
scene of the film, when a random American soldier finds a returned letter from Chang-guk‟s
biological father, indicating that the mother‟s obsessive attempts to contact the soldier is not
rooted in craziness after all. (See Figure 15.)
Both Sue and Chang-guk‟s mother disappear at the end of each film; in fact it seems as if
both characters need to disappear in order to truly take away their power, voice, and agency. The
main difference is that Sue‟s disappearance seems more forced than the mother; after all, the
mother commits suicide and Sue is raped. Furthermore, Sue disappears to make room for Walt‟s
heroism and no longer makes important appearances with speaking lines after her rape. While
29
Myung Ja Kim, “Race, Gender, and Postcolonial Identity in Kim Ki-duk‟s Address Unknown,” in Seoul
Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema, edited by Frances Gateward.
Sun 43
her body is still on screen, her voice has completely disappeared. Chang-guk‟s mother‟s body
may have disappeared completely, but her letters still remain and float around the landscape of
Camptown. Even though she may have finally disappeared, her ghostly presence still continues
to haunt Camptown through the returned letter. Since this is the last scene of Address Unknown,
Chang-guk‟s mother‟s existence is still not completely vanished.
Finding One’s Place in the National Narrative
Both Gran Torino and Address Unknown depict the stories of Korean War veterans,
although Address Unknown provides the story of the Korean veteran, who is Jihum‟s father.
While Walt was awarded a medal for being the “only one to come back that day,” Jihum‟s father
was not given a medal for that very same reason. Walt recognizes that his medal silences him,
but for Jihum‟s father‟s his lack of a medal silences him, albeit in a different way. This medal
becomes an important symbol of masculinity for Jihum‟s father. In an early scene in the film, a
group of Korean War veterans meet together to shoot arrows and to relive their days during the
war. Jihum‟s father is particularly angry because despite having killed three Communists, he did
not receive any commendations. It is revealed that only the dead received official
commendations from the government, as well as a living stipend for surviving family members.
Moreover, the connection between the medal and masculinity becomes clear in the context of
anticolonial nationalism. Chungmoo Choi, in her essay “Nationalism and Construction of Gender
in Korea” argues: “In other words, in the sacred mission of anti-colonial nationalism, the object
of which is often to restore national masculinity, women of the colonized nation are doubly
oppressed” (Choi, p. 14).30
The shame that comes along with being colonial subjects leads to the
theory of anticolonial nationalism‟s investment in remasculinizing the nation. Having survived
30
This essay is found within the larger collection of essays Dangerous Women: Gender & Korean Nationalism,
edited by Elaine H. Kim and Chungmoo Choi.
Sun 44
the Korean War without a medal devalues Jihum‟s father‟s experiences as well as emasculates
him. This mark of emasculation literally becomes a part of the father‟s body with his leg wound,
which renders one leg useless.
The scene in which Jihum‟s father is first introduced as a character is when he is
practicing archery with other veterans. In this scene, he reminisces about his Korean War days:
“At the Battle of Nakdong River, we fought a northern squadron. I shot three of them dead!”
Jihum‟s father is preoccupied with this memory and shows his dissatisfaction for not receiving a
medal: “The government‟s so screwed up! They gave them [medals] to those cowards who
missed the action. Look at this. For this, all I get is a measly $30 a month.” The “this” that
Jihum‟s father shows to the other veterans is his leg, supported by a brace. (See Figure 16.) This
is the first time that Jihum‟s father reveals his crippled leg. His statement demonstrates his
dissatisfaction with the government‟s handling of the situation, as well as the substandard living
stipend that he receives from the government. Needless to say, Jihum‟s father‟s lifestyle is not
that of a glorious veteran. Even though he says that “this [crippled leg] is as good as a medal,” he
is still bitter about not receiving one. The leg wound is the only visible sign that Jihum‟s father
has participated in the war; in this sense, it is a personal testament to his heroism. However, he is
still missing the national remembrance of his “heroic” deeds.
While their experiences are different, both Walt and Jihum‟s father have been silenced by
the nation. In Walt‟s case, the medal does not allow him to speak of his counter-experiences. In
Jihum‟s father‟s case, he does not receive a medal and is silenced because he is never able to
have his sacrifices for his country celebrated by the nation. In other words, the nation has
abandoned him. Jihum‟s father‟s leg wound that requires him to wear a crutch emphasizes the
living memorial of the war that exists on his body, a personal remembrance of the war. Unlike
Sun 45
Walt, Jihum‟s father remembers the war in a nationalistic light, as he is proud of his murders,
which are motivated by the state‟s refusal to commemorate him for his actions. Additionally,
Jihum‟s father is very protective of his masculinity; at the beginning of the film he scolds Jihum
by telling him: “Look at me when you leave. You call yourself a man?” This enveloping of
masculinity as well as with his crippled leg portrays an image of a somewhat broken man, if not
mentally then physically. In this sense, Jihum‟s father represents the castrated Korean nation,
who cannot come to terms with the memory of the war without wrapping that memory in a
masculine/nationalistic light, particularly in the presence of the American military base in
Camptown.
Jihum‟s father‟s memory of the war emphasizes his pride in having committed murder. In
one scene of the film, Jihum discovers the remains of executed bodies in their backyard, but his
father is only excited about the discovery of a gun. (See Figure 17.) The gravesite is part of a
burial ground for Communist/North Korean soldiers who have been executed. After the father
cleans the gun, he passes it on to the local butcher, Dog Eyes, and tells him that it would “no
longer make his hands bloody.” However, when Dog Eyes kills a dog with a gun (as opposed to
his usual method of beating it with a bat or chopping it to pieces with a knife), he complains to
himself that it still makes his hands bloody. This scene emphasizes the selective memorializing
of certain aspects of the war; specifically, to Jihum‟s father, the gun does not make one‟s hands
bloody because it is a relic of the war and the only aspects of the war that he remembers are the
heroic aspects. Furthermore, the gun also provides desensitization to violence in its efficiency in
killing as well as emphasizing a user‟s control/power. Unlike Walt, Jihum‟s father is excited
about uncovering that which is hidden because he views the war, death, and violence as
inextricably tied to each other and as something to be proud of.
Sun 46
This indicates the main difference between the structures of the two films in their ways of
remembering the Korean War. Gran Torino recognizes that the Korean War was not a “clean”
war, but one of violence and muddled morals. Address Unknown, on the other hand,
demonstrates that not only was the war violent, but also that life after war is often just as violent.
Particularly in the Camptown in this film, violence seems to be an inextricable way of life,
reflected in some of the characters‟ disregard for lives. One of the main symbols for the
disregard in life is the treatment of dogs throughout the film. In particular, Jihum‟s father and
Jihum show different levels of empathy for dogs‟ lives, which reflects differing levels of
empathy in Camptown society. Jihum loves his family dog and when his father sells it to Dog
Eyes and it runs away back to the house before dying (Dog Eyes manages to shoot it with an
arrow), Jihum gives it a loving burial. Jihum‟s father, on the other hand, is only concerned with
receiving payment for giving up the dog and insistent on completing the transaction. The father
also shoots a family chicken in order to test out the gun. The disconnect between father and son,
reflected in various levels of empathy (and by association, masculinity), reflects the idea that life
after war could be just as violent. The story that is told in Address Unknown then, is that despite
Jihum‟s father‟s yearning for a bloodless and heroic remembrance of the war (as evidenced by
his fascination with the gun and his lack of empathy for living creatures), his current life is still
filled with violence.
Near the end of the film, Jihum‟s father hears a broadcast over the radio that announces
that the government is handing out awards for those who they have forgotten to honor due to an
“administrative error.”31
After Jihum‟s father claims his medal, his body physically embraces
this remasculinization: his stance and his way of walking are amplified by the military badge of
honor. (See Figure 18.) While Walt sees his Silver Star at odds with his actions during war,
31
“Administration errors” are also a big part of The Host‟s critique of U.S.-South Korean government systems.
Sun 47
Jihum‟s father sees the medal as a consistent symbol with the way he remembers the war, which
is that of pride and glory. After he returns home with his medal, he also strengthens his bond
with Jihum. Jihum, who throughout the film, has also been emasculated because he lost the girl
he likes to an American soldier, is picked on by bullies, and shows more empathy than any other
character for animals, begins to formulate a revenge plot by learning how to shoot a bow and
arrow. Archery is his father‟s favorite sport and is an important sport, often synonymous with
Korean nationalism.32
When Jihum is practicing, his father shows him how to shoot an arrow
properly, which foreshadows the events to come in the film. (See Figure 19.) With the father‟s
help, Jihum is able to hit the practice target and the father visibly shows pride in his son. Once
Jihum‟s father has reclaimed his masculinity, Jihum does too. This intimate bond between father
and son that occurs in this scene demonstrates the power of Korean nationalism and the
beginnings of an establishment of Korean brotherhood.
Later in the film, Jihum shoots the American soldier who is dating Eunok (the girl that
Jihum likes), symbolically in the crotch, with his father‟s arrow. (See Figure 20.) In this sense,
the father teaches the son how to reclaim his masculinity, which is by emasculating the American
soldier who has oppressed Korean men and is a symbol of Korea‟s inequality, particularly within
Camptown society. This form of meting out justice is a form of self-policing and an example of
anticolonial nationalism in practice. Korean authorities do not have the ability to prosecute
American soldiers, particularly within Camptown in which American soldiers do not fall under
the jurisdiction of South Korea‟s laws. Therefore, in order to reclaim their masculinity, the men
in this film have to react against American soldiers on their own. Perhaps this is why Jihum‟s
32
Archery plays an important role in The Host as well and Christina Klein discusses this in greater detail in her
essay “Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong
Joon-ho.”
Sun 48
father goes into the police station to save Jihum from having to go to jail – the father approves
this form of personal justice and does not believe that Jihum should be punished for it.
In the next scene, Jihum‟s father hands in his medal reluctantly and even though the
father‟s friends and fellow veterans try to stand up for him, the police have to strip the father of
his medal. This film demonstrates that even relatively low-ranking American soldiers trump the
status of a Korean/Korean War veteran. Much like The Host, Address Unknown demonstrates the
unequal relationships between Americans and Koreans, as well as the complicit Koreans who
reinforce this unequal status. The emasculation that Jihum‟s father faces then is not just personal,
but enforced by the Korean nation on its own subjects. The only way to reverse this is for the
Korean subject to take matters into his own hands by attacking America‟s manhood, literally and
symbolically. After all, neither American nor Korean soldiers/veterans can remain men at the
same time: one of the two must be stripped of their masculinities as the national space cannot
accommodate both. This mutual understanding between father and son, as well as the father
teaching the son how to achieve this power over the American military apparatus, results in
punishment by the greater Korean society, which reinforces the existing power structure even
though there are frames to challenge it. Address Unknown demonstrates that Korean veterans and
American veterans cannot be heroes at the same time; the Korean veteran always has to defer to
the American in this power structure.
Further along in the scene, Jihum comes into the police station to confess his crime.
Before getting arrested, he pins the medal back on his father. (See Figure 21.) This serves as a
reversal of the scene in Gran Torino in which the medal is passed from an older generation to a
younger one (as well as a transnational figure). Unlike the scene in Gran Torino where the Silver
Star is hidden behind Walt‟s hand and the image is obscured in darkness, the scene in Address
Sun 49
Unknown is shot in the classic shot reverse-shot style. This classical style features the medal as
the main object to focus on, emphasizing the power of the medal as well as its symbolism in
giving Jihum‟s father power and pride. The look of mutual understanding between father and son
in this scene emphasize that masculinity is imperative to achieving this form of Korean
nationalism; in this new brotherhood between Korean men, the father teaches the son to
challenge American superiority and the son in turn recognizes the masculine achievements of the
father as war hero. Unlike the privacy of Walt‟s basement, which emphasizes the Korean War‟s
forgotten status, the passing on of the medal in Address Unknown takes place in a police station.
The police station is an official space in which an official war medal can be passed on and
recognized. In this sense, Jihum recognizes his father‟s authority and refuses to allow for his
father‟s manhood to be compromised.
This scene allows for a brotherhood of Korean men to emerge, which is consistent with
anticolonial nationalism in which the men become the central figures.33
In order to fight against
the subjected status of Koreans, the language of masculinity becomes particularly important in
fighting against colonialist relationships. However, the problem with forming this brotherhood,
although it is subverting and protesting against Korean-U.S. relations, is that it renders women
even more invisible. Ultimately, the resolution of Address Unknown, like Gran Torino, is not
transgressive in its message, falling back into traditional nationalist tropes. As Chungmoo Choi
argues: “As I have demonstrated above, the healing power of language(s) outside the circuit of
hierarchical masculine language can be useful not just for the healing of comfort women or
women at the margin, but for all those whose psyches have been damaged by war and silenced
33
This is also reflected in the ending of The Host, in which this brotherhood of Korean men willingly ignores
American cultural imperialism. See Christina Klein‟s article.
Sun 50
war memories” (Choi, p. 407).34
The language of Address Unknown, in its resolution between
Jihum and Jihum‟s father, which emphasizes the unity of Korean brotherhood over American
soldiers, locks out any space for figures such as Chang-guk‟s mother to tell her story and her
recognition of transnational relationships. In order to begin a productive conversation about
remembrances of war and the role of the female, it is important to give women voice and space
to articulate their thoughts not within but without the masculine nationalism of anticolonial
discourse.
34
Chungmoo Choi, “The Politics of War Memories toward Healing” in Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific
War(s), edited by T. Fujitani, Geoffrey M. White, and Lisa Yoneyama.
Sun 51
Conclusion
The three films that I analyze – The Host, Address Unknown, and Gran Torino – are three
examples of how we can study representations of the Korean War to answer the questions of how
we can remember the war in ways that are non American-exceptionalist and non-patriarchal.
These films focus on the power of language and the importance of figures that have traditionally
been marginalized, forgotten, and silenced. By considering the points of view of people
marginalized by society, these films provide transgressive and productive ways in which
narratives about the Korean War and its legacy can be told.
Speaking more broadly, by thinking about the Korean War and the way that it is
represented in media, we continue to provide alternatives to written history and to approach the
subject of lived history. The Korean War is still an unfinished war – recent incidences of North
Korean and South Korean violence continue to permeate the news. In going forward and in
thinking about the transnational, perhaps we can better understand the Korean War and
incorporate the ghosts of the past into the stories that we tell rather than let them lie forgotten.
Sun 52
Figure 1. “Why don‟t you listen to my words?”
Figure 2. The Silver Star.
Sun 53
Figure 3. Passing on the medal to Thao.
Figure 4. Walt‟s confession with Father Janovich.
Sun 54
Figure 5. Walt‟s “confession” with Thao.
Figure 6. Walt‟s final sacrifice.
Sun 55
Figure 7. Go Sue, go!
Figure 8. Walt as the white male savior.
Sun 56
Figure 9. Sue after her rape.
Figure 10. Chang-guk working for Dog Eyes.
Sun 57
Figure 11. Confrontation with storekeeper.
Figure 12. Confrontation with farmer and farmer‟s wife.
Sun 58
Figure 13. Chang-guk‟s mother consuming her son‟s body.
Figure 14. Mother and son together.
Sun 59
Figure 15. Finding the returned letter.
Figure 16. Jihum‟s father‟s leg wound.
Sun 60
Figure 17. Finding the gun.
Figure 18. War veteran recognized.
Sun 61
Figure 19. Father proud of son.
Figure 20. Koreans‟ version of “self-justice.”
Sun 62
Figure 21. Passing on the medal from son to father.
Remembering the "Forgotten War" in Film: Transnationalism and Gender in The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008), and Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001)
Remembering the "Forgotten War" in Film: Transnationalism and Gender in The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008), and Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001)
Remembering the "Forgotten War" in Film: Transnationalism and Gender in The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008), and Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001)
Remembering the "Forgotten War" in Film: Transnationalism and Gender in The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008), and Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001)
Remembering the "Forgotten War" in Film: Transnationalism and Gender in The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008), and Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001)

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Remembering the "Forgotten War" in Film: Transnationalism and Gender in The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008), and Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001)

  • 1. Sun 1 Table of Contents Dedication 2 Acknowledgements 3 Preface 6 Abstract 7 Introduction 8 Ambivalent Relations: Korea and American Cinemas in a Comparative Context 12 Chapter Descriptions 19 Chapter 1: Remembering the Korean War through Gran Torino 21 Finding One‟s Place in the National Narrative 21 Erasing Dissenting Voices of Power 30 Chapter 2: Remembering the Korean War through Address Unknown 35 Crazy Ghost Woman 35 Finding One‟s Place in the National Narrative 43 Conclusion 51 Appendix 52 Bibliography 63
  • 2. Sun 2 Dedication I dedicate this thesis to Dr. Jinah Kim, whose support and encouragement has given me a lifelong passion, and who has taught me to challenge my surroundings, question my assumptions, and to always read against the grain.
  • 3. Sun 3 Acknowledgements I would like to thank the American Studies Department for making it possible for me to write a senior honors thesis. I joined the program in my junior year, after a disastrous two years as a math major. The major has allowed me to put together all of my interests into one field of study and to execute this project, which I have been working on over the past two years. Thank you Dr. Baldwin for allowing me the opportunity to participate in this program. To my American Studies cohort – Adam, Elisa, Jordan, Kristin, Michael Lobel, Michael Waxman, Veronica, and Vicky – I have really enjoyed working with all of you and in learning more about your topics. I feel really lucky to have gotten to know all of you better throughout this year and am happy to be graduating with such awesome people. Professor Grossman, thank you for all of your help with working with my writing. You have taught me how to write with greater clarity in order to get my point across in the best possible way. I owe so much to the senior thesis seminar and your comments along the way. I would like to take the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship for supporting me with my research. Participating in SROP (Summer Research Opportunity Program) at Northwestern has made me realize that graduate school is the right choice for me and of course, allowed me to get a head start on writing this thesis. Andrea Abel, Dr. Eugene Lowe, and the faculty members on the MMUF committee, I do not know what you saw in me when I interviewed, but I am forever grateful for all of the support that you have given me and am glad that all of you recognized my passion before I even discovered it myself. My MMUF cohort – Judy Landeros, Veronica Morales, Dana Nickson, and Marcus Shepard – you are all off to really great futures and I am so glad to have shared my time here at Northwestern with you.
  • 4. Sun 4 I owe my depth of knowledge on my thesis topic not just to the books that I have read and my research, but also to the classes that I have taken at Northwestern. Therefore, I would like to thank all of the professors who have impacted my way of thinking and really shaped my undergraduate career. Even if these professors are not fully aware of it, all of them have had great influences on me: Mr. Tatsu Aoki, Dr. Geraldo Cadava, Dr. Carolyn Chen, Dr. John Alba Cutler, Dr. Brian Edwards, Dr. Betsy Erkkila, Dr. Susannah Gottlieb, Dr. Jay Grossman, Dr. Jinah Kim, Dr. Bruce Knickerbocker, Dr. Phuong Nguyen, Dr. Kirsten Pike, Dr. Janice Radway, Dr. Jeffrey Sconce, Dr. Michael Sherry, and Frederick Staidum (PhD candidate). I would like to thank Gabriel Geada for reading and rereading my thesis. I know that this topic does not interest you, but your help has been invaluable to the revision process. Whenever I need a fresh pair of eyes, you are always there for me. Whenever I am tired and stressed out, you are always there for me. Thank you for your unconditional love and support. Thank you to my family – my mom, my dad, and my sister – for being (somewhat) interested in my topic, and for being there whenever I need to vent about schoolwork. Katie, you are the best sister anyone can ask for, and I owe much of my productive writing sessions to the music that you gave me. Candy, 1999-2011, you will always be missed. Lastly, I would like to thank Dr. Jinah Kim, my faculty mentor. I would not be where I am today without her. Dr. Kim has gone above and beyond with helping me on this project. Even though she was pregnant and on leave for most of the summer and this year, she has continued to meet with me and to discuss ideas with me. She agreed to be my mentor after I sent her an email before beginning my junior year and never even having met her. Not once have I ever doubted my choice. Dr. Kim, I do not ever think I can repay you for all of the time that you have put into me and my project. My project has morphed ever since I first approached you, and you have
  • 5. Sun 5 been there with me every step of the way. It has been a great pleasure working with you for these past two years and I hope that we can continue to work together in the future. This thesis is as much a part of you as it is a part of me.
  • 6. Sun 6 Preface My first taste of Korean cinema was in the winter of my freshman year at Northwestern University at a Korean film retrospective at Block Cinema. There was something so different about the films that I watched – Bad Guy (Kim Ki-duk, 2001), Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001), Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003), Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) to name a few – in that there was an energy about the films that felt so alive, vital, and even angry. I could not put my name on it until two years later when I learned about the existing military bases that litter the Asian continent, particularly Korea, in a course that I took on “The American Century in Asia,” taught by Dr. Jinah Kim. All of a sudden, I felt like everything made sense and I began to understand that the anticolonial theory that I was studying in the course was present, if not explicitly stated, in the Korean films that I had loved so much and felt an unexplainable connection. This thesis is the end product as well as the beginning of my interests in Korean cinema, America as empire, and war and memory.
  • 7. Sun 7 Abstract The lack of filmic representations of the Korean War, labeled by scholars as the “Forgotten War,” is glaring given the popularity of war films in Hollywood, particularly of WWII and the Vietnam War. Through a study of Korean and American filmic representations, the main question this project asks is: why is this war cast as forgotten, and profoundly, rendered unrepresentable? Drawing on an interdisciplinary body of scholarship, I argue that forgetting is not a passive act; rather it indicates an act of repression and perhaps, a will not to remember. Remembering and representing war is a particularly difficult project because war memories and memorials tend to privilege narratives that valorize the nation and its soldiers; furthermore, remembrances that challenge the idea of the nation as anything but heroic are relegated to the margins and encouraged to be forgotten or discredited. Thus, a central concern of this project is, how can we reconstruct and remember the Korean War in a manner that challenges and allows non American-exceptionalist and non-patriarchal narratives to emerge? What do we gain by centering the silenced and the female subject of war?
  • 8. Sun 8 Introduction The lack of representations of the Korean War in Hollywood remains glaring given the popularity of war films and the plenitude of WWII and Vietnam War representations. This war remains forgotten and perhaps even more profoundly, unrepresentable. Specifically, the Korean War is difficult to represent in American cinema because it ended in a stalemate and does not fit into clear national narratives of winning or losing. The Korean War is an important part of American history and thus, it is simply not enough to label it as “forgotten” without asking why it is forgotten and who has forgotten it. Furthermore, forgetting is not a passive act; forgetting indicates an act of repression and a will not to remember. Therefore, the main questions that I explore in this thesis are: How can American and Korean cinema help remember and represent the Korean War, a war that is commonly characterized as the “Forgotten War” in the United States and is relatively unrepresented in American cinema and popular culture?1 More broadly, how does such inquiry further the project of transnationalizing American Studies? As Marita Sturken, Lisa Yoneyama, and other scholars who work within the realm of war and memory have argued, remembering and representing war is a particularly difficult project because war memories and memorials tend to privilege narratives that valorize the nation and its soldiers. Therefore, remembrances that challenge the idea of the nation and the soldier as anything but heroes are relegated to the margins. I find these traditional memories problematic to center on because they are emblematic of the national narrative and do not provide alternative spaces and voices to emerge. In this project, I seek to explore marginal spaces and voices, which is what I identify as transnational spaces and histories, in order to ask: How can we reconstruct 1 The Korean War is labeled by American historians and scholars as the Forgotten War because of its lack of representation in American popular culture and history books. There are several implications for the Korean War to be remembered as a “forgotten” war – firstly, that it is over even though the Koreas are in a state of suspended war and secondly, that it is not worth studying.
  • 9. Sun 9 and remember the Korean War in a manner that challenges and allows non American- exceptionalist and non-patriarchal narratives to emerge? As the concern with memory and representation indicates, this project is interested in the recuperation of stories, histories, and experiences. Furthermore, it also seeks new ways of narrating and representing American wars in order to provide a transnational lens, which broadens the traditional nationalist understanding of war. Thus, my objects of study span both Korean and American cinemas, and I look to examine the ways that the transnational is represented for the act of recovery. Specifically, I choose to study three films – The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008), and Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001). Juxtaposing Korean cinema with American cinema‟s representation of the Korean War is a particularly fruitful enterprise because doing so provides a specific set of claims, ideas, and perspectives about the Korean War that cannot be recognized by looking solely at American or Korean American films about the war.2 Korean cinema‟s treatment of the Korean War offers a unique lens from which to break down the perception of the war as a relic of the past. This is different from American depictions of the war as over.3 Furthermore, in order to answer the question of how to view the Korean War as anything other than forgotten, which is a way of excluding the Korean voice from speaking, I look at Korean cinema in order to provide a transnational lens to the study of the Korean War. I explain this in greater detail in the next 2 The Korean War has traditionally been studied in the fields of history, political science, and international relations. Bruce Cumings, who I discuss later in this thesis, argues against the way that the Korean War has been represented in those fields, namely as a part of the Cold War. He instead argues that the Korean War should be viewed as a civil war among Koreans and not just as a smaller war in the context of the Cold War and stopping/advancing Communism. On the other hand, within the humanities, the study of the Korean War is relatively new and has been spearheaded by Korean Americans. My thesis is different in its study of the Korean War in that I incorporate Korean film to achieve a broader transnational understanding of the Korean War. 3 The Korean War never ended in Korea; the Koreas are in a state of suspended war. Recent news articles and events demonstrate that there are still conflicts between North and South Korea.
  • 10. Sun 10 section of my thesis, which serves as a background for my larger study of Gran Torino and Address Unknown. The voices within these films are those that have been forgotten, which I define as those who have been subsumed into the national narrative, whether it is in Korea or America. Specifically, the voices of women are reduced to symbols and thus are disappeared. By asking what is to be gained by a focus on the female figure, this thesis seeks to challenge the conventional binary depictions of women as either victim or whore within war narratives by going beyond national remembrances of war that are not entwined with masculine or nationalistic tropes. The female body/voice is one of the transgressive and transnational spaces that explicitly challenges these narratives. Furthermore, the presence of the female body troubles the typical war narratives that focus on gendered relationships. For example, the most common trope is that of masculinized colonial conqueror dominating the feminized and colonized subordinate nation. Within colonial discourse subordinate nations are feminized, which leaves no space for the female subjects of the nation to speak as the male subjects of the nation have now (figuratively) become feminized subjects. Thus, this erases the female body/voice and allows for it to disappear from the national narrative. Furthermore, the counterpoint to colonial discourse – anticolonial discourse – attempts to reinscribe masculinity back into the colonized nation, rendering all attributes of femininity and the female body as abject and dangerous to nationalism.4 Lastly, the presence of the female body/voice in films about war, particularly in Gran Torino and Address Unknown, usually comes with the assumption that the female is an object. She cannot speak for herself because she lacks agency and language to do so, whether it is 4 See a further analysis of anticolonial discourse within Chungmoo Choi‟s “The Politics of War Memories toward Healing” in Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s).
  • 11. Sun 11 because she is a victim of her situation (for example, Sue‟s rape in Gran Torino) or a willing participant (Chang-guk‟s mother as the “whore”/yanggongju5 in Address Unknown). On the contrary, the very presence of these women within these films places them in a position where they can speak and they can assert agency, even if it is on the margins of the screen or in the ghostly imprints/shadows of the story. Borrowing from bell hook‟s notion of reading against the grain6 , I pair up the study of women with the theory of “haunting,” in which afterimages and marginal figures trouble traditional narratives in unsettling ways.7 5 “Western princess” in Korean. A euphemism used for prostitutes catering to U.S. soldiers and a derogatory term for any woman who associates with American men. 6 See bell hooks‟ “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” in Black Looks: Race and Representation. 7 See Avery Gordon‟s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, which has informed my writing but I do not have the space to further analyze. Also see Grace Cho‟s Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War, which I analyze in the literature review as well as in the section where I discuss Chang-guk‟s mother and Sue.
  • 12. Sun 12 Ambivalent Relations: Korean and American Cinemas in a Comparative Context In this section, I explore the fruitfulness in studying Korean cinema as a way of understanding the Korean War. One of the most important reasons that Korean cinema stands apart from American cinema about the Korean War is the way that the Korean War is remembered. In the American context, the Korean War has been “forgotten.” As Bruce Cumings writes: “They [Americans] intervene on the side of the good, they appear to win quickly only to lose suddenly, finally they eke out a stalemated ending that was prelude to a forgetting. Forgotten, never known, abandoned: Americans sought to grab hold of this war and win it, only to see victory slip from their hands and the war sink into oblivion” (Cumings, p. xv).8 Cumings argues that the stalemate is one of the reasons why this war has become forgotten and subsequently, it is also one of the reasons why this war is particularly difficult to represent in cinema. Unlike WWII (the “good war”) in which Americans came out the victors or the Vietnam War (the “bad war”) in which Americans lost,9 the Korean War has never officially ended and has left Americans in an ambivalent position. There is no national narrative in which Americans can summarize the war in Korea and despite historical dates attributed to the war – June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953 – there is no clear result or ending, which Cumings argues is what easily contributes to the Korean War as the “Forgotten War.” Even though wars are never really over, the very historical dates of the Korean War only apply to the American intervention period and not to the war as a whole. Therefore, the Korean War does not fit into American history and complicates the idea of America as exceptional.10 Specifically, Korean cinema is a testament that 8 Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: AHistory. 9 The situation is more complicated, but this is a general summary. 10 Even the loss of the Vietnam War could be woven into exceptional narratives, as evident with the Rambo films in which Americans become preoccupied with “doing things better.” Furthermore, the loss also shows the ways in
  • 13. Sun 13 the war is still present within the context of Korean politics, contemporary South Korean-North Korean, and U.S.-Korean relationships. The “forgetting” of the Korean War in American society and the inability of Koreans to forget about the Korean War causes the Korean War to become a ghost that haunts both American and Korean societies, albeit in different ways. Grace Cho explains this process of haunting, especially in relation to Camptown, which are areas that serve the economic and leisure needs of American military bases in Korea.11 In fact, she mentions that Korea is literally haunted by ghosts from the Korean War: In this part of the country in particular, there is a reported phenomenon called honbul, or “ghost flames,” in which flickering lights rise up from the ground, usually at the site of a massacre….In places where buried bodies are heavily concentrated, the remains have changed the chemical makeup of the earth, causing the soul to ignite. Through ghost flames, the spirits of the dead release their grief and rage, their han, into the world” (Cho, p. 16). This haunting that is an aftermath of the fighting during the Korean War forces the living to never forget about the war. Wars are impossible to forget and participants and veterans of the Korean War function as the honbul within American society in the similar way that torn family relationships, veterans, and ghosts haunt Korea as well. This haunting is reflected in South Korean cinema. For example, The Host (Bong Jong-ho, 2006) is inextricably tied with the Korean War and is haunted by the war. If The Host deals with ghosts in such a way as to highlight them within the text, then American films such as Gran Torino attempt to erase those ghosts. which Americans can learn from their past mistakes and the loss of American innocence trope is a particularly popular trope, especially in American films about the Vietnam War. See Marita Sturken‟s essay “Reenactment, Fantasy, and the Paranoia of History: Oliver Stone‟s Docudramas” and Yen Le Espiritu‟s essay “The „We-Win- Even-When-We-Lose‟ Syndrome: U.S. Press Coverage of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the „Fall of Saigon.‟” 11 Grace Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War.
  • 14. Sun 14 Furthermore, The Host allows for Korean subjects to speak back to Americans and comment on the unequal power structure of U.S.-Korean relations since the Korean War. While the film deals with themes and ideas specific to South Korea and critiques American exceptionalism, it simultaneously borrows from conventions of the monster movie genre and blockbuster style that is emblematic of Hollywood.12 However, the medium of the film as a blockbuster horror/monster movie complicates its negative portrayals of Americans and Koreans acquiescing to the Americans. It is not simply enough to view The Host as an anti-American film, as many of its artistic influences are directly inspired by Hollywood generic conventions. Furthermore, this ambivalence turns into a transnational space that is productive, as the film constantly questions and challenges this unequal relationship. The Host most powerfully challenges this relationship when its national subjects within the film directly speak back to “America.”13 In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, the main protagonist, Gang-du, finally unleashes his anger. (See Figure 1.) Gang-du is the father of Hyun-seo, who is kidnapped by the monster. In this scene, which comes near the middle of the film, after the monster has been spotted and Seoul is put into quarantine, Gang-du is taken by Korean police who believe he has been exposed to the monster‟s disease. We quickly learn, however, that Korean doctors are monsters themselves, using Gang-du against his will as a test subject to learn more about the monster and its impact on people.14 Furthermore, Gang-du knows that his daughter is still alive after the monster kidnaps her because he received a phone call from her. While the doctor and the assistant discuss this, Gang-du finally snaps and cannot hold in his 12 What is unique about The Host is that it is the highest-grossing film in South Korean history. See two anthologies of Korean cinema: New Korean Cinema edited by Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer and Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema edited by Frances Gateward. 13 Generally speaking, this is not found within American films about the Korean War or any war, where the enemy is usually portrayed as a nameless horde. Particularly with enemies of color, they are never allowed to speak or to have any agency as subjects, serving only to dot the landscape of the film as backdrops or are reduced to objects. 14 It is later revealed in the film that this disease never existed, which serves as a critique of the mismanagement of U.S.-South Korean power.
  • 15. Sun 15 frustration. However, he chooses to snap not at the American doctor, but at the Korean assistant who also serves another function as translator.15 When the white doctor discovers that Gang-du‟s daughter might still be alive, he rattles off a list of organizations that Gang-du should have contacted for help: the police, the military, a television station, a human rights organization, etc. Ironically, those were the very people who quarantined Gang-du and refused to let him find his daughter.16 At this point of irony, Gang-du finally breaks down and the interpreter translates his response: “Because nobody fucking listens to me.” However, when the interpreter says this, Gang-du screams at him: “Please don‟t cut me off. My words are words too. Why don‟t you listen to my words?” Gang-du‟s words in themselves are particularly important to hear, but it is also important to consider how these words should be heard. Gang-du screams at the interpreter because of his refusal to be translated.17 Moreover, this is another critique of American culture in this implication that English is not the universal language, but the language of the home country – Korean – should be the default language. This is another way in which language serves as a direct critique of the unequal relationships between Americans and Koreans. Furthermore, this scene is what makes Korean cinema such a fruitful area of study because it allows for multiple voices to speak, especially those voices that seek to critique the existing hierarchy of 15 This role of translator is particularly interesting, especially in the context of Homi Bhaba‟s “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” The translator could be seen in the position of mimicry, trying to be like his white superior although it is evident that even though his position is above Gang-du, he would never reach the position of the doctor. Gang-du‟s lashing out at the Korean assistant demonstrates the anger in which the colonial subject views other members of his/her race who abandon their people to help out the colonizer. The role of translation and language comes up again in this thesis: see my analysis of Chang-guk‟s mother‟s use of language and my analysis of Sue as cultural translator between Walt Kowalski (the American) and the Hmong. 16 All of these organizations are in positions of power and show the divide between the common Korean people and people in positions of authority, mostly held by Americans and Koreans complicit with the Americans. 17 Ironically, in order to understand what he is saying, I must accept the “translated” Gang-du, not in the figure of the translator in the film but through the subtitles.
  • 16. Sun 16 neocolonialism.18 Transnational film allows for different voices and different types of people to speak outside of the traditional narratives of the Korean War as “forgotten” in America. Speaking from a broader perspective, The Host takes place in Seoul, South Korea along the Han River, when a monster emerges from the polluted river (a result of U.S. military experiments) and attacks the local populace. Reading this film alongside Christina Klein‟s article, “Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon-ho,” it becomes apparent that ambivalence characterizes Korean cinema – and Korean politics and culture – towards America. In this way, Americans tend to view the Korean War from the perspective of heroism or winning/losing, which is why it ends up becoming a “forgotten war” – because there are no victors as mentioned in Cumings‟ idea of stalemate. On the other hand, Koreans are more concern with the hierarchal role of their status in this relationship between the two countries. Furthermore, the film uses anti-Americanism in a more complicated way than in portraying one-sided views. For example, in the scene that I analyzed, Gang-du is not only critical of the Americans, but also of Korean complicity with Americans as well. Christina Klein describes this “ambivalent” relation: “In the end, the close relationship between the two countries has produced among Koreans both a pervasive orientation toward the United States in economic and cultural matters, and a deep resentment of the fundamentally unequal terms of the relationship” (Klein, p. 875). This sense of ambivalence is elaborated by Jodi Kim19 : Significantly, the war set into motion a neoimperial relationship between the United States and South Korea. Following the war, the United States poured $4 billion of aid into South Korea in one 18 Gang-du is also a bit of a marginal person (although he is the main character of the film) because he is a single father, a bit stupid, adopted, and poor. In other words, he is clearly not one of the Koreans who have benefitted from the economic boom. 19 This quotation is found in Jodi Kim‟s chapter “The Forgotten War: Korean America‟s Conditions of Possibility” from Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War.
  • 17. Sun 17 decade alone and supported a string of autocratic and military- controlled regimes, beginning with Rhee‟s. Today, the United States continues to maintain a strong military presence in South Korea, making South Korea‟s efforts toward a peaceful reunification with North Korea much more difficult (Kim, p. 149). Kim and Klein demonstrate how South Korea has always been aware of the deep impact of American culture and economy, stemming from their roles as allies since the Korean War. While this relationship is not viewed as entirely equal, Grace Cho argues that it is the military camptowns that represents the unequal relationship between the two countries, as well as Korea‟s willingness to acquiesce to these demands until relatively recently. Therefore, the representation of American colonialism in relation to the Korean War as a haunting presence in The Host is a critique of Korea‟s collusion with the system. This sense of guilt, anger, and shame is a recurring narrative within Korean cinema that is represented in han, which manifests itself not only within the living people, but the ghost flames of the dead as well. Korean cinema not only grapples with this ambivalence that is characteristic of Korean politics and culture, but it is also constituted by this ambivalence. Furthermore, The Host takes the genre of the monster movie and uses it as a way of expressing post-Korean War contemporary society in relation to American imperialism and colonialism. In this way, The Host is instrumental in demonstrating the ambivalence within transnationality. On one hand, it reflects the influences of American cultural imperialism and how it is grappled with by people of other cultures. On the other hand, throughout the film there are many instances of explicit anti-American sentiment, much of which results from the still- present American occupation and the many military bases that occupy the country as a constant reminder of Korea‟s position in the neocolonial hierarchy. This cultural ambivalence then permeates the very nature of the film. In this way, The Host is able to critique America and the
  • 18. Sun 18 Korean War in a way that is particularly productive to my project. This argument previews my argument with Chang-guk‟s mother in Address Unknown and Sue in Gran Torino, in which I discuss how language and (trans)nationalism critiques existing power structures and ways of remembering the Korean War.
  • 19. Sun 19 Chapter Descriptions In the first chapter, I discuss Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008). In the first section of this chapter, I examine how the film remembers the Korean War through the main character Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran. I also explore how he chooses to heal himself and absolve his sins from the war, as I find it particularly interesting that he uses a transnational figure to achieve this. This transnational figure is Thao, who is part of the Hmong family who moves next door and the brother of Sue, who first teaches Walt about the Hmong. Walt passes on his Silver Star to Thao and confesses what he has done, relieving him of his pain. However, I argue that this form of transnational healing is unproductive and problematic as Walt equates Thao with the boy that he killed during the Korean War, conflating two people of different ethnicities. In the second part of this chapter, I examine Sue, who I believe operates as a transnational figure that is productive in remembrance, and I explore why Walt did not choose her to be his successor. In this section, I also question why and how she disappears and recognize that her power, especially of her self-awareness as an Asian American woman, makes her too close of a hero and too problematic to exist in the traditional American national narrative of war where women remain victims/whores. I also explore the way that Sue harnesses language as a form of power and how her constantly questioning voice unsettles the otherwise conventional war narrative of the film. In the second chapter, I discuss Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001). In the first part of this chapter, I ask the same questions that I do in Gran Torino: How is the Korean War remembered and is this way of remembering productive? I first examine one of the main character‟s (Chang-guk, a mixed-race Korean teenager) mother. She is never given a name in the film even though she is one of the central characters. However, I argue that she is like a ghost
  • 20. Sun 20 because she exists on the margins of Camptown and is unable to belong because of her “shamed” status as a yanggongju. The irony of this is that Camptown is a transnational space that is neither America nor Korea and I argue that Chang-guk‟s mother is perhaps the only figure in the film that understands this transnationality, which codes her as crazy in the context of the film. While Sue becomes a victim because of her unsettling presence, Chang-guk‟s mother is the crazy woman/”whore” because of her ghostly and unsettling presence. In the second part of this chapter, I examine another main character‟s (Jihum, a quiet teenager who acts as the observer of the events around him) father. Jihum‟s father is in the opposite position as Walt, since he did not receive a medal for his “heroic” actions. Walt recognizes the irony of the national narrative that codes him as a hero when he was in fact a murderer, but Jihum‟s father wants nothing more than to be subsumed into the national narrative, especially because of his longing to reclaim his masculinity. As an inhabitant of a colonized nation and of Camptown, Jihum‟s father is aware of his secondary status to the American military members and seeks to be recognized as a hero and as a masculine figure. While all Walt wants to do is to forget the Korean War and his past sins by healing through a transnational figure, Jihum‟s father demonstrates that no matter how he wants to forget it is impossible and he must establish a Korean national brotherhood.
  • 21. Sun 21 Chapter 1: Remembering the Korean War through Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008) Finding One’s Place in the National Narrative Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008) is the twenty-ninth film that Eastwood directed and the third that focuses on the American war in the Asia-Pacific.20 Following the success of his series Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006), which focus on the Asia-Pacific front during WWII, Eastwood centers Gran Torino on a Korean War veteran. The story revolves around Walt Kowalski (played by Eastwood), who is unable to come to terms with his traumas stemming from the Korean War, and his gradual friendship with a Hmong family (particularly the children, Sue and her younger brother Thao) who moves in next door. The story simultaneously deals with Walt‟s role as a veteran haunted with his memories and his gradual acceptance of the changing demographics of his neighborhood. Despite the story having been praised for its authenticity in its way of dealing with the Hmong people and its usage of authentic (and amateur) Hmong people as actors, the actor who plays Thao (Bee Vang) has since spoken out about the demeaning way that Eastwood treated the Hmong actors on set as well as his lack of agency in playing Thao and the stereotypical nature of his character. Even though Gran Torino is one of the few films that employs a majority Asian cast, issues of race and representation are still a major problem not only in the story of the film, but also in the treatment of the actors as well. My analysis of Gran Torino focuses on how the Korean War is remembered through Walt Kowalski and the way in which he achieves his transnational means of healing through Thao. The way in which the Hmong characters have been portrayed in stereotypical ways as well as the racism on the set only further emphasizes the way in which Walt‟s character has been 20 http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000142/.
  • 22. Sun 22 privileged in this film, above all the other characters. The Hmong function only to allow Walt to come to terms with his Korean War memories. As to Walt‟s traumas, the film demonstrates that what is forgotten about the Korean War is violence, which clashes with the national narrative of the war and veterans of the war as heroes. Specifically, this is represented by Walt Kowalski‟s Silver Star medal. As a veteran, Walt earned this medal for his heroism during the war, but he is haunted by the killing that he had to do and the film explicitly demonstrates Walt‟s disconnect with the medal. One of the main themes of the film, then, is the attempt to reconcile Walt‟s place as a hero and how he can potentially be subsumed back into the national narrative, which writes him as a hero. In this section, I demonstrate how Walt works against yet simultaneously with existing Korean War narratives that render the war and its participants as invisible. The first time the medal appears on screen is after the opening of the film and the funeral reception of Walt‟s wife. (See Figure 2.) Walt‟s grandchildren are in the basement, looking through a box of his Korean War mementoes. Within the box, the children find the Silver Star. The camera zooms into the medal and then the children look through the rest of the box to find photographs. This is the first time the viewers learn that Walt is a Korean War veteran when one of his grandchildren reads “Korea” on the label in the photograph. The grandchildren do not know about this information and one of them asks if it is their father that is in the photographs and the other does not know where Korea is located. This scene directly demonstrates the forgotten nature of the Korean War as well as the silences surrounding it; only the ghostly presence of the war exists in old photographs and keepsakes that have been locked away. The medal scene reveals the divide between national memory and personal memory. National narratives and remembrances of the war are wrapped around the idea of heroism, which is represented by Walt‟s Silver Star medal. Personal memory and remembrances of the war are
  • 23. Sun 23 likewise indicated by Walt‟s traumas, particularly relating to his inability to connect his Korean War memories with the medal. After all, Walt recognizes that his medal was earned through murder and not heroism. There is a disconnect between personal memory and national memory, which leads to the implication that national narratives about the Korean War in this film are trying to forget about the violence that also constitutes the figure of the veteran. This is directly evidenced by the medal, which not only carries with it the connotations of heroism and glory, but erases the history of deaths and murder that come along with this perceived heroism. These contradictions are what haunt Walt throughout the film. Moreover, the medal is able to absolve trauma in the national arena and instead makes trauma the burden of the personal. Therefore, the medal functions to propagate the national narrative of heroism and success (which goes along with the theories of American exceptionalism) as well as functioning to erase and silence the veteran because their personal memories run counter to this national narrative. Despite this divide, however, the film still portrays Walt as a hero, even if he is reluctant to accept this title. The Hmong family that he gets close to – especially Sue and Thao – is increasingly forced to deal with persistent Hmong gangbangers who want to recruit Thao into their group. The conflict between Thao and the gangbangers is what leads Walt to come into contact with Sue and Thao. From the very beginning of the film, he chases the Hmong gangbangers away and the family reveres him as a hero, leaving plate after plate of ceremonial food and tributes at his door. Despite Walt‟s refusal to believe himself as a hero, the viewers are meant to see him as one regardless of what he had done in Korea. He also saves Sue from a group of black teenagers, which also earn him the respect of her family; I discuss this scene in the next section of this chapter. Even though Walt does not think of himself as a hero, the film,
  • 24. Sun 24 from the very beginning, sets him up to be one, especially by focusing on how he saves the Hmong family in a stereotypical rehashing of the white male savior role. Nevertheless, Walt‟s internal conflicts are a major part of the film, particularly in the scenes where he converses with Father Janovich, a Catholic priest who was particularly close with his late wife. After Walt first chases the Hmong gangbangers away from Sue and Thao (as well as his own lawn) at the beginning of the film, Father Janovich comes to Walt‟s house to reprimand him. During this scene, Father Janovich tries to persuade Walt to “unload his burden” and to achieve some form of catharsis or healing: It seems it would do you good to unload some of that burden. Things done during war are terrible. Being ordered to kill. Killing to save yourself, killing to save others. You‟re right. Those are things I know nothing about but I do know about forgiveness and I‟ve seen a lot of men who have confessed their sins, admitted their guilt, and left their burdens behind them. Stronger men than you. Men at war who are ordered to do appalling things and are now at peace. The most interesting aspect of this scene is the expectation that veterans must be able to move on and to come to terms with what they have done. According to Father Janovich, it is unproductive to live with ghosts of the past and to be unable to reintegrate with regular society. This way of thinking is also representative of the way in which American history tends to forget about the Korean War; after an event is “over,” there is no point in dealing with the past. In this sense, the medal and Father Janovich embrace the same national narrative, which serves to silence Walt‟s experiences. Even if Walt is truly not a hero, he is expected to become one and to forget about his past experiences, which is reflected in how the film sets Walt up to become a hero throughout the film as well as at the end of the film. However, Walt further emphasizes his disconnect with the medal and his own perception of himself as a hero by telling Father Janovich that “the thing that haunts a man most is what he
  • 25. Sun 25 isn‟t ordered to do.” This demonstrates that while it is easy to absolve oneself from guilt if a soldier believes he was ordered to kill, wartime violence complicates this belief. Walt acknowledges that he is guilty because of his knowledge of his own active participation in the violence. For this reason, Father Janovich considers Walt to be an aberration because he is unable to let go of his trauma. This insight is also perhaps what makes the medal such a palatable symbol for war: it represents all the good aspects and good narratives of war – heroism, American exceptionalism – without acknowledging the personal traumas involved in war. Furthermore, I situate the medal as a cultural object that works as a tool of remembrance. The medal is a cultural object that is specifically associated with war as well as carrying certain memories of war, both to the nation and to the person who has earned it. Specifically, Marita Sturken discusses this concept in her book Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering. In her chapter, “The Wall and the Screen Memory: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” she provides an analysis of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and its cultural meanings and discusses the objects that are left behind at the memorial wall.21 These objects are all deeply personal, much like the medal to Walt, and when passed on, they allow the person to achieve a form of catharsis: “For many, leaving artifacts at the memorial is an act of catharsis, a release of long-held objects to memory….For those who have left these objects, the memorial represents a final destination and a relinquishing of their memory” (Sturken, p. 78).22 According to Sturken, what enables this catharsis is the design of the wall. The wall is a different kind of monument; in contrast to celebrating victory and power, the wall resembles a long black grave. Sturken describes the wall as such: 21 It is somewhat ironic that I am using the Vietnam War to help me analyze the Korean War given what my project topic is, but Marita Sturken is one of the cultural studies scholars that works within the same type of scholarship that I strive to be a part of. 22 Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering.
  • 26. Sun 26 The memorial functions in opposition to the codes of remembrance evidenced on the Washington Mall. Virtually all the national memorials and monuments in Washington are made of white stone and designed to be visible from a distance. In contrast, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial cuts into the sloping earth: it is not visible until one is almost upon it; if approached from behind, it seems to disappear into the landscape….The black stone creates a reflective surface, one that echoes the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial and allows viewers to participate in the memorial; seeing their own image reflected in the names, they are implicated in the listing of the dead (Sturken, p. 46). Functioning as a different type of memorial, the wall allows for visitors to achieve a transformation that would not normally occur in a typical experience of a monument. In particular, the personal and interactive experiences with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall allows for an active form of participation in the national narrative of the war. Sturken‟s concept of catharsis is particularly important to an understanding of how Walt in Gran Torino is able to heal. First, I explore how catharsis is possible in relation to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. The interactive quality of the wall and the personal reflection that it inspires has created a ritual where people leave behind objects at the wall. Furthermore, this act has become so pervasive that there is a museum on site, which explicitly displays these objects, emphasizing how national memory absorbs personal memories and allows for these personal memories to be subsumed into the national narrative. Some of the objects that have been left behind include “photographs, letters, poems, teddy bears, dog tags, combat boots, and helmets, MIA/POW bracelets, clothes, medals of honor, headbands, beer cans, plaques, crosses, playing cards” (Sturken, p. 76). The medal has a very similar meaning to these objects, attaching a national narrative to personal events. In the case of Gran Torino, the main difference is that Walt hides away his medal in the basement. He only comes to terms with the medal and its meaning when he passes it on to Thao, treating him as his successor and also treating him as the
  • 27. Sun 27 receptacle for his traumas. In other words, Thao is a type of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall to Walt – Thao becomes the means through which Walt can relinquish his painful memories and heal himself. While the wall allows for a form of collective healing, Walt‟s form of healing takes place on an individual-to-individual level, reflecting the personal nature of his traumas and his inability to express himself within the national narrative (and the lack of a similar space for Korean War veterans, reflecting the invisibility of the Korean War). Walt seeks Thao to help him heal because he is a transnational figure that operates outside of the national narratives, which silences Walt. The scene in which this takes place happens at the end of the film, before Walt confronts the Hmong gang for attacking Sue and right after he goes to church for confession, a ritual that he had always refused to take part in. In the church confession scene with Father Janovich, he deliberately refuses to talk about his war experiences. Instead, Walt makes his official “confession” to Thao when he passes on the medal to him: “1952, we were sent up to take out a chink machine-gun nest. Been shredding us up pretty good. I was the only one who came back that day. For that, they gave me a Silver Star. Here it is.” (See Figure 3.) Therefore, the medal could be read as a way of not only silencing Walt, but of also shutting him up. The criminal act then is renamed as heroism in the American narrative; therefore, the veteran cannot talk about violence and there is a dissonance between how the veteran is expected to act and what he thinks. After Thao closes the case where Walt‟s memorabilia is kept after receiving the medal, Walt locks him in the basement and provides his first official confession of what his actions were: You know what it‟s like to kill a man? Well, it‟s goddamn awful, that‟s what it is. The only thing worse is getting a medal of valor for killing some poor kid that wanted to just give up, that‟s all. Yeah, some scared little gook just like you. I shot him in the face with that rifle you were holding in there a while ago. Not a day goes by that I don‟t think about it, and you don‟t want that on your
  • 28. Sun 28 soul. Now, I got blood on my hands. I‟m soiled. That‟s why I‟m going it alone tonight. This scene provides a contrast to the confession scene with Father Janovich, as the mise-en-scene of the shot looks very much like a confession booth. (See Figure 4.) This is especially evident as Thao‟s face is kept in the shadows and in the dark much like a priest during confession. (See Figure 5.) The lighting also privileges Walt‟s face. The way in which this scene is composed is nearly identical to the confession scene with Father Janovich, which takes place in a confessional in the church. The only difference is that Father Janovich and Walt sit across from each other, whereas in this scene Walt towers above Thao, which demonstrates the disparity in power between Walt and Thao. Additionally, the darkness of Thao makes a parallel to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which has a lot of power based on its reflective and dark qualities – it allows for the spectator to bare themselves to the memorial and to grapple with and accept their feelings. However, this form of transnational forgiveness enables Walt to connect Thao and the “scared little gook.” This statement, together with Walt‟s guilt that he was the “only one who came back that day,” demonstrates how Walt needs forgiveness from the Koreans and specifically, those he killed. Since this is not possible physically, he has to find a surrogate. This surrogate forgiver is Thao, even though it is not Thao‟s sin (or even his war) to forgive.23 While Thao serves to relieve Walt of his guilt, Thao is then left without a voice and becomes a symbol and object for Walt‟s usage, much like how Sue functions within the film. The actor for Thao, Bee Vang, heavily criticizes his role in the film, partly because of his inability to have any agency since the film is centered heavily on Walt Kowalski. In an interview for the article “Gran Torino‟s Hmong Lead: Bee Vang on Film, Race and Masculinity,” Vang 23 This surrogate nature reminds me of how the Korean War and the Vietnam War are conflated, much like how Thao and the Korean boy that Walt killed are conflated in Walt‟s mind. The most famous example of this is the television show M.A.S.H., which takes place during the Korean War but is an allegory for the Vietnam War.
  • 29. Sun 29 discusses his role as Thao: “The thing is, the story can‟t take place without those Hmong characters, especially mine. But in the end, it‟s Walt that gets glorified. We fade out in favor of his heroism. I felt negated by the script and by extension in my assuming the role. It‟s almost like a non-role. Strange for a lead…”24 Even though Walt is able to come to terms with the war, this ultimately is what erases Thao and the Hmong. Much like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which also erases the Vietnamese side of the war, Thao, even though he is a transnational means of forgiveness, also ends up being erased as well. Furthermore, at the end of the film, when Walt sacrifices himself for the Hmong people, the image of him as sole hero is emphasized even further. After he locks Thao up, he heads over to the Hmong gangbangers‟ house and causes the entire neighborhood to notice the conflict so that there would be witnesses. While reaching for his lighter, Walt makes a quick movement so as to trick the Hmong gang to thinking that he is reaching for a gun and the gang end up shooting him. While lying in the lawn, Walt is splayed out in the form of a crucifix, further securing his role as hero and martyr. (See Figure 6.) In this way, Walt is subsumed back into the national narrative of heroism, which he has been fighting against throughout the entire film and this is his act of catharsis. Catharsis is particularly important to achieve, personally and politically, because it is part of the process of healing. Healing is such a powerful narrative because it is what allows for something to be forgotten – it implies that someone has moved on from the event and can leave it behind, literally as in the case with Walt through passing on the medal to Thao and the people who leave personal objects behind at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. This demonstrates how catharsis and healing are so inextricably tied with objects; it is as if the objects themselves 24 Louisa Schein, “Gran Torino‟s Hmong Lead: Bee Vang on Film, Race and Masculinity” in Hmong Studies Journal, Volume 11.
  • 30. Sun 30 come to embody and are imbued with the emotion or memory. Therefore, it becomes relatively easier to let memories go when they are attached to material objects because the relinquishing of these objects means the relinquishing of these memories as well. Furthermore, this is all tied into national memory because on a larger scale, national memory works in similar ways with cultural representations of an event, such as the Korean War. In order to maintain American exceptionalism, it becomes politically important to discard or subsume certain painful memories that do not fit within the national narrative. This demonstrates how Walt‟s personal memories of murder and violence come into conflict with the medal, which in turn silences him. After Walt is finally able to relinquish his memories, then he can be allowed to die as a true “hero” and to be subsumed into the national narrative of the white male savior. Erasing Dissenting Voices of Power Sue plays a very unique role in Gran Torino. At the beginning of the film exhibits much agency, which she gradually loses. Sue is the older sister of Thao and serves as a powerful female figure in her family – she lives with her mother who has not remarried, her grandmother who even scares Walt, and Thao. From the very beginning of the film, the Hmong family is portrayed as dominated by women, which in turn emasculates Thao and shows how he is at the mercy of the women in his family. Sue recognizes the dangers of the Hmong gangbangers and knows that Thao would not be able to succeed in America if he socializes with the gang members. Within the film, her relationship with Walt is to act as his “translator” or bridge – she teaches him about Hmong culture and history and introduces him into her family. She is never given as much agency as she potentially could have and like Chang-guk‟s mother, if she were given full agency than it would be particularly dangerous and unsettling to the narrative of the film. This becomes evident by the end of the film, as Walt chooses Thao as his successor and
  • 31. Sun 31 Sue eventually becomes a victim of sexual violence by the Hmong gang and is silenced for the remainder of the film. This silencing of Sue is particularly unsettling because she is one of the few Asian American women in film who recognizes the power of her voice and language in articulating knowledge. This knowledge though is too unsettling and dangerous to Walt and Sue comes too close to being a hero and stealing the spotlight from him; therefore, she must be silenced. In terms of the purpose that Sue serves Walt, she acts as a transnational bridge between him and the Hmong people. In this way, her knowledge and ability to convey that knowledge also gives her power as well. For example, she teaches Walt (and the viewers) who the Hmong are: “Hmong isn‟t a place. It‟s a people. Hmong people come from different parts of Laos, Thailand, and China.” She also explains how the Hmong fought with the Americans, emphasizing (in Walt‟s mind) that even though they are “gooks” to him, they were actually on his side: “It‟s a Vietnam thing. We fought on your side. And when the Americans quit, the Communists started killing all the Hmong. So we came over here.” Despite their initial connection, as Sue is the means through which Walt becomes involved with her family, Walt picks Thao to be his successor instead of Sue.25 Perhaps it is because Sue is too powerful of a figure to carry on Walt‟s legacy unquestioningly as throughout the film, she challenges stereotypes and corrects misconceptions. Sue‟s knowledge of her usage of language as power occurs near the beginning of the film when she is on a date with a white classmate. While they are walking home, they are confronted by a group of black male teenagers. Unbeknownst to them, Walt is watching the entire scene from his pick-up truck nearby. The beginning of this scene is filmed as if it were from Sue‟s 25 The father-surrogate son relationship leaves no space for women. This is seen also at the epilogue of The Host and the need for Korean brotherhood in Address Unknown.
  • 32. Sun 32 perspective and privileges her – she is placed at the center of almost every frame as if her power is affirmed by the camera. (See Figure 7.) This is one of the instances in which Sue “steals” power from Walt; the majority of the film is filmed from Walt‟s perspective and follows his gaze. Furthermore, in this particular scene, Sue channels the power of language, which is that of an Asian American woman‟s consciousness. Her controlling words, emphasized by her centering on the screen, allows for Sue to have temporary, but enormous power. The scene begins with the black male teenagers harassing and insulting Sue and her date. She is referred to as a “little Oriental yummy” as well as other racial and sexual epithets for Asian women. Even though this scene demonstrates the cultural/racial clashes in a town that is gradually shifting in demographics as well as an Asian woman‟s position in this triangle between white and black, these slurs directed toward Sue are also reminiscent of the treatment that Asian women receive in war films. Rather than submit or acquiesce, Sue fights back and sardonically replies: “Oh great. Another asshole who has a fetish for Asian girls? God, that gets so old.” When asked her name, she states: “It‟s „take your crude come-on to every woman who walks past and cram it.‟ That‟s my name.” Even when the black teenagers insult her by telling her date to “put a chain on that whore and yank that motherfucker,” she responds back: “Of course. Right to the stereotype thesaurus. Call me a whore and a bitch in the same sentence.” Part of the appeal of Sue‟s character is that she is one of the few women of color in film who fight back and talk back – she does not need to rely on her white date to stand up for her and she takes control of the situation, if only temporarily. Furthermore, she directly questions their “come-ons” in the context of race (“God, that gets so old”), reflecting a knowledge that is uniquely Asian American as well. This scene allows Sue to express herself in a powerful way. Her refusal to be categorized as a victim or a sexual object of the male gaze threatens to overtake the film, even challenging Walt‟s
  • 33. Sun 33 authority, as Walt would like to be seen as the white male savior – a popular American trope – which he does achieve at the end of the film. Sue begins to lose her power, however, at the end of the scene when Walt steps in to reassert his role as the dominant power and to take his “rightful” place as the savior/hero. (See Figure 8.) After Sue finishes her sarcastic replies, one of the black teenagers comments that “this bitch is crazy,” which is reminiscent of Chang-guk‟s mother in Address Unknown who is also relegated as a “crazy bitch” for speaking her mind as well. Sue‟s power, language, and voice which comes from her knowledge is then relegated to her being a “crazy bitch” because her voice is unsettling and threatening if anyone were to believe that she was anything but a “crazy bitch.” Much like Chang-guk‟s mother, Sue is not given as much credit as she should have by the film in which she exists. To further deemphasize Sue‟s power, Walt drives up in his truck and “rescues” her from the black teenagers, as it is evident that she probably would have been raped. The camera angle complies with Walt and it reverts back to its original position, Walt‟s point-of- view, which casts Sue in the stereotypical victim role. This is mirrored in the ending of the film, although this time Walt is unable to save Sue from being raped. Sue is beaten and raped by the Hmong gang in retaliation for Walt beating up one of the gang members for bothering Thao. This cycle of violence, which is ironically perpetrated by Walt for getting involved with the gangbangers in the first place, ends up exacting punishment on the body of the women, which is one of the conventions of women‟s portrayals during war. When Sue is returned to her house by the gang, she is unable to speak and remains virtually silent for the rest of the film. (See Figure 9.) Her rape is what allows for Walt to finally see himself as a hero and he is determined to die for Sue‟s sake. However, it is almost as if Sue‟s rape is a punishment for her earlier transgression and challenge to Walt – in her refusal to take
  • 34. Sun 34 her place, the only recourse is for her to become a victim through sexual violence. After all, Walt can only become a hero if Sue is properly disposed of as a victim. In this sense, Gran Torino is very similar to a war film in its portrayal of the eventual silencing of the Asian woman and the white man‟s final stand to avenge her. From the perspective of Walt, Sue‟s body is heavily sexualized – he intervenes when the black teenagers were about to rape her and she is eventually raped – and thus, needs saving by the white American man. When he is finally unable to save her, he sacrifices himself for her and for the greater good of the Hmong community, reasserting his role as the hero fighting for the underprivileged minority horde. By the end of the film, Sue has been silenced effectively and in an incredibly violent way. Moreover, what is troubling about Sue‟s rape is that it almost needs to happen in order to allow Walt to die as a hero. Sue‟s body then no longer retains its subject position and becomes an object to allow for Walt to achieve his heroic ending. Sue, as a character, is also too close to being a hero, especially when the camera cedes to and complies with her power. For that reason, Sue‟s language and self-knowledge mark her as too dangerous and transgressive of a character. Unlike Thao, she would probably not have acquiesced to be Walt‟s forgiver, but would continue to challenge his ideas. With her transnational knowledge – not just of her Hmong heritage, but also her identity as an Asian American woman – and her powerful voice, Sue provides too much of a challenge to Walt and would not allow him to be subsumed into the national narrative of heroism.
  • 35. Sun 35 Chapter 2: Remembering the Korean War through Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001) Crazy Ghost Woman Address Unknown is a film that takes place in the outskirts of an American military base, probably around the 1980s in South Korea. The film centers on the development of three main characters who lead intersecting lives: a girl with one blind eye (Eunok), a mixed-race Korean and black American teenager who lives with his mother (Chang-guk), and a shy boy (Jihum). However, Chang-guk‟s mother is one of the most interesting characters in the film. She is never given a name in the film despite her central position in the narrative.26 Furthermore, she seems to represent the unspoken in that she serves as a history or a backstory to these other main characters – a ghostly haunting perhaps. The other characters in the film treat her as a Camptown prostitute or a yanggongju; regardless of whether she was a prostitute or not, the other residents of Camptown treat her as a stand-in for the shamed woman, byproducts of the Korean War and American imperialism. Both Chang-guk‟s mother and Chang-guk are ostracized by the Camptown community because they represent the legacies of the Korean War as an intermixing of two cultures that destroys the purity of the Korean nation. These are the legacies of the war that the Korean nation and people want to erase and destroy. As a result, both Chang-guk and his mother are relegated to the margins of Camptown, living in an abandoned bus. Chang-guk‟s mother, unlike her son, refuses to view her situation with shame and asserts her agency through her pride, counteracting the national narrative of shame that a “fallen woman” or prostitute should have. Therefore, she is considered crazy by the other Camptown residents, as well as her own son. 26 The film is also named Address Unknown for her actions – she addresses letters to her boyfriend in America, hoping for a return letter but never receiving one.
  • 36. Sun 36 In this regard, Chang-guk‟s mother operates as a troubling presence in the film. She refuses to fade into the background and refuses to succumb to feelings of shame. Rather, she is proud of her position and her ability to communicate in English. Chang-guk‟s mother transforms narratives of shame into narratives of pride, directly challenging the conceptions of the Camptown residents and contradicting the normative narratives. She also functions as a type of “ghost” or a third space, as asserted by Grace Cho: In the context of the making of the yanggongju, September 1945 signaled the transition between the system of sexual slavery set up for the Japanese Imperial Army (the comfort stations) and the system of camptown prostitution set up for the U.S. military (gijichon)….The yanggongju bears the traces of this devastation as a haunted and haunting figure that transmits her trauma across boundaries of time and space. September 1945 and its aftermath, the Korean War and its aftermath, are in the past, but they are not over (Cho, p. 8).27 The yanggongju is a figure that is inextricably intertwined with Japanese colonialism and American neocolonialism in a Korean context. She is the representation of Korea‟s subordinate status as a nation, and serves as a reminder of the inability of Korean men to protect their women, some even willingly giving up their women (particularly in the case of U.S. military prostitution).28 In this sense then, the very presence of the yanggongju triggers memories and active remembrances of colonialism. For Chang-guk‟s mother to be proud of her status and her refusal to be shamed, demonstrates her ghostly presence not just on the margins of the frame, but in the center as a figure that cannot be ignored or forgotten. Chang-guk‟s mother is never given full control within the film, yet she haunts it and asserts herself within the space of the film. Like Sue, she has the potential to have enormous power within the film if only she were allowed to assert it, which forms the unsettling nature of 27 Grace Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. 28 Prostitution is illegal in South Korea, but under the Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) it is legalized and institutionalized in Camptowns and military bases.
  • 37. Sun 37 both characters. Chang-guk‟s mother stands apart from the other characters with her transnational understanding of the relationship between South Korea and the U.S. Much like Sue with her unsettling power in her knowledge and her ability to talk back, Chang-guk‟s transnationalism is represented by her knowledge of English and her flaunting it to the other characters in the film. This power to bridge the two cultures reflects her understanding of her position in Camptown. Cho describes this power as a unique aspect of the yanggongju: “She is the woman who simultaneously provokes her compatriots‟ hatred because of her complicity with Korea‟s subordination and inspires their envy because she is within arm‟s reach of the American dream” (Cho, p. 4). This is the power that Chang-guk‟s mother demonstrates in the film – her ability to transcend the confines of Camptown, which is an inaccessible terrain for the other characters that are stuck in the cycle of violence surrounding Camptown. If she were able to achieve her full potential and power in the film by escaping the confines of Camptown, it would demonstrate that this “post”-war violence could be avoided. Unfortunately, this power is not granted to her and at the end of the film, she and Chang-guk attempt to erase themselves from the film. Chang-guk‟s mother can be read as not only a “whore” or a “crazy bitch,” as the other townspeople see her, but also as victim of the legacy of the Korean War. Since Chang-guk‟s mother refuses to succumb to shame, the townspeople believe that she is crazy and that she brought her terrible living conditions upon herself. One of the townspeople directly addresses Chang-guk‟s mother: “Your life is shitty because you were so shameless!” Therefore, the townspeople see Chang-guk‟s mother as deserving of her station in life, especially in light of her refusal to feel shame for herself and her situation. The mistreatment of Chang-guk‟s mother, as well as Chang-guk, allows for the viewers to also view Chang-guk‟s mother as a victim. After all,
  • 38. Sun 38 she is extremely desperate to contact Chang-guk‟s father, repeatedly addressing letters to him and as a result, is beaten by Chang-guk. She also has Chang-guk‟s father‟s name tattooed on her breast, which becomes a point of contention with Chang-guk, as he wishes to erase all evidence of his mixed-race nature. Chang-guk‟s mother receives abuse from the townspeople and her son, but it is unproductive to view her solely as a victim or a whore, as her character is more complicated than this binary reading. In particular, Chang-guk‟s mother asserts her agency through her usage of language as a form of power. Language could also be an indicator of her craziness, which is represented by her almost constant wailing throughout her scenes in the film. This wailing occurs when Chang-guk beats her, after discovering that she continues to write letters to her American boyfriend, even after they repeatedly return with an “address unknown” stamp. These scenes are performed entirely without dialogue; the only sounds belong to the mother‟s wails. Her screams are incredibly powerful, particularly coupled with the cruelty and somewhat sexual nature of Chang- guk‟s assaults (he exposes her breasts several times throughout the film in his frenzied attempts to remove her tattoo). These screams constitute a third language, that of the body in pain, in addition to the English and Korean that she speaks; furthermore, these screams emphasize her stubbornness in conforming to the world around her. If other characters refuse to listen while she speaks normally, whether in English or Korean, her screams are her way of asserting herself in a way that cannot be ignored or forgotten. The tension between mother and son stems from their competing notions of Camptown. Chang-guk and his mother are discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens because of the shame that they have wrought upon the Korean community through the birth of a mixed- race child. In Korean nationalist discourse, the emphasis is on Korean purity, which is a myth in
  • 39. Sun 39 its own right. However, this conception of Korean purity cannot exist if mixed-race children, couplings between Koreans and Americans, exist as well. Chang-guk must live with his mother‟s status as a yanggonju. While she refuses to bear the shame of this stigma, Chang-guk must bear this burden. This is reflected in the portrayals of his everyday life. He is unable to find work and must work in one of the most violent and lowest-status positions – as an assistant to the dog butcher, Dog Eyes. (See Figure 10.) He attempts to rise above this humiliation, however, and tries to find a job as a manual laborer, loading heavy packages into trucks. The foreman takes pity on Chang-guk and pays him some leftover money, after Chang-guk voluntarily demonstrates that he is capable of working just as hard as any of the other characters. The foreman grows to like Chang-guk and defends him when one of the other workers accuses Chang-guk of stealing their money. However, even though the foreman defends Chang-guk, this is another reminder of Chang-guk‟s inability to fully integrate within Camptown. He cannot continue to work under Dog Eyes in the lowliest profession in Camptown, yet he cannot continue to suffer abuse from his status as a mixed-race Korean even in a job that pays relatively well and that has the potential of upward mobility. As a result, Chang-guk eventually commits suicide because he cannot bear the burden of shame. Unlike his mother, who refuses to succumb to shame, Chang-guk recognizes that he cannot exist in this transnational space of Camptown. While Chang-guk takes much of the abuse that he suffers from the other townspeople, Chang-guk‟s mother actively fights back against them, using her knowledge of English. While English is used sparingly by other characters throughout the film, Chang-guk‟s mother uses English perhaps most notably in order to flaunt her status as the girlfriend of an American soldier and to reinforce her belief that she will someday go to America to live a better life. This usage of English is the mother‟s way of asserting her power with the intention of upward mobility that is
  • 40. Sun 40 not accessible to the other Camptown residents. However, to those residents, they view her lifestyle and usage of English as a condemnation of her yanngongju status and as a result, she should be treated with shame and contempt. Chang-guk‟s mother refuses to fall into this national narrative of shame despite Camptown society‟s attempt to treat her with shame. In one particularly memorable scene, Chang-guk‟s mother speaks English to a Korean storekeeper, who pretends not to understand what she is saying and then reprimands her by stating that “this is Korea! Speak Korean!” (See Figure 11.) Camptown is not technically Korea or America – it is an area controlled by the American military and revolves around the economy of the military base. Therefore, by its very nature, Camptown is a microcosm of a global world or an “island” that is neither Korea nor America. Therefore, the nationalist desire to retain one language – which is reminiscent of Gang-du‟s breakdown in The Host – is an act of futility. Nationalism becomes a reaction against the transnationalism and mixing between peoples found in Camptown, but it is not a productive act in such a space. However, within the film, Chang- guk‟s mother is thought of as crazy because she refuses to speak Korean even though it is just as “crazy” to only speak Korean. Furthermore, the mother challenges her “craziness” in the second and final scene in which she fights with the other Camptown residents. In this scene, she attempts to steal a farmer‟s cabbages. (See Figure 12.) After getting into a fight with the farmer‟s wife, the wife calls her a “crazy bitch” and she retorts back: “Why am I a crazy bitch?” The mother‟s usage of English is a way for her to assert her power over the other Camptown residents who do not have this cultural/language capital and she actively uses English to challenge her assumed craziness. After all, she is not crazy, she is the only one who recognizes the transnationality of Camptown and the power in learning English to escape from her position. This is essentially what contributes to Chang-guk‟s mother‟s unsettling presence: she has the
  • 41. Sun 41 power to destroy the Korean national narrative of shame and reveal Camptown for what it is, a transnational entity much like herself. Chang-guk‟s mother is the only character who appears to be striving for something other than Camptown; all of the other characters view their lives as stuck within this world, some even actively contributing to the violence of such a location that is precariously on the balance between Korean nationalism and American imperialism. Chang-guk‟s mother has some hope in her seemingly desperate situation, which lies within her steadfast belief that she will one day go to America. This contrasts with Chang-guk, who knows that he will never be accepted into either American or Korean society, or even Camptown society in which his race makes him perhaps the most abject figure in the film. While the other people in Camptown, even her own son until the end of the film, view her as crazy, she is the only one who understands what Camptown is about – it is not a space for American exceptionalism or Korean nationalism, but a space for a global person who has bigger dreams than the place itself. This is what allows Chang-guk‟s mother to have such a powerful presence within the film – if she were allowed full agency, she could completely unsettle the very foundations of the other characters‟ conception of Camptown, particularly other Koreans who view Camptown as a national space and not as the transnational space that it really is. Even though Chang-guk‟s mother is a figure that Camptown society wishes would disappear and who refuses to disappear throughout the film, at the end of the film she ends up disappearing. After Chang-guk kills himself, being unable to cope with his position in Camptown, his mother also takes her own life. The film also suggests that before she kills herself, she consumes his dead body, as mentioned by Myung Ja Kim, a Korean film scholar: “Like Eva in Toni Morrison‟s Sula, who burned her beloved son whom she could not „get back in‟ her
  • 42. Sun 42 womb again, Chang-guk‟s mother, by devouring her son‟s body, symbolically unbirths him” (Kim, p. 259).29 While this seems to be another symptom of her craziness, the scene seems to demonstrate that the destruction of her son is the destruction of her dream. (See Figure 13.) Right before Chang-guk kills himself, he finally succeeds in slicing off the tattoo on his mother‟s breast, which is a symbolic destruction of her relationship with her American boyfriend. (See Figure 14.) He then tells her in English: “Mom! Mom, I was wrong all this time. Please forgive me! I want to live happily with you, too.” He finally concedes to his mother‟s transnational understanding, but he still recognizes that he would never be able to have this outlook, as even in America he would be treated as a second-class citizen. There is no space, even in a transnational world, for a mixed-race black American and Korean subject in Chang-guk‟s mind. By the end of the film, the mother seems to understand Chang-guk‟s desire to eliminate all traces of his existence. She thus fulfills her son‟s wish to the fullest extent possible; her ultimate sacrifice is to destroy herself and to eliminate all traces of both of their bodies, by consuming his and burning hers. She ends up setting the bus in which she lives on fire. The final irony occurs at the very last scene of the film, when a random American soldier finds a returned letter from Chang-guk‟s biological father, indicating that the mother‟s obsessive attempts to contact the soldier is not rooted in craziness after all. (See Figure 15.) Both Sue and Chang-guk‟s mother disappear at the end of each film; in fact it seems as if both characters need to disappear in order to truly take away their power, voice, and agency. The main difference is that Sue‟s disappearance seems more forced than the mother; after all, the mother commits suicide and Sue is raped. Furthermore, Sue disappears to make room for Walt‟s heroism and no longer makes important appearances with speaking lines after her rape. While 29 Myung Ja Kim, “Race, Gender, and Postcolonial Identity in Kim Ki-duk‟s Address Unknown,” in Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema, edited by Frances Gateward.
  • 43. Sun 43 her body is still on screen, her voice has completely disappeared. Chang-guk‟s mother‟s body may have disappeared completely, but her letters still remain and float around the landscape of Camptown. Even though she may have finally disappeared, her ghostly presence still continues to haunt Camptown through the returned letter. Since this is the last scene of Address Unknown, Chang-guk‟s mother‟s existence is still not completely vanished. Finding One’s Place in the National Narrative Both Gran Torino and Address Unknown depict the stories of Korean War veterans, although Address Unknown provides the story of the Korean veteran, who is Jihum‟s father. While Walt was awarded a medal for being the “only one to come back that day,” Jihum‟s father was not given a medal for that very same reason. Walt recognizes that his medal silences him, but for Jihum‟s father‟s his lack of a medal silences him, albeit in a different way. This medal becomes an important symbol of masculinity for Jihum‟s father. In an early scene in the film, a group of Korean War veterans meet together to shoot arrows and to relive their days during the war. Jihum‟s father is particularly angry because despite having killed three Communists, he did not receive any commendations. It is revealed that only the dead received official commendations from the government, as well as a living stipend for surviving family members. Moreover, the connection between the medal and masculinity becomes clear in the context of anticolonial nationalism. Chungmoo Choi, in her essay “Nationalism and Construction of Gender in Korea” argues: “In other words, in the sacred mission of anti-colonial nationalism, the object of which is often to restore national masculinity, women of the colonized nation are doubly oppressed” (Choi, p. 14).30 The shame that comes along with being colonial subjects leads to the theory of anticolonial nationalism‟s investment in remasculinizing the nation. Having survived 30 This essay is found within the larger collection of essays Dangerous Women: Gender & Korean Nationalism, edited by Elaine H. Kim and Chungmoo Choi.
  • 44. Sun 44 the Korean War without a medal devalues Jihum‟s father‟s experiences as well as emasculates him. This mark of emasculation literally becomes a part of the father‟s body with his leg wound, which renders one leg useless. The scene in which Jihum‟s father is first introduced as a character is when he is practicing archery with other veterans. In this scene, he reminisces about his Korean War days: “At the Battle of Nakdong River, we fought a northern squadron. I shot three of them dead!” Jihum‟s father is preoccupied with this memory and shows his dissatisfaction for not receiving a medal: “The government‟s so screwed up! They gave them [medals] to those cowards who missed the action. Look at this. For this, all I get is a measly $30 a month.” The “this” that Jihum‟s father shows to the other veterans is his leg, supported by a brace. (See Figure 16.) This is the first time that Jihum‟s father reveals his crippled leg. His statement demonstrates his dissatisfaction with the government‟s handling of the situation, as well as the substandard living stipend that he receives from the government. Needless to say, Jihum‟s father‟s lifestyle is not that of a glorious veteran. Even though he says that “this [crippled leg] is as good as a medal,” he is still bitter about not receiving one. The leg wound is the only visible sign that Jihum‟s father has participated in the war; in this sense, it is a personal testament to his heroism. However, he is still missing the national remembrance of his “heroic” deeds. While their experiences are different, both Walt and Jihum‟s father have been silenced by the nation. In Walt‟s case, the medal does not allow him to speak of his counter-experiences. In Jihum‟s father‟s case, he does not receive a medal and is silenced because he is never able to have his sacrifices for his country celebrated by the nation. In other words, the nation has abandoned him. Jihum‟s father‟s leg wound that requires him to wear a crutch emphasizes the living memorial of the war that exists on his body, a personal remembrance of the war. Unlike
  • 45. Sun 45 Walt, Jihum‟s father remembers the war in a nationalistic light, as he is proud of his murders, which are motivated by the state‟s refusal to commemorate him for his actions. Additionally, Jihum‟s father is very protective of his masculinity; at the beginning of the film he scolds Jihum by telling him: “Look at me when you leave. You call yourself a man?” This enveloping of masculinity as well as with his crippled leg portrays an image of a somewhat broken man, if not mentally then physically. In this sense, Jihum‟s father represents the castrated Korean nation, who cannot come to terms with the memory of the war without wrapping that memory in a masculine/nationalistic light, particularly in the presence of the American military base in Camptown. Jihum‟s father‟s memory of the war emphasizes his pride in having committed murder. In one scene of the film, Jihum discovers the remains of executed bodies in their backyard, but his father is only excited about the discovery of a gun. (See Figure 17.) The gravesite is part of a burial ground for Communist/North Korean soldiers who have been executed. After the father cleans the gun, he passes it on to the local butcher, Dog Eyes, and tells him that it would “no longer make his hands bloody.” However, when Dog Eyes kills a dog with a gun (as opposed to his usual method of beating it with a bat or chopping it to pieces with a knife), he complains to himself that it still makes his hands bloody. This scene emphasizes the selective memorializing of certain aspects of the war; specifically, to Jihum‟s father, the gun does not make one‟s hands bloody because it is a relic of the war and the only aspects of the war that he remembers are the heroic aspects. Furthermore, the gun also provides desensitization to violence in its efficiency in killing as well as emphasizing a user‟s control/power. Unlike Walt, Jihum‟s father is excited about uncovering that which is hidden because he views the war, death, and violence as inextricably tied to each other and as something to be proud of.
  • 46. Sun 46 This indicates the main difference between the structures of the two films in their ways of remembering the Korean War. Gran Torino recognizes that the Korean War was not a “clean” war, but one of violence and muddled morals. Address Unknown, on the other hand, demonstrates that not only was the war violent, but also that life after war is often just as violent. Particularly in the Camptown in this film, violence seems to be an inextricable way of life, reflected in some of the characters‟ disregard for lives. One of the main symbols for the disregard in life is the treatment of dogs throughout the film. In particular, Jihum‟s father and Jihum show different levels of empathy for dogs‟ lives, which reflects differing levels of empathy in Camptown society. Jihum loves his family dog and when his father sells it to Dog Eyes and it runs away back to the house before dying (Dog Eyes manages to shoot it with an arrow), Jihum gives it a loving burial. Jihum‟s father, on the other hand, is only concerned with receiving payment for giving up the dog and insistent on completing the transaction. The father also shoots a family chicken in order to test out the gun. The disconnect between father and son, reflected in various levels of empathy (and by association, masculinity), reflects the idea that life after war could be just as violent. The story that is told in Address Unknown then, is that despite Jihum‟s father‟s yearning for a bloodless and heroic remembrance of the war (as evidenced by his fascination with the gun and his lack of empathy for living creatures), his current life is still filled with violence. Near the end of the film, Jihum‟s father hears a broadcast over the radio that announces that the government is handing out awards for those who they have forgotten to honor due to an “administrative error.”31 After Jihum‟s father claims his medal, his body physically embraces this remasculinization: his stance and his way of walking are amplified by the military badge of honor. (See Figure 18.) While Walt sees his Silver Star at odds with his actions during war, 31 “Administration errors” are also a big part of The Host‟s critique of U.S.-South Korean government systems.
  • 47. Sun 47 Jihum‟s father sees the medal as a consistent symbol with the way he remembers the war, which is that of pride and glory. After he returns home with his medal, he also strengthens his bond with Jihum. Jihum, who throughout the film, has also been emasculated because he lost the girl he likes to an American soldier, is picked on by bullies, and shows more empathy than any other character for animals, begins to formulate a revenge plot by learning how to shoot a bow and arrow. Archery is his father‟s favorite sport and is an important sport, often synonymous with Korean nationalism.32 When Jihum is practicing, his father shows him how to shoot an arrow properly, which foreshadows the events to come in the film. (See Figure 19.) With the father‟s help, Jihum is able to hit the practice target and the father visibly shows pride in his son. Once Jihum‟s father has reclaimed his masculinity, Jihum does too. This intimate bond between father and son that occurs in this scene demonstrates the power of Korean nationalism and the beginnings of an establishment of Korean brotherhood. Later in the film, Jihum shoots the American soldier who is dating Eunok (the girl that Jihum likes), symbolically in the crotch, with his father‟s arrow. (See Figure 20.) In this sense, the father teaches the son how to reclaim his masculinity, which is by emasculating the American soldier who has oppressed Korean men and is a symbol of Korea‟s inequality, particularly within Camptown society. This form of meting out justice is a form of self-policing and an example of anticolonial nationalism in practice. Korean authorities do not have the ability to prosecute American soldiers, particularly within Camptown in which American soldiers do not fall under the jurisdiction of South Korea‟s laws. Therefore, in order to reclaim their masculinity, the men in this film have to react against American soldiers on their own. Perhaps this is why Jihum‟s 32 Archery plays an important role in The Host as well and Christina Klein discusses this in greater detail in her essay “Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon-ho.”
  • 48. Sun 48 father goes into the police station to save Jihum from having to go to jail – the father approves this form of personal justice and does not believe that Jihum should be punished for it. In the next scene, Jihum‟s father hands in his medal reluctantly and even though the father‟s friends and fellow veterans try to stand up for him, the police have to strip the father of his medal. This film demonstrates that even relatively low-ranking American soldiers trump the status of a Korean/Korean War veteran. Much like The Host, Address Unknown demonstrates the unequal relationships between Americans and Koreans, as well as the complicit Koreans who reinforce this unequal status. The emasculation that Jihum‟s father faces then is not just personal, but enforced by the Korean nation on its own subjects. The only way to reverse this is for the Korean subject to take matters into his own hands by attacking America‟s manhood, literally and symbolically. After all, neither American nor Korean soldiers/veterans can remain men at the same time: one of the two must be stripped of their masculinities as the national space cannot accommodate both. This mutual understanding between father and son, as well as the father teaching the son how to achieve this power over the American military apparatus, results in punishment by the greater Korean society, which reinforces the existing power structure even though there are frames to challenge it. Address Unknown demonstrates that Korean veterans and American veterans cannot be heroes at the same time; the Korean veteran always has to defer to the American in this power structure. Further along in the scene, Jihum comes into the police station to confess his crime. Before getting arrested, he pins the medal back on his father. (See Figure 21.) This serves as a reversal of the scene in Gran Torino in which the medal is passed from an older generation to a younger one (as well as a transnational figure). Unlike the scene in Gran Torino where the Silver Star is hidden behind Walt‟s hand and the image is obscured in darkness, the scene in Address
  • 49. Sun 49 Unknown is shot in the classic shot reverse-shot style. This classical style features the medal as the main object to focus on, emphasizing the power of the medal as well as its symbolism in giving Jihum‟s father power and pride. The look of mutual understanding between father and son in this scene emphasize that masculinity is imperative to achieving this form of Korean nationalism; in this new brotherhood between Korean men, the father teaches the son to challenge American superiority and the son in turn recognizes the masculine achievements of the father as war hero. Unlike the privacy of Walt‟s basement, which emphasizes the Korean War‟s forgotten status, the passing on of the medal in Address Unknown takes place in a police station. The police station is an official space in which an official war medal can be passed on and recognized. In this sense, Jihum recognizes his father‟s authority and refuses to allow for his father‟s manhood to be compromised. This scene allows for a brotherhood of Korean men to emerge, which is consistent with anticolonial nationalism in which the men become the central figures.33 In order to fight against the subjected status of Koreans, the language of masculinity becomes particularly important in fighting against colonialist relationships. However, the problem with forming this brotherhood, although it is subverting and protesting against Korean-U.S. relations, is that it renders women even more invisible. Ultimately, the resolution of Address Unknown, like Gran Torino, is not transgressive in its message, falling back into traditional nationalist tropes. As Chungmoo Choi argues: “As I have demonstrated above, the healing power of language(s) outside the circuit of hierarchical masculine language can be useful not just for the healing of comfort women or women at the margin, but for all those whose psyches have been damaged by war and silenced 33 This is also reflected in the ending of The Host, in which this brotherhood of Korean men willingly ignores American cultural imperialism. See Christina Klein‟s article.
  • 50. Sun 50 war memories” (Choi, p. 407).34 The language of Address Unknown, in its resolution between Jihum and Jihum‟s father, which emphasizes the unity of Korean brotherhood over American soldiers, locks out any space for figures such as Chang-guk‟s mother to tell her story and her recognition of transnational relationships. In order to begin a productive conversation about remembrances of war and the role of the female, it is important to give women voice and space to articulate their thoughts not within but without the masculine nationalism of anticolonial discourse. 34 Chungmoo Choi, “The Politics of War Memories toward Healing” in Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s), edited by T. Fujitani, Geoffrey M. White, and Lisa Yoneyama.
  • 51. Sun 51 Conclusion The three films that I analyze – The Host, Address Unknown, and Gran Torino – are three examples of how we can study representations of the Korean War to answer the questions of how we can remember the war in ways that are non American-exceptionalist and non-patriarchal. These films focus on the power of language and the importance of figures that have traditionally been marginalized, forgotten, and silenced. By considering the points of view of people marginalized by society, these films provide transgressive and productive ways in which narratives about the Korean War and its legacy can be told. Speaking more broadly, by thinking about the Korean War and the way that it is represented in media, we continue to provide alternatives to written history and to approach the subject of lived history. The Korean War is still an unfinished war – recent incidences of North Korean and South Korean violence continue to permeate the news. In going forward and in thinking about the transnational, perhaps we can better understand the Korean War and incorporate the ghosts of the past into the stories that we tell rather than let them lie forgotten.
  • 52. Sun 52 Figure 1. “Why don‟t you listen to my words?” Figure 2. The Silver Star.
  • 53. Sun 53 Figure 3. Passing on the medal to Thao. Figure 4. Walt‟s confession with Father Janovich.
  • 54. Sun 54 Figure 5. Walt‟s “confession” with Thao. Figure 6. Walt‟s final sacrifice.
  • 55. Sun 55 Figure 7. Go Sue, go! Figure 8. Walt as the white male savior.
  • 56. Sun 56 Figure 9. Sue after her rape. Figure 10. Chang-guk working for Dog Eyes.
  • 57. Sun 57 Figure 11. Confrontation with storekeeper. Figure 12. Confrontation with farmer and farmer‟s wife.
  • 58. Sun 58 Figure 13. Chang-guk‟s mother consuming her son‟s body. Figure 14. Mother and son together.
  • 59. Sun 59 Figure 15. Finding the returned letter. Figure 16. Jihum‟s father‟s leg wound.
  • 60. Sun 60 Figure 17. Finding the gun. Figure 18. War veteran recognized.
  • 61. Sun 61 Figure 19. Father proud of son. Figure 20. Koreans‟ version of “self-justice.”
  • 62. Sun 62 Figure 21. Passing on the medal from son to father.