Everything counts in small amounts

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Nationalist Discourse and Cultural Imperialism: The Problematic Rhetoric Surrounding the Korean Screen Quota System

Problematic Rhetoric

The cultural arguments for the Korean screen quota fall into three closely related categories: protection of national identity, defense of traditional cultural roots, and guards against cultural domination. The concepts underlying these terms are highly ambiguous and riddled with flaws. Depending when and how these cultural arguments are invoked they can be highly problematic. Analysis of the movies made under the screen quota system clearly illustrates these contradictions.

The leading public defenders of Korea’s screen quota system are the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MCT), the Coalition for Cultural Diversity in Moving Images (CDMI), and Korean intellectuals. The Minister of the MCT, Chang-dong Lee has primarily used claims of cultural domination and cultural sovereignty to defend the screen quota system. He stated, “American movies are like dinosaurs in the jungle” and argued “The screen quota is not just an issue for the film industry; it is vital to the future of our visual media industry as a whole. If we lower our guard on film, the rest of the market is lost.” He claims the culture sector is closely related to Korea’s national identity and points out, “Even the World Trade Organization’s Doha Agenda on the service sector excludes culture from its negotiations.”

The CDMI invokes national identity and cultural domination arguments in its fervent defense of the screen quota. The president of the group, Gi-na Yu, describes movies with a sort of sacred nationalism: “A film is not a chair or an ink bottle or a floppy disk that we just use and then throw away… We see it, and it stays strongly with us in our minds… It’s something very spiritual and psychological.” She explicitly describes the screen quota as a defense against domination: “The BIT tries to put us on the same competitive plane with the U.S. and that isn’t possible…. The economic power in the relationship will eventually go to the stronger and richer nation. To think of it otherwise is naive… Are we going to keep going toward a world where a minority of people rule everything? Or will we try to make a world that is more evenly distributed, where differences are accepted, and a variety of films, though they may not all be good, exist and have the opportunity to be seen?”

Intellectual elites, newspaper columnists and university professors, comprise the last vocal contingent of screen quota defenders. As a group, they have used all three arguments, national identity, traditional roots, and cultural domination, in their defense of the screen quota. Joseph Chung, opinion writer for the JoongAng Daily, states, “When we succumb to pressure from the United States to halve the requirements for local cinemas … it does not mean just reducing the days. When the distribution is halved, film production will also be reduced by half. When this vicious cycle continues … Hollywood films will be triumphant.” He sees a corrupting element in Hollywood films. “The actors Gary Cooper or John Wayne, often playing cowboys, were screen idols when I was young. I thought white men who hunted Indians were symbols of justice, and that the Indians who worked to protect their land and existence were evil-doers.” He quotes Costa-Gavras and Jacques Chirac in saying, “Our mind is not for sale, and culture is not for negotiation… Culture should not surrender to trade.” An unsigned editorial in The Hankyoreh argues, “Films are profound art forms produced by a cultural industry that strives to promote appreciation of a country’s traditional and contemporary identity.”

In this rhetoric, national identity, tradition, and cultural are invoked, but rarely analyzed. National identity and tradition are prima facie good, while cultural domination is prima facie bad. However, upon closer inspection these terms are not as clear-cut or value-laded as implied. Each concept involves a complex, often paradoxical process. In the drive to create a national identity, minority voices are excised or suppressed in order to fashion a coherent whole. The notion of national tradition freezes in a point a dynamic past and idealizes it as a symbol of the nation’s present identity. Cultural domination suggests that an outside force threatens the nation’s sovereignty. This, in turn, implies that the threatened national government represents the autonomous interests of its diverse citizenry. All of the assumptions underlying the above arguments are dubious in theory and in practice. Studies illustrate the processes that the screen quota is designed to protect against are still happening. Only the actors are Korean, not foreign.

In the screen quota discussion, national identity is posited as a coherent entity under threat from cultural imperialism. According to this nationalistic argument the sense of a cohesive national identity is fractured by the imposition of foreign ideas or values. Benedict Anderson’s definition of the nation as “an imagined political community” is useful in understanding the problems in the national identity argument. Anderson explains the nation “is imagined because members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their community.” This does not suggest that modern nations are somehow false. He points out imagined communities lead to very real killing and dying for the nation. Nor, he says, does his argument imply that there are “true” national communities. He says, “Communities are not to be distinguished by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”

Anderson argues that the rise of national media over the previous two centuries is what made mass construction of national identity possible. The style of imagining the nation is a mass-mediated process. Anderson cites the example of reading the daily newspaper. “This ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically-clocked, imagined community can be envisioned?”

The value of Anderson’s concept of imagined communities in the discussion of national identity is that “we can now recognize that cultural identities are not rooted in deep quasi-natural attachment to a homeland, but rather complex cultural constructions.” But more strikingly, seen in this light “National identities are, paradoxically, the cultural outcome of the very same process — expanding capitalism, Western rationality, the breakdown of ‘tradition’, the ‘mediatisation’ of cultural experience — that are said, in other discourses, to constitute cultural imperialism itself!” Meaning the process of national identity building is the same as foreign domination.

This is clear when looking at the top-ten Korean movies produced under the screen quota system. Rather then sticking to a supposed “national Korean style” the major conglomerates that produce Korean movies simply adopt “Hollywood style” in an attempt to create blockbusters. Sunji Oh reports the top-5 grossing Korean films for previous years have adopted a largely homogeneous style that closely follows Hollywood conventions. Oh conducted a content analysis of 46 recent films and compared genera, theme, character, and narrative choices in Korean movies to “classical Hollywood styles” outlined by leading film studies scholars. Oh defines Hollywood movies as “a cinema of westerns, gangster films, musicals, melodramas, and thrillers” and claims the “basic formal concern in Hollywood is story telling…. The film should be comprehensible and unambiguous and possess a fundamental emotional appeal tending toward harmony and stability.” She contrasts this with “third world films” in which “the long take, cross-cutting, panning shot, silence in films, and a different concept of the ‘hero’” are the norm. Oh tracked seven genera types: action, comedy, historical film, romance, sex, social consciousness, and war. She further assessed whether the films included the following issues: North/South divisions, Korean social and political situations, Korean social problems, and Confucianism. She noted if the narration was comprehensible and unobtrusive. And, she checked if the main characters in the films were clearly described.

Oh concluded, “Most [recent] box-office hit films … are after all faithful to Hollywood filmic conventions. Well-narrated feature films in the action, comedy, and romance genre are dominant. No more than twenty percent of the films concerned the lives of Koreas.” She attributes this trend to the entrance of major conglomerates, Samsung, Dawoo, and Cheil Jedang, in the film market in direct competition with Hollywood films. “Competing with Hollywood blockbusters, Korean filmmakers tend to imitate the Hollywood entertainment formula. Instead of films oriented by national themes and styles, commercial films mimicked the Hollywood style hits at the box office.”

Oh’s study shows the only thing that distinguishes the process of “Korean national identity building” and “foreign domination” in the screen quota debate is the nationality of the actors. If the agent of capitalism, rationality, modernization, and mediation is a member of the national imagined community, then it is termed cultural sovereignty. If the actors are outside the community, then it is termed cultural domination. It is their nationality not their actions, which are of central concern. This is a tenuous argument, however. It assumes that the domestic agents will act in the best interest of the national community. In the case of top-ten movies produced under the screen quota system this is clearly not the case. Korean conglomerates are producing Hollywood style films rather than Korean themed films.

There are similar problems in the conceptualization of tradition in the discourse surrounding the screen quota debate. The major reason for this is that most so-called traditional practices are quite modern inventions, which often borrow elements from other societies, and therefore bears little relation to the customs of primitive tribal cultures. Eric Habsbawm explains these “invented traditions” are a set of practices normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past.

He cites a long list of deliberately constructed inventions of the nation-state: the deliberate choice of the Gothic style in the nineteenth-century reconstruction of the parliament; the use of a form of Flemish in Belgium schools, which is different than that spoken by Flanders of pervious generations; the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge, which is the emblem of traditional English Christmas and broadcast across the world, but only dates back to 1918.

The significance of these invented traditions is not so much that they are constructed. It is more that they are meant to create a sense of stability and connection between the present and a fixed past that does not exist. The concept of a fix past denies history’s fluidity and diversity. In this case, “It is not as though cultural imperialism threatens the continuity of cultural patterns in modern societies.” This continuity never existed. “Rather [cultural imperialism] poses a threat to our collective imaginings of a culturally definitive past.” It offers competing views of history.

Korean historical dramas are an example of movies produced under the screen quota system that impose fixed meaning on a fluid past. Jinsoo An’s study of Korean historical dramas documents how the genre redefines Korean tradition by projecting modern conceptions backward onto past tradition. In her words, historical drama “stresses the similarity of the other in the past” and “foregrounds the similarity by figuring the past as an extension of ourselves in the present.”

An looks at six contemporary Korean historical films, Changhibin, Yonsan’gun, Pokkŏm Yosan, Simnyŏn Sedo, Mangbusŏk, Chŏngil Chŏngaenggua Yŏgŏl Minbi, and Taewon’gun. She determines, “The court drama films are about how protagonists manage, negotiate, and circumscribe the oppressive burden of tradition/history.” But, she suggests that the central characters are uniformly portrayed as victims of history. “On numerous occasions, past events of catastrophic proportions ignite and determine the actions of protagonists…. They are ultimately seen, without exception, in profound resignation, regret, guilt, and sorrow.” The Korean historic drama therefore creates a meta-narrative: Korea as an innocent victim of historical forces beyond its control. This modern concept shapes the interpretation of the country’s past and present as well as the shared national identity and history.

Again, another argument evoked by defenders of the screen quota — that foreign films threaten to corrupt indigenous traditions — rings hollow upon further analysis. It seems the issue is not so much that domestic tradition is being reconstructed. An’s study shows that domestic movie producers are actively involved in redefining Korea’s history and tradition. Rather, the issue seems to be who is doing the reconstructing — members of the nation-state or foreign interests.

This leads to perhaps the most problematic of the disputes regarding the screen quota: cultural hegemony versus national sovereignty. The debate here boils down to a discussion of cultural autonomy. “The principal of cultural autonomy holds, roughly, that a culture has the right to ‘self-legislation’ and freedom from heteronomous control. Domination here is the exercise of such heteronomy: manipulation of control of the culture from the outside.” The problem comes in determining at which level to define autonomy: nationally, individually, or culturally. Autonomy at the national level is fairly easy to define: the sovereignty of the nation-state or the right to “self-legislation and freedom from external interference within a bounded political-geographical domain.” Individual autonomy is likewise a fairly uncomplicated concept. An autonomous person is someone who is free to pursue his or her self-chosen goals without manipulation or interference from others.

However, the concept of cultural autonomy is highly problematic. A basic precondition of autonomy is an agent, an actor with self-interests. The actors at the individual and national level are clear. But, there is no actor in culture. The nation-state or citizen can behave as a stand in, but nether is a full representative of culture. Recognizing this, it then becomes difficult to speak of cultural autonomy in any coherent way. Individuals and the state often conflict over what is in the best interest of the general culture. In cases of disagreement, how is national severity to be defined? If it is assigned to the state-level then it ignores the individual agents. If it is defined at the individual-level, it ignores the national interests. It becomes impossible to talk of a cohesive national severity. Instead, there are only diverse interests that conflict and converge with domestic and international concerns.

This dynamic is at play in the portrayal of Korean women on screen. Korean movies have projected a narrow image of women. The predominate roles for females in Korean cinema have been as mothers and lovers. Alternative female images have been submerged in favorite of feminine images that uphold the Confucian system. This imagery does not treat each individual as a sovereign subject with separate self-interests. Instead, the predominate imagery in Korean movies tends to favor interest of a minority of older men over the interests of youths and women.

Hyangjin Lee documents one prominent female stereotype, the dutiful lover, and the message it sends by comparing three movie adaptations of the Korean folktale, Ch’unhangjŏn: Shin Sangok’s Sŏng Chu’unhang, Park T’ae-wŏn’s The Tale of Sŏng Chu’unhang, and Han Sanghun’s Sŏng Chu’unhang. Lee explains the Ch’unhangjŏn folktale “features gender and class as the central subjects…. Therefore, the varied portraits of Ch’unhang can provide us with useful clues about the self-perceptions held by Koreans.” Looking at how the three versions of Ch’unhangjŏn “tailor specific aspects of the narrative according to aesthetic standards and pragmatic needs of their times… exposes underlying ideological contradictions in the established morals on sexuality and the institution of marriage” in the portrayal of Korean national identity.

After careful discussion of the three moves in question, Lee concludes, “According to Ch’unhyang’s images in these films, what defines male-female relations in South Korea is still rooted in traditional Confucian ethics, which succor differential treatments of men and women.” She finds the roles of women in these three films highly restrictive. Although Lee allows, “minor variations exist” in each film, she believes that Korean cinema “takes a positive stance toward the traditional womanhood epitomized by Ch’unhyang”. She ends by saying, “What emerges from my film analysis is the time-honored importance of the Confucian family values in Korean cultural identity, which overrides the shifting ideologies of the state…. Traditional family values still exercise crucial influence on how Koreans perceive themselves in the contemporary period…. The basic perception of woman’s place in the society and their role in contemporary Korean culture has been shaped largely by the patriarchal social order and the family centered moral codes.” According to Lee’s account, the role of woman in Korean cinema is very limited. Although she allows that there is some diversity, she sees it as minimal. The predominate image is of women as mother or lover inside the narrow confines of a patriarchal Confucian structure.

The cultural argument for the screen quota is that the system protects against the redefinition of national tradition and culture by a dominant group of minority interests at the expense of sovereignty. However, the process that the system is purportedly defending against is still occurring. The three studies of Korean movies cited above illustrate that Korean popular movies made under the screen quota system adopt a largely homogeneous style, project modern concerns backward onto past tradition, and construct a narrow national identity. The screen quota does not protect Korean national identity from redefinition. It does not shield Korean traditions from change. And, it does not protect the society from minority cultural domination. This renders the cultural arguments for the screen quota mute.

The screen quota does assure domestic, rather than foreign, agents control the process. It equates big business interest with national interest and carefully protects these concerns. This begs a question outside the purview of this paper. Is protecting the economic interests of a few Korean business institutions a worthwhile goal? What are the costs and benefits and do they justify the screen quota system? Answers to these questions might justify the continuing the screen quota system. The cultural arguments do not.

Works Cited:
1. “Officials Clash Over ‘Infant Industry’ Help For Films,” JoongAng Daily (Seoul), 13 June 2003
2. “The Screen Quota Is About More Than Money,” Korea Times (Seoul), 19 June 2003
3. “Film Quotas Manipulate Culture,” JoogAng Daily (Seoul) 15 June 2003
4. “The ‘Screen Quota’ System Cannot Be Abandoned,” The Hankyoreh (Seoul), 10 June 2003
5. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins ad Spread of Nationalism, (London: Verso, 1983).
6. John Tomlinson, Cultural Imperialism, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991)
7. Sungji Oh, “Korean Cinema and Hollywood” in Cine Korea Forum, 1997 [paper online]; available from http://www.cinekorea.com/forum/paper01.html; Internet; accessed 29 April 2004.
8. Eric Hobsawm “Introduction: Inventing Traditions,” in The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 1.
9. Jinsoo An, “Cinematic Projection of the Past: Korean Historical Drama,” Korean Studies Forum Volume 1 (Seoul: Yonsei University Press, 2002), 227.
10. Hyangjin Lee, Contemporary Korean Cinema: Identity, Culture, and Politics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)


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