Issue 9 - 2022 (1)

The exaltation of nationalism in the Korean blockbuster: Ode to my father and Roaring Currents

Sonia Dueñas Mohedas (University Carlos III of Madrid)

On February 25, 2013, Park Geun-hye, leader of the Saenuri Party (conservative), became the first female president of South Korea with 51.8% of the vote, but her appointment was not without controversy. She is the first daughter of the late dictator Park Chung-hee, a military officer who established an authoritarian regime from 1961 to 1979, when he was assassinated by the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. Nevertheless, the arrival of a woman in power was a breath of fresh air to the country. With the beginning of her administration, the film industry catered to the wishes that Park expressed in private as a response to the “anti-government stance” that cinema had adopted since the emergence of the New Korean Cinema for its critical revision of historical memory. The Korean media echoed this turn of events thanks to the statements of CJ Group president Sohn Kyung-shik: “From this moment on, our direction will change. We are currently making films like The Admiral that prioritize national interest.” Park replied, “As CJ has talent to make great films, only if it changes direction, it will be a great help for the good of the country” (Park, 2018). 

The historical-war blockbuster The Admiral: Roaring Currents (Myeong-ryang, Kim Han-nim, 2014) was produced by CJ Entertainment to pay tribute to Admiral Yi Sun-Sin (1545-1598), an iconic figure that the Korean people proudly extol. Park turned to him in order to earn the enthusiastic approval of citizens by promoting a nationalist discourse at a crucial moment in her career. Three months before its release, in April 2014, the Sewol ferry sank off the southern coast, killing 183 victims, mostly teenagers. Its social impact was greater when it was learned that the captain was the first to abandon the ship. The harsh criticism of the president contrasts with the call for unity, collective struggle, and sacrifice that Admiral Yi (Choi Min-sik) constantly calls for in the film.

In 2014, the Park government faced a new crisis with North Korea after launching a campaign in favor of reunification. CJ Entertainment was quick to distribute the melodramatic blockbuster Ode to My Father (Gukjesijang, Yoon Je-kyun, 2014), which revisits the most traumatic historical events experienced by the Korean people. Starting from the Korean Civil War (1950-1953) and the separation of families and the peninsula, it depicts the first waves of migration out of East Asia or the participation in the Vietnam War. The narrative also appeals to unity, struggle and sacrifice in the face of obstacles by making use of the feeling of pride, values that Park emphasized in speeches after its release with statements in which she made clear her displeasure that “[…] now the individual comes first, but before the country came first” (Kim J. Y., 2014). Thus, the film was placed in the middle of an ideological debate between progressives and conservatives that caused it to be branded as a tool for the “embellishment of Park Chung-hee’s regime” (“Ideological debate”, 2014).

In 2016, the biggest political scandal of the 21st century occurred in the country. Park was accused of abuse of power, bribery, coercion, and leaking government secrets. In turn, a “blacklist” with 9,473 names of celebrities excluded from public subsidies for their “anti-government stance” was revealed. Directors Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, or actors and actresses Song Kang-ho, Park Hae-il, Kim Hye-soo, among others, did not receive state support for their projects between 2013 and 2017. The existence of this list calls for this presidential period to be examined in detail (Edwards, 2022: 36) and its consequences within the film industry to be assessed.

This video essay reflects on Park’s use of film as a propaganda tool made to enhance her popularity during the most crisis-ridden stages of her term in office by appealing to national pride through historical memory.

References

  • “Ideological debate over ‘Ode to My Father’… Film surpassed 5 million” [‘국제시장’ 둘러싸고 이념 논쟁…영화는 500만 돌파 (‘gugjesijang’ dulleossago inyeom nonjaeng…yeonghwaneun 500man dolpa)]. DongYang Ilbo [동양일보]. http://www.dynews.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=240306 
  • Kim, Ji-Young. (2014, 31 de diciembre). “Watching the movie ‘Ode to my Father’ by Kim Moo-sung and Moon Jae-in” [김무성·문재인 영화 ‘국제시장’ 관람 (gimmuseong·munjaein yeonghwa ‘gugjesijang’ gwanlam)]. Naver News. https://n.news.naver.com/mnews/article/011/0002620962?sid=100 
  • Edwards, Russell. (2022). “The Dictator’s Daughter and the Rising Sun: Scars of Colonialism in South Korean Cinema During the Park Geun-hye Era” en Andrew David Jackson (ed.), The Two Koreas and their Global Engagements. Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan, 35-58.
  • Park, Jin-Hai. (2018). “CJ Made Several Films Pressured by President”, The Korea Times. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/art/2018/11/689_222208.html

Bibliography

  • Cho, Woo-Seok. (2015). “A Sympathetic Look at Contemporary Korean History: The Political Sociology of the Film Ode to My Father and its Impact on the Korean Cultural Market”, Journal of Contemporary Korean Studies 2 (1), 256-261.
  • Ha, Seung-Woo. (2014). “The Return of Yi Sun-shin: Mediating the Present and the Past”, Journal of Contemporary Korean Studies 1 (1), 235-239.
  • Hong, Ki-Won. (2019). “Culture and Politics in Korea: the consequences of statist cultural policy”, International Journal of Cultural Policy 25 (1), 1-4. Doi: 10.1080/10286632.2018.1557652
  • Hwang, Kyung-Moon. (2016). “The Sacrifices of Youth: Historical Feature Films on South Korea’s Longue Durée”, Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies 16 (2),179-196.
  • Jang, Hee-Jae. (2018). “A research of Family Narratives as a Way of Memory in Coming Home and Ode to My Father: Focusing on Relations of the Individual, Family, and Nation” [<5일의 마중>과 <국제시장>의 기억 방식으로서의 가족서사-개인·가족·국가의 관계 맺기 (<5il-ui majung>gwa <gugjesijang>ui gieog bangsig-euloseoui gajogseosa-gaein·gajog·guggaui gwangye maejgi), Chinese Literature [중국문학 (jung-gugmunhag)], 97, 221-237.
  • Kim, Elli S. (2015). “Intertextual Dynamics in Ode to My Father: Competing Narratives of the Nation and the People”, International Journal of Korean History 20 (1), 153-160.
  • Sugar, Beaumont. (2021). “Ode to My Father, Who Worked: Memories of Growing Up in a Land Caretaker’s Family”, Appalachia 72 (2), 70-77.

How to cite this article: Dueñas Mohedas, S. (2022) The exaltation of nationalism in the Korean blockbuster: Ode to my father and Roaring Currents. Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays, 9(1). ISSN: 2659-4269

Other videoessays in this issue:

Coloniality, the Backstage and the Long Take
Márton Árva (Eötvös Loránd University)

Police Force(s)
Edurne Larumbe Villarreal (UPF) & Abraham Roberto Cea Núñez (USC)

Temporal Ghosts | David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story”
Enrique Saunders (University of Reading)

With the Voice Present: "Imperfect" Video-Essays during Quarantine
Michelle Leigh Farrell (Fairfield University)

Student Showcase

Classic and Modern Avant-garde. Surrealism
Elena González Janot, Leire De la Peña Aoiz & Natalia Bermúdez Pérez (UC3M)

The voice in film
Alejandro Torres Almendros (UC3M)

Sitcoms
Santiago Gómez Chacón, Daniel Guijarro Hernanz, David Ildefonso Trabada & Verónica Antoñanzas Martínez (UC3M)