“Living with a Postcolonial Conundrum”: Hieyoon Kim on Korean Film Historiography

This is Number 3 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

Hieyoon Kim is Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research focuses on South Korean cinema, and she is currently working on a book about dissident film practices between the 1950s and 1980s.

Kim is author of “Living with a Postcolonial Conundrum: Yi Yŏngil and Korean Film Historiography,” which was just published in the August 2019 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. In the interview below, Kang Jaeho, Associate Professor of Communication at Seoul National University, talks with Kim about her research on Korean film and decolonizing colonialist historiography.

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Kang Jaeho: Your article offers a critical rereading of Yi Yŏngil’s 1969 work, Complete History of Korean Cinema, with particular reference to the project of decolonizing colonialist historiography. Your distinctive approach to cinema history engages with the issue of the establishment of a nation-state. As a postcolonial scholar of 20th-century Korean culture and history, how did you get into this research in the first place? ​

Hieyoon Kim: The primary focus of this article originated from a chapter in my dissertation that was broadly concerned with the historiographical production of national cinema in the 1960s. In the first place, I was drawn to ask how and why, over the course of the decade, film critics and directors consistently created a certain narrative about the colonial past. What particularly captivated me was Yi Yŏngil’s work. That’s not only because this was an unprecedentedly well-documented, comprehensive history of Korean cinema but also because he seemed to take the task of writing it as a life-long mission! Can you believe that he continued to rewrite and expand the 1969 version over the next three decades? His commitment to this project convinced me that Complete History deserves a more careful reading, rather than to be dismissed as an older, nationalistic enterprise. 

I am glad that you mentioned my positionality—as a postcolonial historian living in the 21st-century writing about the last century, because that is something that motivated me to write this piece. I found, and still find, Yi’s struggle with what I call the “postcolonial conundrum” relatable to students and writers of colonialism in our time. Although the later generation of historians, including myself, has tended to engage more critically with the archival problem in reference to historiography, thanks to the Subaltern Studies collective and its lasting legacies in our field, it is true that the problem—always named with the idea of “lack” or “paucity”―has deeply structured the ways we think and write many historical junctures. So in a sense, my conversation with Yi Yŏngil in this article is an effort to learn from the earlier postcolonial writers facing the same issue but in a slightly different temporality. I want to see how they identified the archival problem but also came up with different ways to overcome it, and even challenged the boundedness of their methodology. Yi Yŏngil offers one example. 

Kang: The year 2019 marks the centennial of Korean cinema’s birth and the 50th year of the publication of Yi’s work. How was his work received by Korean film critics and historians when it came out, and how is it appreciated nowadays? If you had read it as a female intellectual in 1969, how do you think you would have responded to it?

Kim: I must confess I was immediately drawn to the latter question first. I would have sought to interview women in the film industry, and if I had been lucky enough to find more than a few, a counter-narrative to Complete History would have appeared. But back then (and unfortunately still) the film industry, not to mention the broader cultural and intellectual discourse, was predominantly male-centered. Complete History is not an exception in that regard. 

Going back to your first question, because the publisher closed its doors in 1971, it is difficult to know the exact number of copies sold within a few years after the work’s publication. But we can assume that it was quite well received within the field at the time of publication. The Ministry of Culture and Public Information, the Korean Film Council, and leaders of the film industry endorsed the book as a seminal study of Korean film history. Even as late as the 1980s, the Korean Film Council published an English translation of Complete History as part of its promotional campaign to raise Korean cinema’s visibility. A few film critics of Yi’s generation also mentioned that they used Complete History in their teaching, though film studies in South Korea had long been production-oriented. 

Complete History was out of print until the publication of the revised edition in 2002. I need to mention that the publication of the revision almost coincided with the rediscovery of films made in the late colonial era, and with the surge in revisionist history of Korea’s colonial experience. The unfortunate piece is that Yi himself passed away before seeing (or probably re-seeing) any of these films, so he missed an opportunity to rewrite his section on the late colonial film. The newer generation of film scholars, such as Kim Soyoung, Kim Sohee and Yi Sunjin, started where Yi left off, and they played a crucial role in essentially reconsidering Yi’s work in the 2000s. My discussion builds upon the important dialogue that they created, but gravitates toward Yi’s postcolonial subjectivity so that we can see the ways it forms his historiographical and methodological questions. 

Kang: I’m quite struck by your allusion to a dilemma that postcolonial historians commonly face: “film history without films and a national history without a nation.” The dilemma seems to guide you to draw more attention to Yi’s innovative use of oral testimonies of filmmakers as historical sources. Recently the documentation of oral testimonies by Korean survivors of the Japanese military’s sexual slavery has been completed with four volumes by the Institute for Gender Research at Seoul National University, leading to a debate on the active use of oral testimony as an important source of evidence. I wonder to what extent oral discourse can be privileged over written documents? How does Yi’s interviewing practice as a historiographical method help grapple with issues of historiography, such as archives, memory, and documentation? 

Kim: It would be a grave mistake to simply romanticize the power of oral testimonies. But how can we not take them seriously, especially when other sources are unavailable? Sources are difficult to balance out, and that is why it is amazing to see that Yi’s interviews were not simply used to supplement written documents. At first glance, Complete History is a general history of film, but a second look can give you a completely different impression because, in the end, it really is a history of the people, particularly the history of the people who were attracted to and dedicated to cinema from the early colonial era. In many places, Yi privileges their memories over others, but what still amazes me is his dexterity in weaving together different types of sources and his self-consciousness about the balance between them. I mean, Yi was not a historian by training. I doubt that he had mastered the new oral history theories that were emerging in British and American academia at the time. As I mentioned in my article, he was an early adopter of oral history, and since I am privileged to take oral history for granted, this fact actually didn’t occur to me until one of the reviewers drew my attention to how innovative interviewing as a historiographical method was in Yi’s time. Yi’s decade-long archival research and interviews, his working back and forth between papers and cassette tapes, and his thoroughness in cross-checking during his interviews all convince me that he was indeed very serious about historical production. You can see many parts of his research process at the library of Korea National University, by the way.  

Kang: In your article, you appreciate Yi’s noteworthy contribution to the articulation of a counter-narrative against colonialist historiography but, at the same time, underscore his limitations as a postcolonial writer whose perspective was deeply rooted in “a developmental lens.” You mention that his work divides film industries into stages in accordance with their progress by employing “Western” cinema as a universal cultural norm.  You ask “why film historiography is needed at a certain historical moment of the nation and what an author does to meet that need.” Can you tell us more about his uneasy feeling about Korean film’s peripheral status and how it relates to the problem of postcolonial subjectivity?

Kim: One of the interesting keywords to see through postcolonial film discourse is “backwardness.” It was hardly unique to the South Korean context. The ways in which many postcolonial societies perceived themselves were deeply shaped by a new cartographic view of the world, the world in which terrains are identified by the United States as either integrated into the global economic core or isolated to the globalization project. The idea of “us” so behind others in the same race, the feeling that “we” have lots to catch up on… I mean, this was pervasively, if variably, experienced and reproduced by South Korean filmmakers and critics in Yi’s time. An existential issue that no one could get away from. 

Yi studied English and continental philosophy and was drawn to European cinema from an early age, and it was not unnatural that he should see many aspects of Western cinema as model traits for Korean cinema to imitate. But I want to highlight that, on the one hand, he did identify where the sense of backwardness came from and how colonial historiography had reproduced it. At the same time, looking from his perspective as a postcolonial writer who tried to make sense of his place in the world, it would not have been easy for him (or even for us) to get away from the dilemma. Consider how many critics—the South Korean president was not an exception—were exhilarated about Parasite’s winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May. I can’t generalize this, but the underlying tone of their excitement was precisely “Korean cinema is finally being recognized! #wearethechampions” [laugh]. There’s nothing wrong with the celebration, I mean, it’s great news even for someone like me teaching Korean cinema in the United States. And it could be something that Yi had hoped for. But that’s exactly where I want to be reeducated by Frantz Fanon and his keen insight on the self-internalization of imperial logics. If we—the descendants of imperialism (and subscribers and perpetrators of the imperial logic, albeit unwillingly)—do not decenter the ways we think, look at, write about the world, as he warned us more than a half century ago, decolonization will never come.  

Kang: How is this article integrated into the context of your wider research projects? Would you let us know more about your current research on decolonizing cinema? 

Kim: I am currently completing my book titled Toward a New Cinema: Film and Political Changes in Cold War South Korea. The book addresses the question of decolonization, but is not necessarily anchored in it the way the JAS article is. But if we are allowed to consider decolonization in a broader sense, I think it is necessary to look at the people who struggled with the “master’s tools,” and the people who, rather than completely banishing these tools, challenged and redefined them. My book tells the story of South Korean film activism, which offers a window into decades of dissident struggles in and with cinema in an authoritarian society. From public protests to writing in solitude, from urban theaters to university campuses, it explores this movement as a complex process always in the pursuit of a more egalitarian and diverse society.

My discussion of Yi’s historiography will be part of the book, but it will incorporate an analysis of his unpublished work. I am paying attention to the power of Yi’s vulnerability in the face of situations that obstructed his writing—particularly the strict system of censorship. While he compromised his professional ethics at certain points to publish Complete History, the unpublished notes and the posthumously unearthed revision reveal his complex writing process and his nuanced criticism of South Korea’s undemocratic society.