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South Korean Action Films as Indicators of Fear of and Hope for Reunification

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Film criticism techniques such as “social representation” and the similar technique of “social film history” help people understand how social issues are portrayed in one of the most persuasive forms of popular culture, film. These analysis techniques are applicable to many films, but they can be particularly useful when looking at films that reflect social issues, whether past or present. These techniques are used in this study of two films that deal with the conflict between the Koreas and their hope for reunification.

The two film criticism techniques differ in subtle ways. Social representation criticism can be used by people with a wide range of educational experience, but the results will differ from person to person based on each individual’s knowledge of the topic and films. The basic assumptions of this approach are that cinema has nationalistic origins or influences, films represent what is not commonly spoken, and there is no fixed national character.1 Social film history is similar to social representation, but it is more concerned with the historical role of film.2 This approach goes beyond social representation to work toward understanding the social experience of watching films and why people chose certain films to watch. Both social representation and social film history argue that a qualitative reading of a socially-oriented film will reveal the concerns or personality of society, whether contemporary or historical.

This article examines two South Korean films, Shiri, also known as Swiri, and Joint Security Area (JSA). Shiri and JSA are modern action films that address the contemporary Korean conflict. They achieved enormous success in South Korea because they reflect Korean societal values within an accessible action genre. Shiri is action-oriented in the American style, and appeals to people with a shorter attention span or to those who just want to forget everything but the action on the screen. JSA is more sophisticated. It requires greater attention because it constantly jumps back and forth in time, and it is more representative of Korean lifestyles.

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