Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 13, August 2006

Kyung Hyung Kim

The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema

Durham and London Duke University Press, 2004,
332 pp., ISBN: 0-8223-3267-1
Black and white illustrations throughout
Select filmography, index
Price $US23.95

reviewed by Kathleen Ellis

  1. Korean cinema is becoming one of those rare and successful national cinemas (like Italian and French national cinemas) to produce great films and audiences. [1] In The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema Kyung Hyun Kim examines the role masculinity has had in reestablishing a national identity through film. Kim first had the idea for The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema during the 1990s when the popular press was predicting the death of Korean Cinema to Hollywood within a few years (p. ix). By the end of the book, Kim tells us that ‘Korea is the only nation during the post-Vietnam history that has regained its domestic audience after losing them to Hollywood products’ (p. 271). Throughout the book Kim undertakes a reflectionist reading of the representation of masculinity in Korean cinema as symptomatic of sociopolitical changes. Using the work of Freud, Deleuze, and Lacan, amongst other prominent psychoanalysts, Kim considers both genre and auteur theory to argue that the representation of Korean masculinity has under gone a radical transformation explaining socio-political dynamics such as the Korean war and economics that have influenced this remasculinisation.
  2. The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema is divided into three parts according to both topics and mode of inquiry. Kim undertakes a genre analysis in the first third, moving on to Autuer theory in the second and finishing with a more explicit comparison with Hollywood in the third. Throughout the book Kim addresses Korean national cinema from an inward perspective, addressing notions of cultural identity, examining already existing national, political, economic and cultural traditions. This is balanced by a stylistic comparison with Hollywood film where appropriate.
  3. In the first section “Genres of Post-Trauma” Kim is careful to consider gender and class issues, however; he fails to problematise representations of disability particularly as they act as a filmic device. Kim identifies numerous Korean films in which a main character goes blind. Thus blindness is a visual icon representative of the genres of post-trauma. More recent film theory inclusive of disability contends that the paradoxical task of representing visually the unrepresentable invokes fear in the audience who is engaging in a visual experience of watching the film. Audiences become concerned that they will one day be unable to do what they are at that moment doing. [2] Perhaps Kim can get away with not problematising disability in his book as it is an under explored area of inquiry in film studies. However, Kim’s consistent use of psychoanalysis, particularly in this third of the book at least warrants recognition that Freud found that both blindness and women incite a castration anxiety. [3] It was also unfortunate that Kim did not look at representations of homosexuality beyond the mention that they are frequently ‘villainous’ (p. 72). When looking at a national cinema it is useful to consider the ‘nation’ as an imagined community. The relationship between the constructed national identity and marginalized communities such as the disabled and homosexual illustrate the relationship a national cinema has with itself when constructing a national identity.
  4. This first section of the book is divided into four chapters and uses complex psychoanalytic film theory to move from a discussion of representations of an emerging metropolis, through an examination of the impact of the war on Korean masculinity. This third finishes with a consideration of Korean national cinema as it deals with this post-trauma through the figure of masculinity. Although Kim effectively used psychoanalysis to analyse the selected films including Whale Hunter, Silver Stallion, A Petal and so on, he exclusively read texts as they displayed ‘symptoms’ revealing hidden meanings disguised by the text without considering how spectators are constructed in relation to gendered experiences of film. This was particularly obvious in Section 1 where he included virtually no film theory, considering content but not form. Later in the book he cited Mulvey a few times but I think Kim would benefit from a more explicit consideration of her work in both section one and two of his book.
  5. Kim’s use of auteur theory in the middle section of the book “New Korean Cinema Auteurs” allowed him to delve deeper into formalist film analysis as he considered both form and content. This was not at the expense of his psychoanalytic framework which remained very impressive. I did find some of his observations dubious in this section, for example the argument that Jang Sun-woo’s consistent depiction of rape in all of his films can be read as a critique of patriarchal family relations (p. 175).
  6. A good selection of directors/auteurs was presented in this section to demonstrate tendencies in the remasculinisation of Korean Cinema. Despite the slightly celebratory approach (a wider problem with auteurism as a framework) Kim provides adequate support for his choices and explains why these three directors should be considered as auteurs. Unfortunately, in this section Kim’s problematisation of the representation of women became less important. Observing that Hong Sang-su’s films are irreconcilable with feminism (p. 223), Kim found that Korean men become stable due to unstable women (p.246). This did not read as a problematisation of the representation of masculinity or femininity.
  7. Although frequently comparing Korean national cinema to Hollywood throughout the book, Kim approaches the concept of national cinema as a problematisation of the film activities and institutions within Korean cinema during the 1980s and 1990s rather than as a mere description. These comparisons then become highly relevant in the final section of the book where Kim considers domestic space and national division as they are revealed in box office success and gender anxieties. The opportunity to explore the problems raised by the selection of auteurs in the previous section was not realised in this final section of the book. I was likewise disappointed by the conclusion, there were many gaps in this book, and sometimes they were acknowledged (for example, no female directors) however suggestions for future directions were conspicuously absent.
  8. While this work has successfully opened a dialogue for the investigation of masculinity in Korean cinema where recent attention has focused on women, these problematic representations of women (amongst others) are glossed over. Kim contributes new scholarship to both Asian cinema and gender studies but fails to open dialogue within gender studies despite the publisher’s claim this book moves beyond binary struggles. Nevertheless, this book is worth reading for the sheer number of Korean films explored alone. Kim successfully used psychoanalysis, problematising Freud’s theories against Deleuze’s, to present a reflectionist argument around the trope of masculinity as it mirrors the sociopolitical changes of the 1980s and 1990s. I would recommend this book to readers who are already aware of psychoanalytical film theory, with a caution to remain conscious of Kim’s unproblematic observations around women, particularly in the final two sections of the book.


    [1] D.Verhoeven ‘The crisis the Australian film industry refuses to see,’ in the Age, February 7 2005, URL:, accessed February 2006.

    [2] P. Darke, ‘Eye Witness,’ Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media, ed. Ann Pointon and Chris Davies, London: British Film Institute, 1997, pp. 36-42, p. 37.

    [3] M. Norden, The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994, p. 6.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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