Written by guest blogger, Marc Raymond.
My essay in the most recent issue of the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, “Women Stripped Bare: Rape in the Films of Hong Sang-soo,” seems to be particularly timely given the current “Me Too” movement, which has recently spread into South Korea as well, including the film industry. This was, as is often the case, almost completely accidental, as I first came up with the idea for the piece many years ago. However, I qualify this with an “almost” because I do think there is an overlap between my reasons for thinking of the topic and the eventual cultural upheaval we are witnessing, especially here in South Korea.
One of the most disturbing stories to emerge from the local industry is the case of Kim Ki-duk, the director of the massive art house success Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring back in 2004 and a regular of the international festival circuit ever since. Domestically, Kim has always had a much more problematic reputation, in part because of accusations of misogyny, but he has also been defended as an authentic, working class artist who bravely deals with aspects of Korean society that the genteel middle class would prefer to ignore (see Hye Seung Chung’s 2012 monograph for the most elaborate articulation of this position). However, recent allegations of multiple and widespread sexual assaults on Kim’s sets have made this position much more difficult to defend and caused many to reconsider and re-evaluate their relationship to his work (for example, see this review of Kim’s most recent film by critic Pierce Conran). I have always found Kim’s work overrated and have been frequently critical of his films, but the revelations did cause me to think about my own relationship to film artists and how this will be impacted going forward.
The original idea for my essay on rape in Hong’s films did not come from one of his works; rather, it was from the 1999 film Lies, directed by Jang Sun-woo, a controversial filmmaker who was in many ways Kim Ki-duk’s predecessor, although one with a much more refined social conscience. There is a scene in which an 18-year-old high school student is asked by her older lover why she decided to start an affair with him. She responds that she would probably have been raped soon anyways, so she decided to choose to have sex first. It is a darkly humorous line, seemingly hyperbolic, but one which resonated. Indeed, sexual violence seemed omnipresent in Korean cinema, both currently and going back over the previous decades. I had just completed a stylistic analysis of Hong’s films and was looking to write about something more thematic. So, I began to wonder if the subject of sexual assault was worth exploring. I had noticed that representations of sexuality had disappeared from his work after featuring prominently earlier, and once I began to think about the role of rape in his narratives, the more striking and even pervasive it seemed. It even seemed slightly perverse that it had not yet been discussed.
Thus, I do think there is an incidental connection between my interest in writing this article and the current revaluation of the film industry. Looking at the essay now, I am thankful that its claims for the potential progressiveness of Hong’s early depictions of sexual violence are exclusively textual and not part of a broader attempt to defend him as an artist. I am also glad that there is a critique of the later films, especially in the professor-student relationships of Oki’s Movie and Our Sunhi, although it is likely that this will seem too weak if this aspect of Hong’s films (and its connection to his personal behaviour) becomes more of an issue. Ultimately, I hope it provides a contribution to the debate around not only Hong’s work or Korean cinema, but also in the analysis of sexual assault in texts more generally, especially in those cases where this violence is hidden in plain sight.
Marc Raymond is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Kwangwoon University in Seoul, South Korea. He is the author of Hollywood’s New Yorker: The Making of Martin Scorsese (SUNY Press, 2013) and has published essays in the journals Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Film Criticism, Film History, Jump Cut, New Review of Film and Television Studies, and Style. His article “Women Stripped Bare: Rape in the Films of Hong Sang-soo” can be found in the latest issue of the Canadian Journal of Film Studies. Read it here: https://doi.org/10.3138/CJFS.26.1.2017-0003.