Stabilizing Logics of Repetition in the Korean New Wave
The Foul King, Mirovision, 2000
by Will Gottsegen
“Can I get a copy of that?”
-Shawn, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
In Cinema and Experience, Miriam Hansen marks the defining features of the cinematic “comedy” by way of Benjamin’s formulation of the logic of Spiel, or “play.” She traces definitions for both “play” and “comedy” through a kind of proof by negation, a link through their common antonym, Ernst, with its double meaning of both seriousness and earnestness. According to Hansen, Ernst “corresponds to the logic of the once-and-for-all (the irreversible human sacrifice, the discus or shot that kills, tragedy, fascism.)” (Hansen pp. 193-194) Spiel and comedy, on the other hand, are governed by the “logic of ‘Einmal ist keinmal,’” (Hansen p. 194) one time is no time, once is not once — the implication that the first instance of a thing is only the beginning of a series of repetitions.
The distinction between the “logic of the once-and-for-all” and the “logic of Einmal ist keinmal” points to the larger, definitional distinction between the tragic and comic genres. For Hansen, the tragedy is in some sense defined by the singularity of its action, or the idea that a thing happens once and only once. This is Perseus killing his grandfather, Acrisius, and fulfilling the prophecy of the Oracle of Delphi with a fatal, accidental discus shot. And it’s the death of Shireen Baratheon, when in season 5 of Game of Thrones her father cruelly and needlessly has her burned at the stake as a sacrifice for the deity of his superstitions. According to Hansen, it’s the thing that is done, and that can’t be undone, that conforms to the logic of tragedy. Comedy works by an opposite logic, finding its life in the thing done again and again. This isn’t to say that a death by discus or human sacrifice, shown again and again, would be funny, but rather that if referred to with the proper satirical tools, and in the proper, self-referential setting, even the dourest filmic tropes can be revivified in comedy.
And it’s this revivification that characterizes the logics of repetition in the Korean New Wave. Through distinct modes of citationality, the Korean films of the early 2000s are constantly playing on tropes both new and old in an attempt to situate themselves in their sociopolitical milieu. This can be seen in the constant pastiche of Kim Jee-woon’s Foul King, as well as in moments of parody and homage throughout Oldboy and Save the Green Planet. And while many of these instances of filmic repetition have to do with other movies within the New Korean Cinema, they tend to have an American bent. That is to say, American cinema lives within these tropes; the influence of Hollywood’s cinematic toolbox on contemporary Korean filmmaking is clear, and the ways in which the “American” comes to stand in for the “Global” or the “Western” speaks to a particular crisis of national Korean identity in the wake of the IMF crisis. The result is a kind of transnational cinema of repetition, a host of films that use the logic of iteration to forge identity in an increasingly destabilized world.
Through the optics of Hansen and Benjamin, it follows that a cinema so closely aligned with repetition and citationality should also be aligned with Spiel. You can see the relationship between play and repetitive logics most clearly in Foul King, which takes Spiel as its central concern both in content and form. This is achieved primarily through pastiche, which Jameson defines as distinct from both parody and direct reference. In the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson writes that the postmodern idea has in some sense nullified the concept of parody, or at least gutted it. The Cultural Logic describes pastiche as parody’s postmodern surrogate:
In [postmodernism] parody finds itself without a vocation; it has lived, and that strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs. (Jameson p. 23)
So if pastiche is the gutted, postmodern remnant of what was once parody, it’s parody “without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse.” In constructing a satirical scene, it’s important not only that the referent be clearly recognizable, but that the new scene provide an explicitly comedic take on the original. The humor in “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Michael Jackson cover, “Eat It,” lies in the fact that we all know the original song — “Beat It” — and know too that it has nothing to do with eating. To engineer a song, a scene, or a line around an inverted, satirical version of its predicate (referent) is at the heart of parody.
Since, in Foul King, the viewer isn’t required to have any familiarity with the referents, and since the scenes in the film generate their own comedy (rather than being satirized versions of specific scenes), what Foul King accomplishes is closer to pastiche than parody. As protagonist Dae-ho gears up for his first big fight as the “Foul King” on the professional wrestling circuit, the movie invokes the trope of the training montage. At 44:30 we see Dae-ho in costume, posing for a promotional shot, and with a flash of the photographer’s camera, the first notes of punk-inflected extradiegetic music kick in and begin the montage. That the montage begins with such a dramatized flashbulb (which, at the moment of this film’s release in 2000, was already a kind of atavistic technology) suggests that the effect of the camera, and the idea of the frozen image, is more important to this scene than the events taking place in the montage in and of themselves. What’s more crucial than Dae-ho’s actual training is the invocation of classic Hollywood training scenes in movies like Rocky, Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby. That said, it’s not important that the viewer be familiar with these other films to get a sense of the pastiche at this moment in Foul King. The montage leaves the viewer with the hint of some vague, Western referent, but doesn’t point to anything particular in the way that parody might.
Foul King presents us with a series of copies that aren’t as direct as citation or as specific as parody, and so belong to the realm of pastiche. This sense of pastiche is perhaps the movie’s most pervasive ethos — the idea that what we’re seeing isn’t the original iteration of the thing we’re seeing. When the movie introduces us to Dae-ho’s aspirations as a fighter, it’s through a conversation with the head coach of an established gym. At this point, early in the film, we viewers know Dae-ho simply as an incompetent banker, and the coach shares our skepticism in thinking that those skills could possibly translate to the fighting arena. He refuses Dae-ho outright, before eventually relenting under mounting pressure from his superiors. This moment, where a layperson seeks training from an unwilling master, is a trope in and of itself. It’s reminiscent of a young Luke Skywalker traveling to the Dagobah system in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), only to be turned away by the Jedi master Yoda with that infamous line: “I cannot teach him — the boy has no patience.” In The Karate Kid (1984), Mr. Miyagi refuses to train Daniel except by way of doing chores (“wax on, wax off” being the instructions for waxing Mr. Miyagi’s car). The trope comes up again after Foul King’s release, with the coordinate refusals of kung fu master Pai Mei in Kill Bill: Vol 2 (2004) and boxing coach Frankie Dunn in Million Dollar Baby (2004).
The trope of refusing a potential pupil, only to agree to take them on after some coaxing, is not only reused in Foul King by way of pastiche, it’s reused in the context of a conversation about reuse. Dae-ho approaches the coach to fawn over the once and former king of cheating techniques, Ultra Tiger Mask, and to ask if he can be trained in the ways of professional cheating as a fighter. That is to say, the trope of asking to be trained is itself a mode of replication. It’s asking to be made into a kind of copy, a new fighter referring to an old move set.
Iterability, and the inherent “fakeness” built into the idea of an iteration is at the heart of the movie’s plot. There’s fakeness in the fact of Ultra Tiger Mask’s not actually fighting, and just being committed to performance, but there’s also a sense of fakeness in Dae-ho’s becoming an iterated form of Ultra Tiger Mask. Dae-ho tells the coach: “Shit, he was the Master!” (14:22) Since Dae-ho has so little actual skill as a fighter (and cheater), there’s never any hope that he will succeed Ultra Tiger Mask, or surpass his abilities and generate his own, original fighting style. Rather, Dae-ho’s transformation into the “Foul King” is a process of cheap imitation. Just as the movie’s scenes are grounded in pastiche, referring to older, classic scenes while resisting parody, so too are the movie’s characters engaged in the process of iteration.
Oldboy is engaged with similar logics of repetition, albeit in different modalities. Director Park Chan-wook’s chosen form of iteration is homage, rather than pastiche. Homage is distinct from pastiche in the sense that the viewer is meant to locate a specific referent, but distinct, too, from parody, since homage lacks the crucial satiric elements that characterize a moment of parody. The gesture of homage is more to pay respect to a past film via allusion than it is to mock or criticize.
And in Oldboy, the most prominent moment of homage actually builds on concepts previously established in an entirely different film, referring to them and importing their connotations without having to spell them out. When Oh Dae-su is finally freed after fifteen years of imprisonment, he finds himself in a box on a city rooftop. The first real human face with which he comes into contact, after those fifteen years of deprivation, is not his captor but an unknown salaryman. In contrast to Dae-su’s state of bewildered confusion and disbelief, the salaryman appears frightened and disheveled. He’s clearly suicidal, standing on the edge of the building with a mind to jump. Inexplicably, he is seen clutching a tiny white dog.
The image of the disheveled, sobbing salaryman and his little white dog is a direct homage to Lee Chang-dong’s 1999 film Peppermint Candy. The film’s central protagonist is a version of this same figure, who decides to commit suicide after a short, arduous life of adjusting to the economic, social and political changes that sweep Korea in the 90’s. The story is told backwards, starting with the protagonist’s death and moving towards the central traumatic event of his life, in an accidental civilian killing during his time in the Korean armed forces. The structure of the movie aligns its protagonist’s life with the process of degradation, and we see Yong-ho’s move from a disgruntled, angry family man to a messy, bereaved madman in those terms. In the scenes from Yong-ho’s domestic life, one of the most jarring is his mistreatment of his little white dog, whom he says he “hates.” As his wife prepares a meal for some houseguests, Yong-ho actually kicks the dog across the room and screams, “Fucker!” (51:47) The innocence and radical domesticity of this tiny white dog stands in severe contrast to the anger and apparent psychosis of his owner. This is a hyper-specific character arc — the idea of the disgruntled, suicidal salaryman struggling to adjust to domestic life after having been a violent, abusive member of the Korean armed forces under an entirely different political regime — but it stands in for a larger narrative in which Koreans feel themselves out of place in the wake of the rapid modernization of the 90’s, and in the wake of the IMF crisis. This sense of being out of place is imported into Oldboy by way of the suicidal salaryman and his white dog on the roof of the building.
But just as Oldboy invokes Peppermint Candy by way of homage, it pulls away. As Dae-su approaches the salaryman, the film fades to black and cuts to the two men sitting down on the rooftop, with the implication that Dae-su has just recounted the events of his captivity. The salaryman says, “What the hell? I see. Now I’ll tell you my story.” Dae-su immediately gets up to leave, and as he walks away we hear the last bit of dialog from the salaryman: “The reason I want to die is…” and as he’s cut off, we return to following Dae-su’s escape from the building. As Dae-su walks away, the man is shown jumping to his death — Dae-su keeps walking, refraining from looking back. This is a moment of filmic intertextuality, in which Dae-su acknowledges the life of the Yong-ho-esque character and deliberately takes a different path, refusing to look back at the kind of sad resignation to which the salaryman fell victim. What follows is a narrative that could hardly be more literal about pointing towards a sense of collective societal displacement, the sense of waking up after the 90’s and emerging in an entirely unfamiliar world.
Repetition finds its way into Save the Green Planet! via direct citation, or filmic quotation so direct that it borders on plagiarism. During the film’s climax, business executive Kang Man-shik (appears to) reveal his knowledge of the events that led to the creation of the Earth (the titular “Green Planet”) at the hands of Andromedian aliens. The executive narrates his creation myth over an extended montage of early life on Earth, or the critical events of early life as portrayed in the narration. The montage is filled with drawings of Andromedian life, of dinosaurs and of the surface of the early Earth, as well as a reproduction of Da Vinci’s The Creation of Adam. But the most striking moment in the montage is a direct citation of those scenes of early life in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Director Jang Joon-hwan clearly didn’t just borrow clips from that film — instead, he recreated them nearly shot-for-shot, including the black monolith and exact landscape of Kubrick’s film. The effect is that the viewer of Save the Green Planet! doesn’t just think about this montage as a characterization of early life on Earth. Rather, the viewer understands it as a direct reference to 2001, and imports the conceptual and ideological grounding (in terms of evolution, man’s relationship with his tools, man’s relationship with aliens, etc.) of that film. It almost qualifies as an act of directorial laziness on the part of Jang Joon-hwan, as he looks to borrow concepts that he doesn’t seem to care about explicating in any meaningful way.
But just as in Oldboy and Foul King, this moment of repetition hinges on a character’s feeling displaced, seeking security from a position of destabilization. When Man-shik delivers this narration, he’s tied up and on the verge of being executed by his captor, Byeong-gu. The director’s importing concepts from 2001 in this moment of filmic citation is reflective of Man-shik’s scrambling for excuses at this moment, and his tendency to just grab anything out of thin air that might seem convincing and use it to his advantage, in order to escape. This holds true even though according to the logic of the extradiegetic montage, Byeong-gu doesn’t actually see that footage. The viewer interprets the reference to 2001 as a persuasive shortcut — a rhetorical trick on the part of Man-shik.
The logics of repetition in the New Korean Cinema of the early 2000s are ultimately characterized by these kinds of persuasive shortcuts and rhetorical tricks. By importing ideological concepts from other films via homage and direct citation, Oldboy and Save the Green Planet! work to further their own narratives of destabilization and displacement. Foul King, in being comprised almost entirely of pastiche, and of scenes that don’t hinge on direct referents in the vein of homage and citation, is engaged in both form and narrative with ideas of what’s fake and what’s real, what’s original and what’s simply an iteration. Concepts of iterability and repetition work to tie these three films to the Benjaminian concept of Spiel. The tragedy of Peppermint Candy (1999) lies in the knowledge that the protagonist’s suicide and coordinate downward spiral are a given from the beginning. The action of that film follows the logic of the once-and-for-all, the logic of the discus that can’t be un-thrown. In contrast, Foul King (2000), Oldboy (2003), and Save the Green Planet! (2003) belong to the New Korean Cinema precisely because of their approach to repetition as an attempt at stabilization. They deal with Spiel, play, and the logic of “Einmal ist keinmal” as they seek stability in a brave new world.
About the Author:
Will Gottsegen is a writer currently based in LA. Find him at The Los Angeles Review of Books, Avidly, or on Instagram and Twitter @lil_smush.