Academic

Anti-Communism and the Cinema of South Korea, 1953-79 

Written by Jack Bennett. How did South Korean cinema relate to the official ideology of anticommunism between 1953 and 1979? Jack Bennett discusses this issue through its close and nuanced relationship with everyday life, as a site of adherence and resistance to these forces.

Through the lens of everyday life, the relationship between anti-communism and cinema after the Korean War in 1953 to the downfall of the Park Chung-hee regime in 1979 – a ‘Golden Age’ of Korean cinema – combined mass audiences and filmmakers with changing Cold War geo-political relations, informing and reflecting Korean identity politics. By first considering the traditional perspective of anti-communist cinema as a repressive ideological apparatus of monolithic authoritarianism, everyday life will then provide an important alternative perspective to critique this.  

Everyday life is imbued with agency for transformative change and resistance, rather than merely reproducing dominant social relations. Rather, the actions of individuals and communities on a micro-level existed within the network of undiminished, indelible state power, producing contest and evolution to anti-communism. Arguably, through everyday debates surrounding humanism and ambivalence, conflicts with nationalist and unification sentiment, and demands of popular entertainment, anti-communism both influenced cinema and cinema reconstructed anti-communism, in a two-dimensional process between the everyday and macro-politics. Cinema illustrates the visibility and tangibility, transformations and limitations of state anti-communism through cultural creativity in the everyday under political repression.  

From 1961, Park Chung-hee implemented an increasingly authoritarian regime, mobilising state-sponsored film production and enforcing strict censorship through the passage of the Motion Picture Law in 1962. With the Yushin constitution in 1972 expanding Park’s dictatorial power due to domestic and international crises from the USS Pueblo Incident to the communist guerilla Blue House raid of 1968, anti-communist cinema came under the complete control of the Korean Film Council. There emerged a ‘film cartel’ which orchestrated support and ensured control of cinematic public submission to anti-communism; a key role was played in facilitating and legitimizing authoritarian state power as a ‘propaganda factory’ for national reconstruction founded on protectionist and standardised ‘military enlightenment’ films. This political reality informs criticism of everyday life theories as transplanting anachronistic value onto individual actions and the use of authority-produced texts, in this case government-sponsored films, analysed to reveal more about the everyday, which otherwise would hold no such significant value. Cinema became an extension of authoritarian state-engineered anti-communist ideological power, suppressing the ability of individuals and communities to offer resistance and counter-hegemony in the everyday.  

In the immediate aftermath of the Korean War, cinema arguably defined the very nature of anti-communism in the everyday – entrenching, advancing and transforming the ideology. Through everyday proximity to the conflict, anti-communism was a fluid ideology from its inception, related to hardship and fear. Subsequently, this was then manipulated and utilised by the authoritarian regimes as a tool of political power. Cinematic portrayals of the Korean War rather than creating immutable anti-communism based on national division, demonstrate everyday opposition to the mobilisation of a statist citizenry. Humanistic portrayals of North Koreans within anti-communist cinema, notably Lee Gang-Cheon’s Piagol (1955), became a focal point of everyday agency for resistive change, subverting the foundational ideological antagonism. These were prohibited for violating the National Security Act, and in this particular case, the director was charged with an arrest warrant. Piagol – which based its scenario on a press release from the North Chŏlla Province Police Department on the capture of the Ppalch’isan communist guerillas – had heavy backing and support from the military and police during production, but experienced difficulties in its premiere over growing differences in opinion within the government upon completion over its censorship. The Ministry of Education approved its premiere under the condition of editing or deleting several scenes, but the Armed Forces Information and Education Division in the Ministry of National Defense opposed the motion. In addition, although the Department of the Army’s Office of Information and Education Division approved of the film, the Ministry of Home Affairs commented ‘it is difficult to see [Piagol] as an anti-communist film.’ Meanwhile, critics spoke out in favor of Piagol as a great anticommunist film, but the rationales behind judging Piagol as an anticommunist film or not as such were in fact identical. This was due to the theme of humanism pervading the film. The logic of espousing humanism, a feature of anticommunist films at the time, manifested in a dual form. There was a great divide over whether to highlight humanist themes by showing the inhumane and immoral acts of the communists in order to criticize communism or depict humanistic communists in order to juxtapose the superiority of humanism over communism. Cinema in everyday life demonstrated a valuable mode of dissent through public expressions of ambivalence and non-alignment with authoritarian anti-communism. Against the backdrop of everyday life, cinema became a transformative site of ideological contest rather than simply an element of state apparatus devoid of individual and public interaction. 

Korean nationalist and unification sentiment framed within this framework of the everyday and individual agency provided further counter-hegemonic impulses from creators and consumers towards anti-communism within cinema. Melodramas focusing on family division and female victimisation, such as Hero Without Rank (1966), demonstrate the erosion of anti-communism as a monolithic state ideology, foregrounding Korean nationalism and emasculation. Everyday agency of creative culture and implicit dissent developed through allegorical cinematic depictions of paternal bonds despite political state division. These ideological shifts towards unified, ethno-nationalism and sympathy can be related to changes and insecurity surrounding the nation’s social and economic development throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Consequently, cinema increasingly reflected the growing urban marginalisation and national inequalities of everyday life. For instance, Yu Hyun-mok’s film Rainy Days (1979) attempted to portray the potential for Korean national unification, to heal the rift, rather than uphold the macro-political ideology of antagonism. Anti-communist cinema through the everyday cultural crystallisation of nationalist and unification sentiments became a cultural sphere of ideological conflictual ambiguity and implicit subversive agency.   

Entertainment and everyday cultural populist demands produced further fissures and developments within anti-communist cinema under ever-increasing authoritarianism. The tripartite interaction of popular everyday audience demands for espionage films, following the huge success of the James Bond film Dr. No in 1965, state counterespionage initiatives were strengthened under the 1972 July 4th Declaration and the growing external influence of Hollywood led to a transformative change in anti-communist cinema in everyday life. Anti-communist cinema responded to changing tides of everyday popular culture agency, with audiences declining by 60% between 1969 and 1979. But this was inextricable from subjectification operations and state power. This illustrates the interaction between the everyday, micro-scale of cinematic developments enveloped within the asymmetrical, vertical power relations of South Korea under authoritarianism. Anti-communism within cinema, thus, through everyday agency is neither a complete authoritarian state enterprise nor a site of explicit societal dissidence but rather a continuous process of concurrent influence and evolution.  

When viewed through the lens of everyday life, cinema becomes a site of negotiation, subversion and change of South Korean developmental objectives, rather than simply authoritarian and immutably anti-communist. Encapsulating everyday society, the film industry and politics, anti-communist cinema balanced consent and conflict and an informed perception of Korea as a nation, amidst the ebb and flow of Cold War international relations and external cultural influences. An understanding of everyday life therefore, compliments and advances explanations of anti-communist cinema that an isolated focus on state politics fails to do. 

Written by Jack Bennett

Bibliography:  

Chung, Jae Won. 2017. Picturing Everyday Life: Politics and Aesthetics of Saenghwal in Postwar South Korea, 1953-1959, New York: Columbia University.  

Diffrient, David Scott. 2005. “‘Military Enlightenment’ for the Masses: Genre and Cultural Intermixing in South.” Cinema Journal 45, No. 1 (Autumn,): 22-49 

Gregory, Brad S. 1999. “Is Small Beautiful? Microhistory and the History of Everyday Life,” History and Theory 38, no. 1: 100-110.  

Highmore, Ben. 2002. Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction. London: Routledge.  

Hughes, Theodore. 2012. Literature and Film in Cold War South Korea: Freedom’s Frontier. New York: Columbia University Press.  

Kim Hyo, Molly. 2016. “Film Censorship Policy During Park Chung Hee’s Military Regime (1960-1979) and Hostess Films.” IAFOR Journal of Cultural Studies 1, no. 2: 33-46.   

Kim, Han Sang. 2013. “Cold War and the contested identity formation of Korean filmmakers: on Boxes of Death and Kim Ki-yo˘ng’s USIS films.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 14, no. 4: 551-56  

Lee, Hana. 2016. “Anticommunism in Popular Culture: The Evolution and Contestation of ‘Anticommunist Films’ in South Korea.” Asian Journal of German and European Studies 1, no. 9: 1-21. 

Min, Eungjun; Joo Jinsook; Kwak HanJu (2003). Korean Film: History, Resistance, and Democratic Imagination. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. 

Morris, Mark. 2013. “War-horror and anti-Communism: from Piagol to Rainy Days.” in Korean Horror Cinema, edited by Alison Peirse, 48-59.Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.  

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