An Informal Review of Sun Jung’s Korean Masculinities, Part 4, Or Who Are You Calling a Cult?

Source: http://www.imdb.com/media/rm2442313216/tt0364569

Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Elon University

So now I’m going to tackle Sun Jung’s analysis of fan reaction to Chan-wook Park’s film, Oldboy.  Basically, Sun Jung argues that, well, I’ll let her explain it:

Chapter 4 focuses on Western cult fandom of the Korean genre film, Oldboy, and discusses how postmodern South Korean masculinitiy is reconstructed through the ambivalent desires of Western spectators based on the mixed practice of mugukjeok, and neo-Orientalism. This chapter explains how the Western desire for the Other is expressed, transformed, and redefined by consuming hybrid South Korean masculinity, as exemplified by the “savage but cool” Dae-Soo, and how this transformed desire, “with a distinctly postmodern slant,” is different from earlier Orientalist desires towards the primitive Other. . . . Hence, Western audiences of Oldboy experience hybrid “time between dog and wolf,” which refers to the time when they cannot identify whether Dae-Soo is a “cool” friend or a savage stranger. (31-2)

Ok. The first thing I take issue with is her uncritical use of the term “Westerner.”  As a person who has grown up in “the West,” I’m not even going to try to claim I can speak from any other perspective.  But my relationship to the West is complicated by a couple of factors, oh, like race and gender.  Sun Jung not only lumps all Westerners in together, she defines us all as pretty much white and male:

I use the term “Western” to describe the users and film reviewers of the English-language-based film websites that are analyzed here. Even though these websites are mostly established by Americans, many of the users and film reviewers of these websites are native English speakers such as Canadians, Britons, and Australians. (119-120).

You might say, “well, that’s what her sample says.” But I would think you would try to get as diverse a sample as you could find. My issue is with the selection of her sample: why limit herself to just IMDB, AintItCool.com, RottenTomatoes.com, BeyondHollywood., and TwitchFilm.net?  I would argue that these are forums that attract a certain kind of film watcher, oh look, it just happens to be overwhelmingly male.  But even more bothersome is this nagging question: how does she know they are all what she terms “Euro-American”:

I use the term “Euro-American” interchangeably with the term “Western.” I also use the term “the West” to refer to websites and their users after spending a considerable amount of time participating in and observing these websites. This term describes the origins and backgrounds of the users of these sites where they are mostly English-speaking Euro-Americans. From conducting participant observations on these websites, I also discovered that the majority of the fans of Oldboy were male. (122)

Does she mean white people? It feels like Sun Jung is conflating here:  Western=Euro-American. But Western does not equal white. Did she ask? In her demographic chart, she breaks it down by gender, but not by race or ethnicity, which I find curious since she is making this sweeping assumption that Oldboy fans are white(?) males.  How does she know? She never says how she knows. Is she making a really general assumption? What if some of those males aren’t Euro-American at all, but Asian American? Would they also “seek the strangeness of Otherness?” (121) Also, how problematic is it that she defines Western as Euro-American. Um, there are other people who are in the West who are not Euro-American. What are we, chopped liver? Do we not matter? Do we not watch films and have we not see Oldboy? These terms are not interchangeable, what goes for one does not go for the other.

Sun Jung’s assumptions go against my own experience with Oldboy, which was recommended to me by two Korean-American women (yeah, I roll like that!). So much of what she has to say about how “Westerners” view Oldboy just isn’t my experience.   I AM the Other! It also might not be the experience of a lot of other “Westerners” who aren’t “Euro-American.”

So maybe the “Westerners” who commented on these sites (and as an aside, I’m almost sure there are studies out there on online behavior that would show that males are more likely to be in these types of forums anyway), are really white males who have this ambivalent relationship to the Other.  I don’t know if I’m really comfortable even saying that most white “Western” males have this kind of reaction to Oldboy, i.e. it’s all about  the violence of Dae-Soo.  Really? I can count the violent scenes on one hand, and they are less bloody and more….uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. What I think is the heart of Oldboy is the narrative: why was Dae-Soo kidnapped in the first place, and why was he let go after 15 years? When viewers find out the answer to that question, everyone I know has the same reaction: Oh. Snap. You think it’s about Dae-Soo, and it’s not really about him at all.  And the way that Park tells this story is masterful. But I guess regular old “Westerners” can’t understand that. It’s all about the violence with us, because, look at our culture, that’s what we value (read: sarcasm).

I don’t think that Sun Jung does fan reaction to Oldboy outside of Korea justice. People all over the world can see that’s a great film not because they have “obsessive affection for the main male character,” (120) but because they like a good story that’s well-told.  I think I would have liked to have seen more nuance in this argument, like what about those almost 4,ooo women who voted for Oldboy on IMDB. Now that’s something to talk about. Why are women attracted to this movie that is ostensibly “for men.”  (Hey, don’t steal my idea: it’s MINE!). What about those 34,000 non-US viewers who did the same? It just seems that it was just easier for Sun Jung to go with the white guys because they fit this “cult fandom” idea she found.  She could have done so much more with the fandom with audience studies.

Finally, I have to just say it: I have a problem with her use of the term “cult” as well. She’s taking it from J.P. Telotte who defines cult film as:

a type marked by both its highly specified and limited audience as well as a singular pleasure that this audience finds in the film’s transgressions. . . . Timothy Corrigan, one of the book’s contributors, describes the cult moviegoer as a kind of “accidental tourist” who finds great pleasure in the casual encounter with a cultural terra incognita. (125)

Basically, they just stumble onto to it, fascinated by its difference, and really don’t understand it. This seems to be a recurring critique Nabi and I have of Sun Jung’s work here: the lack of agency given to those to view and listen to Korean popular culture. We come off as blind consumers who have voyeuristic tendencies, gawking at Asian popular culture like it’s something foreign and strange.  Asian popular culture isn’t as foreign as Sun Jung likes to think.

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