Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Always, Blind, and Silenced: Disability Discourses in Contemporary South Korean Cinema

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Always, Blind, and Silenced: Disability Discourses in Contemporary South Korean Cinema

Article excerpt

Introduction

In recent years, several South Korean films documenting or dramatizing the lives of persons with disabilities have garnered local and global attention, from director Lee Chang-dong's art-house feature Oasis (Oasiseu, 2002), which earned actor Moon So-ri critical accolades and festival awards for her portrayal of a woman with cerebral palsy (noeseong mabi), to Jeong Yun-cheol's mainstream production Marathon (2005). The latter, a box-office hit with over 5 million admissions in its home country, tells the story of Jo-won, a young man with autism (japyejeung) who is a diegetic stand-in for the real-life long-distance runner Bae Hyeong-jin. Marathons commercial success, mimicking the protagonist's triumphant display of athletic prowess by the narrative's end, made it possible for other previously "risky" subjects and marginalized figures to take center stage in subsequent features, as demonstrated by the theatrical release of Silenced (a.k.a. The Crucible, Dogani, 2011), a disturbing motion picture that brought an actual case of sexual abuse to light, one that dates back to the year 2000 and involved children and administrators at a school for hearing-impaired students in Gwangju, South Korea.

In this article, I seek to explain how director Hwang Dong-hyeok's Silenced and other Korean-language films (including Song Il-gon's 2011 romantic drama Always [Ohjik geudaeman] and An Sang-hun's 2011 crime thriller Blind [Beulraindeu]) highlight a problematic tendency in contemporary disability rights cinema, which can be considered a subset of the overarching category of cultural production known as human rights cinema. While certainly well-intentioned in terms of their paternalistic privileging of individuals and groups that challenge normative, so-called able-bodied understandings of character-based drama or documentary filmmaking, such productions reflect an infantilizing tendency in popular culture more generally. That is, they reproduce "implicit (unconscious) attitudes" that, in the words of Kenneth L. Robey, Linda Beckley, and Matthew Kirschner, "associate disability with child-like features" (441). In marshalling to the fore a trio of deaf kids-Min-su, Yeon-du, and Yu-ri-only to have them recede into the background once two able-bodied adults-In-ho, the main character, and a human-rights activist named Yu-jin-take up their fight as the basis for a lawsuit, Silenced unfortunately silences individuals who are doubly marginalized, owing to their young age as well as their perceived "lack" (of hearing, of full mental capabilities, etc.). Simply stated, the children in this film become objects rather than subjects of disability rights discourse.

This representational schema would seem to align with what Janet Lord, May Sabatello, Duane Stroman, and other disability scholars refer to as the standard medical approach to the topic, which sees disability as a sickness, a childlike helplessness (regardless of the person's age) that results from an inability, a marked deficit in one's physical or mental performance. As Lord states, such an approach "leaves out of the equation a more holistic understanding... beyond medical intervention that situates the disadvantages associated with disability as a social phenomenon" (169). After all, as one of the teachers (who has been at the school for ten years) tells In-ho, "There's something strange about these kids," reductively concluding that he and his colleagues should not think of them as "normal." "A disability in the body leads to an impairment in mentality," he states flatly, articulating in the process the simplistic and pervasive notion that corporeal and psychological problems are not only mutually linked but also the root of societal problems (rather than vice versa). This notion accords with Jane Erin's argument concerning the stereotypes that inform many peoples' misunderstanding of disability. As she states, "When a disability affects competence in one area, the individual may be assumed to be incompetent in all ways. …

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