Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Women Stripped Bare: Rape in the Films of Hong Sang-Soo

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Women Stripped Bare: Rape in the Films of Hong Sang-Soo

Article excerpt

Both rape and sexual violence have been prominent features of the national cinema of South Korea as well as the history of global art cinema. Curiously, however, even though filmmaker Hong Sang-soo is strongly connected to both South Korea's national cinema and the international festival circuit, few critics have broached the subject of rape in his films despite the increasingly large literature on this noted auteur. This essay will look to correct this neglect by comparing Hong's treatment of rape with the history of representations of sexual assault in both the cinema of South Korea and the international art film. I am particularly interested in how the issue of rape reflects and/or contradicts the gender politics of Hong s films, especially their relationship with feminism, and how his handling of both sexual violence and sexuality as a whole has evolved over the course of his career. The essay will focus on four films, Dwae-ji-ga U-mul-ae Bbajin Nal (The Day a Pig Fell in the Well) (1996), Oh! Soo-jeong (Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors) (2000), Yeo-ja-neun Nam-ja-ui Mi-rae-da (Woman Is the Future of Man) (2004), and Jal Al-ji-do Mot-ha-myeon-seo (Like You Know It All) (2009), and will conclude with a discussion of Hongs recent, more self-reflexive narratives. I argue that Hong's earlier films, which feature explicit depictions of sexuality, work far better, especially on an affective level, as feminist critiques of Korean rape culture than his later cinema, even as these more recent productions feature greater female subjectivity. Despite the risks involved in representing rape visually, Hongs early films gain invaluably from their confrontation with the bodies of his characters, avoiding the exploitation of past representations even as they acknowledge the troubling influence this past has had on sexual politics.

Before discussing specific scenes and films, I need to first situate Hong within both the history of South Korean cinematic representations of rape and the history of how art cinema has addressed the topic. In her monumental study Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture (2001), Sarah Projansky notes the ubiquity of rape as a topic within the history of cinema, "perhaps seemingly so natural that many people are unaware of the frequency with which they encounter these representations."1 As a result, representations of rape should be viewed within their specificity of time and place: "The structure of rape narratives varies historically, depending on cultural and national contexts. Rape is a particularly versatile narrative element that often addresses any number of other themes and social issues."2 This is especially true when comparing South Korean cinematic depictions with those in the United States, especially films from the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, the political context of Projansky s discussion of rape, feminism, and then subsequently post-feminism did not exist in South Korea until much later. The rise of second-wave feminism in the United States, according to Projanksy, "redefined rape in a (then) radical way as violence, not sex"3 throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a redefinition that did not occur in South Korea.4 Viewed from this feminist context, many if not all of the representations of rape from South Korea during this period seem shockingly retrograde and sexist, functioning as pure apologies for the male characters and their sexual violence. I would argue that while this is certainly true, the films also have to be viewed within the prevalent codes of the time in order to make any logical or narrative sense. Furthermore, a deeper understanding of these previous representations can help us better understand and situate later Korean cinema.

There are a number of films from the 1970s and 1980s that depict sexual violence on screen, including many in which these representations of rape are followed by scenes that show the woman to be in love with the man and seemingly ignoring the violence committed in the previous scenes. …

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