Recently, while browsing the internet, I came across a review of my recent book, “The First Time I Ever Saw a Film.” The reviewer wrote, “Kim’s interpretations of Hollywood movies are often better that the films themselves.”
Then the reviewer added, “But he seems to be trying to enlighten us that film is an excellent cultural text, which we already know quite well.”
The reviewer, presumably young, obviously did not know that the book was a revised and enlarged edition of “Essays on Film” which had been originally published in the early 1990s, at a time when few Koreans knew films could be fine cultural texts.
At the time, films were dismissed as cheap, commercial entertainment at best, not only by academia but also by the general public in Korea. When my book appeared in 1994, after being serialized in a literary magazine for two years from 1991 to1993, it was warmly received by the press, which regarded the book as a breakthrough work in Korea, the first of its kind in the field of cultural studies that embraced film in literary study.
Unfortunately, my book on reading culture in film was left out in the cold in academia. It was bombarded by criticism from older, conservative scholars of literature who thought of film as far more inferior than literature.
In a bar, older professors gossiped, “How could a professor of literature write on such cheap stuff as film?” Alas! Koreans were and still are incredibly slow learners and so are scholars of the humanities. As a result, they have always been left behind, unable to catch up with rapid social change taking place in the world. Therefore, not only did my book not receive any recognition from academia, but it also had to endure hostility from those who firmly believed that taking films seriously was out of the question.
Today, however, things have changed. Hundreds of books on film have been published and it has become fashionable to read culture in film. Young people are infatuated with movies, and professors of literature, language and history frequently use film texts in class in the College of Humanities. It is only natural that you use film texts in the age of electronic and audio-visual media.
But how would the young reviewer know that the book was born under such circumstances? How would the reviewer know that the book had gone through such ordeals? Many literary historians pointed out that the book was the first attempt to read culture in film.
Not knowing the background, the young reviewer seemed puzzled and even annoyed by the author’s assertion that we should read culture in film. Obviously, it has never occurred to the reviewer that the present reality in which he or she lives is radically different from the past.
In the movie “The Rock,” Gen. Francis Hummel reproaches young Hayden Sinclair, chief of staff at the White House, for his ignorance of history and the ordeals that his father’s generation went through.
Perhaps the younger generation would hate to hear it, but they should know that what they are enjoying now came from someone fighting or sacrificing for them in the past. But how would they know?
Likewise, how would young Koreans know about the Japanese occupation or the tragic division of their country? How could they know about the atrocities of the Korean War or the terror of communism? How would they know why US troops are deployed in South Korea? And how would they know about the cruelty of the military dictatorship? Ignorant of history, young Koreans, with their smartphones and laptops, assume that they have been living in a society that was affluent from the beginning.
At the end of “Mockingjay,” the final book of the “The Hunger Games” trilogy, Katniss Everdeen watches her two children play outside their house. She says, “Our children, who don’t know they play on a graveyard.”
Indeed, so many people have sacrificed themselves to give their children a better society. Yet, children would not know that they are playing on the graveyard of those who died for them. They think the world has always been peaceful and comfortable. How would they know there were the deadly hunger games that their parents had to go through?
Peeta comforts Katniss, saying, “It will be okay. We have each other.” Indeed, older people have only one another. The younger generation would never understand them or give them credit for the ordeals they went through to give their children a better world.
In today’s Korean society, the gap between the younger generation and the older generation is getting deeper and wider. Perhaps the older generation has to sadly realize that they have to fade away, silently crying out, “I am legend!” in despair, just like the protagonist of Richard Matheson’s novel of the same title. By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.