“Corporate Aliens and State Monsters: Figures of Inhumanity in the Sci-fi of Divided Korea”
The premise of this paper is somewhat simple at this point, but it would basically compare the South Korean sci-fi film, Jang Jun-hwan’s Save the Green Planet (2003) with Shin Sang-ok’s North Korean production Pulgasari (1986). Each film uses a fantastic non-human (alien and monster respectively) to explore problems of political power and the inhumanity of the political and economic system of each country. In Save the Green Planet, a young man who seems for most of the film to be experiencing a psychotic hallucination believes that aliens have taken over the world and kidnaps and tortures the CEO of the corporation whose health and safety policies led to the death of his girlfriend and his mother’s illness. In this film, the alien is a figure of inhumanity that gives a face to the political power of the invisible hand of the market and to the Korean large corporations. The film goes beyond mundane conspiracy theories of neo-liberal capitalism and depicts corporations as an inhuman, alien, and unstoppable force (the ending of the film shows the CEO, who is revealed to actually be an alien, destroying Earth). Pulgasari, which the South Korean director Sin Sang-ok made after he was kidnapped to the North by Kim Jong Il, uses a kind of Golem / Godzilla hybrid monster to represent the Korean Workers’ Party (thinly veiled in a costume drama set during the 12th century peasant revolts). The monster helps the peasants overthrow the landowners, but then turns against them because of his insatiable appetite for metal. I read this film as working against the humanism of socialist realism, which always represents the state as embodied in the human sovereign (Stalin, Kim Il Sung, etc.). In each film, the non-human and the speculation that the non-human enables allow the films to formulate a political critique outside the bounds of a traditional humanist narrative of oppression and redemption (very common in sci-fi films from Independence Day to The Matrix). In Save the Green Planet, only one person on Earth, a psychotic torturer and killer, knows that the planet has been taken over by aliens, and he cannot act except through his violent fantasies and violent actions. The peasants in Pulgasari are forced to employ the non-human in order to defeat the landowners, and he turns against them almost unwittingly, but the ending offers a more utopian alternative–when the Party-State monster turns against the peasants the protagonist sacrifices herself in order to destroy him. Revolution requires an inhuman force and will, but it is possible to save the revolution by killing the Party that made it possible.
Travis Workman is assistant professor of Korean literature, culture, and media at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He received his Ph.D. in East Asian Literature from Cornell University in 2008. His book manuscript concerns humanism and culture in the Japanese empire and in Cold War East Asia. His other research interests include state violence and historical memory, theories of melodrama, and visual ideology. He is currently working on articles concerning representations of Japan and variations on socialist realism in North Korean film, philosophies of the subject in modern Korean philosophy, and the visibility of emotion in melodramatic cinema.