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Archives of Ephemera: Cinema and Decolonization in South Korea


This dissertation offers a historical account of film preservation in South Korea, detailing how and why the idea of preserving film took hold, and how the process of decolonization complicated its practical realization. Drawing upon sources from archives, interviews, newspapers and published reports, it explores the conditions under which the archives of cinema evolved, and analyzes the conflicting ways that Japanese and American political authorities, Korean leaders, international policy makers, and Korean film industry members understood film’s value and purpose. The political regimes that ruled over South Korea—both foreign and domestic—understood film to be both short-term entertainment and a didactic tool, and therefore were not concerned with the long-term storage of cinema. Meanwhile, local actors such as filmmakers and critics challenged the state’s dominant perception of cinema. Their transnational encounters with film institutes, audiovisual education agencies, and film preservation movements around the world led to different and diverse understandings of the role and value of film. Despite this counter discourse, political regimes concentrated on the utility of cinema as part of the modernization of mutable subjects, instituting little rigor in local actors’ film conservation activity until the early 1970s. What ended up dramatically shifting the country’s attitudes towards and practices of film preservation was not a sustainable investment in film culture by the political regime, but instead competition with North Korea and the elevation of Korean cultural prestige as an economic force. These forces combined to lead to a reconsideration of film conservation and archival practices in South Korea.

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