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The Intimacy of Distance: South Korean Cinema and the Conditions of Capitalist Individuation


In The Intimacy of Distance, I reconceive the historical experience of capitalism's globalization through the vantage point of South Korean cinema. According to world leaders' discursive construction of South Korea, South Korea is a site of "progress" that proves the superiority of the free market capitalist system for "developing" the so-called "Third World." Challenging this contention, my dissertation demonstrates how recent South Korean cinema made between 1998 and the first decade of the twenty-first century rearticulates South Korea as a site of economic disaster, ongoing historical trauma and what I call impassible "transmodernity" (compulsory capitalist restructuring alongside, and in conflict with, deep-seated tradition).

Made during the first years after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the films under consideration here visualize the various dystopian social and economic changes attendant upon epidemic capitalist restructuring: social alienation, familial fragmentation, and widening economic division. The revamped film industry and liberalization of censorship laws that accompanied this historical moment also enabled South Korean filmmakers to explore unresolved and long repressed sociopolitical tensions with North Korea and the United States. Through readings of feature-length films across the genres of melodrama, romance, blockbuster, horror and youth-oriented art films, accompanied by sociological and historical research that situates South Korean films within the broader transnational history of the Cold War and the regional history of South Korean nation-building, I reveal how this film culture's portrayals of "intimacy" and "distance" provide a method for visualizing the ongoing aftereffects of geopolitical historical change that may be invisible to the naked eye. My project explains how modes of nonlinear temporality, narrative patterning, and imagery of violence, competition, individualism and diaspora in stories of everyday life covertly represent historical experiences of U.S. militarism, heartrending national division, and volatile boom-and-bust economic cycles. By connecting impossibilities in personal life to larger crisis in national and transnational life, my project reexamines taken-for-granted perspectives and helps us see anew the ongoing intersection of American imperialism, South Korea and the globalization of capitalism since the mid-century era.

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