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Breaking the Retrospective Curse: Ethical Identity in South Korean Film and Literature

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This dissertation studies filmic and literary portrayals of sacrificial “heroes” and asks two main questions. First, why do so many contemporary Korean films deny their heroes or heroines a successful and happy ending? Second, what do such failed acts of heroic sacrifice reveal about the nation’s shifting relationship with history, memory, and ethics? Despite the recent rise of Korea’s cultural economy, historians often note the nation’s habitual focus on its historical failures rather than successes. Modernity came hand-in-hand with colonization (Japan, 1876-1945); global alliances brought about a fratricidal war and national division (Korean War, 1950-53); and economic growth resulted from decades of military dictatorships (1960-1988). As a result, Korean identity has been bound by its communal and nationalistic duty to sacrifice personal sovereignty for the sake of national recovery. This pattern of retrospection and redemption also characterizes Korea’s cinematic history from the 1950s to the late 1990s. Postwar filmic narratives attempted to recover from past traumas by re-presenting them as moral lessons. Then, as modernization set in, the aim of historical recovery was abandoned to place more faith in the malleability of memory. My dissertation contends that recent millennial films are beginning to move away from such retroactive “fixes” of the past by relying on the transformative potential of affect and ethics. By recognizing the repetitive and non-progressive nature of Korea’s fixation on remembrance, I argue that contemporary narratives have exhibited a new trend to break what I call the “retrospective curse.” Rather than restore historical memory, the texts I read seek to unveil the hegemonic boundaries drawn by the process of historicization itself (i.e., identity becoming grounded in trauma; morality becoming enmeshed with nationalism). Bringing to the fore affective patterns, such as love, guilt, faith, or resentment, I emphasize how such sacrificial “emotions” call attention to immediate relationships with individual others, rather than with a collective past. Looking beyond defining identity within the scope of the national and historical, this project investigates how, conversely, its collectivized and “retrospective” identity may also work to define, or limit, the conditions of Korea’s ethical conscience.

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This item is under embargo until July 13, 2024.