This particular sequence appears in the chapter titled Volcano Island (an homage to diasporic Korean novelist Kim Sokpom’s novel about Jeju Uprising, 1948-1949) that mostly comprises U.S. military footages obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration (with additional footages from New Zealand’s Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision archive) that document the period between Jeju Uprising and the Korean War (1950-1953). Across the expansive space of three large screens, our point of identification vacillates between the cold, inhuman, and strangely hypnotic USAF aerial shots (including those shot with the infamous automated “gun cameras” that records the gunners’ “kills” in a head-on angle) and the on-the-ground, humanistic, and reportage-esque footages of war refugees. As we struggle to keep pace with the footages embodying different speeds, power, and relations to land, a seemingly out-of-place insert of a picturesque panoramic shot on the left screen gives us a breathing space. Even without the external knowledge of the film’s identity as one of the 1930s amateur travelogues housed in Kobe Planet Film Archive, we intuit what art historians Rebecca Jennison and Cynthia Bogel call a “secret code” tying it to the refugees crossing a frozen river projected onto the centre screen. Just then, in one of the most arresting moments in the piece, a low-resolution video footage in colour reveals itself on the right screen, echoing the same gradual panning motion as the travelogue on the left screen. The synchronized panning motion flanking the centre screen signifies a few different things. Perhaps it shows the transmission of the ritualized choreography from one amateur media to another or the timeless power of the landscape to demand a certain response—tracing of the gentle curvature of the river—from all observers regardless of their ideological leanings. When the spell of the synchronized motion ends, the left screen goes on to reveal male travellers (presumably Japanese) accompanied by young women in Korean clothes while the right screen goes on to show the other spots along the Taedong River such as North Korean war memorials and statues of the Kim family.
From Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) to Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010), found footage film (also known as montage film, archive film, and appropriation film) has productively interrogated how a whole archive of films become obsolete with political upheavals, and whether such materials are ever truly and safely obsolete. The collapse of the Japanese empire in 1945 was one of these instances that rendered large archives of film newly obsolete. The work of reassigning wartime films to the domain of the obsolete via found footage filmmaking started early, arguably with Soviet-trained Kamei Fumio’s Tragedy of Japan (1946). By juxtaposing the deceitful wartime newsreel, Nippon News, against U.S. military footages, Kamei’s work also ushered in a characteristically Cold War sensibility that registers the sheer volume of the U.S. Marine Signal Corp’s 16mm footages and their grainy, high-contrast, and low-resolution look as hallmarks of cinematic realism.
By virtue of the three-screen set up, Kum’s work breaks this problematic legacy of a critical dialectical montage pitting the raw, unprocessed, fragmentary footages shot by the U.S. military (and made readily available through the generous access policies at U.S. archives) against imperial Japan’s footages. It is the additional third frame, a souvenir video documenting Kum’s own school trip to Pyongyang in 1997, that allows her to take a critical distance from the visual artifacts of colonisation and White Terror. Or rather, by holding all the different footages in a dialogic tension, her work lets the past-images bleed into the present. If imperial travelogues projected a fantasy (not rooted in reality) of the Korea-Manchuria region as an open corridor for global traffic interconnecting Asia to Europe via Japan’s imperial railway network (e.g., Colonial Korean Railway and Southern Manchurian Railway), it is important to add also that this remains a fantasy today as no traveller can pass through the Korea-Manchuria corridor.
For a brief context, Kum’s work was the centrepiece in Morning Dew—A Joint Project between the Artist and Ex-“Returnees” who defected from North Korea to Japan, a group exhibition she organised with a grant dedicated to socially-engaged art (Nov 5-10, 2020, Kitasenju BUoY, Tokyo). The exhibition was an end product of the artists’ collaboration with select “ex-‘returnees’”—i.e., former Korean residents in postwar Japan (some born in Japan to parents who migrated as colonial subjects) who migrated to North Korea in the controversial Red Cross-brokered “repatriation project” to escape dire poverty, discrimination, and precarity as stateless people in Japan, and ultimately defecting from North Korea to quietly resettle in Japan. Given the virtual absence of public discussion around the history of the repatriation project, let alone the quiet return (re-repatriation?) of ex-returnees back into Japan, we might assume that the idiosyncratic phrase in Kum’s title, “stigma of being brainwashed,” refers to the silence imposed on those that return to threaten to puncture the calm surface of prosperous “global Asia” with their stories that register the violence of imperial assimilation, colonial exploitation, and Cold War disenfranchisement. Ex-returnees are silenced since repression of the past is a precondition for getting by with their day-to-day lives. Kum has eloquently written about her own conundrum of reconciling the temporal regime of the everyday and the suffering she feels ethically implicated in after the formative school trip to Pyongyang in 1997.
I visited North Korea while the country was struck with a famine. Although I could not see, there were people dying of starvation not far from where I was. After sightseeing for eight days and returning to Japan where food is abundant and freedom more or less intact, I was afflicted by a sense of guilt for living my life without thinking about the starving people in North Korea.
The way Kum’s three-channel video work overwhelms our cognitive capacity to process the images might be understood as a counterintuitive artistic gesture not of lifting the stigma from the ex-returnees, but of passing it on to the viewers. By wresting historical footages from compartmentalised historical contexts, Kum presents the found footage sequence as a kind of
purgatory that removes the viewers of any lingering earthly attachment to the historian’s tools of periodisation—the postwar, the postcolonial, the post Cold War, the new Cold War, and so on—so that when they emerge on the other end, they also carry the stigma of being speechless, and as a consequence, finally ready to hear the ex-returnees’ words.
So, while recognition of obsolescence is a precondition for “good” film history, there are reasons why we need the “bad objects” that remind us of the porous boundaries that keep the obsolete from disrupting the calm surface of the present. As a region where the Cold War was never really “cold” and the post-Cold War never delivered, Asia presents a productive site to investigate the ambivalence of obsolete media. In my analysis of Soni Kum’s found footage video installation, I pointed to the limitation of academic papers that cannot adequately discuss the unruliness of the “bad objects” of film history. By seizing the moment when contemporary artists reproduce the temporally ambiguous amateur films, reclaiming them as the scaffolding for the memory work of the subaltern, film historians are able to observe the dynamism of obsolete media to place us in alternative temporal constellations, ready to grasp migratory narratives that are out-of-joint with the hegemonic here-and-now.