One knows about the Book of the Dead, the funerary manuscripts. One might be also be curious about the Tibetan book of the dead. These are written texts. I am wondering about the technology of the dead, which might be an oblique counterpart or supplement to these books. I’d like to discuss the technology of the dead by looking at film and digital filmmaking – documentary filmmaking in particular – when it faces the dead. I am in the process of directing my “Exile Trilogy”. The final film Goodbye My Love, North Korea involves many people who are dead.
The wind blows at a little corner of Kzyl-orda, Kazakhstan. It brushes against trident leaves of tall plants. It is rather odd that there is even a flow of air at 40 degrees Celsius. Kzyl-orda is literally “Red City” in Turkic, and the red city smells of steamed meats when you pass by restaurants on the street. I find it intensely peculiar, not unpleasant. We are shooting, and listening to what Kae Haklim delivers. The camera is rolling. He is 89 years old and has a photographic memory. His face is wrinkled, an index of the depth of time. As the camera caresses his lines, I am following the lines of migration engraved in his wrinkles – the lines connecting us to the relatively unknown history of Korean diaspora in Central Asia (Koryo saram) – the continent (dairyuk) that stretches west from the Korean peninsula. There were people who left for the continent from the Korean peninsula to avoid Japanese colonial rule from 1910–45, both voluntarily and otherwise. Dispersed in Manchuria (now northeast China) and the far eastern Russian maritime province of Wondong were intellectuals, peasants, those who lost their status, and the broken-hearted who were deprived of their country. Then in September–October 1937, Stalin ordered a mass deportation of Koryo people from Wondong in the far-east to Central Asia, to block “Japanese spies” infiltrating the east Soviet Union. This is the Korean diaspora in Eurasia. My “Exile Trilogy” is about them.1
An unexpected cool breeze touches my forehead in the scorching heat as we converse. I realise that we are being thrown into a history whose contours and trajectories are remarkably different from the one I am familiar with. The father of the interviewee, Kae Bongwoo, was a renowned historian involved in partisan activities against the Japanese. After the Japanese colonisation of Korea, he moved from North Korea to Shanghai, and then to Moscow. He was sent to Kzyl-orda during Stalin’s mass deportation of Koreans in 1937. He went to school in Moscow, but was mostly a self-taught historian and linguist.
I was raised and academically trained in South Korea and the United States during the Cold War. I have entered the Koryo community of Post-Soviet Central Asia, where they mostly speak Russian (a language I do not understand) and Koryo dialect, as well as local languages, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. To most Koreans, the continent stretching west from the Korean peninsula is only China and Russia. The historical trajectory of the Koryo diaspora might help correct this misconception, the dispersion and dissemination might trigger a productive re-orientation of a geopolitical sense of sovereignty centred on the peninsula, which has been the stage of a protracted turf war between the big powers of China, Russia, Japan and the US.
This is my fifth visit to Central Asia over the last two and half years. It all started in Ansan, South Korea, known as the multicultural city, where migrant workers congregate. South Korea, putatively a homogeneous and monolingual nation, has entered an era of unprecedented “multiculturalism” brought about by migrant workers and marriage migration. This has opened up a multitude of issues concerning globalisation. I was particularly interested in the Koryo people who had come back to South Korea after 150 years of migration.
Koryo people started crossing the Dooman River on the border of Korea and Russia around 1860. Their numbers increased significantly after the Japanese colonisation of the Korean peninsula. They settled in the Ussuriysk and Vladivostok areas, poor but skilful rice farmers. Stalin deported 180,000 of them to Central Asia. Despite deaths and injuries, Koryo people set up Kolhoz (collective farms), and were later given the Soviet title of “People’s Heroes”. They set up a Koryo theatre and newspaper that preserved the Korean language. Soviet artists such as the writer Anatoly Kim (born 1939) and the rock legend Viktor Tsoi (1962–1990) are part of this Koryo diaspora. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation for racial minorities in many former Soviet areas worsened, particularly in Uzbekistan, where the authoritarian post-Soviet government confiscated assets and imposed the Uzbek language. The story of Kim Alex and Hu Sveta in my film Heart of Snow and Heart of Blood – part one of the Exile Trilogy – emerged from the aftermath of the rise of Uzbek authoritarian nationalism.
Initially, I didn’t know that my research interests would materialise as a documentary trilogy – Heart of Snow, Heart of Blood, completed in 2014, and Goodbye My Love, NK and Sound of Nomad: Koryo Arirang, both still in progress. All are set in Central Asia, Russia and South Korea. A fourth documentary, Drifting City, is set in Guangzhou, China and Ansan, South Korea. Although not part of the Exile Trilogy, it focuses on similar issues of migration and mobility.
Heart of Snow, Heart of Blood features Alex and his partner Sveta as main characters, and has a double structure that switches back and forth between South Korea, and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. The pair are representative of fragmented histories, both national and transnational, that the Cold War suppressed.
Before explicating my project and the speculation that drives it, I would like to situate the trilogy within the current Korean practices of documentary filmmaking, both in terms of activism and media-sensitive strategies of expression. I will then return to the specifics of the Exile Trilogy and the technology of the dead.
When I was invited by the Ilmin Museum in Seoul to contribute to a collective exhibition and screening with a mixed group of media artists and documentarists in 2014, I did a three- channel installation juxtaposing materials from Drifting City and Heart of Snow, Heart of Blood. It threw mobility, migration and media into relief, with a sense of the precarious openness of the places people move in and out of. The exhibition and screening, entitled Total Recall, was one of the first curatorial works in South Korea that mobilised the museum and cinematheque as sites of collaboration among documentarists, media artists and others.
Activist videos are one of the strongest areas of South Korean documentary, and they were integral to the people’s movement against South Korea’s authoritarian regime in the late 1980s. One of the most polemic recent documentaries to emerge from this context is Two Doors (Kim Il-rhan and Hong Ji-you, 2012), a film that deals with state violence by mobilising existing media materials rather than shooting on location.
Looking at recent Korean documentaries such as Two Doors, I would like to point out the ways in which the digitally reproducible image radically challenges not only the truth claims of the form, but also understandings of visual culture. William Mitchell once claimed that, “Images in the post-photographic era can no longer be guaranteed as visual truth – or even as signifiers with stable meaning and value.”2 While Mitchell’s claim indicates that a relatively well-defined “new philosophy for new media” exists for work appearing in galleries, it is not the case with digital independent documentaries. One needs a framework to understand the new practice of documentary filmmaking and spectatorship, and the form’s aesthetic-political turn to the social.
A documentary such as Two Doors offers a cogent mapping of these issues. The film deals with the aftermath of the Yongsan redevelopment project in central Seoul, which resulted in clashes that lead to the deaths of one police officer and five evictees from the redevelopment site. Mobilising materials gleaned from the Internet, television and CCTV footage, the film has inspired great controversy among critics, documentary filmmakers, activists and spectators, with some claiming that the film relies excessively on horror film tropes to intensify the sense of fear surrounding the clash between police and evictees.
Two Doors, and other recent south Korean documentaries that I don’t have space to detail here, have partly departed from a previous mode valorised by two key pioneering figures of South Korean documentary making: Kim Dong-won, whose titles include Sangye-dong Olympics (1988) and Repatriation (2004), and Byun Young–joo, who made the Comfort Women Trilogy of The Murmuring (1995), Habitual Sadness (1997) and My Own Breathing (1999). In both these directors’ work, a politics of compassion and solidarity with their interviewees is integral to the filmmaking. Often times the most privileged viewers are the interviewees themselves, rather than a broader viewing public.3 A departure from this approach is registered in both the filmmaking and representational mode of films such as Two Doors, even as such contemporary work owes a debt to the earlier activist tradition.4
Rather than basing its representational strategies on a close, personal engagement with on-screen subjects over a prolonged period, Two Doors tactically combines court trial scenes and other materials carefully gathered and edited, including video recordings of the scene of the Yongsan incident provided by progressive online broadcasters such as Color TV and Sajahoo TV, footage from public television networks, newspaper articles, and video evidence collected by police. Many documentaries utilise archival footage, but Two Doors sets itself apart by fully capitalising on this existing material as a crucial element, employing these images in a highly dramatic fashion.
The approach of Two Doors reflects the fact that documentary is ironically gaining greater importance these days, as other types of visual records, such as mainstream television news, are the losing the strength of their “truth” claims amidst a proliferation of images; CCTV’s produce recorded images around the clock, reality television replaces reality, smartphones create and store video images, and YouTube serves as a massive archive of video and audio content. The relationship between recorded materials and truth becomes more and more fluid. Amid such a flood, independent documentary has a growing responsibility to make good use of different media and help overcome their limits. It must push the boundaries. Documentaries have to reconstruct events using media in translation practice, instead of simply converting them into digital signals. They need to re-articulate the links between moving images and still images, sounds and noise, documented evidence and testimonies, to make radical breakthroughs for truth and social justice. Two Doors offers a model for how independent documentary can translate other media forms in order to demand social justice.
Within this broader milieu of South Korean documentary filmmaking, productively divided into an activist filmmaking based on personal engagement that tends to take the camera for granted, and a new/old media sensitive filmmaking that is more reflexive in the way it appropriates existing media materials, my practice involves putting missing historical fragments together to turn them into a prism. The prism then transforms these fragments into historical illumination. Prismatic fragments are akin to a montage effect with refracted multiple layers.
My previous “Women’s History Trilogy” looks at the fragmented history of women in South Korea, not to cohere and suture, but to make this history resonant with the contemporary issues of gender politics. The prismatic fragments are luminous and spectral. In the case of the Exile Trilogy, if these prismatic fragments can produce some resonance with the audience, the geopolitical blockage of South Korea encapsulated in Cold War imaginary can be re-oriented to produce a better world map, since the prism created by such diasporic fragments extends far beyond the current sovereign territory of “South Korea”. This spectrum of fragments urges us to take a look at places that have been marginalised in the Korean discourse of globalisation, constructed under the shadow of America, Japan and the Sino-centric world.
Even as diasporic fragments demand a revision of both national and transnational conceptions of “Korean” identity, the Korean Diaspora in Central Asia is returning to the fabric of Korean life as migrant labour. They wait for a response from, and resonance with, Koreans living on the peninsula. Their most significant experience is precisely time-coded in their collective memory. The Year 1937 is the primal scene for Koryo people. It is a time-coded collective suffering and a time-coding of pain. It is sharply captured in their memories, especially in the first and second generations. It is the origin of trauma. The history of a common, forced deportation produces their identity. The story of exclusion, deportation, migration, and state violence offers the possibility of writing this history – their history – as a folded chapter of world as well as Korean history. Such is the story of minorities.
In this case, the documentary making process is indeed the collecting of fragments of the ruins of history, an archiving practice to transform prismatic fragments. The mixed modes of observational, participatory, reflexive and performative documentary are mobilised in response. Many of these fragments belong to the realm of the dead – those who vanished from history, both national and transnational. The documentary practice can be an endeavour to bring back the dead, to illuminate the present of the past, to place the dead in a critical constellation.
People vanished from official history are to be brought back through the Exile Trilogy. I find documentary practice in this case a search for technology of and for the dead. In making the second film, Goodbye My Love, NK, I lost one of the last interviewees during filming. The film is about ten people who defected to the Soviet Union – nine have now passed away as of 2016. When we are shooting with a Blackmagic camera and editing footage of people vanished from this world, we are in fact working with the dead. This might be the first layer of what I mean by technology of/for the dead. Herein the technology signifies the concrete and the actual. Even when you lose your interviewee during a shoot, you keep her/him alive in your images.
In the oft-cited essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Walter Benjamin evokes Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus” – the angel of history – and tells us, “He wants to stay and awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed.” 5 As we know, the storm called progress propels the angel into the future to which his back is turned, while the debris piles skyward before him. While a wish for redemption following an awakening of the dead is disrupted in Benjamin’s essay, film as an apparatus is also partial to awakening the dead. The horror genre is the first instance one could think of, in which the cinematic apparatus is mobilised to simulate the dead’s point-of-view. Film noir sometimes employs the voice-over of a dead or a dying person. Un-dead vampires have become fashion icons for trans-historical capitalism, while zombies form an uncritical mass. The blockbuster is also no stranger to awakening the dead. Phantom armies are mobilised as reserve forces, awakened by CGI.
In this proliferation of the dead as deceptive phantoms and spectacular spectres, which might work as a thousand allegories of neo-liberalism or not, it seems the dead surface as part of “a complex political technology” and “as the product and the process of a number of social technologies.”6 If one locates the dead in social technology, the notion of that technology, as well as the social, shift. But unlike the technology of gender, the technology of the dead is not a constituency of representation or self-representation. It is a representational practice. Documentary practices, while facing the dead, need to find ways that the vanished, including the dead, can be more than trans-historical CGI spectres. They also need to turn the impossible agent of testimony into a possible apparatus.
The aforementioned Two Doors, for example, appropriates sound effects and the dead’s point-of-view from the horror genre to bear witness to testimonies of the vanished. Here the dead return demanding social justice. But Two Doors faces contemporary issues, not unresolved historical trauma. Documentary practice that touches upon history tends to work with archival materials to awaken the dead. While the post-traumatic testimonies of the living already pose a set of precarious questions, Dominick La Capra elaborates a historical and psychological understanding of the subjectivities of the survivor and the secondary witness.7 He suggests a positioning of the historian of trauma whose sensitivity should respond to the traumatic experience of others in “empathic unsettlement”,8 which sheds light on the positioning of the filmmaker in a similar situation when interviewing and interacting with the survivors of trauma and secondary witnesses. This is in fact reading against the grain of the book, because La Capra himself equates documentary with “a self-sufficient research model of which positivism is the extreme form.”9 it is more challenging when the post-traumatic testimonies of the living and dead are juxtaposed.
The third layer of technology of/for the dead is related to the genealogy of film. Here the technology supplements the genealogy. From their earliest days, photography and film as mediums were thought of in terms of death. Siegfried Kracauer, for instance, observes that, “The face counts for nothing in film unless it includes the death’s–head beneath. ‘Danse Macabre.’ To which end? That remains to be seen.”10 Then there is the foundational observation of André Bazin, who regarded the photographic image as a death mask and cinema “akin to a practice of embalmment.”11 He argued that if the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation, the expression of a kind of “mummy complex”:
The religion of ancient Egypt, aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. Thus, by providing a defence against the passage of time, it satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time. To preserve, artificially, a bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life. It was natural, therefore, to keep up appearances in the face of the reality of death by preserving flesh and bone
The technology of the dead in documentary practice is additionally tied up with the ethical arrangement of testimonies, and the secondary witnesses when the subject is not alive. The tradition of documentary is partly built on the displacement of testimonies of the dead, rendering the impossible possible. As the dead obviously cannot literally give testimony, the documentary should find ways to approach and approximate such testimony. On one side, there are archival materials, memory sites, secondary witnesses, the testimonies of family and friends. On the other side, there are appropriations of codes borrowed from other genres – the dead’s point-of-view, narration and voice-over, sound effects. It is the technology of representing the vanished. Dead men tell no tales, so the technology of the dead coupled with imaginative techniques need to tell tales instead. Perhaps documentary can invent these techniques anew, not only because of the blurred distinction between fact and fiction, but because of a fantasy that is always in process in/between fact and fiction – the fantasy that the filmmaker, and perhaps the viewer, can take on the values and experiences of the vanished through an act of empathetic identification.
Going back to the Exile Trilogy, I have nine men who are no longer alive, but who tell tales of history that tore their lives apart. And there is the last witness – an 85-year-old man. To bring them back is particularly significant for a contemporary Korean peninsula haunted by the last sediments of the Cold War. The technology of the dead faces this hauntology rather than expelling and forgetting the dead. It can illuminate a history shadowed by persisting cold war, against a neo-liberal bio-politics which perceives history as dead. The technology of the dead can problematise a bio-politics that “deals with the population… as a political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem.” 13 The technology of the dead, the documentary filmmaking representing the issues of the dead in this instance, unsettles not only the technology of power dancing around bio-politics, but the technology of media itself. By proposing and mobilising a technology of the dead in the Exile Trilogy, I wish to animate a critical constellation, a historical mise-en-scene of the dead, thrown into exile thanks to colonialism and cold war. Dead men tell no tales. Technology of the dead might. Approaching the vanished, the documentary filmmaker walks toward a technology of the dead.
Originally published on Senses of Cinema, Issue 78, March 2016.
1.In 1957, under Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev, some Koryo people returned east, while others went to the Ukraine and Chechnya. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many more moved back to Wondong
2.Quoted by Tim Lenoir, “Foreword” in Mark Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. xiv.
3.Chris Berry suggests this mode of filmmaking is descended from Ogawa Shinsuke’s work in Japan in the late 1960s and ’70s, in “The Documentary Production Process as a Counter-public: Notes on an Inter-Asian Mode and the Example of Kim Dong-Won,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 4:1 (2003): pp. 139–44.
4. A fuller discussion of independent Korean documentary’s relationship to the people’s movement of the 1980s can be found in: Organisation for Independent Documentary Study, Korean Independent Documentaries (Korean language) (Yedam, 2003).
5.Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), pp. 257–58.
6.I am using the notion of technology theorised and historicised by Michel Foucault and revised by Teresa de Lauretis in Technologies of Gender (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 3–4.
7.Dominick La Capra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)
8.Ibid., pp. 41–7
9/Ibid., p. 1.
10.Miriam Hansen considers Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960) in tension with early drafts and his later books, and reiterates a set of issues involving historicising film theory. She sees Kracauer as a precursor to, and a potential interlocutor of, film theory in the 1970s and ’80s focused on the nature of cinematic reception, subjectivity and the role of the body. See Miriam Hansen, “With Skin and Hair: Kracauer’s Theory of Film, Marseille, 1940,” Critical Inquiry 19 (Spring 1993): pp. 437–45.
11.André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” in What is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 9–16.
12.Ibid., p. 9.
13. Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, M. Bertani, A. Fontana, F. Ewald, and D. Macey, eds. (New York: Picador, 2003), pp. 239–64
Kim Soyoung founded the Department of Cinema Studies at the Korean National University of the Arts in 1995, and chaired the department until 2015. She has also taught at Duke University and the University of California (Berkeley and Irvine), and has been a research fellow at Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. She has written or edited over ten books on modernity, post-colonialism and gender, including Korean Cinema in Global Contexts: Postcolonial Phantom, Blockbuster, Trans-Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2022), Electronic Elsewheres: Media, Technology and the Production of Social Space (co-edited with Chris Berry and Lynn Spiegel, Minnesota University Press, 2009). As a filmmaker, she has directed Viewfinder (2010), the “Women’s History Trilogy” and the “Exile Trilogy”.