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Stories of Cruel Youth: the South Korean Anti-Teen Film

Peter Yoonsuk Paik (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

The increasing popularity as well as mounting critical interest in transgressive motifs in South Korean film can be understood as a symptom of the widening divide between generations in South Korean society. This rift is more serious and unbridgeable than earlier generational shifts because while the older generation retains memories of South Korea when it was a developing country ruled by a military dictatorship, the younger generation takes for granted the affluence and freedom of South Korea as an advanced capitalist democracy. Such a divide is more alarming than the ideological conflict between state socialism and democratic capitalism, because while the left and right of earlier generations fought over the organization of society, both sides took for granted that they emerged from and struggled over the same world. The gap between the old, who experienced the hardships of South Korea as it developed into a modern country, and the new, who know South Korea only as an affluent consumer society, is a deeper and more serious division because the two groups in essence come from two different worlds.

The sense of alienation that the older generation feels toward the old has been explored by the leading filmmakers of the new South Korean cinema, such as Kim Ki-duk (Samaria, 2004), Pak Chan-ok (Paju, 2009), and Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, 2010). In all three films, the main adult characters are made aghast by the behavior of the teenagers they look after. The teens act in ways that cause terrible harm to others. What appalls their elders is the sheer thoughtlessness with which they commit these actions: a boy and his friends drive a female classmate to suicide by blackmailing her for sex, a girl starts a prostitution business to earn money for a trip to Europe, and a teenager’s inability to deal with her emotional conflicts lands her guardian in prison. What is striking about all three films is that they focus on the inability of adults to communicate to young people, to the extent that even the language of morality has become a foreign tongue to young people who have grown up in an affluent society, free from the hardships familiar to their elders. In addressing this divide, I will look to the divide between democracy and premodern society theorized by Alexis de Tocqueville, who argues that within democracy, there takes place a process of forgetting which, although it confers undoubted economic benefits, nevertheless results over time in both increasing materialism and the overall stultification of society. This evolution in turn, as sociologist Daniel Bell points out, undermines the capacity of capitalist democracy to maintain its prosperity. My paper will conclude with an assessment of Tocqueville’s account of democratic subjectivity and Bell’s idea of the cultural contradictions of capitalism in relation to the South Korean experience of “compressed modernity,” in which the rapid ascent of South Korea to the leading economies of the globe led it to undergo in a few short decades the social and cultural upheavals which European countries worked through over the span of two centuries.