tv Korea Is Showing the World How To Make Political Horror Movies
In the past two decades, South Korean television and cinema have achieved global commercial and critical success. While they may be glossy and stylized, K-wave films and television series have also revealed Korea’s dark side in their social criticism.
The South Korean film industry produces scores of horror flicks, and creative directors have used the genre to explore social issues. Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning 2019 movie Parasite blended suspenseful horror with a social criticism. With its portrayal of South Korean class polarization, the film asks the audience who really is the parasite.
Previously, in his 2006 film The Host, the director used a monster movie to recall memories of anti-fascist activism from the 1980s — memories that were suppressed at the turn of the century by an alienating neoliberal social consensus. As the inspiration for The Host came from an incident where American army officers ordered a Korean mortician to dump formaldehyde in the Han River, there are knowing references to anti-American sentiments.
In 2021, Netflix scored a global hit with Squid Game. The show, which has since been renewed for a second season, borrowed a premise from the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale, where troublesome teenagers are forced to murder each other. In the South Korean series, victims of capitalism kill each other to pay off insurmountable debts. Rather than just titillating gore, Squid Game offers a searing critique of the soullessness of South Korea’s alleged economic miracle.
There is a long global history of using horror as a political metaphor. Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels famously wrote of a “specter haunting Europe.” Zombies in particular have proven to be a useful foil for social criticism.
In progressive narratives, those who make and control zombies can symbolize the assault of an authoritarian state on personal autonomy or the dehumanizing power of capitalism. In gothic Marxism, Western industrial capitalism turns the proletariat into a compliant and disposable zombie.
Conversely, for reactionaries, the figure of the zombie has stood in for a racial or class enemy. Such gothic racism is replete with white fantasies of bloodthirsty ghoulish hordes from a decolonizing Global South rejoicing in orgies of irrational rape and murder. We need look no further than the reaction to revolutions of national liberation, from Haiti to Algeria to Palestine, to find the source of such lurid concoctions.
In the twentieth century, artists around the world experimented with a new technology to use horrific images in their social critiques. In Germany’s post–World War I chaos, Weimar directors invented the horror film. Robert Wiene’s 1920 expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) reflected the traumas inflicted by the senseless slaughter of ten million young men in pointless trench warfare. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) used elements of horror to evoke Germany’s social conflicts.
Half a century later, American film makers wrested with the horrors of the war in Vietnam. John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) resonated with audiences anxious about their complicity in imperialist violence, scared of a social order thrown into chaos after the sociopolitical upheavals of the 1960s, and worried about terrors yet to come.
Taking an example from the Global South, strict censorship during General Suharto’s New Order (1966–98) pushed Indonesian filmmakers toward horror as a politically safe yet cathartic form of expression after the arrest, incarceration, torture, and slaughter of millions of alleged communists, union members, feminists, artists, and others. Even the government used images of witches and supernatural violence in its anti-communist propaganda.
Zombies as sociopolitical metaphor return to the screen again and again. American zombie films often convey reactionary themes, fear of a vengeful Other, and imperial anxieties. Drawing on white fears of Pan-African mysticism, Victor Halperin’s 1932 classic White Zombie is set in Haiti. Supernatural terror is inseparable from a terrifying blackness. Halperin’s utterly forgettable sequel Revolt of the Zombies (1936) depicts a generalized white racial paranoia of rebellious subalterns in French-ruled Cambodia.
In the 1973 James Bond vehicle Live and Let Die, Caribbean zombies and “voodoo” represent the American empire’s fear of radical black Third Worldism in a decolonizing world. On the other hand, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) used zombies as a metaphor for American racism and white supremacist reaction in the civil rights era.
Both Danny Boyle’s deadly serious 28 Days Later (2002) and the comedic Shaun of the Dead (2004) dramatize Western anxiety about the fragility of the neoliberal world order during the lobal “war on terror.” The runaway success of The Walking Dead’s eleven seasons between 2010 to 2022, along with its various spin-offs, speaks to contemporary American fears of a coming Dark Age of endless war.
Enter the K-Zombie
Korean directors have adopted the Western zombie film genre, and audiences have jumped on the zombie bandwagon. Notably offerings include Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-sung’s 2012 trilogy Doomsday Book, Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016), and Il Cho’s #Alive (2020).
While they are horrific monsters, K-zombies are also frequently victims of social inequalities. In these films it is the poorest and most vulnerable members of society who first fall victim to forces against which they cannot possibly defend themselves. Like the doomed players in the anti-capitalist Squid Game, they are trapped by hegemonic social structures operating with a necropolitical logic.
Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (2016) is one of the most successful K-zombie films. In addition to being a well-crafted piece of cinema, the film imagines a horrific collapse of South Korea’s social order. Released two years after the Sewol ferry accident, when official incompetence led to the death of 305 people including 250 schoolchildren, Train to Busan depicts a corrupt and inefficient South Korean state abandoning its citizens.
In the sequel, Peninsula (2020), the fight against zombies recalls the Korean War. Yeon Sang-ho also made an animated prequel, Seoul Station (2016), in which the poor and socially marginalized are the first victims of the coming zombie plague.
While the films want us to cheer for the heroes and fear the zombies, they elicit a surprising empathy from us. We can see ourselves in the zombie hordes and recognize them as the human collateral damage of South Korea’s political economy. In this context, it is not surprising that Jung Chan-sung, South Korea’s most popular mixed martial artist, fought in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) under the nom de guerre “The Korean Zombie.”
In 2017, Netflix announced what would be its first Korean production, Kingdom. Even before it aired, screenwriter Kim Eun-hee was clear that she was using zombies for sociopolitical critique: “I wanted to write a story that reflects the fears and anxiety of modern times but explored through the lens of a romantic fascination of the historical Joseon period.” Although zombies were terrifying creatures, she insisted that they deserved empathy: “I wanted to portray people who were mistreated by those in power struggling with starvation and poverty through the monsters.”
When Kingdom premiered in January 2019, most critics commented upon the successful merging of sageuk (historical drama) with Western zombie trappings. The costumes and sets are meticulous in their historical detail. The combination of period drama, political intrigue, and supernatural themes resonated with fans of series like Game of Thrones. Kim confessed surprise that the scripts she had written for a domestic audience proved to be a global success.
By chance, Netflix released the second season just two days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Unsurprisingly, this streaming series about a plague tearing society apart found a natural and captive audience as the world entered various forms of social distancing and lockdown. Yet the analogies to the current pandemic were accidental, as the series was explicitly written as an exercise in political critique. Kim Eun-hee has stated that she wanted to “show more than a few aspects of politics” through the zombie genre.
The American series M*A*S*H (1972–83) was set in Korea as a “safe” way to talk about the US war in Vietnam. In a similar vein, Kingdom deals with the late-sixteenth-century Japanese invasion of Korea and is thus a “safe” way to process the 1910–45 Japanese colonial era, the 1950–53 war, and the series of authoritarian governments that ruled South Korea from 1945 to 1987.
Kingdom is set a few years after the two Japanese invasions of Korea, commonly known as the Imjin War (1592–93 and 1597–98). This was an era of historically verifiable horrors that are difficult to fathom. Some three hundred thousand Japanese troops swept through the peninsula, engaging in violence that Yale historian Ben Kiernan has deemed genocidal.
The samurai-led invaders engaged in an ultimately futile scorched-earth campaign, massacring and enslaving an unknown number of Koreans. Prefiguring the necropolitical atrocities of the Pacific War (1931–45), Japanese soldiers desecrated corpses and maimed their captives.
Human body parts were packed in brine and sent to Kyoto as war trophies. To this day, one can visit a shrine called Mimizuka, a dirt mound holding at least thirty-eight thousand ears and noses cut from Korean and Chinese prisoners. Korea’s Joseon dynasty teetered on the edge of collapse, but it managed to survive the onslaught and expel the bloodthirsty invaders.
At one point in Kingdom, the main characters enter a village inhabited by peasants with bandages on their faces. Their wounds are not explained, and the scene may well be a mystery to foreigners, but Korean viewers will catch the reference. The undiscussed disfigured faces symbolize the unprocessed trauma of successive waves of historical violence.
Can the Subaltern Spook?
American may know few words in Korean, but thanks to The West Wing, the concept of han might at least be familiar. Han can be understood as deep-seated resentment from a wound that can neither be healed or avenged. Kim said that she “tried to talk about the sentiment of han in hope of having people of a wider social class, or those who were dominated” occupy a central place in her story.
Both the zombies condemned to their fate and the peasants disfigured by departed Japanese invaders personify han. To flirt with some vulgar Gramscian theorizing, we might view han as the frustrations of political impotence in the face of hegemonic power. As Kim puts it: “The lowest class is the biggest victim of wrong politics. I thought I could show their pain and through that pain more vividly convey the meaning of what politics is.”
Without giving away too much of the plot, in the first season, the zombie plague tears through the Joseon kingdom. The yangban, Confucian feudal lords, fail to protect the commoners. Many seal themselves off in fortresses or simply flee, abandoning their vassals.
Societal collapse is the fault of the yangban not fulfilling their obligations. The cowardice of the feudal elites is an obvious reference to the indifference of contemporary South Korean elites to the suffering of the poor, as seen in Parasite’s critique of the isolation and alienation of the neoliberal social order.
Of course, a few heroes try to fight the zombies. During the second season, they discover a conspiracy at the highest levels of power, with members of the royal family kidnapping pregnant women to steal their children at birth, while the mothers are deemed disposable and killed. What may seem like typical titillating Game of Thrones–style intrigue is a powerful refence in contemporary Korea.
Adoption Through Abduction
From the 1960s to the 1980s, America and European families adopted two hundred thousand South Korean children. Adoption agencies claimed that the children were orphans. However, recent investigations discovered a wide range of malfeasance, including taking infants from impoverished women, unwed mothers, and sex workers without their consent. Some women were falsely told their babies died at birth. There was also a concerted effort to send mixed-race children born near American military bases out of the country.
By the 1980s, there was a cottage industry of for-profit adoption agencies engaging in a wide range of unsavory practices, with government officials implicated in various schemes. This long-running practice of selling children considered undesirable aligned with the government’s eugenicist policies that punished the poor and those who were said to be insufficiently Korean. As this dark history has come to light only in recent years, the theme of elites stealing the children of the poor has a particular resonance for Korean viewers.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North, the 2021 prequel, explains the origins of the zombie plague. We learn that in the face of the seemingly unstoppable Japanese invasion, the royal court used a newly discovered plant to zombify Korean peasants. After the zombie army defeated the foreigners, court officials systematically destroyed the zombies. However, the process was imperfect, and the zombie plague returned.
We can read this as a metaphor for the human rights violations committed under the South Korean dictatorship. Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee, and their massive apparatus of white terror were willing to brutally sacrifice their own citizens in the name of an anti-communist crusade. While apologists might point to the South Korean economic “miracle” as justification, Kingdom warns us that we should be wary of what lurks in the shadows.
SHARE THIS ARTICLE
Michael G. Vann is a professor of history at Sacramento State University and the author, with Liz Clarke, of The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam.