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Aryong Choi-Hantke

Fearful Foreign Tongue:
English in Park Chanwook’s films


On the border of South and North Korea, a murder takes place. To investigate the murder, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission dispatches a Swiss officer, Sophie Jang, who speaks English and Korean because she had a Swiss mother and a North Korean father. Because of her father, she is fired from the investigation.

This is the story of Joint Security Area (JSA, 2000) by South Korean director Park Chanwook. It was the first movie in which South and North meet on the Korea peninsula in the spirit of brotherhood. Through JSA, Park helped to stabilized the Korean Blockbuster system, and made himself into a globally successful director, producing the Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance2002, Oldboy2003, and Sympathy for lady Vengeance 2005); Never ending peace and love (2003), Cut (2004), I’m a cyborg, but that’s ok (2006) and, most recently, Thirst (2009). In all of his films, he deals with English as the language of would-be attackers or technicians. The structure and practice of English in Korea, as Park sees it, reflects on the structure of the larger world, and, more specifically, on the process of globalization as it is accompanied by the imperialism of language. Therefore, the English language in Park’s films enacts the influence of the U.S. and other Western countries on Korean society. The more globalized the world becomes, the more efficient English is as a communicative tool. No matter how much Koreans study English in countless private and public institutions, few ever become fluent in speaking English. This is why English is a fearful foreign tongue to Koreans.

1. Unpunished Bourgeois Brokers

With Korean independence from Japan in 1945, and the Korean War in 1950, the U.S. took over what used to be Japan's role in Korea. As Calvet states, “We can always witness, like bourgeois brokers, a few local collaborators who accumulate their wealth by exploiting their own people under colonial conditions” (79). After liberation from Japan, there was no punishment for these pro-Japanese "bourgeois brokers." American officials in Korea appointed members of former pro-Japanese groups for administrative tasks because they were experienced and efficient. Without punishment, they could stabilize their wealth, and their offspring could further extend their wealth and influence.

Since then, South Korea has entered into the World system under the umbrella of U.S. economic, political, educational, and cultural patronage. As the essential channel to connect Korea to America and the rest of the world, English flourishes as the language of the ruling group in this context of neo- or pseudo-colonialism. Though Korean is used as the country's first language, and Korea is not officially a bilingual country, English is evaluated highly in jobs and education. In the global context, Korean dependence on America also came to mystify the power of English, especially American English. To most Koreans, English seems to be the only solution, and the most efficient short-cut, to achieve success in life.

Most of the films of Park Chanwook reflect this dynamics of imperialism between Korea and America and English as its cue: JSA, Cut, the Vengeance Trilogy, I’m a cyborg, but that’s OK, and Thirst. They show the macrocosmic hierarchy among First and Third Worlds, as well as the microcosmic hierarchy among the countries of the Third World. Previous exploited countries are developed, and then they exploit other underdeveloped countries. English, being able to penetrate language barriers all over the globe, aids in this process. In Thirst, the Korean priest, Hyun Sanghyun, volunteers for a virological experiment. Ironically, the virus EV is contagious only among white and Asian men, and not among Africans and women. Miraculously, he recovers from death but the blood transfusion turns him into a vampire. The division of races implicates the first world, the developing and the underdeveloped. The only survivor from the vampire’s attack is a Filipina, Evlin, who is married to a Korean man. Just like Korea, the Philippines used to be a colony of the U.S., and, after liberation, its economy condition is not better than Korea’s. Many Filippinos emigrate to Korea, and even though they can’t speak Korean, English makes their emigration possible. Like an endless pattern, the colonial structures of dependency are repeated between the developing and the underdeveloped.

2. Hard-covered Culture and Hierarchical Language

In Korean society, “appearance and forms are regarded as, or overwhelm, contents in Korea” (Lee, 2007). I call this phenomenon “hard-covered” culture. Koreans place great emphasis on heaviness, dignity, and formality. Within this type of culture, academic degree from foreign countries, especially from the U.S., possess exaggerated value in Korea. Within Korea, “Seoul National University is the top-ranked university among those who gained a Doctoral Degree from the U.S. or other foreign countries and 50.5% of its faculty received their degree from the U.S. This shows the serious inclination of Korean academic culture toward the U.S.”

Park illustrates these phenomena through his characters and through a host of small cues to Korean culture and history. In the film Oldboy, the would-be attacker Yi Ujin, who imprisoned O Deasu for 15 years, studied in America. In the Manga Oldboy, Dogima, the imprison-er, made his fortune through speculating in the real estate market; that is, through capital investments during the bubble economy era of Japan (70). But in the film Oldboy, Yi Ujin comes from a rich family, moves to America to study, comes back to Korea, and buys a penthouse apartment: a career representative of many Korean intellectuals and members of the power elite. The building where O Deasu is imprisoned includes the headquarter of a foreign study agency. O Daesu, an ordinary citizen, is surrounded and imprisoned by people who are related to foreign education without a real window to see look outside. Conversely, Yi Ujin lives in a luxurious penthouse which commands a panoramic view. Both spaces offer a satiric commentary on Korean culture. The spaces of the two protagonists represent class division: at the bottom are normal citizens, people besieged by the power of a ruling group endowed with the halo of English, the power of America.

Another example: in Park's film Cut, the film director Ryu, who is captured by a stage hand on his set also studied in America and is regarded as a potential aggressor attacker by the stage hand, who happens to come from a poor family. The extra hand complains:

“But you, you are a good man! That’s so fucking unfair! You’re rich, handsome, educated in America…You are a genius director and have a pretty wife. If you’re also a ‘good’ man on top of that…What are guys like me supposed to get?!”
This reflects the classified structure of Korean society. The rich bourgeois family sends their offspring to study in America and the academic degree achieved in America works as a certified check for success socially, politically, and economically.

The psychiatrists in I’m a cyborg and the medical staff in Thirst use a professional jargon in English. The linguistic hierarchy assigns English a higher status, and prevents normal people in two ways from communicating. Under pseudo-colonial conditions, according to Calvet, “the ruling language occupies everything related to every life: administration, judicature, technology, politics, research, etc” (104). As a recent study by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology shows, during the economic recession, expenditures in English education are increasing.

3. The Benefits of "speaking American"

Why are Koreans addicted to America? How can Koreans benefit from their relation to America? To exemplify, let me introduce the case of the scandalous "fake professor" which made headlines in Korea in 2007. Shin Jeong-Ah, who had worked as a professor at Dongkuk University since 2005, and served as curator of a big art museum, claimed she had been awarded a Ph.D. degree from Yale University. In 2007, it was revealed that she held neither a Ph.D, nor a master's or bachelor's degree, American or otherwise. She had tried to buy a degree through the broker. Still, with a fake American degree, she had easily climbed to a high and privileged professional position. This is a side-effect of the Koreans addiction to America. When facing (un)official documents written in English, most Koreans already feel small and suspend better judgment. After her case, several public figures, especially in the entertainment industry, came clean about their fake American degrees.

4. English Madness

The Korean madness about English manifests itself as a kind of schizophrenia. In JSA, like all Korean soldiers, the Private Nam Seung-sik is preparing for his future during his military service. He tries to memorize English vocabulary from a dictionary by tearing out the pages he finishes memorizing and swallowing them. Eating what cannot be eaten, however, is pathological behavior, and yet, in Korea, it is not an uncommon custom for ones who want to master English. It shows his schizophrenia, and, at the same time, the larger cultural madness of English. In the film, English is regarded as a monstrous entity that determines the destiny of people, including their social status, job, career, and wealth.

Korean Statistical Information Services tell us that “99.9% of elementary school students enter the three–year middle school system, 99.6% of Middle school students enter the three-year High school system, 82.8% of high school students enter university" (in 2007). For a total of six years, from middle school to high school, all students are obliged to study English as a required subject, for four hours a week—which makes English a more important subject than Korean, the country's mother tongue. But after finishing high school, only a few Koreans can speak English fluently because of the Korean attention to form rather than practical content. Such preference and attitudes harden the Koreans' tongue and frighten Koreans in front of foreigners.

Let me return to this emphasis on form. It is the grade on tests of English proficiency, not of Korean, that determines the qualification for entering graduate school. English functions as the "ultimate threshold” of all language barriers. Under the label of globalization, companies require the job applicants to produce good grade on English tests like TOEFL, TOEIC or TEPS as a measure of their objective evaluation. “Objectiveness” and “evaluation” are handed over to foreign organizations. Regardless of actual English communication skills, only grades count, which means that, at times, applicants with high grades on the TOEIC can’t speak English fluently. Even after getting a job, the grades on English tests are still important for promotion, although the exam grades are one thing and actual skills are another.

In Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, five children were kidnapped and murdered by an English teacher. While the main character takes revenge on him, she finds out there were four more kids murdered by him. The sister of one of the murdered children speaks up, “My mom had to scrub hotel floors to send my brother to that school.”

Children are sent to an English Institute before mastering their own mother tongue or to a so-called "English Village," which simulates the life style of English speaking countries, or to actual English speaking countries. Many Korean spouses, at the upper-middle class level, live separately to allow their sons or daughters to study English or to attain a higher academic degree in English-speaking countries; in most cases, mothers move with their children to other countries and fathers send money for their schooling and living. They are called “gireogi gajok" (goose families). Also, it is regarded as natural to take one-year language courses in English speaking countries in the course of one's university life: it costs roughly 8,564.38 EUR (11,971.27USD). A study by the Campus & Society Watch of the Seoul YMCA reports that, in 2008, university students in Seoul and the Kyoungin area, both of which cover a quarter of S. Korea’s population, families spend an average of 366.56 Euro (512.37 USD) on private English education, including tests like TOEFL, TOEIC; 54% of the subjects are economically supported only by their parents. Parents sacrifice their lives for their offspring.

5. English For What?

In Park Chanwook’s films, how do the characters who occupy this privileged space of English act and behave? In Oldboy, Yi Ujin, who studied in America, imprisoned O Daesu for 15 years and deceived him into an act of incest with his daughter for his own revenge. Finally, O Daesu cuts his tongue out, removing the organ that allows him to speak out with his own voice. In Sympathy for lady Vengeance, the murderer who killed five children for ransom is an English teacher. The children’s family asks Geumja, the film's heroine, why the English teacher kidnapped and murdered their kids.
Geumja: Beak Hansang was a teacher at an English school in Kangnam [an affluent neighborhood]. He’d pick his victims, kidnap and kill them, then move on to another school….
A child’s parent: With no kids, what did he need all that money for?
Geumja: He was going to buy a yacht.
A yacht at the expense of five lives signifies the material desire of the English teacher. For his material greed, innocent lives were sacrificed.

In Thirst, the priest who is infected by EV and then becomes a vampire by a blood transfusion steals the blood of the most helpless patients—clearly a metaphor for the exploitation of the weak.

Nearly all of the English speaking characters in Park’s films suggest that English speakers—the ones who occupy the upper class and are well-educated—do not consider other people’s welfare. For the most part, they pursue only their own material desires and their own greed, willing to prey upon and kill the innocent and weak. Those most fluent in English extend their own power into the globalized economy as well, drawing strength from their association with the U.S. In all of these aspects, English is a fearful foreign tongue. Even though it is a massive national business it is also a challenge to overcome and a tool to achieve mastery—not a familiar tool of communication.