Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Maria Bose reviews Vicious Circuits

Joseph Jonghyun Jeon. Vicious Circuits: Korea’s IMF Cinema and the End of the American Century. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019. 248 pp. 

Review by Maria Bose

In recent years, “reflexivity” has come to name a variety of analytic approaches to films’ structures of meaning and economy. Growing out of general theories of reflexivity that emphasized the medium’s capacity to manifest and challenge hegemonic ideology by actualizing its work process (Jean-Louis Baudry), laying bare its mode of production (Viktor Shklovsky), and implicating filmmaking apparatuses in films’ artificial worlds (Stanley Cavell), newer accounts of reflexivity posit films’ complex allegorization of the industrial policies and corporate arrangements that determine their production, distribution, and exhibition across increasingly globalized media conglomerates. Such accounts describe films’ encoding of their production histories (John Caldwell), their allegorical operation as brand myths for and about the studios that make them (Jerome Christensen), and their symbolic working-through of industrial problems faced by their studio and conglomerate overseers (JD Connor). 

Joseph Jeon’s Vicious Circuits: Korea’s IMF Cinema and the End of the American Century tests the integrability of these approaches and extends their scope, scaling from filmmaking apparatus to studio and corporate entity all the way to multimedia conglomerate and global political economy. Attesting to the reflexive coordination of films’ material existence across multiple productive registers, Vicious Circuits’ additional achievement is to demonstrate that this coordination amounts not to hegemonic ideology’s top-down amplification but rather its bottom-up diagnosis. To this end, Jeon’s concept of “Korea’s IMF cinema” functions as both periodizing hypothesis and methodological gambit, an argument for the convergence of film-industry and state-economy market orientations in the decade between Korea’s $57 billion bailout by the IMF and the global financial crisis’ arrival (1997–2007). That convergence, Jeon suggests, obtains from the Korean film industry’s post-bailout reclassification as a semi-manufacturing provisioner subject to “the same [industrial] pressures and [structural] changes that affected the economy at large,” and subsequently grounds his understanding of the period’s cinema as this economy’s “material embodiment.” Importantly for Jeon, the film industry’s conscription to serve the post-bailout state’s market agenda did not compel its articulation of state ideology. Instead, cinema’s privileged, indexical relationship to Korea’s industrial sector capacitated its insight into the post-bailout economy’s restructuring and development, as well as the broader systemic dynamics of hegemonic transition propelled by the waning power (the US) whose global interests the bailout served. 

Nimble readings—of Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of a Murder (chapter 1), The Host (chapter 5), and Okja (coda), Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy trilogy (chapter 2), Lone Kang’s Looking for Bruce Lee (chapter 3), Jeong Jae-eun’s Take Care of My Cat (chapter 4), and a handful of action films featuring a trope Jeon calls the “wire shot” (chapter 6)—identify functional homologies between filmmaking and economic apparatuses, and elaborate these homologies’ denunciation of the widespread disenfranchisement that resulted from Korea’s IMF-mandated liberalization. The tightly argued chapter on Bong’s Host—a CGI-rich horror-drama about a monster spawned by illegal US military dumping in Korea’s Han river—reveals the film’s complexly reflexive intertwining of form, mode of production, and political-economic transition. A multivalent allegory for Korean-American relations, The Host’s monster simultaneously figures the legacies of US military occupation and the emergent predations of neoliberal financialization, deploying the former as allegorical substrate for the latter’s more abstract modes of violence. An “allegory of an allegory,” the monster finally marks The Host’s own, constitutive proximity to its objects of critique: as a CGI product borne of US military imaging technologies and refined by the recursive algorithms now operative in the movements of US speculative capital—and generated, moreover, by an American special-effects company—The Host’s monster compounds a predatory logic of abstraction with which the film itself cannot but be complicit.

As the US continues to face the unravelling of its neoliberal-imperialist agendas, the global film industry will, too, continue to reflect and instantiate the mutation of its hegemonic strategies. Vicious Circuits offers a crucial vantage on those mutations, neither privileging their appearance nor subordinating it to the aesthetic materials with which contemporary cinema conveys an unprecedentedly volatile moment of global integration.