cinema and media studies, Gender Studies, korea, korean drama, TV

rewriting a woman’s history with JANG OK-JUNG (2013): (Yoo Ah-in just like Leonardo DiCaprio in my heart)

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I haven’t felt this kind of depression after watching a Korean drama series since Autumn in My Heart (2000)/가을동화.

Jang Ok-Jung, Living by Love  (2013) is a period piece from SBS. It is based on the historical novel work of the same title written by Choi Jung-mi, and is directed by Boo Sung-chul. The series is set during the Joseon Dynasty in the late 1600s.

The show centers on a young, aspiring fashion designer Jang Ok-jung (Kim Tae-hee) who is born of a middle-class rank (중인) but falls in love with King Suk-jong/Yi Soo (Yoo Ah-in) and becomes his favorite concubine. It starts off as a lovey-dovey tale simply about a young woman and man whose affections for each other seem pure and eternal, then of course shit hits the fan when every single person around each character has a political problem with their getting together. Drama ensues.

Jang Ok-Jung is not only an intense political drama, but also an interesting critique on Joseon’s classism stemming from a caste system that damns a person’s life according to who s/he is born from and what the parents’ ranking is according to Joseon’s societal standards. This is the show’s primary critique–the rigidity of a society that make class mobility near impossible. But the protagonist Ok-jung makes it up the ranks (4 to 1) as a consort, eventually even taking over the dethroned Queen In-hyeon’s place as Queen herself for a short term reign. But In-hyeon returns and Ok-jung is demoted back to the place of consort Hui Bin. She eventually is framed for having placed a curse on the queen and is forced to kill herself, ordered by her beloved King.

Ok-jung in her early appearances takes a fascination to Joseon days’ erotic illustrated novels, which are essentially just some softcore sketches of men and women caressing. Ok-jung takes a liking to the way the women’s dresses flow depending on their sensual positions. The drawings inspire her vision. Sexuality is where Ok-jung sees beauty, and the show has plenty of coded sex talk throughout that compares women to flowers and men to bees.

The drama relies heavily on the female characters’ catty tension throughout, mostly rooted in jealousy over things like beauty and male attention. There’s really just one man who all the women desire, and that is the King. Around Ok-jung, however, there are men galore. She has three different pursuers but the King is the one she wants and eventually gets.

The women on this show all must rely on their only agent of power and that is their body. The women must be beautiful. Her face is the main selling point. After that, she must know how to dress well.  If the King desires her, then she has found “favor” by him, meaning that he sleeps with her. Her vagina is the access to bringing her status and power–it is her only agency towards class mobility. From there, she can move up by becoming pregnant but her status upgrade is only a possibility if she births a son–a potential heir to the throne. Ok-jung accomplishes all of this. She even maintains her favor with the King until the end of her days.

Throughout the series, Ok-jung and Lee Soo’s romantic theme is their little promise to each other that they would never let go of each other’s hands. (Ring a Titanic bell much? Yoo Ah-in is the Korean doppelgänger of Leonardo DiCaprio. They remind me of each other so much that I can hardly contain myself; they have the same nose, the same voice, the same trembling mannerisms that have a danger of appearing trite/overused at times; a tendency towards frequent explosions in their performance that oozes thick passion.)

What depressed me at the end of the series is that ultimately the King does not overcome the political powers that be and allows his beloved consort to be put to death by poison. Her crime is breaking the palace rules of having no shamans make an offering on site; at the desperate situation of possibly losing her son to smallpox, she brings the shaman in, gets caught and is blamed for the death of Queen In-hyeon by placing a curse or some bullshit…

What then added to my depression is how after Ok-jung dies, the King mourns her at Chwi Seon Dang (Ok-jung’s place of residence and the King’s gift), and the drama immediately cuts to King Sukjong’s grave site,  calling him one of the greatest reformers of Joseon history. Be that as it may, the namesake of the show seems almost completely forgotten at this point. Later, another title card appears, explaining that Ok-jung’s damnation was lifted in 1965 and that her grave was moved to be placed beside Sukjong’s.

Anyway, what made me so sad was how awful, limited, and impossible a woman’s life was back then. What the hell’s even the point of rewriting the history of Hui Bin this way? Even if there’s the mediated, dramatized effort to make her appear a little less evil, and make the relationship with her and the King more meaningful, it doesn’t change the fact that she was a victim of rigid circumstances and was ultimately killed by the man who was supposedly in love with her.

The rules back then were insane. Truly, truly insane.

Now, I have to refer to the Wikipedia page because it’s just so fascinating how it writes about her (FYI, Wikipedia’s citations link back to website descriptions written by museums, government sites, cultural sites, etc.), and the general consensus is simply that she was an awful woman. Historical references even blame her son King Gyeongjong’s illness and infertility on her (Gyeongjong’s illness, according to these records, made him an unsuited King, and he was replaced by his half-brother Yeongjo, who held a very long tenure on the throne). This type of blatant misogyny on a lower status historical figure is just more evidence of patriarchal sexism and bias. In a lot of ways, the drama rationalizes some of those accusations of evil that is frequently placed on her while also moving against the grain of patriarchal injustice. Some of the best dialogues are the ones shared by Queen Inhyeon and Ok-jung when they discuss the King’s flaw which is being male.

Anyway, what a great show. The costumes were utterly beautiful. Color coordination, head pieces, lipstick shades–all of it–utterly beautiful. (Think Marie Antoinette (2006) level of costume beauty.)

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Art, cinema and media studies, Essay, Film, ideology, philosophy

Ideology, FGM and Sembene’s MOOLAADE (2004)

I read about female genital mutilation (FGM) in an anthropology class as a freshman in college, and what I recollect the most is that one of the main purposes of FGM is to make sex unpleasant for girls in order to prevent infidelity—essentially, perform a painful circumcision on women for an ideology that suits the dominant group—the patriarch. But notice how in Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade (2004), polygamy for men is the norm at the village in Burkina Faso; women must remain faithful to one man and not enjoy sex, but men can have more than one wife and enjoy sex.

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While reading Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus,” I thought a lot about what causes harmful/oppressive traditions and practices to continue in spite of being inhumane. Althusser notes ideology’s “reproduction of production” and the agencies that allow this production to perpetuate. While watching Moolaade, I kept wondering why the male elders in the film persistently remained ignorant to the problems that were arising from the practice of FGM as a ritual for young girls in the village. As Althusser might put it, the male elders’ ideology does not “correspond with reality,” and as agents of reproducing the product of their ideology, they must uphold tradition (protect their ideology) and all of its rituals including FGM. For instance, when news spreads that the girls have run away from the “purification” ceremony, the men simply say that the girls must return to the ritual and have the performance done. When news spreads that two of the girls committed suicide at the well to avoid the circumcision, the men simply move on from the topic and avoid discussing it (meanwhile, the women of the village all gather in the night by the well to stand vigil). When Binetou dies from the performance, the men remain firm in their stance and express no remorse for the death of yet another young girl. While doing so, they cite Allah, and say that a man’s word trumps that of a woman’s, and so Colle must undo the Moolaade. Althusser’s diagnosis of a hurtful practice continuing in spite of its harms would simply be that this village is performing what any other Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) would perform, and that is protecting the actions and agents that produce the State’s ideology by putting it to practice, thus allowing this ideology to regenerate, perpetuate and reproduce.

Jacqueline Bobo writes in “The Color Purple: Black Women as Cultural Readers” that “traditions are made, not born.” Similarly, Althusser argues that ideology is a concept that is universally present in the minds of individuals and as a collective: “Ideology has no history.” If this is true, then it introduces the possibility that a new idea that gets upheld as an ideology can also permeate through groups and enter the collective consciousness to become the new ideology; as Bobo puts it, “When an articulation arises, old ideologies are disrupted and a cultural transformation is accomplished.” In Moolaade, this articulation begins with Colle first claiming a Moolaade for the girls who ran away, and protecting them. Then Colle is beaten in public before everyone in the village including the male elders. The transformation happens in the form of encouragement from the women standing by for Colle, telling her not to give up or fall down; this begins to materialize a new ideology by disrupting the old ideology; the tears shed by Amasatou while watching her mother get beaten is another disruption of the old ideology, where she would have done anything (buy new clothes, get her genitals cut) so that she could marry Ibrahima—a wealthy man of a respected family. This breakdown of the old spirit leading to an awakening for all of the village women is finalized in the film through the death of Binetou, one of the youngest of the group of girls who fled the ceremony.

When the women arrive at the center of the village—at the site of the phallic-looking mosque—where the women’s confiscated radios burn, the women confiscate the Exciseuses’ knives and throw them into the same fire; the women no longer need the radio to inform them of what is right and wrong; they hold that information internally, they have a voice to express what they believe in, and the willingness to put those beliefs into action. Furthermore, when the Exciseuses give up the knives, they become allies with the mothers—even for a moment; the mothers who suffered pain and loss stand together with the women who performed FGM and killed their daughters while upholding an old ideology: “An articulation results from a coming together of separate discourses under certain specific conditions and at specific times” (Bobo, 105).

Althusser says that an ideology “recruits.” Ideology functions through “interpellation” or “hailing.” It catches the attention of the subject through a Subject (mirror effect). In Moolaade, the Exciseuses finally recognize themselves in the mothers who suffered child loss and pain, and most especially in Colle—a martyr figure (like Christ, as Althusser might put it). The women in the village who previously stood with the Exciseuses later come to tell Colle that they “felt the blows” when Colle was being beaten before them, thus hailing them towards a new ideology. This cross recognition leads to what Bobo calls a “cultural transformation.” Bobo is not naïve, though. She says, “[Cultural transformation] is always in the process of becoming.” Ideology—new or old—can only exist when there are agents who keep it in function, and allow it to materialize.

In the second to last scene, when Amasatou tells Ibrahima that she is and always will remain a “Bilakoro,” her stance is as important as Ibrahima’s decision to accept her for what she is without trying to fit her into the outdated ideology—one that silenced and ignored the women’s cries against FGM; the union of these two will put the new ideology into motion through practice. Sembene’s maleness as a filmmaker is important for this film. The two men who express their support of the women’s ideology—Ibrahim and Colle’s husband—do so by physically walking away from the shade where the male elders sit; they each come to terms with leaving behind what ideologically defined their masculinity in order to find union and happiness with the women in their new ideology. This recognition from agents of the patriarch is also noteworthy. This alliance is also part of the articulation that Bobo describes, and part of the unity that must be “strengthened.”

(Originally published on UCLA’s FTVDM Bulletin.)

*There is a new film out entitled Sembene! (2015) which recently played at the AFI Film Festival. Check your local theaters to find play dates.

 

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