K-Trauma: National Trauma in South Korean Thriller and Horror Films of the Korean New Wave Movement

By Stella Royo

In 2020, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) became the first South Korean film to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Interna-

tional Feature Film at the Academy Awards. The film’s national and international success demonstrates the globalization of South Korean film, specifically thriller and horror film, in the 21st century. This globalization originates from the Korean New Wave movement of the 2000s and 2010s, a movement characterized by directors such as Bong (Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), Mother (2009)) and Park Chan Wook (Oldboy (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005), Thirst (2009)).

In this article, I examine South Korean thriller and horror films from the Korean New Wave movement
in relation to the national cultural, social, and polit- ical trauma of South Korean history, specifically the Korean War. I claim that, like many East-Asian cine- mas, South Korean cinema uses the family to represent the nation and South Korean thriller and horror films use familial trauma, supported by themes of memory, to represent the national trauma of the Korean War and the resulting Korean Conflict. Using Bong Joon Ho’s Mother and Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy, I argue that South Korean thriller and horror films use famil- ial relationships, specifically the relationship between parent and child, to represent the national relationship between South Korea and North Korea, as well as the international relationships between South Korea and countries such as the United States and Japan.

Korean National History in South Korean Cinema

South Korean cinema’s representation of Korean national history transformed throughout the 20th century, from films that used melodrama and comedy to disengage audiences with history to those that used historical drama to engage audiences with history ex- plicitly. The Korean New Wave Movement of the 21st century redefined cinema’s representation of national history and the resulting national trauma through thriller and horror genres, but the foundation of this movement was the films of the late 20th century, spe- cifically the 1990s.

In “Post-Trauma and Historical Re- membrance in Recent South Korean Cinema”, Film scholar Kyung
Hyun Kim examines South Ko- rean cinema’s transition from

genres such as the melodra-
ma and screwball comedy,
whose main goal was to en-
tertain and make profit, to
genres such as the historical
drama, whose main goal
was to establish a national
identity by acknowledging
national history. Kim states
that “[in the 1990s] no nation
in East Asia...was more inse-
cure about its national identity
than Korea, given the country’s
history of....violence [by] both Jap-
anese and American colonialism”. He
argues that, as a result, South Korean cinema established a post-traumatic identity character-
ized by heroization and villainization. However, more important than cinema’s use of heroicization or villain- ization is its use of victimization.

In Hollywood, victimization is used to establish the duality of the protagonist and the antagonist. (Protag- onists are victimized and antagonists victimize.) In South Korean cinema, it is used to establish the identi- ty of the protagonist. (Protagonists are victimized and, as a result, victimize others.)