Visions of America: Korean Language Films Staged in the US(1963-2014)

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Jacob Ki Nielsen
Name in Latin Alphabet:
Nationality: 덴마크
Affiliation: University of Copenhagen

This paper focuses on US Korea relations in a controversial body of primarily Korean language films staged in the US since the mid-1960s, referred to as “America films.” It begins with a contemplation of the category America film, the research method, collection of the empirical material and theory. As a contextual backdrop, the first part of the paper offers a discussion of representations of America and the US Korea relation in films that are NOT considered as America films; including Hollywood films and films staged in South Korea. Unsurprisingly Koreanness in Hollywood is, with few important exceptions, Orientalized. America and the US Korea relation in Korean language cinema is, conversely, inflected by Occidentalism but altogether a complex theme that calls for more in-depth examination. The second part of the paper pursues the US Korea relation in terms of migration. It is established that Christianity / Protestantism constitutes an important transnational ethnicity, binding the two nations together across the Pacific. Interestingly, the early America films of the mid-1960s, coincides with a soaring number of US-bound emigrations, driven by the American dream and promises of modernity, freedom and mobility. During these years domestic cinema as well as Hollywood is characterized by positive representations of multicultural family-making in Cold War coalition films that allegorize the alliance between the free non-communist nations (particularly the US, Japan and South Korea) through depictions of migration, intercountry adoption, interracial romance, matrimony and procreation. The first America films to thematize the émigré expatriate experience abroad emerge in the 1970s and comprise a host of themes such as fake marriage, anti-emigration discourse and patriotic return. The late 1980s and early 90s marks the “heyday of the America films,” which can be ascribed the transnationalization of media markets and a booming economy that arrived with the conclusion of the Cold War. Seoul is imagined as overhauling America but following the 1992 LA riots the number of America films produced sharply drops while the 1997 Asian financial crisis marks another key moment of transformation. The final part of the paper discusses how the category America film highlights the multiple beginnings of the transnationalization of cinema and of Koreanness. The paper assumes an interdisciplinary scope and draws on critical theory from cultural studies, ethnic and racial studies, film studies (auteur and genre theory), minority and migration studies, and modern Korean history. The overall aim is to delineate an understudied piece of South Korean cultural history and to contribute to existing scholarship on the US Korea relation in the post-WWII era and its cinematic representation and to a growing number of academic texts on the transnationalization of cinema in the context of the new multicultural and global Korea in what could be seen as an emerging field of transnational Korean Studies and (South) Korean multiculturalism studies.

Bio note: Jacob Ki Nielsen is a PhD in Korean Studies (2014) from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. His thesis Fictions of Kinship focuses on multiculturalism and ideological transformations of Koreanness and kinship in South Korean cinema and television dramas from the 1990s to 2013. He is currently an Associate researcher at the Department of Public Health at the same university and an Academy of Korean Studies Junior Research Fellow. His most recent publication is titled “The Return of the Returnee: A Historicized Reading of Adult Overseas Adoptees ‘Going Back’ in South Korean Cinema,” pp. 23, The Review of Korean Studies 18(1), 2015: 153-177. Contact:

Key words: Korean and transnational diasporic cinema, the US Korea relation, multicultural and global family and migration, Whiteness and Koreanness.