Lecture Series: Chisu T. Ko, “Korean Women, Argentine Documentaries: A Look at La Chica del Sur (2012) and Una Canción Coreana (2014)”

On April 25, 2019, GWIKS and Latin American and Hemispheric Studies co-sponsored a lecture series with Professor Chisu Teresa Ko, Associate Professor of Spanish and Coordinator of the Latin American at Ursinus College, on “Korean Women, Argentine Documentaries: A Look at La Chica del Sur (2012) and Una Canción Coreana (2014)”. Moderated by Professor Jisoo M. Kim, Director of the Institute for Korean Studies at GW, Dr. Ko briefly explained how the Argentinian filmmaker José Luis García produced his 2012 documentary La chica del sur (“The Girl From the South”). In 1989, José Luis García arrived to World Festival of Youth and students in Pyongyang, where he met Lim Su-kyung, a young South Korean student who attended the festival in representation of  the student organization Jeondaehyop. Lim had obtained the nickname Flower of Reunification by calling for reunification of the two Koreas, openly criticizing the South Korean Government, sympathizing with North Korea, and insisting on returning to South Korea through the military demarcation line in the DMZ. Enchanted by Lim’s bold and charismatic gesture of traveling to North Korea despite South Korea’s strict national security laws, García later searched her on the internet, traveled to South Korea and interviewed her in 2011. Dr. Ko then introduced another film Una Canción Coreana (“A Korean Song”), co-directed by two Argentine directors, Gustavo Tarrío and Yael Tujsnaider. An-Ra Chung, unlike Lim Su-kyung, is not a famous political icon, but a typical Korean immigrant in Buenos Aires. The documentary portrays Chung’s busy daily life, complex family and work, and a process of opening a new Korean restaurant. Chung is represented as a member of a Korean community that exist in a segregated bubble with little exchange with what is considered Argentine society.  

Dr. Ko points out how the films depict both Lim and Chung’s voices being silenced by gender power dynamics and changing political discourses. While Lim spoke in front of the international press and tens of thousands of spectators about the issues of inter-Korean relations, she is still expected to maintain the role of typical Korean women, preparing food for her guests and family and not participating in conversations. In the documentary, Lim remain silent and invisible when surrounded by older Korean men, and strangers comment on her appearance. Men would explain things to her, even her own political ideology, despite her status as a political icon, activist and professor. Even García himself seems more infatuated about the idea of fragrant Oriental woman and absorbed in the urge to liberate her from oppressive, patriarchal society, rather than addressing the issue of reunification or gender. The documentary  Una Canción Coreana highlights the contradiction of a superwoman who seems to lack a sense of self. Chung is a successful business woman, a voice teacher, a performer and a mother of two children. The film also display her as someone who lacks individual identity and describes herself in tentative terms. The image of Oriental with with lack of self identity maps out perfectly to her construction of herself in hierarchical relation to others, such as her mother-in-law. The film also displays that her husband Victor Ho making all the decisions for her and speaks for her.However, as the film continues, the audience witnesses Chung taking control of and becoming an agent in of the production of the film. The filmmakers’ portrayal reveals the Argentine imaginary of Korean women silenced in patriarchal society.   

Dr. Ko remarked that there has been a surprising surge of documentary films about the Korean community in Argentina recently. This sudden interest of Korean community follows simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility of Koreans in the Argentine imaginary. Korean immigration to Argentina began in 1960s and peaked in 1990s. Reportedly more than 40,000 Koreans are settling in Argentina. Until recently, representation of Korean community in popular culture and media had been scarce and often negative. They were invisible because they were considered numerically insignificant, foreign, and highly unsimilarable group. But other times, they were hypervisible for the same reasons. The large influx of Korean immigrants in the 1990s was considered “yellow invasion” and Korean immigrants were accused of not learning Spanish, tax evaders, exploiters, and even slave holders. Stereotypes about Korean immigrants can be seen from the sketch character La Coreana performed in yellowface by comedian Juana Molina. La Coreana is described as supermarket owner who is very sneaky and smart with money, always finding ways to rip off her customers, but unintelligent in everything else and used broken Spanish. While much of explicit anti-Korean portrayal id disappearing from mainstream media, Korean descendants are often discriminated against as ultimate foreigners. After discussing the representation of Koreans in Argentine media, Dr. Ko concluded the lecture by arguing that within the realm of representation of Koreans and Asians at large in Argentina, these films exemplify an important turning point. Within the problematic new model of Argentine multiculturalism based on a system of recognition that maintains the hegemony of the recognizer and essentializes the recognized, the position of Asians in Argentina is especially problematic. While Asians have been highly visible as instruments of multiculturalism, they were considered outsiders, exotic foreigners locked in Argentine ideology of Orientalism .       

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