Mediating Eurasian Pasts: An Interview with Soyoung Kim
This is part of our special feature, Thinking Eurasia Now.
In her cinematic and scholarly work, filmmaker Soyoung Kim engages with theoretical and practical questions on national and global cinema and mediates, through cinematic media and installations, historical events such as colonialism, dictatorship, and displacement before, during, and after the Cold War. Particularly in her documentary essayistic work on the Koryo minority, a Korean-ethnic population displaced thrice—under Stalin, through the Japanese occupation, and after the Soviet occupation following the Cold War—Soyoung Kim retells the historical trauma of this people and articulates it in vivid ways within larger geopolitical and climactic archways. Her visual work touches on “scales of time and space, which do not nest neatly but have oddly configured geometries.” Her work contributes to the decolonization of memory and foregrounds spaces of subalternity within Asian cinema but also discusses the impact of globalization on this cinema. In this interview, she discusses the meaning of Eurasia while reflecting on Eurasia’s mythical, geographical, and colonial underpinnings.
Kim’s work invites us to imagine European studies from non-western angles and look at multidirectional possibilities of engagement with memory, displacement, and exile. The Stalinist persecutions have often been erased from collective memories; however, many people across Eurasia, broadly defined in its European, Asian, and Central Asian dimensions, were affected by Stalinist deportations during and in the aftermath of WWII. Such atrocities constitute a bond of sadness that transcends national appurtenance and creates strong links across spaces and cultures. My interlocutor’s work prompts us to situate colonial memory in broader comparative contexts, think about complex nation state formations, and find new modalities of mediation of historical pasts in visual terms and in global contexts.
—Arina Rotaru for EuropeNow
EuropeNow You grew up in South Korea during the Cold War military dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee. In one of your recent writings, you describe your thirst for travel during that period as “geofantasy.” Can you explain how you perceived your inability to travel to Eurasia at the time and your understanding of “critical geopolitical fantasies” and their role in your life?
Soyoung Kim I grew up under a military dictatorship during the Cold War era, in which restrictions were not only imposed on freedom of speech but also on freedom of travel. Hence, when I was a teenager, I occasionally went to the Kimpo International Airport in Seoul just to see an airplane takeoff. The wind was harsh in the remote airport field. I would take a deep breath and was amazed when glimpsing at a runway and a couple of airplanes in the air. Up until the early 1980s, international travel was only for the privileged, for workers dispatched to take part in “the gulf boom,” or for soldiers sent to Vietnam. However, these potentially enriching experiences of travel and displacement were seldom used as distinct opportunities to learn about other cultures in Asia. Travel was purely for economic gain. Entering the Asian continent by crossing a border by land (initially via northeast China) was also impossible for South Koreans because of the Cold War and the partition of the Korean peninsula into North and South Korea. As the northbound route was blocked because of North Korea’s regime, no travel to Eurasia was possible over land or sea, including to China, the Soviet Union, and more distant locations. Today, the new Asia Highway project, currently spanning 32 countries and running through Korea, China, Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, follows the exact routes that were once completely blocked.
I also grew up hearing my mother speak about the immense horizon and the sun over it in Manchuria. She went there to visit her father, who had fled to Harbin after the Japanese occupation of Korea. She often told me that the color of the sun she saw from the window of the trans-Manchuria train became the reigning color of her life. She also added that she saw dead bodies in the fields. She was seven years old in 1942 when she went there, just after the outbreak of the war.
I would like to comment on the notion of critical geopolitical fantasy, which simultaneously circumscribes, traverses, and transforms the imagined communities of “finite, if elastic boundaries beyond which lie other nations” (Anderson 1983).Whereas imagination in “imagined communities” is a protective and proactive mental work for the modern nation-state, critical fantasy concerns the person who doubts, disrupts, and transcends the finite boundaries of the nation-state and nationality. The critical geopolitical fantasy is not very concerned with a protective fiction and fantasy of existent boundaries, geography, and mapping in “realpolitik.” Rather, it encompasses a series of topological cuts into imagined communities. The space of Manchuria and some Manchu/Continental action films offer a unique opportunity to discern the importance of Manchuria and Manchukuo, the puppet state of the Empire of Japan in Manchuria from 1932 until 1945, as a trans-Asian phenomenon, and conceptualize the trans-Asia geopolitical fantasy derived from the over-determined meaning of location. In my book Korean Cinema in Global Contexts (2022), I reflect on the Manchu Western movies as sites of public fantasies but also as places of intersection between the East and West, as Manchukuo Westerns borrow some “generic” Western motifs, such as expansive, untamed frontiers, hybridized cowboy costumes, horse riding, and showdowns.
Critical geopolitical fantasy, through dis/location and the troubling process of identification represented in popular culture, allows us to reflect on an alternative mode of engagement with the political unconscious of the modern nation-state. Moreover, it can provide an unexpected platform for trans-Asian cultural flows. By contrast, former Manchuria and current Northeast China, for instance, are sites of confrontation, conflict, and friction. The Northeast China project has more recently created some controversy. Commonly defined as a national academic project, the Northeast China project aims to confirm that northeastern China, which includes the early Korean kingdoms that were once located there, has always been under the control of the Middle Kingdom. Such sites of confrontation still constitute a point of confluence where history’s disquiet meets the present political turmoil.
EuropeNow In your work, you use key terms such as “trans-Asia” and “trans-cinema” and in 2000 you also founded the Trans Asia Screen Culture Institute. What does the prefix “trans” mean for your intellectual project?
Soyoung Kim The term “trans” (易) stands as a threshold crisscrossing and highlighting multilayered signifying processes. “trans” in Trans Asia Screen Culture is used in the same way as it is in in transnational—where it indicates something that goes beyond the national. Therefore, in “trans” Asia, the term means something that goes beyond Asia and underscores the idea of translation and transformation; the prefix is not used to indicate the flow of transnational capital, as it is often used. I chose the Korean-Chinese term 역(易), which is similar to the term in 周易 the Book of Change, and much more than a prefix; it has become a Sino-Korean word/expression has become a connector that mediates the translation of histories.
EuropeNow In your documentary Exile Trilogy, Heart of Snow, Heart of Blood (2014), as well as in its preamble Kim Alex’s Place: Ansan-Tashkent, Sound of Nomad: Koryo Arirang (2016), and Goodbye My Love, North Korea (2017), you examine the trajectory of the Korean diaspora in Russia and Central Asia through the fate of its protagonists, whether famous or ordinary people, who lived in in-between worlds. How do these multilingual inhabitants feel about Eurasian spatiality? How do they cope with the rise of nationalism in the new Central Asian republics?
Soyoung Kim Kim Alex, the protagonist of two of my Exile Trilogy films, was born in Uzbekistan and was a descendant of Koreans forcibly moved by Stalin to Central Asia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Uzbek government confiscated Alex’s fortune. Alex now runs a small 24-hour restaurant, “Tashkent,” in Ansan, South Korea, a city of immigrants and migrant workers. Alex’s story brings forth a more complex history of mobility and migration across Asia—the story of the survival and revival of Soviet Koreans over the last 150 years, as well as the story of how they navigate space. Alex is indeed a victim of nationalism, which has risen as a result of the reformation of the post-Soviet republics.
EuropeNow Your projects circumvent two major analytic themes: the building of a diasporic archive and the concept of subaltern cosmopolitanism. How have you integrated these two themes in your work?
Soyoung Kim With regard to the diasporic archive, the Koryo Saram (Koryo people) are descendants of Korean people from eastern Russia who survived being forcibly transferred by Stalin into Central Asia. The Koryo people were victims of history, as they settled into their new lives and rebuilt communities in Central Asia. Later, they re-entered history as agents, as their various generations preserved, adopted, adapted, and synthesized their inherited culture. They “became” historical memory as well as the embodiment of a historically described present. My late father, Yolkyu Kim, a professor of Korean Literature, wrote extensively on the Arirang music that was sung by the Koryo people in Central Asia and Russia after a research trip to the area and subsequently completed a book on Arirang in the Korean peninsula. Sound of Nomad: Koryo Arirang (2016) engages in a dialogue with footage found in archives, reanimating the sound and image of the nomadic past of the Koryo people. When we read the archive in light of issues faced by the diaspora, intriguing ideas emerge The two concepts—the archive and the diaspora—almost cancel each other out, as the archive moves toward storage, whereas the diaspora moves toward dispersion. The erasure of both concepts that emerges ironically evokes traces of the collective memory of ethnic minorities. These ethnic minorities traveled and performed for a diverse public throughout the Soviet Union. Through its dynamics and turns, the diaspora archive challenges the common meanings of its components. The amalgam of diaspora and archive points to a lack or excess in each component: a lack in the diaspora and an excess in the archive. Documentary production also functions as a response—which entails a responsibility—to the diaspora archive in becoming. In the second part of the documentary, archival footage is reanimated with aleatory encounters. Koryo Saram, by filmmaker Song Lavrenti, a second-generation Koryo, features fluent speakers of the Koryo language who are not ethnically Koryo. Multifarious possibilities of assemblage and editing of archival footage with live footage render this kind of documentary practice a form of “Worlding,” i.e., a complex and dynamic assemblage of ever-renewing realities, sensations, and perceptions we must constantly work through in order to hold open “the open of the world.” Put differently, Worlding is the “historical process of taking care, setting limits, entering into, making world horizons come near and become local, situated, in/formed, cared for; instantiated, as an uneven/incomplete material-cultural process of world-making and world-becoming” (Wilson 2007, 216).
More specifically, I am referring to the kind of worldism that (世界主義- Sino Korean) Koryo people encountered and formed with other ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union, from the time they lived in Vladivostok to the time they were deported to Central Asia. Vladivostok, which is about an hour’s journey by plane from Seoul, has recently emerged as a popular tourist destination but used to be beyond the realm of political imagination for South Koreans. In the 1920s and 1930s, Vladivostok, referred to as a small St. Petersburg, was a cosmopolitan city. The establishment of the Far Eastern Republic there is explained as follows: The Far East of Russia was a remarkably fluid region during the period leading up to the Russian Revolution, as well as during and after the revolution. Different contenders, including Russians, Buryat-Mongols, Koreans, and Ukrainians, competed in the region, working toward alternative futures while also imagining them. Various imperial planners, including those from Russia’s expansionist legacy, as well as Japan’s and the United States’, sought to integrate the region into their political and economic spheres of influence, while the Bolsheviks sought to export their revolution to Mongolia, Korea, China, and Japan. Various regionalists aimed for independence or effective regional autonomy for the Siberian and Far Eastern groups that were discriminated against, and such efforts peaked with the short-lived Far Eastern Republic from 1920 to 1922.
The Far-Eastern region is located between Lake Baikal and the Pacific Ocean and includes territories ceded by China to the Qing Empire in 1858–60. In her book Other Asias (2008), Gayatri Spivak addresses Soviet Central Asia as a “Global Subaltern” region and draws readers’ attention to areas such as Armenia and Afghanistan. Armenia, for instance, poses for Spivak an interesting case of Christianity in “a sea of Islam,” which, in turn, presents important theoretical challenges to the theory of postcoloniality. The world created by the films of the Korean Central Asian-born Song Lavrenti, North Korean defector Yang Won-sik, and Choe Guk-in spans the Eurasian continent, crossing Russia and Central Asia. The hybridization of Korean people extends beyond independent countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, to connect them with Chechnya, which also represents a partial component of the Islamic world network. The prism created by these diasporic fragments reveals an area much wider than the current sovereign territory of Korea. The spectrum of these fragments highlights a space that has deviated slightly from Korea’s globalization, centered around the United States, Japan, and China’s imperial shadows. These spaces are not entirely filled with utopian hope, but they do present a different world from that drawn by the current late Cold War neoliberalism. What is the worldliness of this world? As these fragments are scattered and spread outwardly, they also point symbolically to Korea’s destiny as fragments of this separation.
When it comes to the second-generation of Koryo people, Song Lavrenti’s directorial focus is less on the Korean identity and rather on gratitude and obligation toward the host nation (Kazakhstan) and on solidarity with other minority groups (such as the Chechens who migrated to Central Asia). In his play Music Teacher, he expresses gratitude to the Jewish conductor Ilya Moiseyevich, demonstrating a sense of openness toward other minorities. This gratitude reflects the tension between the propaganda of the socialist state, which includes federal policies against minority, and the cosmopolitanism of the subaltern subject, as well as the tension between nationalism and the communal society. The cosmopolitanism of the subaltern subject refers to a social entity that is derived from immigration and migration (such as forced deportation). This cosmopolitanism opposes federal policies targeting minorities in states such as the Soviet Union, pointing to the internationalism of peasants, workers, and nomads in Central Asia. This tension also exists between the opening of a multicultural, multi-ethnic utopian political society, which emerged after the catastrophe of forced deportation and the federal policies of the Soviet socialist state aimed at minorities.
In his essay Cosmopolitanism, cultural theorist Pheng Cheah argues that the philosophy of cosmopolitanism, which originated in eighteenth-century Europe, contributes to the production of institutions that can regulate the globalized present, characterized as a connected world. He raises two questions: Can a global form of political consciousness or solidarity rooted in the sense of belonging to the same world be established and sustained within these institutions? Can this political consciousness affect the functions of these institutions? The cosmopolitanism of nomads such as the Central Asian Koreans and Kazakhs, which was observed historically and experientially under Soviet rule, raises a different problem from that raised by Cheah and other postcolonial scholars. Is it better to understand the cosmopolitanism of nomads as a practice of everyday life rather than as a philosophy? The Kazakhs’ culture of hospitality, which involves feeding and accommodating strangers for at least three days, is still present in the region. However, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since 1990. In his 25-year rule, the president of Kazakhstan named the university in his new capital of Astana after the idiosyncratic Russian post-war writer Lev Gumilev, who styled himself as “the last of Eurasians.” How can global intellectuals contemplate the subaltern cosmopolitanism of non-Western, Soviet, and nomadic Central Asia? If the Greek etymology of cosmopolitanism refers to the world (universe) and city (polis), then does the concept of worldliness in nomadic spaces such as Central Asia need to be conceptualized in a fundamentally different way from the meaning given to it in Greece or eighteenth-century Europe?
In Latin, “catastropha” means a tragic ending or catastrophe, but is also refers to a decisive event that leads to a turning point in a play and resolves conflicts in a spectacular way. The narrative of the forced deportation of the Koryo people constitutes a clash between memories of catastrophe transmitted from ancient times and the utopian vision of the second generation of Koryo people in Kazakhstan. Among the Koryo directors in Kazakhstan are Song Lavrenti, Choi Guk-in, and Yang Won-sik, all of whom are North Korean-born graduates of the Moscow National Film School. They have made both fiction and documentary films, not only about the history and present of the Koryo people but also about other minority groups. Their work effects a projection of memory and is composed of the present and the past, which overlap in temporality.
In the diaspora, Koreans created new spaces with Russians, Jews, Chechens, and Ukrainians through neighborly relationships, intermarriages, and joint migrations. They became nomads with the Kazakhs and taught farming to the Chechens who did not know how to farm. They were accused of wanting to help the German army achieve independence for Germany during World War II along with the help of Chechen and Ingush populations. These accusations resulted in approximately 400,000 people being exiled to Kazakhstan and Siberia in 1943–1944. The Chechen–Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was also abolished at that time, and most of its inhabitants returned to Central Asia and established a new autonomous republic in 1957 under Khrushchev’s repatriation measures. At that time, the Chechens encouraged Koreans, who were good at farming, to travel with them.
Together, they became wealthy farmers in Chechnya but also sacrificed themselves during the Soviet massacre of Chechens. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Koreans became migrant workers and returned to Korea, living with the Yanbian Korean Chinese and Southeast Asian workers in “multicultural” cities such as Ansan and other rural areas. When Koreans fled from the Japanese to the Russian Far East (to Vladivostok, for example), they learned about socialist internationalism and contributed to the Russian Revolution.
The history of Koreans in the region was only recorded from the perspective of their geographical connection to Central Asia and the Yeonhaeju region, located at the southeastern end of Russia and where Koreans emigrated to in the early 1900s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Therefore, the memories and origins of these early generations of Koreans in the region have been gradually forgotten. The nostalgia Korean migrants felt about the Korean peninsula began as soon as they emigrated in the 1860s but was replaced by a nostalgia for Yeonhaeju. As this memory started to fade, Koreans became involved in farming, nomadism, and migrant labor. Films, plays, novels, and other works produced during their migration journey all addressed the diaspora’s survival and revival. The coming together of farmers, nomads, and migrant workers into a Korean lifeworld provides an example of a unique survival strategy and struggle for recognition in the era of globalization.
EuropeNow One of your recently co-edited volumes, Worlding Asia in the Anthropocene (2022), connects fantasies of world endings but also of re-makings of Asian and European sites. Your new project, an exhibition on “The Climate of Cinema” is featured at the Busan Museum of Contemporary Art; it unearths important traces of Eurasia embedded in ancestral pasts and ecological but also futuristic perspectives. How did you conceptualize the exhibition? What connections do you create between Eurasia and the issue of the climate? And what work do the installations and films that you curated, including your own work, SFdrome, do to explain our contemporary condition?
Soyoung Kim The exhibition The Climate of Cinema: Isle, Planet and Postcontact Zone runs until August 6, 2023. To prepare for it, I explored the notion of a “postcontact zone” in an essay titled “Post-contact Zones (en)encountering COVID-19.” In this essay, I drew on Donna Haraway’s “Training in the Contact Zone,” which articulates the vicissitude of contact zones by highlighting a yellow contact zone, defined as an agility training zone for dogs and humans and a site of human–dog entanglement. Haraway engages with Louise Pratt’s “contact zones,” James Clifford’s contact zone in historical contact, works of science fiction, and works delving into assemblages of biological species outside human’s comfort zones. Disparate cultures, subjects, and multispecies are intertwined in the contact zone evoked by Mary Louise Pratt and Donna Haraway: “a schema permeated by power, violence, non-violence, and force, where the signifier SF—string figures, science fact, science fiction, speculative feminism, and speculative fabulation—are contagiously entwined” (Kim 2020).
Saodat Ismailova, who was born in Uzbekistan in 1981 and currently lives in France, is one of the protagonists of the exhibition I curated. Her retrospective exhibition, “18,000 Worlds,” will be held at the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam in 2023. Representative of the work of the first generation of artists who grew up in Central Asia during the post-Soviet era, her works such as The Haunted, Two Horizons, and Stains of Oxus represent multiple SF genres, including (post)Soviet fiction, speculative fiction, and science fiction. These works depict the horizon of lost history as the constellation of the extinct Turan tiger, the shaman seeking immortality, and the Cosmodrome haunt.
Inspired by an array of SF, my three-channel video work SFdrome: Ju Sejuk (2018) is an installation I created for the Arrival of New Women exhibition at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Arts in Seoul I finished this work after completing the Exile Trilogy, which was set in Central Asia and Russia. Ju Sejuk (aka Vera Han), a Korean socialist feminist exiled by Stalin to Central Asia, contributed two essays to the journals of the time, including the famous New Woman journal. One of her essays addresses non-bourgeois women’s body politics, whereas the other constitutes a critique of male leftists’ hypocrisy toward free love. The artistic and intellectual path of Ju Sejuk, from Hamheung (North Korea) to Shanghai, Kyongsong (Seoul), Vladivostok, Moscow, Almaty, and finally Kyzylorda bears witness to the lesser-known internationalist lines of the leftist movement in the region inclusive of Soviet Asia. The SF referent denotes the relationship between socialist feminism and science fiction. My film is set in Kazakhstan, a land of exile for both Ju Sejuk and Trotsky during the Stalin era that represents approximately a quarter of the world’s area devoted to nuclear testing. The action unfolds in a place of near oblivion, in a post-Cold War landscape. Mnemonic politics, such as Mankurtism, which still dominate the area today, is pervasive in post-Soviet contemporary art in Central Asia. In art, the practice of Mankurtism entails the decolonization of memory as it was imposed by the Soviet Union and other former Imperial forces in the region over centuries. The ideologically-driven division of knowledge production during the Cold War and the postcolonial period has curtailed studies on the legacies of leftist politics in general, which explains, in part, the lack of research on socialist feminist such as Ju Sejuk and Hu Jeongsuk—two founding feminist figures of the time. Orbiting Soviet Asia from Far East Asia and Central Asia beyond the Korean peninsula, Ju Sejuk’s voluntary and involuntary trajectory encourages one to rethink internationalism, international spaces, and socialist feminism, which have been forgotten and erased. In my work, SFdrome: Ju Sejuk, I bring together her revolutionary life and modern girl/new women figures, as these were featured in films at the time. In the video, she works in the dark, locates her temporary abode (in lieu of a home), and walks toward the world, after she awakens in the hollow colonial archive. As I discuss in my essay on “Postcontact Zone,” I rely on an experimental video to illuminate her vanished legacy as well as other places and spaces that have been left out of the histories of leftism and feminism, not only in the West but also in East Asia. The dust and noise that appear on the screen when we, the spectators, awaken the dead act as mediators.
SFdrome: Ju Sejuk points not only to historical traces of socialist feminism beyond East Asia and across Eurasia but also engages with the world’s nuclear testing zone, a remote area of Kazakhstan. Creating art today, during the post-pandemic crisis, is an endeavor to redeem something that has been written off. The life of Ju Sejuk in SFdrome offers us strange and terrifying landscapes, which are doubled by a particular kind of mystique. These landscapes influence the mission of film as a historical artifact and our own fragile condition in this era of continuous environmental and geopolitical crisis.
Soyoung Kim is a filmmaker, Program director and academic. She directed two documentary trilogies, the first on Korean women’s history comprising Koryu: Southern Women, South Korea (2001), I’ll Be Seeing Her (2002) and New Woman: Her First Song (2004), and the second titled Exile Trilogy, which includes Goodbye My Love, North Korea (2014-2018). Her recent published works include Korean Cinema in Global Contexts: Post-Colonial Phantom, Blockbuster and Trans-Cinema (2022), and she is also the editor of a 10-volume History of Korean Cinema. Additional information about Soyoung Kim’s work can be found under www.soyoungkim.net
Arina Rotaru is an Assistant Professor at Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University, United International College, who earned her PhD in German Studies and Comparative Literature from Cornell University and her BA from the University of Bucharest. Her research interests include comparative modernities, minoritarian avant-gardes, world literature and film, and diasporic poetics.
Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
Cheah, Pheng. 2006. “Cosmopolitanism.” In Theory, Culture, Society 23, no. 2-3, 486-496. https://doi.org/10.1177/026327640602300290.
Kim, Soyoung. 2020. “Post-contact zones: (en)countering COVID-19.” In Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 21, no. 4, 557-565. DOI:10.1080/14649373.2020.1831813.
Spivak, Gayatri. 2008. Other Asias. New Jersey: Blackwell Publishing.
Wilson, Rob Sean, and Christopher Leigh Connery. 2007. The Worlding Project: Doing Cultural Studies in the Era of Globalization. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.
Published on September 12, 2023.