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Last Updated: 02/19/2013Sunny (2008): Representations of Militarism, Masculinity, and the Korean Experience of the Vietnam War
Sunny is a 2008 South Korean film directed by Lee Jun-ik about a woman who goes to extraordinary lengths to be with her husband who has been conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War. In this film analysis essay, OH Kyung-jin discusses the historical context of both Korea's involvement in Vietnam, and the various treatments of that experience in Korean film. The essay focuses particularly on Sunny (2008), which also allows the author to reflect on the formation and reformation of feminine identities in compliance with the demands of a hyper-masculinized and militarized social environment.
Conventionally both masculinity and femininity have been treated as ‘natural’, not created. Today, however, there is mounting evidence that they are packages of expectations that have been created through specific decisions by specific people. We are also coming to realize that the traditional concept of masculinity and femininity have been surprisingly hard to perpetuate: it has required the daily exercise of power- domestic power, national power, and, as we will see, international power. (Enloe, 1990: 3).
Korea’s Involvement in Vietnam War
This essay attempts to explore the interrelated mechanism of militarism, nationalism, masculinity and war by analyzing one Korean movie about the Vietnam War, ‘Sunny (2008)’. For Koreans, the Vietnam War was a very painful experience. From 1965 to 1973, more than 320,000 Korean soldiers were dispatched to the battlefields of Vietnam, among which approximately 50,000 died and 15,000 were injured. Accordingly, looking into the historical background of Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War, we can see a slice of tragic Korean modern history represented by unprecedented economic growth and President Park’s Development dictatorship.
In 1964, President Park Jeong-hee announced his decision to dispatch Korean troops to Vietnam. The official reasons for Korea’s entry into the Vietnam War are mainly two. First, the Korean government claimed that it would be the best time diplomatically to strengthen friendship and solidarity between the U.S. and Korea by repaying what Korea owed to the U.S. from the Korean War in the 1950s. Second, from an economic standpoint, the U.S. government promised to significantly increase the amount of aid towards Korea on the condition of Korea’s military support for the U.S. in Vietnam; aid that would allow the Korean government to embark on large scale social infrastructure projects, especially roads and highway construction.
However, looking more deeply into the domestic political situation in Korea at the moment, there were complicated circumstances behind this matter. In fact, above all, President Park had to take prompt action to facilitate economic growth as a justification of his regime, which had provoked the people’s disagreement and rage regarding the legitimacy of the process of his takeover of power.[i] In addition, Park’s second hidden interest was to thoroughly capitalize this opportunity to imbue an anti-communist ideology within the public with the purpose of systemically increasing government control and enforcing the social hierarchy. Consequently, it has been argued that Park’s ultimate goal during this time seemed to be the adoption of a complete ‘military nation system’, meaning that every man is seen as a soldier who is ready to dedicate himself to his own country in order to be considered a citizen, as was the case in Turkey under Mustafa Kemal’s rule after 1923 (Cockburn, 2010: 113-114).
Considering how the concept of ‘citizen warrior’ is socially constructed and is internalized into the people's consciousness as if it were very natural and traditional, Tickner (1992: 36-41) says that extreme polarization of masculinity and femininity plays a pivotal role in the process of glorifying the mandatory military service system as a sacred, inherent responsibility towards the nation, which is not given to women. That is to say, by defining men who are entitled to protect national security by serving in the army as the most desirable citizens, represented by ‘manliness, energy, prowess and courage’, consequently, women fall into the category of secondary citizens and become a symbol of ‘unpredictability, capriciousness’, which are exactly opposite to the characteristics of a ‘real man’.
Thus, it seems apparent that the gender-based hierarchal structure influenced by a patriarchal order, Confucian culture as well as the nation’s strict conscription system in Korea provided the Park’s regime with a good foundation upon which to build a military nation system. In this sense, it can be said that the gender hierarchy was fostered by the state itself during the period largely due to the government’s special interest in tightening the control over people. Cockburn (2010:109) argues that ‘war is relational and systemic, and actual wars are only phases in a sequence of conditions linked together as a “continuum’’’, given the fact that culture, society, mindset, domestic politics, military investment, industrialism, and diverse forms of gender-based violence, including physical, mental and structural violence, are all interconnected each other themselves and are directly linked to war.
As a consequence, women in Korea, who had experienced suppression and discrimination by men for a long time under the solid patriarchal system built up on the basis of Confucianism from the 16th century, had to witness their position’s constant degradation even during the period of economic development under the Park’s regime (Cho, 2000; Kim, 2001).
Vietnam War Movies in Korea
Since mass media and pop-culture were severely suppressed by the central government under the Park regime, movies that directly bring into question the cause or legitimacy of Korea’s participation in Vietnam War could not be made. Instead, the Vietnam War films made from 1960s to 1980s in Korea were mainly either vehicles for anti-communist ideology or thematically based on the tragedy of love between a young male soldier who goes to war and his girlfriend.
However, after the 1990s, movies examining the Vietnam War more carefully and from a philosophical point of view began to emerge. Along with this change, the themes and stories have become more diversified (Kang, 2010: 183-203). For example, a core idea that embraces the whole movie of ‘White Badge’[ii] (1992) is the complete devastation of the human soul by war. This movie deals with the lives of two Vietnam veterans who have serious trouble readjusting to society, largely due to painful memories of a bloody massacre of innocent civilians. Meanwhile, ‘Sunny’ (2008) is about a long journey of a young woman who goes to Vietnam to find her husband.
‘Sunny’: the Film about a Young Woman
The movie ‘Sunny’ is made in 2008 by Lee, Joon-ik, one of the most famous film directors in Korea. Looking briefly at the plot, ‘Soo-ni’, a protagonist in this movie, is a young rural woman who got married to a blunt, cold man named Sang-gil. Realizing that Sang-gil was shipped to Vietnam, she decides to go there and meet him. Among few options to go to the battlefield as a civilian, she joins a band which is going to give a morale-boosting concert in the army bases in Vietnam and make money. Thus, she becomes a singer named ‘Sunny’.
This film offers a vital clue in understanding how gender hierarchy, nationalism, militarism and war form a strong symbiotic relationship among each other. Above all, when examining thoroughly how the character ‘Sunny’ is depicted in the movie, it is easily noticeable that she, herself does not exist in reality but, indeed, is merely a false image that men’s fantasy and myths about women created under their delusion.
The movie faithfully portrays a process of Soo-ni’s change in compliance with men’s desire in a hyper-masculine society. In a highly militarized society, women become the ‘others’ from the standpoint of men, who appear to be the ‘desirable, right citizens’, since they take the ‘full responsibility’ of the citizen by serving in the army. However, women cannot enter into the category of ‘full citizen’ and are thus automatically degraded to a secondary position.
Moreover, war intensively accelerates this mechanism. During this process, double standards of women’s image and value, which is either mother or prostitute, are formulated. Both roles are designed to satisfy men’s ambivalent desire, a sexual instinct and a need for leaning on somebody (Ueno, 2010: 79-82).
At the very beginning of the movie, Soo-ni is described a docile, passive and subordinate traditional Korean wife. However, she is gradually transformed into the sexy, active woman, and becomes a symbol of Korean young soldiers’ sexual desire. Along with the change of her appearance, her name also is changed from Soo-ni, which used to be a traditional Korean name referring to a passive and rustic girl, to Sunny, a fashionable and cute Americanized name. Her changes, including her name, fashion and image, are not intended by herself voluntarily, but enforced by others, which are men. For instance, in a ship heading to Vietnam, Jeong-man, a band leader, complains about her countrified name, Soo-ni, and orders her to change her name to ‘Sunny’. In fact, Jeong-man is the one who takes the lead in changing her image from the passive, decent lady to the sexy, glamorous singer. He even selects her stage costume. A couple of scenes in which Sunny wears her original, decent fashion style, covering the whole body unless she stands on the stage, strongly imply that her change is involuntary and only for the sake of others.
Thus, during the process of her unwanted change, her soul also becomes gradually devastated. The scene that Jeong-man tries to get attention from the soldiers by lifting Sunny’s skirt abruptly without her permission demonstrates the fact that from the moment that she arrived at Vietnam, her identity becomes nothing but the depersonalized object which kindles soldiers’ sexual desire.
However, when she finally meets her husband in a battlefield on the last scene, she is again transformed into the image of ‘mother’. Motherhood is the women’s second role in embracing men in a warm, magnanimous way like their own mothers and understanding, encouraging them unconditionally, regardless of what they do. In this sense, Soo-ni’s image as the great mother figure embodies a mother of her husband Sang-gil, of young soldiers in Vietnam, and even of the nation itself.
Indeed, Sunny’s double image – on the one hand, subordinate, devoting her life to her family like mothers, on the other hand, sexy, seductive and vulgar girl – are the fantastic delusions of men. Accordingly, Sunny is not a real person, but a women character that exists only in the fantasy of men who are thoroughly conditioned by militarism and masculinity.
Figure 1: The Change of Character ‘Sunny’ (Soo-ni)
The story is told in chronological sequence, causing the change in Sunny’s character to be starkly noticeable. On top of that, there is a clear distinction between that songs that Sunny and Soo-ni sing respectively. While Soo-ni constantly sings one Korean sad song named ‘My love is far away,’ Sunny sings more bright and cheerful songs on the stage, both Korea and American songs, such as ‘Susie Q’ and ‘First Sergeant Kim is back from Vietnam’.
Various Forms of Gender-based Violence in War in the Movie
The definition of security is a complicated matter, since everybody feels differently about their own safety. Furthermore, every sort of violence is closely interconnected. Therefore, it could be argued in a broad range that imperialism, militarism, racism, sexism and structural violence cannot be interpreted in isolation of each other (Tickner, 1992:54-55; Cockburn 2007:13-17). The movie ‘Sunny’ shows how women are even more severely damaged by various forms of violence during wartime than men through Sunny’s experience in Vietnam. Indeed, she is exposed to the gender-based violence, including mental, physical and structural violence against her, every time, everywhere in Vietnam. Therefore, while the enemy of the Korean troops, and thus her husband Sang-gil, is explicitly represented as Vietcong, for her, everybody can be the enemy. In this sense, whereas Sang-gil can fight with his comrades against the enemy, she is completely alone in her own battlefield.
Considering that this movie concentrates on dealing with Sunny’s tragic fate resulting from the Vietnam War, it seems reasonable to think that director Lee wanted to say something about how women’s experience of war should be clearly distinguished from that of men. However, it is a noteworthy fact that the way in which he interprets feminism has given rise to a harsh criticism on the side of Korean feminists (Lee, A. ‘Why is Soo-ni almost naked when she sings a song?’ Oh My News, 2008-07-30). In an interview with Korea’s local newspaper, Chosun, Lee says that he attempted to give a feminist message to audiences by translating Korean modern ‘history’ related to the Vietnam War into ‘her story’, which means Sunny’s story. According to his point of view, Sunny symbolizes the great power of women who have divine, immutable motherhood and can embrace the wounded heart of soldiers experiencing the misery and atrocity of war. Furthermore, he argues that, given the fact that the film ‘Sunny’ is about the indomitable spirit and untiring efforts of a young Korean woman in order to achieve her goal, which is to find her husband, it is reasonable to say that this movie falls within the category of feminism films. For instance, regarding the scene that Sunny seems to agree to sleep with one American army officer to ask for his help in finding her husband, Lee says that it clearly proves how bravely she behaves in order to attain her aim. He also added that he casted Soo-ae (a Korean actress widely known for an innocent, pure and feminine image (Park, S.Y. ‘Soo-ae tops list of ideal type of Korean men: no scandal, an actress by nature’, Sports Seoul, 2012.02.02) even before meeting her, skipping all the audition procedures. In other words, he thought that her image was optimally fitted to the character of Sunny. The following sentences are excerpts from an interview with one Korean local newspaper:
When I just happened to look at a picture of a company of entertainers giving a music concert in the army base, I have become immediately so fascinated by such a fanatical atmosphere filled with joy, excitement and rapture at that place, and the fact that even one young woman can give such a tremendous comfort to hundreds of soldiers. This was my starting point of this movie[…] With respect to the reason why I casted Soo-ae in the leading role, I personally think that in 1970s, the most desirable women were our mothers. Mother is the first love of all men. However, I feel that in the contemporary world the ladies are somewhat different from our mothers. However, in contrast to them I firmly believe that Soo-ae is the most suitable actress in Korea for the character ‘Sunny’, considering that she has a strong image of such motherhood that invokes nostalgia for our mothers in the past (Lee, H. J. ‘Lee Jun-ik casted Soo-ae, an actress who best fits the image of every man’s first love for his next movie’, Sports Cho-sun, 2008-06-30).
Masculinity and Femininity in the Militarized Society
Militarization can be described as a certain kind of transforming process, and the range in which militarization has an influence on is in fact unlimited – from a can of soup in the kitchen to movie stars (Enloe, 2000: 2-11). According to Enloe’s analysis about the infiltration of military culture into our daily lives, Sunny, who seems to be a symbol of greatest power of women, to the director’s mind, virtually exists only as a metaphor of hyper-femininity which rather consolidates and reinforces hyper-masculinity during the wartime. It means that her existence can be justified only when she remains as the object of every man’s desire or just a ‘secondary citizen’ without daring to encroach on the domains of men. However, despite of the fact that the movie depicts wartime experience of 1970s, it is reasonable to conclude that Korean society is to date still trapped in highly militarized culture. Hence, women are continually subjected to be judged by the standard of femininity by men, considering the uncompromising glorification of femininity in our present society, which is represented by ‘Soo-ae’. In this context, it can be argued that director Lee seems to misinterpret the success of extreme femininity that fantasy and myths of men’s desire have created as the real success of Sunny.
What is worse, it is an undeniable fact that, in Korea, there is a tacit bond between militarism and capitalism, which includes the prostitution industry surrounding military bases, which has only grown in the last 40 years, largely due to the unresolved armed conflict on the Korean peninsula and the rapid spread of neo-liberalism ideology across the society. In our circumstances, capitalism, nationalism, militarism and hyper-masculinity have deeply pervaded the people’s daily lives, leading to the sexual objectification of women simply on the basis of the value of commodities.
Meanwhile, this movie also unveils that such a firmly constructed masculinity is nothing but an illusion. Firstly, most male characters in the movie are described as being incompetent and weak. Especially, Jeong-man, the band leader, who always walks with a swagger, but all of what he says is nothing more than bluff. On top of that, there is an interesting scene that soldiers are making a fuss about competing with each other for Sunny’s panties in the middle of her performance, relying on a vulgar belief that those who keep women’s underwear never die in a battlefield. A scene about this myth also appears in the movie ‘White badge’, which shows soldiers wearing women’s panties as a last resort for survival in a war.
Figure 2: Scenes about the Myth of Women’s Panties
However, ‘Sunny’, like many other Korean movies about Vietnam War, does not delve deeper into the cause of war itself, or question the legitimacy of the Korean government’s decision to replace the lives of 50,000 young soldiers with a fund for the national infrastructure project. I assume that it has to do with the current atmosphere of Korean society. In fact, up until now, people in Korea remain deeply affected by the ideologies of patriotism, nationalism and the myth of economic development led by Park’s regime, which appears to be unprecedented in world history. Therefore, it is not easy for anyone in Korea to raise a serious question as to whether or not the militarization of the whole society is necessarily an effective means for achieve national security. Unfortunately, the moment that someone begins to talk about demilitarization, even today, he or she is marked as a pro-North Korean activist who threatens national security.
Books and Articles
Cho, H. H. (2000) You Are entrapped in an Imaginary Well: the Formation of Subjectivity within Compressed Development – a Feminist Critique of Modernity and Korean Culture, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol.1, No.1, pp.49-70
Cockburn, C. (2007) From Where We Stand: War, Women’s Activism and Feminist Analysis, London: Zed
Cockburn, C. (2010) Militarism and War, In Shepherd (ed.) Gender Matters in Global Politics: A Feminist Introduction to International Relations, New York: Routledge
Enloe, C. H. (1990) Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, Berkeley: University of California Press
Enloe, C. (2000) Maneuvers: the International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, Berkeley: University of California Press
Kang, S. L. (2010) Movie is History: Korean Modern History through the Lens of the Movies, Seoul: Salimtyeo (written in Korean)
Kim, H. M. (2001) Work, Nation and Hypermasculinity: the ‘Woman’ Question in the Economic Miracle and Crisis in South Korea, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol.2, No.1 pp. 52-67
Tickner, J. A. (1992) Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security, New York: Colombia University Press
Trinquier, R. (1964) Chapter, 2: Modern Warfare Defined, In Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency, Westport: Praeger
Ueno, C. (2010) Misogyny, Tokyo: Kinokuniya Shoten (written in Japanese, translated in Korean)
Lee, A. ‘Why is Soo-ni almost naked when she sings a song?’ Oh My News, 2008-07-30 (in Korean) Accessed on January 20, 2013
Lee, H.J. ‘Lee Jun-Ik casted Soo-Ae, an actress who best fits the image of every man’s first love for his next movie’, Sports Cho-sun, 2008-06-30 (in Korean) Accessed on January 20, 2013
Park, S.Y. ‘Soo-Ae tops list of ideal type of Korean men: no scandal, an actress by nature’, Sports Seoul, 2012.02.02 (in Korean) Accessed on January 20, 2013 http://news.sportsseoul.com/read/entertain/1006150.htm)
[i] Park Jung-Hee seized power in a military coup in 1963 in Korea and held his presidency for 17 years by several constitutional amendments by force which appeared to be illegitimate. His daughter, Park Geun-hye was elected to the 18th president of Korea on 19 December 2012.
[ii] ‘White Badge’ is a film in 1992 directed by Chung Ji-young known as one of the best movie directors in Korea. (for more information: http://www.koreafilm.org/feature/100_91.asp) In this movie women appear on only a few scenes and they are mainly engaged in pub or prostitution industries. Considering the fact that it focuses on the feebleness of former combatants after the war and how war devastates humanity, this movie can be categorized as an anti-war film. However, an interesting aspect of the film is its representation of modern warfare through scenes of guerilla attacks and insurgency rather than traditional battles. In this film the Korean troop to which the main characters belong had not experienced actual battle for more than 2 years, implying that there were only a few explicit, visible frontlines in the Vietnam War (Trinquier, 1964: 5-7).
OH Kyung-jin is a student in the Master of Development and International Cooperation programme at the UPEACE Asia-Pacific Centre.