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International Journal of Korean History > Volume 28(1); 2023 > Article
Yoo: From Patriarchal History to Korean Ethnoformalist Speculative Empathy: Squid Game and the School Nurse Files

Introduction

In “The Memory Boom: Why and Why Now?” David W. Blight writes, “over the past century, the Western world has experienced at least two major memory booms”–the first during 1890–1920, marked by famous fictional writings and academic investigations by the likes of Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, and Marcel Proust, and the second since the 1990s (2009: 243). He highlights that the “‘memory boom,’ or ‘memory industry’ has swept over both scholarship and civic life” for the past several decades (243). Andreas Huyssen argues that the memory boom is not just a Western phenomenon; it is seemingly happening everywhere. He terms this phenomenon the “globalization of memory” (2000: 24) and states, “The world is being musealized, and we all play our parts in it” (25).
Here, I would like to focus on the following questions: What kind of memory is it? Is it melancholic, nostalgic or traumatic in character? Is the past remembered in an idealized way or as a period of trauma? Is it a personal or a collective memory? If it is the latter, which period is chosen to be remembered? Is it the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s? Who owns and controls the work of remembering? How does one’s racial, ethnic, national, and gender identity work with one’s remembering? This paper aims to answer these questions by looking into two popular South Korean Netflix dramas: Ojingŏ keim (Squid Game: 2021) and Pogŏn kyosa An Ůn-yŏng (The School Nurse Files: 2020). Although the international success of Squid Game initiated much discussion by the public and film critics, there has not been enough research on a particular mode of remembering found in this work. This paper foregrounds this mode of remembering by arguing that the male characters in Squid Game produce a patriarchal national lineage by sharing their homosocial childhood memories. In the process, the female characters and foreign nationals are excluded from the South Korean male bond, although the drama ignores these social disadvantages. Moreover, this paper argues that childhood is nostalgically remembered as a period of innocence, but this remembered immaturity must be eventually overcome to become a grown man.
In contrast, the mode of remembering childhood in The School Nurse Files radically differs from that of Squid Game, as the female protagonist appears as the active agent of remembering–instead of an object or medium of male characters’ remembering– specifically involving the past traumas of others using her power of speculative empathy. This research asks what the appropriate way is to remember and witness traumatic past events for others by exploring the malleable border between reality and fantasy. In this way, drama portrays childhood not in an idealized and nostalgic way but as a victimized and corrupted period due to adult greed and the capitalistic structure.

Memory Boom

Over the past decades, considerable effort has been made and debates have been ignited over academic research, archival projects, and discussions among historians about crucial South Korean historical moments, such as the Kwangju Uprising in 1980 or the South Korean “comfort women” in Japanese army camps during World War II. However, the memory work in contemporary South Korean visual media has recently become something entirely different as the media industry commodifies memory for both local and global target audiences. For example, there is a group of films aimed at representing the history of the Korean War (1950–1953), including Taegukgi (2004), Welc ome to Dongmakgol (2005), The Front Line (2011), Ode to My Father (2014), and Operation Chromite (2016). There is another group of films that revisits student activism, the democratization movement, and the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, such as The President’s Barber (2004), The President’s Last Bang (2005), The Old Garden (2006), May 18 (2007), National Security (2012), Nameless Gangster (2012), 26 Years (2012), The Attorney (2013), 1987 (2017), A Taxi Driver (2017), Ordinary Person (2017), and The Man Standing Next (2020). As the films in the first group often convey anti-communist, nationalistic, and male-centered agendas, their directors have often been labelled “right-wing.” In contrast, the films in the second group mainly promote anti-authoritarian, anti-nationalistic, democratic agendas, earning the directors the label “left-wing.”
Since 2010, however, there has been a new phenomenon of revisiting memories of the 1990s as audiences born in the 1970s and 1980s have reached their 30s and 40s. Arguably, the pioneering work in this regard is the cable TV drama Reply 1997 (2012), which revisits the 1990s instead of the Korean War or democratization movement. The plot of Reply 1997 unfolds with a female teenage protagonist who is a huge fan of a first-generation K-pop boy band. The enormous popularity of this TV drama allowed the director to update the premise of the series into the dramas set in divergent historical and social circumstances such as Reply 1994 (2013) and Reply 1988 (2015). Since then, the South Korean media industry has evinced its addiction to this relatively recent period of the 1990s. Major South Korean TV channels MBC and KBC aired Miss Korea in 2013, Children of the 20th Century and Go Back Couple in 2017, and Twenty-Five Twenty-One and Reborn Rich in 2022 which are also set in the 1990s. Retro culture, or more widely, newtro culture, a neologism which means repacking retro-culture as if it was brand new, has dominated mainstream visual media, Gen Z’s street fashion, cafe interiors, and web design ever since.
These nostalgic sensibilities found in South Korean visual media are not unique to the country, although the way they record and revisit the past can be distinguished from the approaches in other countries. As Blight and Huyssen mention, there has been a global memory boom. What is truly unique, however, in contemporary South Korean visual media is the fact that nostalgic desire is expressed using self-infantilization, that is, through what I call a childlike aesthetic mode. The best examples of self-infantilization and the childlike aesthetic mode can be found in the imagery in several K-pop music videos. In the pre-PSY K-pop period and in what Michelle Cho calls the “post-PSY moment,” the childlike aesthetic mode remains equally dominant (2017: 241). For example, PSY’s music video “Daddy” depicts the main character across three generations. The grandfather, father, and baby are all played by PSY (Park Jae-sang) himself (fig. 1). While the scenes showing the grandfather are set in a typical South Korean house and the old PSY plays poker surrounded by older Korean women, the self-infantilization that the child PSY exhibits represents the childlike aesthetic mode that makes the music video comical.
Embracing an idealized view of childhood by playing a child is also a dominant mode in K-pop today (in the post-PSY era) such as in BTS’s music videos. For example, “Dynamite” (2020) uses disco-style choreography and fashion, where the members pay homage to Michael Jackson’s dancing. Even more notable, however, are their self-infantilization and childlike aesthetic mode. With childlike facial expressions and pastel-colored backgrounds and clothes, they dance in front of a donut shop and on a basketball court (fig. 2). Furthermore, Jungkook drinks a cup of milk in a bedroom full of posters of past stars, such as The Beatles, Queen, and AC/DC. In another scene in the music video, RM appears in a record shop surrounded by LPs of artists that RM personally admired in his childhood, such as Guns N’ Roses, Wham!, Billy Idol, and The B-52s. On the basketball court, Suga is wearing a Tune Squad jersey from the movie Space Jam, which he has cited as his favorite film as a child. The music video for their subsequent release, “Permission to Dance,” shares this childlike aesthetic mode. Again, with pastel-colored backgrounds and clothes, there are scenes of American pre-teens dancing like BTS, and three teenagers also roam around following a purple balloon. In other scenes, adult Americans dance like teenagers. The message is clear: do not grow up; stay young and carefree.
Both PSY’s and BTS’s ways of remembering the past and their connections with a nostalgic revisiting of the 1990s are particularly important for understanding the dominant aesthetic in other forms of South Korean visual media. Especially in PSY’s “Daddy,” although the three generations of South Korean male protagonists have their differences, what remains constant is their flirtation with diverse groups of women (fig. 3). The generational differences and conflicts among the three generations are resolved by their similar treatment of women and their popularity with those women. In this sense, the Korean patriarchal lineage is connected through the shared memories of the three generations of male characters–memories of flirting with women. Thus, each of PSY’s individual memories transcends the collective memory of South Korean males regardless of their age or generation. In this patriarchal lineage and collective memory of the males, the female characters appear merely as objects, not subjects, of these memories.

South Korean Males’ Intergenerational Shared Memories in Squid Game

I begin this paper with the elements in PSY’s “Daddy” of a collective nostalgia, individual memories of childhood, self-infantilization, a childlike aesthetic mode, and patriarchal lineage because these characteristics are especially symptomatic not only in K-pop music videos but in current South Korean visual media. In this sense, Squid Game and The School Nurse Files, two megahit South Korean Netflix TV dramas, are particularly significant and comparable. Both exhibit a childlike aesthetic mode, with pastel-colored backgrounds, sets, and computer-generated imagery (CGI), and both infantilize the protagonists by having them play children’s games in Squid Game and using children’s toys to battle enemies in The School Nurse Files. The protagonists in both dramas also recall their childhood memories and compare them to those of the older generation. However, while Squid Game connects individual memory to collective memory through the patriarchal lineage and by instrumentalizing female and foreign characters, The School Nurse Files uses a speculative mode to represent the hidden histories of oppressed and marginalized people using a female protagonist as an agent of remembering and historicizing.
In Squid Game, the main character Sung Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) and the game’s secret designer Oh Il-nam (O Yeong-su) have conflicting worldviews. This clash is epitomized in the drama’s final episode, where Gi-hun visits Il-nam on his deathbed. During their reunion, Il-nam suggests to Gi-hun that they play another game. Watching a drunk man passed out on the street in the freezing cold through the window, Il-nam says, “That man out there, if he remains out there until midnight, I win. If anyone goes to help the drunk before then, in that case, you win” (episode 9 00:32:00). Il-nam believes people lack goodwill in general and that life is fundamentally a game of survival, where one should kill others to thrive. Gi-hun, who belongs to a younger generation of South Korean men, believes that people are essentially good and help each other, even though he belongs to the working class and remains at the bottom of the social ladder. In this contrast, Il-nam represents the worldview of the older generation of South Korean men, the “industrialization generation” born in a poor Korea that became enormously rich during the period of South Korea’s astronomical economic and technological development in the 1960s and 1970s. He says it is true that he lived in a poor neighborhood in his 20s and later amassed unimaginable wealth. Gi-hun and his cousin Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), however, represent the younger generation of South Korean men, who had great hopes for the democratization movement and cultural renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s, but were excluded from partaking in society’s wealth due to the globalized, neoliberal, capitalistic structure that prevented them from climbing the social ladder without inherited wealth.
Gi-hun and Sang-woo’s desperate lives represent young men’s exclusion from traditional masculine roles in South Korea. Gi-hun cannot play the role of a traditional father figure, as he does not even have money to buy a birthday gift for his young daughter. He has tried to take care of the female members of his family, such as his wife, daughter, and ailing mother, only to constantly fail. Gi-hun seems to remain in an infantile womb-stage of life, parasitically living in his mother’s small apartment and feeding off her small income (fig. 4). In this sense, he epitomizes a marginalized and oppressed victim of the cruel, neoliberal, global capitalist system that has emasculated him because of the older generation’s greed for capital accumulation and unwillingness to extend the same social mobility for the next generation.
However, a closer analysis uncovers that the drama places more emphasis on the many traits that Gi-hun and Il-nam share than it does on their intergenerational differences. First, despite their intergenerational conflict over wealth and views of the world, they share similar personal memories. For example, the metaphor Gi-hun uses to identify himself and other participants when he first suggests they form a team is significant. When Gi-hun joins the game for the second time, he says, “We’re like a bunch of soldiers at training camp, huh?” and then arbitrarily assigns ranks to each player (episode 3 00:09:05). He tells the immigrant worker Ali, “You will be the new recruit” (00:10:05). He proceeds, Sang-woo “is the skilled corporal, and that means I’m a sergeant” (00:10:10). Then to the oldest participant, Il-nam, he says, “You can be the old major who’s been in the army his entire life” (00:10:17). By bringing up the male South Korean shared memory of serving in the army, he tries to bridge their generational and professional differences.
It is crucial to investigate Gi-hun’s assignment of a rank to each player (fig. 5). Through this arbitrary assignment, he expresses his traditional value of age-related hierarchy that South Korean males share. Although Il-nam is the weakest player, Gi-hun assigns him to the highest rank in the army because he is the oldest player. Sang-woo is smarter than Gi-hun and is probably comparable in physical ability, but Gi-hun puts Sang-woo in the corporal position, below the rank of sergeant that he assigns himself, because he is older than Sang-woo. Moreover, Gi-hun exhibits xenophobic discrimination against Ali Abdul (Anupam Tripathi) despite appearing to do him a favor by inviting him to join the team. Although Gi-hun is unaware of Ali’s intelligence, capability, or age, he immediately uses informal speech with him and assigns him to the lowest rank in the army. When Gi-hun attempts to employ the metaphor of military service to establish a masculine bond among the players, Ali does not understand what it means and asks, “A training camp is what?” Thus, this shared memory is one that excludes Ali from the group by simultaneously including him in the lowest rank and placing him in a disadvantaged position in the team’s decision- making process. Similar to what Han Gil-soo terms “K-pop nationalism” in the ethnocentric use of blackface and other instances of racism in K-pop music videos, Squid Game’s use of Ali’s identity as an immigrant worker is a phenomenon that I would like to call K-drama nationalism (2015: 12). Undoubtedly, the female players, who are not mandatorily drafted into Korean army and thus would not be familiar with what each rank means, are also excluded from this male solidarity. This shows that Gi-hun embodies traditional South Korean patriarchal views the most among the players.
Besides their shared memories of military service, Gi-hun and Il-nam share personal memories of childhood games. Among the total of six games, Gi-hun and Il-nam have advantages due to these shared memories. In particular, Gi-hun remembers how he can win the second game, ppopgi, which involves removing a shape from honeycomb candy. He draws on his memories and survives despite his disadvantage of choosing the most difficult shape to remove. Furthermore, Il-nam remembers how to win the third game, tug of war, which enables his team, including Gi-hun, to survive. Gi-hun also has an advantage in the final squid game, as he played it many times as a boy. Therefore, although the game appears fair to everyone, it is in fact not fair at all. The South Korean male players have advantages not only in their superior physical ability but in their shared childhood memories. The flashback scenes of Gi-hun in the opening of the first episode make it clear that the final game was popular among Korean boys, as the scene depicts only boys playing it. The immigrant Ali, female North Korean refugee Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), and South Korean female participant Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-ryeong) do not share the same memories of childhood games and, hence, begin the competition at a disadvantage.
Considering this, it is not coincidental that Il-nam calls Gi-hun his kkanbu–bestie. Through childhood memories, the two men share a nationalistic homosocial bond as South Korean men that excludes other participants. It is not an exaggeration to state that Gi-hun is essentially chosen to be the winner by the game’s designer, Il-nam. When the players vote to leave the island, Il-nam personally visits Gi-hun at a convenience store in Seoul and makes it appear like a coincidence (fig. 6). Gi-hun has no intention of returning to the game, but Il-nam motivates him to change his mind by telling him, “I decided to go again. […] I got harsh reminders. Yeah. What they say is true. Out here, the torture is worse” (episode 2 00:45:40). This comment influences Gi-hun to reconsider the outside world as something even worse than the game, which motivates him to return to the game, where he ultimately becomes the winner. In this regard, what Il-nam says at the convenience store is significant. Gi-hun says, “Oh, it’s a small world. […] what are the odds you’re here at the same time as me?” Il-nam answers, “You know, I think we were destined to meet here” (00:43:40). This meeting foreshadows what happens later. Gi-hun thinks this meeting with Il-nam and his success after returning to the game are coincidences, but both have been pre-arranged by Il-nam. Il-nam volunteers to join Gi-hun’s team, which enables Gi-hun to win the third and fourth games–tug of war and the marble game, respectively. Therefore, Gi-hun does not win the third and fourth games by luck, coincidence, or his capability but with Il-nam’s assistance. In addition, when a gang fight breaks out, Il-nam does not send a signal to the game’s organizers to intervene until Gi-hun is in danger. Il-nam allows other participants to be killed, but he chooses to keep Gi-hun alive and allows him to take advantage of this gang fight.

Collective Memories Used for Strengthening the Patriarchal Lineage

Considering Gi-hun’s memories and his personality, Il-nam’s choice makes sense. Il-nam constantly tries to teach Gi-hun a lesson, and the lesson is clear: life itself is a squid game, which abides by the survival of the fittest principle. At the convenience store, although Il-nam says, “What they say is true. Out here, the torture is worse,” in reality, this is not what they say but what he says as the game’s owner and creator (episode 2 00:45:40). He takes the trouble of visiting Gi-hun personally so he can repeat this lesson to him. In the game, since Gi-hun believes humans are inherently good, Il-nam pretends to have dementia, which leads Gi-hun to cheat in order to win against him. Through this manipulation, Il-nam tries to bring Gi-hun’s inherent evil to the surface and teach him that he is not exempt from the world’s impurity and harsh reality.
In this regard, Il-nam serves as a father figure for Gi-hun. It is significant that the drama portrays Gi-hun as a fatherless character. The lack of a father figure and disconnection from the male lineage infantilize him, as he is depicted as if he is symbolically remaining in his mother’s womb. Also symbolic is a scene where he fires a toy gun instead of one that can shoot an actual bullet (fig. 7).1 The toy gun symbolizes the infantile stage at which he remains and his emasculation. From Il-nam’s perspective, only if Gi-hun understands the principles of the outside society and the harsh reality of the world’s competition can he finally become an adult male–the same patriarchal figure that Il-nam is–and continue the male lineage as a traditional breadwinner. Hence, Il-nam bequeaths his legacy to Gi-hun before his death, which is the only resource that Gi-hun lacks to function as the patriarchal breadwinner in capitalist South Korea. In this sense, Il-nam re-masculinizes Gi-hun by changing his soft-minded, infantile personality into that of a tough male capable of killing others to win the lethal, competitive game.
The process of de-masculinization and re-masculinization in Squid Game relates to South Korea’s colonial history. Kyung Hyun Kim, in his book Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, analyzes New Korean Cinema and argues that masculinity is a psycho-social paradigm that allegorizes the historical traumas of the Korean War, Japanese colonialism, and military dictatorships of the Cold War period (2004: 2). He further argues that South Korean films of the 1980s and 1990s promote a masculine rejuvenation by emulating Hollywood action heroes (2). In Squid Game, however, the Western world’s aggressive intrusion and intervention in South Korean politics and economy appear as the primary reasons for the emasculation and infantilization of South Korean men. This is symbolized by the rich white men in masks. When one of these white men sees Jun-ho, a handsome South Korean police officer disguised as a waiter, he demands Jun-ho to perform oral sex on him. Unlike Gi-hun, who does not have a real gun to shoot due to his demasculinized status, Jun-ho in this moment is fortunate to have a real gun that enables him to escape before a foreign white man can emasculate him further.
In this regard, Il-nam’s re-masculinization of Gi-hun using their shared childhood memories and patriarchal lineage can be interpreted as a modernistic rewriting of postmodern temporality. Gi-hun and Sangwoo, who belong to the younger generation of South Korean males, seem not to bother about historicity and temporality in the long durée, such as traditions or male lineage. They are not nostalgic at all about a lost masculinity, as they are not even cognizant of having lost it, as neither has had a “proper” father figure to teach them these lessons. The only thing they care about is immediate profit that will enable them to pay their debts. Fredric Jameson calls this kind of temporal diminishing a postmodern phenomenon in his article “The End of Temporality.” He argues, “in the form of the narratives we consume and the stories we tell ourselves […] [i]t is scarcely surprising that the historical past has diminished accordingly” (2003: 704). In the place of a diminished past and temporality, he adds, only “some new non-chronological and non-temporal pattern of immediacies” are left (707). Likewise, the space in which Gi-hun and the other participants play the game seems to be a non-chronological and non-temporal place where no one can decipher the time or date (fig. 8). Hence, the only thing that matters is winning the game at hand. It does not even matter how brutal the previous games were, how one survived them, or the trauma inflicted by witnessing the deaths of others in the previous games. All that matters at each stage is concentrating on the game at hand.
Thus, Il-nam’s effort to recuperate the South Korean male lineage by sharing his life lesson with Gi-hun can be called modernistic desire. With a long historical tradition and temporal duration in mind, Il-nam finds that he shares something in common with the next generation of South Korean men and tries to transform Gi-hun into a proper heir who can carry on his memories. In this sense, the childhood memories that Gi-hun and Il-nam share function as a catalyst for transforming Gi-hun’s postmodern personal memories into a modernistic collective memory of patriarchal male lineage. At the same time, childhood memories are portrayed as things all South Korean men should overcome to become grown adults–in other words, to become true South Korean men. In that sense, Squid Game has an ambivalent relationship with childhood memories. While they can bridge intergenerational conflicts between men and restore the South Korean male lineage through images of purity, an idealized form of intact masculinity, and innocence, after such a line is connected, men are asked to discard their childhood memories and properly deal with the harsh reality of life, that is, move on to the adult world.2 Nevertheless, the drama makes it unclear whether Ki-hun abandons his childhood memories and entirely succumbs to patriarchal lineage, as his red dyed hair and refusal to fly out aptly imply.

Corrupted Childhood in The School Nurse Files

While Squid Game engages with a realist aesthetic mode, The School Nurse Files employs a speculative mode to foreground a rich history that can only exist on the malleable border between reality and speculation. In contrast to Squid Game’s views on childhood memories as pure and innocent, and thus as hurdles to overcome in order to be an adult, The School Nurse Files frames childhood memories as corrupted and impure due to the greed of adults and the neoliberal economic system. Although Squid Game uses the personal childhood memories of characters belonging to different generations to make collective memories of patriarchal lineage, The School Nurse Files provides a different notion of history by rescuing unofficial histories of marginalized people from the speculative power of Korean ethnoformalism.
Squid Game evinces a binary understanding of childhood as an innocent and pure period and adulthood as corrupted and harshly competitive. In contrast, The School Nurse Files shows that the two periods cannot be separated, as the adults’ greed and neoliberal economic system continuously seep into the children’s lives, both victimizing them and making them into victimizers. The School Nurse Files begins by introducing the protagonist, Eun-young (Jung Yu-mi). The story is set in the high school where Eun-young works as a school nurse. She has a supernatural power that allows her to see dead people, living people’s unconscious desires, and supernatural beings, such as omchabi (mite-eater), frequently depicted in Korean folklore. In her fictional world, the dead and the desires of the living are embodied in jellies with the potential to hurt other living beings, and hence, she is responsible for protecting the students with her toy lightsaber and BB guns.
From the first episode, the drama reveals the contrast between understanding of the teenage students by the school administrators (or lack thereof) and the realities of the teenagers’ lives. The first episode begins with the students doing warm-up exercises, which the school principal forces them to perform every morning during homeroom (fig. 9). The students follow the principal’s examples aired on screens in the classrooms. After the students complete the warm-up exercises, the principal instructs them to laugh loudly, as his motto is “good luck comes with laughing.” The school’s mandatory warm-up exercises and laughter represent the school administrators’ desire for biopolitical control of the students’ bodies and emotions under the guise of enhancing their physical and mental health. The show thus demonstrates the school administrators’ patronizing view of the teenage students as manageable, controllable, and premature beings.
However, as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the students are completely out of the school’s control. They forge a teacher’s signature and cheat on an exam. The students’ behaviors and desires are indistinguishable from the greedy behaviors and corruption of the adult characters depicted in the drama because the students establish a power hierarchy among themselves, making the weak students work for the powerful ones and making homophobic and discriminatory comments that demean the disabled and LGBTQ schoolmates. The negative energy and dark desires of the students create harmful jellies in the school (fig. 9), which only Eun-young can see and destroy.
Like Squid Game, The School Nurse Files also begins with flashbacks of protagonist Eun-Young’s personal memories. However, her childhood memories are the opposite of Gi-hun’s nostalgia in Squid Game. In the opening scenes, Eun-young’s father leaves her at a nursery school after her mother dies. When her father detaches his hand from the hand of a teacher at the school, jellies are created and sag down between their hands, establishing that a sort of affection has been formed between the two characters (fig. 10). As only Eun-young can see this trace of hidden desire between her father and her future teacher, it is clear that little Eun-young can perceive the world’s dirty secrets– to a greater degree than what her father is aware of himself. Her childhood memories are not pure and innocent but are full of dead people and dark desires of the adults surrounding her. For example, in later episodes, Eun-young recollects her time in high school. The classroom she remembers is full of grotesque zombie-looking jellies lingering and dangling from the ceiling (fig. 10). This implies the negative energy in South Korean high school classrooms due to the increased competition among students and their hardships resulting from neoliberal economic disparities. Whereas Gi-hun and Il-nam miss their childhoods in a nostalgic way, Eun-young has no desire to return to her childhood, as it was as bad as or even worse than her present.
The contrast between the school administrators’ patronizing view of childhood and the opposite reality is also reflected in the school’s layout. The school is full of monuments and photos of its dead founder, Hong Jin-Beom (Jeon Gook-hwan), as a patriarchal father figure (fig. 11). In this way, the school forces the students to memorialize his patriarchal legacy and his educational philosophy, which is based on a paternalistic attitude toward the students and biopolitical control. Although the school memorializes this father figure in a hyper-visible way, the school’s basement houses a secret history of oppression. While working at the school, Eun-young finds this hidden space in the basement of the school’s main building. She learns that centuries ago, in the pre-modern Chosŏn Era, there was a pond in this place. She finds a headstone showing that many young lovers committed suicide in the pond for centuries due to its strong geomantic energy (P’ungsuchiri 風水地理). The bodies of the young dead people fed and spawned animals, such as toads and fish. She also uncovers that the founder of the school initially knew about the negative energy of the site and intentionally built a school on this spot to exploit the geomantic energy for his own gains. As the episodes progress, Eun-young further realizes that two evil entities– Anjŏnhan Haengbok 안전한 행복 (Safe Happiness), a cult-religion-sponsored private company, and another mysterious group, Ilgwang Sotok 일광소독 (Sunlight Sterilization)–have been struggling to take ownership of the school and use the geomantic power for their own economic gains. Neither party cares about the students’ well-being and merely considers them human resources they can control and exploit. While these two groups feud, a monstrous toad escapes the basement to devour the students. In addition, when the negative energy is unlocked, the students turn into discriminatory victimizers that verbally demean their disabled and LGBTQ schoolmates. This shows that the teenage students and the adults are not divided into two different groups or periods in individuals’ lives; rather, the adults’ feuding, greed, and neoliberal school reform influence the students in a negative way, making them both victims and victimizers simultaneously.
By excavating the hidden truth of the school’s history, Eun-young’s personal memories become connected to the collective memories of South Korean teenagers, not through the invocation of patriarchal lineage but through the sharing of traumatic memories and psychological pain. Her trauma is not a temporary incident or individual event but a structural one perpetrated through many centuries of Korean history. Even in the pre-modern era or the modernized present, the young students are proverbially standing at the edge of a cliff while the adults are ignorant of their pain and only thinking about how to exploit them as human resources. Eun-young’s painful personal memory provides her with the power of empathy for other students’ trauma, which allows her to excavate the trauma as a collective one among all the past and current students in the school’s long history.

From A History of Patriarchy to An Ethnoformalist History of Korea

The history portrayed in The School Nurse Files is not one that is officially recorded, monumentalized, or “musealized” (as in “made into a museum collection”). The official history that this visual work criticizes is a patriarchal one, complete with the school founder’s monuments and displayed records. Yet there is another kind of history that requires a historian and an archivist’s constant effort to excavate. This work uses the genre of fantasy and its speculative mode to explore the rich history of South Korea that can be found only through the malleable border between reality and speculation.
Stephen Hong Sohn’s concept of “Korean American ethnoformalism” is particularly useful here, although I will modify his term as Korean ethnoformalism (2020: 224–25). Sohn writes, “I define ethnoformalism through the ways that Korean American writers respond creatively to historical traumas such as war and colonialism through the malleable borders between speculation and realism” (225). The School Nurse Files uses the speculative mode to respond to the historical traumas caused by biopolitical control of the teenage students and neoliberal school reform, albeit not the traumas of war and colonialism on which Sohn focuses.
Eun-young plays the role of a historian/archivist in the drama’s plot. The marginalized history that official records and monuments hide is excavated by her efforts. This marginalized history is not just that of the school’s students but expands to marginalized adult working class men and the memories of non-human beings. In the fifth episode, Eun-young’s former schoolmate Kim Kang-sun (Choi Joon-young) visits her. It is implied that Kang-sun is no longer human, as he is present in one scene, and in the next shot, he is invisible to the audience. He reveals to Eun-young that he died at work, and he finds that his ghostly being is also disappearing and asks her to help him survive as a ghost. However, she cannot find a way to help him. Right before his second death, he testifies that his first death resulted from the construction company’s greed–the company chose not to replace an old, dangerous machine to save the cost. He says, “It happened at work […] at a construction site. I extended the excavator so that it would reach the high-rise building. But it changed direction in a flash. […] When it was coming right at me, I couldn’t move out of the way quickly enough. The excavator is worth more than the worker. That’s why they use older machines” (episode 5 00:34:10). After he provides this testimony, his ghostly presence disappears.
Kang-sun’s second death is crucial to the discussion of memorialization and history. As Viet Thanh Nguyen writes in Nothing Ever Dies, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory” (2016: 4). Therefore, what Kang-sun strives for in his second life is to be remembered properly. When no one witnesses or remembers his life and tragic death, he dies a second time. Owing to Eun-young’s supernatural power of seeing ghosts and communicating with them, she does the work of a historian and witness by listening to the story of his life and death that no one has paid attention to. Her speculative power is pushed even further to make her a firsthand witness. Although she is physically in her room with Kang-sun’s ghost, she is magically transported to the construction site where Kang-sun worked as a temporary construction worker and she sees the crane fall on him (fig. 12). It is not clear if this scene portrays Eunyoung’s imagination based on the story she has just heard or a fantastical scene where Eun-young uses her supernatural power of revisiting the past site of Kang-sun’s trauma. If it is Eun-young’s imagination, she remains a secondhand witness who hears Kang-sun’s testimony and conjures up the scene of his death. However, if it was the case that Eun-young had magically revisited the site and watched the moment of Kang-sun’s death, this makes Eun-young a firsthand witness to the trauma experienced by Kang-sun. By refusing to clarify whether Eun-young’s witnessing of the latter’s death really took place or not, the drama suggests that the rich history lies between reality and speculation for the deaths that no one cares about.
Eun-young’s true supernatural power is precisely this. Instead of her power of destroying jellies and using a lightsaber, she can visually conjure up the past traumas of others by hearing their oral testimonies. The speculative aesthetic mode that this drama adopts visualizes how her empathic ability can transform a victim’s oral testimony into a moving image, which I would like to call speculative empathy. In analyzing Minsoo Kang’s collection of stories, Of Tales and Enigmas, Sohn argues as follows:
The victims of the past might find new life in representational terrains in which the boundaries between the fictive and the actual, the speculative and the realistic, blur. The present’s “darkest magic” surfaces through the hypermodernized nation-state, which progressively advances while it ignores past traumas and those people whom official documentation and records marginalize (2020: 227)
Eun-young’s speculative empathy brings new life to the dead Kang-sun in representational terrains that can only exist on the blurred border between the fictive and the actual.
The drama, therefore, exhibits Korean ethnoformalism as a kind of speculative fictional form to approach an alternative history of South Korea. Minsoo Kang, in his collection, uses the term Korean “cultural matrix” to describe Seoul (2006: 213). He clarifies, “You will find that it looks, sounds, and smells like a modern metropolis, but you don’t have to delve too deeply to find a second city, one built on a firm belief in the efficacy of geomancy, shamanistic rituals, and ancestor worship, the existence of ghosts, demons, and natural deities, and the manifestation of the Heaven’s Mandate in history” (213). The School Nurse Files epitomizes this cultural matrix through the school’s two-layered structure: on the surface is a hypermodern building with high-tech TVs and devices, while the school was originally built according to the traditional Korean geomantic belief, P’ungsuchiri, which hides the underground pond. Eun-young’s close friend Hwa-soo (Moon So-ri) also highlights this cultural matrix. Although Eun-young walks the hypermodernized streets of Seoul, when she turns around a corner, she finds Hwa-soo’s acupuncture office, where Hwa-soo practices Korean traditional medicine and acupuncture, probably without a legal license.
Korean ethnoformalism is also exemplified in the fourth episode featuring another ghostly being, Baek Hye-Min (Song Hee-Jun) who pretends to be a young female student. Her identity as a ghost is rooted in Korean cultural tradition. Choe Kyesook explains, “Within the East Asian cultural context, kwisin 鬼神 (ghost) are transformed human variants that maintain their identity in the afterlife” (2019: 3). Among the variants of kwisin, there is jibakryung 地縛霊, which Lee Sung-Ae and John Stephens explain as a “Korean traditional ghost who haunts a house or building in which she died, and whose attachment to the objects, places, and events that caused her death is a constant reminder of its problematic causes” (2013: 98). In the drama, Hye-Min appears as a jibakryung who cannot leave the designated place due to her supernatural duty as a mite-eater, which Koreans traditionally call omchabi.
Hye-min is like Eun-young in that she, as a ghost who cannot leave the place that witnessed past centuries, must help humans by eating disgusting mites that would bring curses on them. In Korean tradition, people used to believe om (mite) brought bad luck. Unlike Kang-sun, who became a ghost after his death, Hye-min is born as a jibakryung. As she must eat hundreds of mites daily, she feels a constant stomachache. Eun-young helps Hye-Min by turning her into a human and clears the school of mites so Hye-min will no longer need to eat them for others. This shows the drama’s use of Korean ethnoformalism as a way to foreground the hidden traumas and memories of the marginalized past due to patriarchy and the neoliberal economic system. The School Nurse Files uses Korean ethnic speculative beings, such as jibakryung and omchabi, to use Korean ethnoformalist figures to excavate hidden histories.
The drama presents a childlike aesthetic mode particularly as a crucial force for speculative empathy and the female protagonist’s anti-patriarchal activity. When Eun-young recollects her time in high school with Kang-sun, she remembers Kang-sun drawing flip-book animation as a pastime at the school (fig. 13). In this animation, the heroine uses a lightsaber to destroy an evil force. While the school’s hypervisible monuments and photos signify the official history that the school and the government feed to students in a patronizing and forceful way, Kang-sun’s drawings signify the oppressed histories that require childlike speculation to bring them to life. The heroine in the flip-book animation is not found in the individual drawings; it is only when the viewer watches the narrative empathetically that it receives its representative power.
The patriarchal lineage in this drama, therefore, appears as an oppressive and paternalistic force ridden with historical guilt. Therefore, Eun-young tells her colleague, who is the school founder’s grandson, to apologize on behalf of his guilty ancestors. Meanwhile, the childlike aesthetic mode appears as a challenging force to the patriarchal lineage and historicity and plays the role of facilitating speculative empathy that excavates the rich histories of traumatic victims.

Conclusion

The two different modes of remembering the past in Squid Game and The School Nurse Files remind us that there are many important things to consider when we interact with the current memory boom in South Korean visual media. As explained above, there are currently many films, TV dramas, reality shows, and K-pop music videos that revisit the past, whether it be the 1950s Korean War, the democratic movement of the 1980s, or the cultural renaissance of the 1990s. Compared to the number of cultural products fascinated by memories of the past, there is still not enough academic research and scholarly debate about exactly how these cultural products approach the past and history. Although both Squid Game and The School Nurse Files use the same childlike aesthetic mode to revisit the main characters’ memories, Squid Game uses personal childhood memories as a medium to reconnect the broken national patriarchal lineage, while The School Nurse Files uses them to debunk South Korean males’ patronizing and patriarchal lineage.
The academic inquiries in this paper foreground the significance of the questions around the memory boom in South Korean visual media by asking to whom these memories belong to, who are excluded from a collective memory, and what kinds of memories a cultural product tries to preserve. The cultural products of South Korean visual media, including K-pop music videos and reality shows, should be analyzed more comprehensively based on these questions. As mentioned above, the modes of remembering the past and history found in PSY’s and BTS’s music video images are not the same. For PSY, the past and history are always national and collective, and female background dancers are used as mere instruments to preserve the main singer’s memories. In contrast, BTS’s music videos project memories in more personal pathways without subsuming them under national or patriarchal ideologies. Although this paper did not include these and other forms of cultural products, it is hoped that the distinctions made in its investigative gaze might serve as a helpful cornerstone for reading the broader phenomena found in South Korean visual media products.

Notes

1  In this sense, the fact that the first game’s killing machine takes the form of a young girl is significant. The fact that South Korean males get shot under the gaze of a young South Korean female reverses the traditional South Korean gender and age hierarchy. Thus, only the people who successfully escape this threat can finally be re-masculinized and reassert male dominance.

2  The idea of reconnecting South Korea’s male lineage in an ethnocentric way also appears in the director Hwang’s first feature film, My Father (2007), about an adoptee who was brought to the United States when he was young and returns to Korea to find his biological father.

Figure 1
PSY’s “ Daddy”
ijkh-28-1-215f1.jpg
Figure 2
BTS “Dynamite” (left, center) and “Permission to Dance” (right).
ijkh-28-1-215f2.jpg
Figure 3
Three generations of PSYs flirting with women.
ijkh-28-1-215f3.jpg
Figure 4
Gi-hun in his mother’s apartment.
ijkh-28-1-215f4.jpg
Figure 5
Gi-hun assigns ranks to players.
ijkh-28-1-215f5.jpg
Figure 6
Il-nam visits Gi-hun as if by coincidence.
ijkh-28-1-215f6.jpg
Figure 7
Gi-hun shoots a toy gun (left) and a white foreign man unmasked (right).
ijkh-28-1-215f7.jpg
Figure 8
Non-chronological, disorienting, postmodern space.
ijkh-28-1-215f8.jpg
Figure 9
The school’s warm-up session (left) and jellies (right).
ijkh-28-1-215f9.jpg
Figure 10
Eun-young’s traumatic childhood.
ijkh-28-1-215f10.jpg
Figure 11
Monuments (left) and portraits (right) of the school’s founder.
ijkh-28-1-215f11.jpg
Figure 12
Eun-young revisits Kang-sun’s past (left) and Kang-sun’s ghost dies (right).
ijkh-28-1-215f12.jpg
Figure 13
Kang-sun’s flip-book animation as a gift to Eun-young.
ijkh-28-1-215f13.jpg

Bibliography

1. Blight David W. "The Memory Boom: Why and Why Now? Memory in Mind and Culture. Boyer Pascal and Wertsch James V eds. 2012, pp 238–251.
crossref
2. BTS. "Dynamite." HYBE LABELS August 20; 2020; YouTube video, https://youtu.be/gdZLi9oWNZg .

3. BTS. "Permission to Dance." HYBE LABELS July 8; 2021; YouTube video, https://youtu.be/CuklIb9d3fI .

4. Cho Michelle. "Pop Cosmopolitics and K-pop Video Culture." Asian Video Cultures: In the Penumbra of the Global. Duke Up, 2017, pp 240–265.
crossref
5. Choe Kyesook. "Kwisin in Chosŏn Literati Writings: Multilayered Recognition." Journal of Korean Studies 24, no. 1 (2019): 3–28.

6. Han Gil-soo. Nouveau-riche Nationalism and Multiculturalism in Korea. Routledge, 2018.

7. Huyssen Andreas. "Present Pasts: Media, Politics, Amnesia." Public Culture 12, no. 1 (2000): 21–38.
crossref pdf
8. Kang Minsoo. Of Tales and Enigmas. Prime Books, 2006.

9. Kim Kyung Hyun. Remasculinization of Korean Cinema. Duke UP, 2004.

10. Lee Sung-Ae, Stephens John. "‘The Ghost Remembers Only What It Wants To’: Traumas of Girlhood as a Metonym for the Nation in the South Korean Whispering Corridors.” Yeogo Goedam Series." The Nation in Children’s Literature: Nations of Childhood. Kelen Christopher (Kit) and Sundmark Björn eds. Routledge, 2013, pp 97–110.

11. Lee Woo-jung writer. Reply 1988. Directed by Shin Won-ho, featuring Hyeri, Park Bo-gum, and Ryu Jun-yeol. Aired from November 6, 2015 to January 16, 2016, in broadcast syndication https://www.tving.com/contents/P000205285 .

12. Lee Woo-jung writer. Reply 1994. Directed by Shin Won-ho, featuring Jung woo, Yoo Yeon-seok, and Son Ho-jun. Aired from October 18 to December 28, 2013, in broadcast syndication https://www.tving.com/contents/P000120061 .

13. Lee Woo-jung writer. Reply 1997. Directed by Shin Won-ho, featuring Jung Eun-ji, Seo In-guk, and Shin So-yul. Aired from July 24 to September 18, 2012, in broadcast syndication https://www.tving.com/contents/P000074240 .

14. Nguyen Viet Thanh. Nothing Ever Dies. Harvard UP, 2016.

15. PSY. "Daddy." OfficialPsy November 30; 2015; YouTube video, https://youtu.be/FrG4TEcSuRg .

16. Sohn Stephen Hong. "Toward Korean American Ethnoformalisms: The Historian-Archivist and Speculative Gendered Empowerments in Minsoo Kang’s Of Tales and Enigmas ." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 31, no. 2 (2020): 223–245.

17. Squid Games. Created by Hwang Dong-hyuk Siren Pictures Inc, 2021; Netflix, www.netflix.com .

18. The School Nurse Files. Created by Lee Kyoung-mi KeyEast, 2020; Netflix, www.netflix.com .

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