JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

Jun’s transnational stardom in Asia: re-centering globalization

After Jun became a bankable star in Asian countries, she starred in both films and many television commercials that continued to sell her star image in the region. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, Hollywood’s domination of the Asian film/media market began to diminish while Hong Kong martial arts films, and Japanese films and television shows gained popularity in Asian countries. Since the late 1990s, however, South Korea has become a new media center, replacing the cultural hegemony of Hong Kong and Japan in Asia. Throughout Southeast and East Asia, Korean popular culture has become a new global force. It not only sells its own products (e.g., films, TV shows and CDs) but also sells Korean ways of life (e.g., fashion, food and cultural values).[24][open endnotes in new window] Jun Ji-Hyun’s transnational stardom coincides with this changing hegemony in the Asian cultural scene. Moon Hye-Joo, the director of the overseas marketing team in “Cinema Service,” (one of the major film distribution companies in Korea) analyzes Jun’s transnational stardom in Asia as follows:

“These days, the images of South Korea among Asian people in the region center around its consumerism, sensitivity to fashion, and its role as a leader of cultural trends. Jun Ji-Hyun seems to represent these dynamic images of South Korean culture.”[25]

The interviewees in my focus groups discussed the popular appeal of Jun Ji-Hyun across Asia. When talking about Jun’s transnational stardom, the Korean American women focused on her physical traits. Their responses include:

“She is very pretty. [She is a] typical Asian woman that I imagine. She does have a really nice hair. Her skin is flawless” (Helen);

“She is very pretty… pure, you know, like an innocent Asian girl” (Kate).

Throughout the interview process, the Korean American respondents tended to express stereotypical views of Asian women while describing Jun’s images or characters using such words as “innocent,” “reserved,” and “soft.” They often times utilized the term, “Asian” in reference to Jun Ji-Hyun whereas the Korean women always referred to her as “Korean.” This indicates that Jun’s racial or ethnic identity is more prominent to Korean Americans rather than her nationality.

The Korean women discussed the duality of Jun’s images as the primary reason for her transnational stardom. For instance, Hyun-Su described Jun Ji-Hyun, saying,

“She has different images at the same time. From her neck up, I mean, her face is like a face of baby’s and is kind of oriental [tongyangjok]. Yet, her body is very thin, lean, long, sexy, and westernized.”

Tae-Hee had a similar comment to Hyun-Su’s and said,

“She does have a strange appeal because of her dualistic image. I don’t think she is pretty according to our traditional beauty standard but she looks oriental and simultaneously very western. I think her dualistic image appeals to her fans in Asia.”

These responses echo what Taeyon Kim observes in her article, Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, in the tendencies in Korean women’s magazines and journals in the last decade or so:

“A casual browser of Korean women’s magazines might observe that many of the models or settings in the advertisements are Euro-American or look Euro-American. This image has become ever more pervasive. In June 1994, changes in laws allowed the Korean advertising industry to use foreign models and celebrities…which quickly led to a sharp increase in the use of foreign models to sell domestic wares...[N]ow even domestic products were marketed to Koreans by the likes of Cindy Crawford, Meg Ryan and Claudia Schiffer. While there does seem to have been a gradual increase in recent years of Korean models in domestic advertisements, these Korean models nearly all have features that have already been reconstructed to meet the prevailing standards of beauty which, if not totally white, are at least a melding of Asian and Western features, the ideal encapsulated by the increasingly popular ‘Eurasian’ look.”[26]

In this sense, Jun’s hybrid image — her long straight hair and her face’s oriental or Asian appearance combined with Western features such as a tall and thin body structure — makes her ideal for the changing standard of beauty in the context of intensified consumer culture in Korea and Asia. The idea of Jun as an Eurasian beauty also resonates with the concept of cultural proximity in contemporary Asia in an era of globalization. The Japanese media scholar, Iwabuchi Koichi, discusses the reason for and implications of the Japanese Wave during the mid 1990s as follows:

“Under the globalizing forces, cultural similarities and resonances in the region are newly articulated….For audiences in Asia, Japanese popular culture represents cultural similarities and a common experience of modernity in the region that is based on an ongoing negotiation between the West and the non-West experiences that American culture cannot represent.”[27]

Signifying the creation of a regional cultural manifestation against the long-term domination of U.S. culture, the rise of Japanese popular culture in Asia results from its ability to reassert Asian identity and/or sensibilities with which local fans in Asia could easily identify. Likewise, the popular appeal of Jun and the Korean Wave may represent a shared experience of capitalist modernity among Asian countries. Unlike Hollywood stars who are culturally and geographically remote, Jun Ji-Hyun embodies an accessible star whose images function to articulate common cultural experiences in Asia (e.g., a melding of Western and non-Western cultures) within the current globalization process. However, the notion of cultural commonality alone cannot sufficiently address the issues of why the culture of specific nations is preferred over others, what role the historical and local context plays in formulating such a phenomenon, and what role a particular star plays in the shared experience of transnational modernity. I will further discuss what Jun Ji-Hyun’s star image and her stardom signify in the context of the early 2000s across Asian countries in the following section.

Jun’s consuming body or consuming Jun’s body:
forming Pan-Asian citizenship

Statistics indicate that Jun’s appearance in commercials has resulted in increased product sales by a large percentage, and thus, the “Jun Ji-Hyun effect” has come to be known in the world of television commercials.[28] Television viewers are familiar with Jun’s images not only in Korea but in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan as well through her commercials for soft drinks, hair products, cosmetics, cameras, cell phones, etc.[29] There have been so many products that Jun Ji-Hyun endorses that a short comic story called “Jun Ji-Hyun’s day,” in which Jun uses those products all day long, was quite popular on the Internet.[30]

My interviewees were familiar with the fact that Jun had considerable commercial appeal in Korea and across Asia. The Korean women during the focus group interview pointed to a situation where Jun’s body emerged as a channel that carried commercial concepts. According to Yu-Mi,

“(Jun’s) namelessness in My Sassy Girl might have helped her status as a commercial star because she is not a specific individual but she and her body exist in order to display certain concepts or commercial products.”

Bo-Yeon also expressed her view of the impact of capitalist consumerism on contemporary Korean society:

“You know, they say that ‘the advertisement is the flower of capitalism’ [Kwanggonun Chabonjuuiui Kkotsida].[31] We are always consuming images without realizing it. It’s like breathing in air all the time. I’ve never thought Jun Ji-Hyun is pretty, but the overflowing images in films and television kind of force me to think that, ‘Oh, that virgin vamp image must be representing a positive female sexuality. I should be like Jun in order to be loved by men.’ It bothers me to think that we are indoctrinated by commercialism or consumerism, but it is true.”

These Korean women’s understanding of Jun’s body as a channel or carrier of consumerist ideas, along with the prominence and pervasiveness of images in contemporary popular culture, concurs with Bryan S. Turner’s discussion about the transformation of a desiring body under capitalism, especially in late capitalist society. Turner maintains that socio-economic changes have brought about fundamental shifts in the understanding of the female body from a “reproductive body” in traditional, pre-industrial society, to a “labouring body” in the industrial period, and finally to a “consuming body” in the post-industrial stage.[32] Jun Ji-Hyun’s body indeed encapsulates the notion of the consuming body with the advent of intensified consumerist culture in Korea and Asia where women became more important as consumers than mothers or laborers shifting the utility of their bodies from re/production to consumption.

Whatever Jun’s star image signifies — whether it’s her “sassy” girl image, her virginity, her image as a typical innocent Asian girl, her Eurasian look, South Korea’s vibrant urban culture, or sensitivity to fashion and cultural trends —  her body as a commodity-sign functions to drive postmodern consumption practices in the current post-industrial stage. In other words, marked as a (Eurasian) body of gender instability, virginity, typical Asian beauty, or South Korea’s cultural vibrancy through her films and commercials, the consumption of Jun’s sign-value (embedded in various endorsed products) serves as a means for the acquisition of her sign-value. [33] Therefore, Jun’s consuming body or consuming her body (i.e., her sign-value) becomes a manifestation of changing social values and a formation of pan-Asian citizenship, particularly among the youth and the middle-class in the region in an era of globalization.

Most of my interviewees interpreted the star image of Jun Ji-Hyun as an ideal girlfriend type who is “good to hang out with” (Kate), who is “having a good time” (Elaine), and who may not be “suitable for a wife, but perfect to have fun with” (Tae-Hee). Although Jun’s characters in her films hide deep sorrow emanating from traumatic experiences, this functions only to perpetuate Jun’s image as a pure-hearted girl while justifying her characters’ wacky actions. Formulated through lighthearted romantic comedies or conventional melodramas as well as television commercials, Jun’s star persona seems free from the imperatives of Cold War ideology, anti-colonial nationalism, or the national struggle to rebuild modern South Korea and redefine its legitimate membership — all factors that contributed to the construction of female stars’ images in previous eras. Liberated from the past master narratives of nation building, Jun’s stardom marks a new era of cultural expression and mobile citizenry within Western consumerism and under globalizing forces.

Yet, the legacy of old ideology (e.g., neo-Confucianism) still lingers in Jun’s star image. As discussed above, neo-Confucianism’s emphasis on the corporeal body for the female builds on capitalist patriarchy (thus resulting in the voyeuristic, un-reciprocal male gaze upon Jun’s virginal body), which in turn builds on consumerism and postmodern consumption practices. This commodified male gaze upon Jun’s body, however, is not limited to the objectification of the female for the benefit of masculine visual pleasure. With neo-Confucian body techniques still operating, Jun is primarily constructed as a body rather than a subject, and this body is used to carry certain ideas or commercial values not only to male but also to female audiences/consumers across Asia with the advent of highly commercialized late-capitalist societies in the region. Therefore, through these processes of re-writing and over-writing, Jun’s star persona becomes a palimpsest of multiple layers of pre-modern neo-Confucian ideology and later-imported capitalist patriarchy, which are superimposed on Western consumerism and cultural regionalization under global capitalism.

Notes

1. Han-Kyo Kim, Politics in South Korea Since 1993, in John H. Koo and Andrew C. Nahm, eds., An Introduction to Korean Culture (Hollym, 1997), 248-253.

2. Michael Robinson, Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A Short History (University of Hawaii Press, 2007), 179-80.

3. The Hollywood studio, 20th Century Fox, released a remake of this film under the same title, My Sassy Girl, in 2008 with Elisha Cuthbert in the starring role. A Japanese television series, Ryoki Teki Na Kanojo (2008), is also based on this popular Korean film.

4. Often labeled as the next Zhang ZiYi by the South Korean Media, Jun Ji-Hyun recently accepted the opportunity to star in the Hong Kong film, Blood: The Last Vampire. This film is based on a Japanese anime and scheduled to be released in American theaters in 2009.

5. The use of a word, “sassy,” is to describe an opinionated, authoritative, and domineering quality of Jun’s on-screen persona in My Sassy Girl and Windstruck. Likewise, “quirky” will be used to describe the eccentric, wacky, and unconventional nature of her persona in these films.

6. Sung Baek-Yup, A Study of the Strong Woman Images in Korean Cinema, Unpublished Thesis (Seokang University, 2002), 29.

7. After the commercial success of My Sassy Girl the word “sassy” entered the cultural lexicon in Korea as a popular modifier in everyday life to describe things of any unconventional nature.

8. Park Eun-Young, “A Review of Windstruck,” Cine 21, June 2004.

9. Kim Hyun-Mi, Kullobol Sidaeui Munhwabonyok [Cultural Translation in a Global Age] (Ttohanaui Munhwa, 2006), 242-244.

10. Ko Jong-Suk, “A Review of My Sassy Girl,” Cine 21, August 2001.

11. Sung Baek-Yup, 30-32.

12. Kim Min-Young, “Crying over Men, A Review of Windstruck,” Cine21, July 2004.

13. Soyoung Kim, “A Critique of Windstruck,” Cine 21, June 2004.

14. The Lake House (dir. Alejandro Agresti, 2006), in which Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves starred, is a Hollywood remake of this Korean film, Il Mare (2000).

15. The use of italics here indicates some form of special emphasis (e.g., tonal inflections) utilized by the respondent. The usage of italics in the transcripts hereafter, with the exception of film titles, represents emphasis by the respondent.

16. The issue of translation needs to be addressed in any study that involves data collection in multiple languages. The focus group interview with the Korean-American women (group 1) was conducted in English while the Korean women (group 2) spoke Korean in the focus group interview session. While I tried to translate as directly as possible it would be remiss to not acknowledge that certain specificities may have been lost in translation. As a translator and a researcher I strive to focus on meaning in both the star image of Jun Ji-Hyun and the larger themes that emerge from the focus group interview data.

17. Neo-Confucianism (developed by Zhu Xi during the Song dynasty in China) is the term used to distinguish this belief system from the earlier form of Confucianism by Confucius and Mencius.

18. W. Theodore DeBary et al., Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol 1. (Columbia University Press, 1960), 457.

19. Taeyon Kim provides the social and historical processes through which the notions of female body have been constructed in Korea in “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society,” Body and Society, Vol. 9(2), 2003.

20. Ibid.

21. Sung Baek-Yup, 18.

22. Linda Williams, “When the Woman Looks,” in Mary Ann Doane, et al. eds., Revision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism (American Film Institute, 1984), 83.

23. Ibid., 83.

24. Kim Hyun-Mi, 260-261.

25. Moon Suk, “Three Reports on Jun Ji-Hyun [3],” Cine21, June 2003.

26. Taeyon Kim, 103.

27. Iwabuchi Koichi, “From Western Gaze to Global Gaze: Japanese Cultural Presence in Asia,” in Diane Crane et.al. eds., Global Culture: Media, Arts, Policy, and Globalization, (Routledge, 2002), 270.

28. Park Mun-Ki, Starwa CF [Star Marketing] (Doonam, 2006), 100.

29. The products Jun endorses include Coca Cola, Pantene hair products, Ponds skin care products, Olympus cameras, Samsung cell phones, and LG Telecom.

30. Moon Suk, Cine 21.

31. This is a Korean phrase which means “advertisement represents the essence of capitalism.”

32. Bryan Turner, The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory (Sage Publications, 1996), 3-5.

33. I draw on the notion of sign-value in postmodern consumption practices from Arthur W. Frank, For a Sociology of the Body: An Analytical Review, in Mike Featherstone and Bryan Turner, eds., The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory (Sage Publications, 1991), 36-102.

Bibliography

DeBary, W. Theodore, Wing-tsit Chan and Burton Watson, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 1, New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.

Kim, Han-Kyo. “Politics in South Korea Since 1993,” in John H. Koo and Andrew C. Nahm, eds., An Introduction to Korean Culture. Seoul: Hollym International Corp., 1997.

Kim, Hyun-Mi. Kullobol Sidaeui Munhwabonyok [Cultural Translation in a Global Age], Seoul: Ttohanaui Munhwa, 2006.

Kim, Min-Young. “Crying over Men, A Review of Windstruck,” Cine21, July, 2004.
http://www.cine21.com/index/magazine.php?mag_id=25087 (accessed on 8/14/2006)

Kim, Soyoung. “A Critique of Windstruck,” Cine21, June, 2004.
http://www.cine21.com/index/magazine.php?mag_id=24653 (accessed on 8/14/2006)

Kim, Taeyon, “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society,” Body and Society, Vol. 9(2), 2003.

Ko, Jong-Suk. “A Review of My Sassy Girl,Cine21, August, 2001.
http://www.cine21.com/index/magazine.php?mag_id=3920 (accessed on 8/14/2006)

Koichi, Iwabuchi. “From Western Gaze to Global Gaze: Japanese Cultural Presence in Asia,” in Diane Crane et.al. eds., Global Culture: Media, Arts, Policy, and Globalization. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Moon, Suk. “Three Reports on Jun Ji-Hyun [3],” Cine21, June, 2003.
http://www.cine21.com/index/magazine.php?mag_id=19623 (accessed on 8/14/2006)

Park, Eun-Young. “A Review of Windstruck,” Cine21, June, 2004.
http://www.cine21.com/index/magazine.php?mag_id=24570 (accessed on 8/14/2006)

Park, Mun-Ki. Starwa CF [Star Marketing] Seoul: Dunam, 2006.

Robinson, Michael E. Korea’s Twentieth Century Odyssey: A Short History. Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

Sung, Baek-Yup. “A Study of the Strong Women Images in Korean Cinema,” Thesis. Seo-Kang University, Korea, 2002.

Turner, Bryan S. The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory. 2nd Edition, London: Sage Publications, 1996.

Williams, Linda. “When the Woman Looks,” in Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellemcamp, and Linda Williams, eds. Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1984.

Appendix

Group one (Korean American women in their twenties living in Kansas)

Name

Age

Ethnicity

Job

Marital status

Familiarity with Jun

Birthplace & language environment

Amy

25

Korean-American

Hair stylist

Single

Not familiar

She was adopted when she was two years old. She does not speak Korean.

Jennifer

20

Korean-Filipino-Mexican American

College student/ part time jobs

Single

Not familiar

She was born in the USA. She is in a Korean language class at KU and her mother is Korean.

Carrie

21

Korean

College student/ research assistant

Single

Not familiar

She was adopted when she was two and a half years old. She does not speak Korean.

Kate

20

Half Korean

College student

Single

She has seen My Sassy Girl.

She was born in the USA. She is in a Korean language class at KU and her mother is Korean.

Helen

20

Korean

College student

 

Single

She has seen My Sassy Girl, Daisy, Windstruck

She was born in the USA. She is from a Korean family and speaks Korean.

Elaine

20

Asian-Caucasian

College student

Single

She has heard of Jun.

She was born in the USA. She is in a Korean language class at KU and her mother is Korean.

Group two (Korean Women in their twenties living in Seoul, Korea)

Name Age Ethnicity Job Marital status Jun’s films they have seen Familiarity with Jun’s off-screen images

Bo-Yeon

22

Korean

College student

Single

White Valentine, Il Mare, My Sassy Girl, Windstruck, The Uninvited

She has read articles about Jun in newspapers and magazines. She has also seen TV soap operas and commercials in which Jun starred.

Jung-Mi

21

Korean

College student

Single

My Sassy Girl, Windstruck, The Uninvited

Same as above

Hyun-Su

21

Korean

College student

Single

Il Mare, My Sassy Girl, Windstruck

Same as above

Sung-Ah

23

Korean

College student

Single

My Sassy Girl, Windstruck, The Uninvited, Daisy

Same as above

Yu-Mi

21

Korean

College student

Single

Il Mare, My Sassy Girl, Windstruck, The Uninvited, Daisy

Same as above

Tae-Hee

21

Korean

College student

Single

Il Mare, My Sassy Girl, Windstruck, The Uninvited

Same as above

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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