The male protagonist of Il Mare can gaze upon Jun’s character but not vice versa. ...

The film’s narrative does not confer Jun’s character the agency to identify him and return the gaze.

Junís character becomes a passive listener of her own love story in the last scene.

In My Sassy Girl, Kyun-Woo’s naked body is unmediated by a female gaze because Jun’s character is asleep.

Daisy: Jun's lack of female gaze...

... and voice function to perpetuate her innocence and purity.

The heroine is is killed off at the end of Daisy as she is about to return the gaze and express her desires.

“Elastine” hair products TV commercial (Korea): Jun's body images represent a melding of Western and Asian cultures. Click on link to see video.

“HuiYuan” orange juice commercial (China). Click on link to see video.

“Asience” hair products commercial (Japan). Click on link to see video.

Jun’s body as a channel or carrier of consumerism: In several scenes of Windstruck, Jun’s character utilizes a number of commercial products that Jun endorses.

“Giordano,” the brand name of casual wear Jun endorses, is clearly visible on her T-shirt in a few scenes.

Jun’s character eats a particular kind of yogurt Jun endorses in another scene. Despite the fact that Windstruck was often derided as “a two-hour long Jun Ji-Hyun commercial” in Korea, the film was popular among Jun’s fans in other Asian countries.


Impossibility of the female gaze

The current social order in Korea, based on capitalist patriarchy and the nuclear family, reifies the subordination of the female under an individual male’s control as his personal property. Yet, at the same time, the ideology of neo-Confucianism continues to operate and reinforce female stereotypes in Korean cinema. The neo-Confucian ideal of the corporeal for the female body transforms into discourses on virginity while reflecting a situation (e.g., women’s position, status) in which women become men’s personal property under individual male’s control.

This female subordination constructs looking mechanisms in film. I argue that the gender relation within capitalist patriarchy facilitates and legitimizes a male gaze that objectifies the female for the benefit of masculine visual pleasure. Jun Ji-Hyun’s on-screen images are consistently presented through the point-of-view of male characters in her films. The films’ narratives attribute to-be-looked-at-ness to Jun’s characters through a male character’s voice-over narration or a voyeuristic male gaze. The male gaze in Jun’s films also functions to perpetuate Jun’s innocence. A focus on looking relations in three films (Il Mare, My Sassy Girl, Daisy) illustrates how the male gaze constructs Jun’s persona as a pure girl.

As described above, there is a two-year gap between Eun-Joo (Jun) and Sung-Hyun’s timelines in Il Mare. At one point, Eun-Joo tells Sung-Hyun that she regularly waited for the subway train at a particular place two years ago. Sung-Hyun goes to the subway platform and observes her but she cannot recognize him because, from her point of view and timeline, they have not yet met. Therefore, Sung-Hyun can look at her but not vice versa. This dynamic is also apparent in the scene where Sung-Hyun is hit by a car and dies in the street on the way to stop Eun-Joo’s boyfriend from leaving her. Eun-Joo sees him dying but she cannot recognize him. The narrative does not afford her the agency to identify him.

Jun’s character sees Sung-Hyun dying but she cannot recognize him.

Furthermore, in the last scene in which Eun-Joo and Sung-Hyun actually meet for the first time, she has no idea who he is or what he is going to tell her. On the contrary, Sung-Hyun knows all about the letter exchange, her ex-boyfriend, the car accident, and the fact that she loves him too. Throughout the film, the audience hears voice-over narration from both Sung-Hyun and Eun-Joo. Yet, only Sung-Hyun can gaze upon Eun-Joo. Moreover, Sung-Hyun’s last line, “I have a very long story to tell you,” confers him the status of the storyteller of their relationship. In this sense, Eun-Joo not only lacks a gaze but also takes up the position as a passive listener of her own love story.

“Who are you?”

“I have a very long story to tell you.”

The male protagonist plays a more blatant role of storyteller in My Sassy Girl from the beginning of the film. The audience experiences the sassiness and hidden vulnerability of Jun’s character as Kyun-Woo tells the story of their relationship through first-person narration. Moreover, My Sassy Girl situates the male as a bearer of the gaze and the female as the object of the gaze. For instance, while holding Jun’s drunken character in his arms, Kyun-Woo puts medicine in her mouth to wake her up and wipes her mouth. Then, the camera pans to the left, and frames her body (e.g., her closed eyes, nose, lips, neck, and then breasts under her pink shirt) in close up, which functions as Kyun-Woo’s point-of-view shot. He thinks that she is his ideal type when she is asleep, thus passive and tame.

Jun’s character becomes Kyun-Woo’s ideal type when she is asleep with her eyes closed in My Sassy Girl.
Shots from Kyun-Woo’s point-of-view

In addition, when Kyun-Woo showers in the motel while Jun’s character sleeps, the audience sees the rear side of his naked body through a transparent glass door. However, the male body is not presented romantically through a female point-of-view because the female character (Jun’s character) is “literally” asleep. Therefore, the film reproduces the convention of male gaze, which the female character is unable to reciprocate.[21][open endnotes in new window]

The lack of female gaze compromises the seemingly reversed gender roles in the film’s narrative. However weak and submissive he may be, Kyun-Woo himself tells the audience about his unusual effeminate personality in juxtaposition to the quirkiness of his girlfriend. In contrast, Jun’s character is subject to Kyun-Woo’s constant observation and evaluation. Furthermore, as discussed previously, the vulnerability of the male (i.e., his naked body) is unmediated by a female gaze. This conventional storytelling from a male point-of-view signifies the seemingly strong and new female character type is dependent upon the acknowledgement and acceptance of the male.

The male gaze in Daisy more openly reveals the voyeuristic desire of the male protagonist than the two films discussed previously (i.e., Il Mare and My Sassy Girl). The contract killer, Park Yi, falls in love with Hye-Young (Jun) after seeing her painting daisies in the countryside, and begins sending her daisies. He rents an apartment overlooking the square where Hye-Young paints portraits for tourists, and observes her through a telephoto lens while fantasizing about her purity. However, the entrance of the detective, Jeong-Woo, in the frame interrupts Park Yi’s fantasy and results in Park Yi pointing a gun at him.

The contract killer, Park Yi, observes Jun’s character in the square from his apartment in Daisy.
Park Yi points a gun at the detective, Jeong-Woo, when he enters the frame and interacts with Jun’s character, followed by Park Yi’s point-of-view shot.

While Jeong-Woo uses Hye-Young in order to disguise himself as a tourist whose portrait is being painted, Hye-Young mistakes him as the anonymous man for whom she has been waiting. The voice-over narration of these three characters propels the film’s narrative, but Hye-Young is the only person who does not know the truth. Jeong-Woo knows that he is not Hye-Young’s anonymous man. Yet, he pretends to be that man in order to keep using her for his investigation. Hye-Young’s misperception results from her inability to reciprocate the anonymous man's gaze. Later in the film, she even loses her voice as a result of a throat wound that occurs during a gun battle in the square. Lacking both gaze and voice, she does nothing but wait for Jeong-Woo, who has been transferred from Amsterdam to Korea. Park Yi takes care of the sorrow-stricken Hye-Young as a friend. At the narrative’s conclusion, when Hye-Young discovers that it is Park Yi who sent daisies to her, she is shot and killed in the square while trying to tell him that she “knows.” In other words, as soon as she becomes able to return the gaze, she is killed off.

The fact that Jun’s characters’ fail to return the male gaze perpetuates her star image as a pure girl. Jun’s characters remain pure and innocent as long as the male characters maintain a safe distance that allows them to enjoy voyeuristic pleasure. Linda Williams in her article, "When the Woman Looks,"points to the fact that many of the “good girl” heroines of U.S. silent films were often figuratively, or literally, blind. She claims that blindness allows the male protagonist to look at the female “with no danger that she will return that look and in so doing express desires of her own.”[22] Williams’ argument holds true in the above three films as well, in the sense that Jun’s characters are figuratively blind, thus maintaining the pure “good girl” image. Although Eun-Joo comes across Sung-Hyun several times in Il Mare, she cannot “see” him. In My Sassy Girl, Jun’s character turns into Kyun-Woo’s ideal type only when she is asleep with her eyes closed. It is no surprise, then, that Hye-Young is killed off in Daisy when she finally can “see” whom her true love is. If “to see is to desire,” as Williams argues,[23] Hye-Young needs to die before she expresses any desires so that she remains a pure soul to the male protagonist and to the audience.

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.

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