By Ellie Choi

The Visual Experience of Modern Seoul

A hyper-focused developmentalism from the Park Chunghee era (1961-1979) onward in South Korea gave rise to the now famous “Miracle on the Han.” It also forged the cosmopolitan expanse of contemporary Seoul, a megapolis of glittering lights, kaleidoscopic signboards, and towering apartment complexes (ap’at’u tanji).

President Park Chunghee cutting the ribbon at Seoul’s Sewoon Sangga, with Mayor Kim Hyun Ok looking on.



Future-minded agents of urban transformation, like Seoul’s “Bulldozer Mayor” Kim Hyun Ok (above, with President Park) and Korea’s “national architect” Kim Sugŭn, initiated urban developmental policies which transformed the post-Korean War capital to a paean to the economic miracle. These “master plans” (above) were fueled by drastic economic initiatives, which in turn brought extreme population growth to Seoul following industrial development (Pai, H. M.; Lett; Gelezeau 2008).[1]


To accommodate workers migrating to the city from the countryside and the growing middle class, Kim Chungŏp, an architect who worked for the Seoul government, suggested Western modernist forms, such as Le Corbusier’s “Unité D’Habitation” (above), as ideal models to house the inhabitants of the growing city (Gelezeau 2007: 173).[1] These mass-produced ap’at’u tanji (apartment complexes) became synonymous with Western, modern living in Korea from the 1970s on, and became familiarized through contemporary film and media with the visual experience of Seoul.


The concrete box-like residential forms idealized by Western modernists were at their inception supposed to transcend cultural boundaries and create inclusive urban spaces where different types of people could live together, vertically. These residential units consisted of urban neighborhood blocks with easy public transportation access, playgrounds, and schools. Every tanji was comprised of residences, services, and shopping facilities (kŭnsaeng 근생), and designed to make life in the complex autonomous. In their mass-produced forms overseen by a draconian military regime, however, these modern box-like structures took shape as monotonous rows of identical cereal-box like structures, which flattened and erased the historical urban tissue of the ancient city of Seoul (founded 1394), not only physically but also politically and culturally.

Gangnam today 

As a top down, “Second Space” (Soja 1996)[3] vision of how urban planners and New Village (Saemaul) politicians thought people should live (and not how they actually live), these structures were totalizing in their imposition of spatial practice, and reflected the larger draconian political climate of the 1970s and 1980s.

It is not a coincidence that a Seoul in the throes of transformation is the silent protagonist in Chilsu wa Mansu (Chilsu and Mansu, dir. Park Kwang-su,1988), a representative film regarded in Korean film history as a major step towards freedom of expression during the democratization era.


Chilsu and Mansu painting billboards high atop the new apartment tanji in Banpo, Kangnam district. 






The film’s cold, expansive long shots of concrete buildings and uniform apartment complexes are employed to depict the imposition of 1967-1980s militarized developmentalism and urban policy on the everyday lives of two Seoul residents, Chilsu and Mansu (above). The newly-constructed cookie cutter apartment complexes of the above Banpo area become the backdrop to portray the lives of two displaced, out of work artists who eke a living painting commercial billboards on top of these structures in Kangnam, the new residential development area south of the Han River (Gelezeau 2007) [4]

The following scene at the Burger King, the first Western fast food restaurant in Seoul (Chongno area), where Chilsu’s love interest Jina works, figures prominently in this film as a site of consumption of not only food (hamburger, soda and fries), but also of fetishized, Western futurities. This mise-en-scène has Chilsu in a trendy jean jacket pretending to speak English (“Sorry!”), a yuppy father and son devouring hamburgers in bright white “Members Only” jackets, and a token blond American customer.


Staring at the blond American customer (above);  A yuppy father and son in Members Only jackets (below)




The modern spectacle of consumption at the Burger King sets up Western cultural imperialism and modern capitalism as oppressive regimes of looking and being seen in this new consumeristic public space of a transitioning Seoul (Bennett 1988: 73-100).

Chilsu and Jina at the Burger King (top);  Exhausted Chilsu in transit on the bus (below).


Even in this early film, we can detect the emergence of hidden, counter sites of refuge from the highly-charged pace of modernization overtaking the Korean city, with its weary urbanites scurrying along crowded streets or dozing off on public buses (above).

Refuge from the Frenetic City

Chilsu and Jina at the video game room (orak-sil), a new urban space in Seoul.

The video game room (orak-sil) above is the precursor to the later PC-bangs (internet rooms), noraebangs (singing rooms), jjimjil-bangs (public sauna rooms) and other room-focused spaces which emerge through the decades as Seoul grows into a megapolis, with a thriving, underground –bang (room) counterculture (Kim, K. S. 2005, 63‐73). While fleetingly treated in this 1980s film, such places of refuge figure much more prominently in later movies set in Seoul.

Two such recent films, Barking Dogs Never Bite (P’ŭrandŏsŭ ŭi kye, 2000) and Samaritan Girl (Samaria, 2004), also capture everyday life in the Seoul megapolis, featuring the representative apartment tanjis, which were prominently framed in Chilsu and Mansu. Bong Joon-ho’s comedy, Barking Dogs Never Bite, tells the story of an out-of-work PhD who is so irritated by the sound of a barking dog in his overcrowded apartment building that he eventually resorts to trying to be rid of it. He brings the dog to the basement, but upon hearing rustling from another room, shoves it in an abandoned closet intending to retrieve it later, and runs off. He never finds the dog again. We discover that the elderly security guard had cooked dog meat stew out of the former pet in the same basement. Meanwhile, a young woman (Korean star Bae Doo Na) from the apartment management office decides to investigate the matter, after she starts receiving notices from tenants about missing dogs. Below is a panoramic shot of the office worker chasing the suspect (the PhD graduate) in the apartment building through levels of identical floors.

The office worker chases the PhD through the outdoor halls of a typical apartment complex in Kangnam

Such spatially-organized cinematography by the director Bong Joon-ho is particularly effective in portraying claustrophobic everyday life in an ap’at’u tanji, and more importantly, the interplay between surveillance and invisibility in contemporary Seoul life. In this apartment complex, posters need to be approved and stamped by the central management office to be displayed, and even garbage disposal (below) is carefully monitored, as incorrect handling of trash can invite an earful from the neighborhood ajumma (middle-aged Korean woman).

 Garbage disposal is carefully scrutinized by the security guard

Surveillance and imposition of policy is never total, however, even in such a thoroughly structured residential schema as the ap’a’tu tanji, which cultural geographers like Valerie Gelezeau identify as a distinctly Korean form of urban modernism (Gelezeau 2007).

Interestingly, the hidden places of refuge captured in Bong’s cinematographic critique of the uniformity and humdrum pace of urban life all involve food consumption.

The office worker and the friend slouched over ramen.

Here, the bored and discontented office worker slurps ramen with her best friend inside a tiny hidden room behind a convenience store (kumong kagye), crouching over a portable gas burner. In the basement, another hidden space, the old security guard with his thick provincial accent cooks dog meat stew, away from the prying eyes of the apartment community.

The security guard preparing the dog meat stew

Slurping ramen at work in cheap aluminum pans over a makeshift stove, and eating dog meat stew are both disappearing food practices in today’s cosmopolitan Seoul: “In mega-size urban spaces, dense blocks of modern (if not altogether Western) life are juxtaposed with museum-like pockets of traditional/indigenous culture and politics” (Chang, K.S. 2010, 11). These are practices conducted out of sight, away from public surveillance, ironically, by the very two employees of the tanji who are both supposed to be upholding the law.

Another important film from this period, Samaritan Girl (2004), by the director Kim Ki-duk, also treats life in urban Seoul, but humorlessly, in a dark portrayal of high school girls who prostitute themselves to middle-aged men (wonjo kyojae) in transient love motels of a heartless Seoul.


The director exposes the commodification of innocence, framed by a grey and sterile Seoul. The girls are displaced in cold modern parks with stone statues, seen drifting from love motels, apartment complex playgrounds, public baths, to subway stations (below).

Cold, transient spaces of the concrete city 


There is no maternal warmth or mother at home in their tiny crowded apartment unit, as Yeo-jin lives alone with her widowed dad, a policeman. The father later learns of his daughter’s prostitution and beats her john to death in a public bathroom stall. The director Kim Ki-duk thus superimposes the sins of the daughter on the father, with the father symbolizing a communal patriarch atoning for the sins of a soul-less capitalist society.

Redemption occurs at the end of the film, set pointedly apart from Seoul in the beautiful countryside. After visiting the dead mother’s grave, the father and daughter eat kimbap (rice rolls wrapped in seaweed), which the father has lovingly prepared, gazing at the serene hills, which are framed as a deliberate refuge from the previous sterile scenes of a concrete Seoul. They sleep in a simple country cottage where an old man offers a spare room and freshly steamed sweet potatoes (koguma), both free of charge, in pointed contrast to the materialistic city where even young high school girls are for sale.

Yeo Jin and her father at their mother’s grave in the country.
A simple cottage.








Freshly-steamed sweet potato (koguma) offered freely (below).




This Korean countryside is the space of redemption and refuge from the city. Neighborliness is recovered in the freshly steamed, warm koguma dug from the fertile native soul. Such depictions of healing and refuge, evoked by an idyllic countryside outside Seoul where “traditional Korean values” persist, begin to recur again and again in Korean media. And despite globalization from the late 1990s, films and TV shows begin to reflect the viewers’ rediscovery of their own interior landscapes (Karatani) and identities.

Subverting Modern Seoul: the Transnational and Global Discovery of Landscape

As mentioned before, South Korean society witnessed a frenzied drive to move beyond colonial history and civil war after the 1960s, and a democratization history fraught with anti-government demonstrations and social unrest following decades of military dictatorship. During the 1970 New Village movement, a draconian Park Chunghee regime promised modern roads and electricity to every country home, and in turn, forced people’s lifestyles to change almost overnight. For the first time in modern history, a majority of Koreans thus came to be separated from traditional agrarian modes of living through this most thorough and far-reaching transformation of the landscape. Preservationists who lived through the New Village movement, like Director Yun Yeol-Soo of the Korean Folk Culture Association (Hanguk Minsok hakhoe) and the Gahoe Folk Museum, described it as the “worst disaster” to fall upon Korean folk culture with its violent erasure of the old ways of living in the name of modern urban infrastructure.[5] It is not a coincidence that a nostalgia industry started to emerge in the 1970’s during this New Village movement. In an environment where home, security, and quotidian life in a Korean preindustrial society were becoming distant memories, a “discourse of the vanishing” (Ivy 1995; Choi, C. M. 2002) emerged in Seoul cityscapes right alongside Westernized imaginaries like the Burger King scene from Chilsu and Mansu showing modern futurities. This nostalgia, first captured in film through the depictions of a forgotten Korea, would become powerful enough to inspire the restoration of the old neighborhoods of Seoul, after decades of thoughtless erasure in the name of the modern.

In Im Kwon Taek’s masterpiece, Sop’yŏnje (1993), which is recognized as the first prolonged treatment of the Korean landscape in cinematic history, the now famous long shots of the Korean countryside therefore were recovered spatio-temporal imaginaries of a national “home,” lost in a post-industrial Korea. We can even say that the nostalgized Korean landscape is the real protagonist in Sopyonje, a film about a makeshift family of itinerant p’ansori singers (below) in the Korean “heartland” of Chŏlla Province.

Training the next generation in the lost Korean art of p’ansori.
Invention of a lost Korean landscape in Chŏlla province, the “heartland” of Korea 







In a 1990s Korean market where Hollywood productions outsold domestic Korean films, the fact that a film about “searching for our culture” succeeded was unexpected – “Once an industrialized economy has advanced to a certain level, people begin to think about the ‘self’ that they have lived without. This movie was released at precisely such a point in South Korea’s history” (Cho, H. J. 2002: 138).

The now famous, self-Orientalist longshots of a “lost” Korean landscape in Sopyonje (above and lower right).







For decades Koreans had focused only on “catching up” to the West, not thinking of what was lost. Young Koreans viewers were surprised by their own emotional reactions to this movie about a forgotten Korean culture and interiority (Cho, H. J. 140-1). Im Kwon Taek himself did not anticipate that a movie produced to target foreign audiences would sell as many box office tickets domestically as the Hollywood blockbuster Jurassic Park (1993), released that same year (Shin and Stringer 2007), especially among the younger generation.

Sopyonje occupied a truly critical interstitial juncture in the history of Korean media by linking the Koreans’ desire for their own landscape with a transnational desire for an Orientalized Korea. This is because, as I have said, although Sopyonje was originally created to introduce Korean culture at foreign film festivals abroad (Cannes), the movie became a surprise domestic breakout hit in the peninsula. Im Kwon Taek’s nostalgic depictions of the then domestically-unappreciated art of p’ansori (a traditional Korean art form) and the disappearing rural Korean landscapes rendered the director’s aestheticism complicit with Western Orientalism, a move which Chung-moo Choi identifies as Im’s “metropolitan aestheticism” (Choi, C. M. 2002: 128-9). This “metropolitan aestheticism” is crucial because it explains how domestic Seoulites’ self-discovery cohered with the Orientalist desires of the transnational global audience.


It is only from the 1990s, after Seoulites became undeniable members of the global cosmopolitan elite, that Im Kwon Taek was able to assume a “metropolitan” position to project the Orientalist gaze (previously directed by “the West”) on the Korean self, evoking stunning, virtual landscapes. Thus Im’s post-1990s metropolitan Seoul aestheticism and transnational (Western) Orientalism merged through the now-shared desires subsumed under over-arching global cosmopolitanism. Im’s self-Orientalist trajectory thus helped fuel a thriving nostalgia industry built around inventing traditions (Vlastos 1998), which established synergy with foreign interest in the Korea “brand.”

If Sŏp’yŏnje marked the emergence of Korean landscape on the (trans-) national stage, then the internationally-celebrated historical drama, Jewel in the Palace (Taejanggŭm, 2003), invented Korean cuisine across borders as an essential element in the newly aestheticized national landscape. As is well known, Jewel in the Palace is a 2003 Korean television series directed by Lee Byung-hoon. It is based on the true story of Jang-geum, the first female royal physician of the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910). Yi Young-ae plays the role of Jang-geum, who comes of age in the royal palace, learning the secrets of Korean cooking and traditional medicine. Jewel in the Palace (henceforth, Jewel) aired from September 15, 2003 to March 23, 2004 on MBC, and became the top program with an average viewership rating of 46.3%, peaking at 57.8% (making it the 10th highest rated Korean drama of all time). It was subtitled and exported to 91 countries and earned US$103.4 million worldwide, becoming one of the primary conduits of the Korean Wave. More importantly, Jewel continued the invention of Korean landscape in the tradition of Sopyonje, this time engaging domestic and foreign audiences in an idealized palace life in old Seoul, where delicious cooking connected the contemporary audience to the Chosŏn dynasty. Even though Jewel was also a problematic example of self-Orientalism or “metropolitan aestheticism” as discussed before with Sopyonje, its visual complicity with the gendered colonialist gaze was neutralized by the universal act of eating and by the fact that this time the protagonist was a strong and capable woman.


This is because eating is a process wherein space is compressed and transported through the food product’s association with a specific place (terroir, t’oji), not only across physical boundaries but also virtually through time. Jewel was a powerful ambassador in delivering the Korean brand to Thailand, the Philippines (above), Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, New York and anywhere else where the drama was broadcast. Droves of Jewel fans arrived in Seoul, in hopes of tasting the food they had virtually consumed in the Kdrama. Their search for “authentic,” traditional Korean food created a place, which had to be invented to satisfy the tourists’ desires.

We cannot overstate the importance of Jewel in inspiring a whole branch of national tourism built around eating “authentic” Korean food (as opposed to the previously desired Burger King hamburger, pasta, or French food) and appreciating traditional architecture in Seoul, a city which had ostensibly forgotten its history in its rigorous march to achieve “the Miracle on the Han.”


Jewel was thus seminal in the physical transformation of the old northern city of Seoul (Kangbuk, north of the river) itself, which had been overlooked during the 1970s-2000s period when the government had pushed to settle the new area south of the Han River (Kangnam) (Lett 2002; Nelson 2000). Due largely in part to the global interest in traditional food and architecture sparked by Jewel, Bukchon (the old North Village of Kangbuk, north of the Han river) was now being transformed to mimic the beautiful, self-Orientalizing mediascapes of the historical drama. In fact, the Bukchon Hanok Village, which had been left to fade until about ten years ago, has recently been rejuvenated and reinvented as one of the most popular tourist sites in Seoul.




Traditional hanok houses in old Seoul, Bukch’on, or North Village in old Seoul; courtesy of Simon and Sue’s Mid Life Gap Year






One can argue that the Bukchon neighborhood (above) and before that Insadong Street with its traditional-style hanok (traditional Korean house) restaurants serving multi-course “palace food” (chŏngsik) owe their recent popularity to the ethnoscapes of Jewel and the other media productions which followed. These depicted a stunningly beautiful Korean past with exquisitely-set traditional meals, colorful silk clothes, and elegant kisaeng (female entertainers) (Cwiertka 2014).[6] If Kangnam represented the hypermodern of a grossly-deterritorialized Seoul, this more recent phenomenon, which I call the “return to Kangbuk (the old city),” is an expression of Seoulites’ exhaustion with globalization and its numbing repetitiveness, and a rejection of Westernized, modern “Kangnam Style.”



Ellie Choi (PhD Harvard, ’09) is a cultural historian of modern Korea and a Fellow at the Harvard Korea Institute. Her main research interests are spatiality, Seoul, northern Korea, mobility, food media, and hometowns.  Her first book project, Space and National Identity: Yi Kwangsu’s Vision of Korea during the Japanese Empire, explores the relationships among space, cultural nationalism, and historical identity.  Her current topic, Laptop Nationalism and the Transnational Consumption of Korea, considers the explosion of food shows in the Korean media and its relationship to identity production in Seoul, the peninsula, and the diaspora.  Before her tenure at the Korea Institute, Dr. Choi was Assistant Professor of Korean Studies at Cornell University, and has also taught at Smith, Dartmouth, and Yale colleges.  Dr. Choi enjoys classical music and organic farming. 

[1] Seoul had only 2.5 million residents in 1960, but this number tripled to 8 million by 1980, reaching 12 million by 1990.   Gelezeau, “Changing Socio-Economic Environments, Housing Culture and New Urban Segregation in Seoul,” 299.

[2] According to Gelezeau (2007), Kim Chungŏp worked for Le Corbusier’s studio between 1952 to 1956. 2007, 173.

[3] Soja, “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination.” According to Soja, first space is the actual physical terrain of a place, second space is the idealized vision of how that space should be used, and third space is how people actually used a space, which never coheres with second space policies.

[4] Background of Banpo as first major development in Kangnam (south of the river) in Seoul (1970s). Gelezeau 2007

[5] Interview at the Gahoe Museum in Bukchon, Seoul August 2, 2009.

[6] Untold Scandal (Sŭk’andŭl, 2003), Hwang Jin Yi (2007) are also movies which depict a beautiful Chosŏn society with delicious-looking palace food, gorgeous silk costumes and stunning architecture.

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